Sharps and Flats: Beyond and Back: The X Anthology

Published December 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

OK, so what's the deal with alternate takes? These anthology things are always filled with "alternate takes" or "outtake versions" of songs that have already appeared on albums. Am I missing something, or is "alternate take" a nice way of saying "take that wasn't good enough to use in the first place"?

Demos, on the other hand, can be interesting. There are some interesting demos and rehearsal tapes from the late '70s on "Beyond and Back: The X Anthology," a two-CD attempt to tell the story of Los Angeles' finest punk band without resorting to a greatest hits format -- convenient, since X never really had any hits. These tracks show the band struggling to find and capture the powerful wallop of a sound it perfected in the early '80s.

The most interesting song here is a demo that wasn't used and wasn't even an X song. "Someone Like You" was a mostly acoustic waltz-time ballad on "Poor Little Critter in the Road," the lone album by X's country alter-ego, the Knitters (guitar player Billy Zoom didn't want to play country, so John Doe, Exene Cervenka and D.J. Bonebreak recruited Blaster Dave Alvin and a stand-up bass player to form the shadow group). In the demo version that appears here, "Someone Like You" is a full-on honky-tonk number, complete with fiddle and slide guitar. It doesn't really sound better, but at least it's different -- you can hear them trying to figure the song out. But does anybody really need to hear a version of "The New World" before they thought of the guitar riff? That's not instructive, it's just unfinished.

The CDs are sprinkled with album versions of some of X's better and better-known songs -- "Los Angeles," "Hungry Wolf," "In This House That I Call Home," "Poor Girl" -- and some live stuff that doesn't quite capture how great they were in their prime, but still sounds pretty good. There's the obligatory inclusion of the band's two biggest radio breakthroughs, which, sadly, were both covers used on movie soundtracks: "Wild Thing" and "Breathless."

Much was made of X's roots in poetry (Doe and Cervenka -- now known as Cervenkova -- met at a Venice reading), and critics loved to talk about their deeply poetic lyrics. But looking back nearly two decades later, their early, dark lyrics -- while a cut above most punk bands of the time (or this time) -- come across as vague, opaque, poetry workshop blather: "No one is united/All things are untied/Perhaps we're boiling over inside/They've been telling lies/Who's been telling lies?/There are no angels/There are devils in many ways/Take it like a man." Uh, yeah. But boy, could they name a song -- like that one, "The World's a Mess; It's In My Kiss," or "You're Phone's off the Hook (But You're Not)."

X's lyrical abilities improved as they became influenced less by poetry and more by country music. The death of Exene's sister provided material for the heart-wrenching three-song centerpiece of X's best album, "Under the Big Black Sun" (1982), and from that point on, the words became less arty, more direct, more meaningful. That album and the next, "More Fun in the New World" (1983), represent X at their most powerful, combining blistering music with incisive, moving lyrics. Those two albums and the more poetic first two, "Los Angeles" (1980) and "Wild Gift" (1981), would be the essential X collection. After that, X lost it a bit, trying on different genres and styles and occasionally courting Big Success, always unsuccessfully. By the end, an unplugged period in the mid-'90s documented on "Unclogged" (1995), they were like an old fastball pitcher who can't bring the ol' heat anymore but can still get the occasional hitter out with knuckleballs and slow curves. They were a shadow of themselves, but at least they were still in there pitching, and they could teach those young fireballers a thing or two.

But they didn't. Unlike the Pixies, also recently anthologized and eulogized as impossibly influential (and therefore impossibly cool), X weren't influential at all. Nobody sounds like X, with that male-female harmony-as-melody singing thing and that screaming rockabilly guitar over pounding punk rhthym section. Occasionally someone tries, but everybody sniffs, "Oh, they're trying to sound like X" and the world moves on.

"Beyond and Back" does about as good a job as these things usually do. If you're already a big fan, you'll find a few interesting tidbits and complete your collection. But if you're looking for an introduction, you'd do better elsewhere.

By Gary Kaufman

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