If you were to hear the Blasters’ “Marie Marie” and X’s “Hungry Wolf” back-to-back, you might not think much connected them. One sounds as if it’s coming from the neighborhood bar, the other from the garage of a broken home. But these two bands are kindred spirits and were two of the finest to emerge from the hallowed days of the Los Angeles club scene at the dawn of the ’80s. Back then they shared stages, labels, and occasionally even musicians. Most importantly, they shared the ideal that helped make the Hollywood scene so vital back then: a desire to push the limits of popular music.
Of course, pushing the limits had — and has — many interpretations. In the case of X, it meant fusing punk, rockabilly and boho poetics into something not quite like anything ever heard before. The Blasters, on the other hand, embraced the rockabilly and blues that, while surely a part of the fabric of Americana, were at that time deemed lifeless and nostalgic in the pop music psyche around 1980. (The Stray Cats, for the record, did not break nationally until 1982.) Arena rock ruled while punk and new wave earned the upstart buzz.
So it was that the Blasters, a Downey, California, band with absolutely zero Hollywood clout, descended upon a tiny studio in the San Fernando Valley and recorded American Music for the dinky, diehard ‘billy label, Rollin Rock. For years a collector’s item, the 2,000-pressing American Music captures the band — Phil Alvin (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Dave Alvin (guitar), John Bazz (bass) and Bill Bateman (drums) — at their inception, bashing out a kegload of furious covers and originals (13 on the original version, with six covers added for the new HighTone version) with zealous passion and an optimism still untainted by the music business.
Not quite the roots-rock classic that the band’s self-titled Slash debut a year later would be, American Music nonetheless shows that Blasters had little growing to do before moving on to the high-profile indie label that also featured X, Los Lobos and Rank & File. The band’s two most enduring songs, “Marie, Marie” and “American Music”, were already at full strength; covers of songs by Jimmie Rodgers (“Never No More Blues”) and Junior Parker (“Barefoot Rock”) were made to sound their own. Dave Alvin’s adept lead guitar work was already plenty high-octane, as were the chugging rhythms of Bazz and Bateman.
The performances might be a bit rickety, tentative and even out of tune, and Phil Alvin’s otherwise extraordinary buoyant voice strains here and there (improved chops, studio experience, equipment and budget would all help remedy such problems on the Slash release), but it doesn’t detract from the overall spirit of the collection. And while calling it “a seminal piece of Americana rock ‘n’ roll history,” as one HighTone pundit declared via press release, is definitely a bout of delusion (maybe, maybe, their Slash debut earns such a distinction), there is no doubt that American Music is glorious rock ‘n’ roll innocence personified.
What the Blasters weren’t, no matter what company they kept nor affinity they had, was punk. That was best left to X, who, by the time of American Music, were not only the city’s premier punk band, but were on their way to becoming possibly the best band Los Angeles has ever bestowed upon the music world. The double-disc, 45-song Beyond & Back documents the entirety of the band’s career, from their punkiest, Ramones-meets-Chuck Berry early days (“Los Angeles”, “We’re Desperate”, “Nausea”) to the hard-rock (“Wild Thing”, “What’s Wrong with Me”), honky-tonk (“Someone Like You”, “Call of the Wrecking Ball”) and heartland tones (“See How We Are”, Dave Alvin’s “4th of July”) of later years.
Somewhat chronological, although supposedly compiled by bassist/vocalist John Doe and vocalist Exene Cervenkova (formerly Cervenka) to resemble the song list from a typical live set, Beyond & Back mixes alternate takes, outtakes, demos, live efforts and remixes with tracks culled from the band’s nine albums to create a collection that not only serves as a solid best-of but also as a nifty look into the various stages of the band’s decade-plus career. Just hearing X progress from a clumsy quartet on the demos of 1978 to a more fully realized ensemble a year later and, ultimately, to the stunning, Ray Manzarek-produced debut in 1980 is alone worth the price of admission.
Beyond & Back also tracks the thematic changes of Venice, California, poets and lovers Exene and Doe, from colorful observations on urban decay, drugs and sex (“Fuck the World” or “FTW” was an early slogan) to ones of homespun populism and the failure of love. We ride shotgun as Exene learns to sing and Doe learns to sing amazingly. We are also repeatedly reminded of the stunning musicianship of drummer D.J. Bonebrake, who rattled on his kit as if the devil were hot on his tail, and guitarist Billy Zoom, who pretty much ruled the world with his blasts of overheated rockabilly riffs.
It’s not all pretty. For example the Joan Jett-like version of “Wild Thing”, complete with Don Dokken background vox(!), still feels like the desperate, inane attempt at radio airplay that it was. And while many of the alternate versions are cool and all, there’s a reason why they’re alternate versions. Frequently, the best takes are the ones already out there — surely a testament to the role of Manzarek, who produced X’s first four efforts. And from the “if only” department comes this: If only they had included both versions of the John-and-Exene-love-gone-bad masterpiece “Burning House of Love”, for the booming, metal-tinged version (not included) was the rare moment that metalhead producer Michael Wagener got it right, while the live, countrified take (included) features latter-day guitarist Tony Gilkyson (who followed Dave Alvin’s five minutes as X axman after Zoom retreated into obscurity) finally getting to use his twang-y prowess. Two different songs, really.
There’s still a Phil-Alvin-led version of the Blasters kicking around, and there’s always the chance that X will regroup…again, but for the most part, the sun set on these two bands soon after their attempts at artistic growth and radio success failed to get them beyond the land of cultdom. But for a moment at least, through the magic of reissues and outtakes, we can at least look back and reconfirm why we gave damn in the first place.