Exene Cervenka is as surprised as anyone that her band X is out on the road in 2017 playing a 40th-anniversary tour.
When the X frontwoman, singer/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake formed the group in the very first days of punk rock in Los Angeles in 1977, the last thing on their minds was the notion that they’d still be cranking out their aggressive but rootsy songs four decades later. All four members are still in X, which will play the ’77 Montréal punk festival at Parc Jean-Drapeau on Friday, July 28.
“What keeps it alive is why it was real in the beginning,” Cervenka said in a recent phone interview from California, where she and Doe were touring as a duo, playing with Garbage and Blondie. “It wasn’t about hit songs and it wasn’t about the way you looked. It wasn’t about sex appeal. It was about music. It wasn’t divisive like things are now. We didn’t care if you were gay or straight. We didn’t even know half the time. It was just about people trying to do something important in an era where we knew importance was going to be on the way out. Where corporations were taking over everything, but not quite yet.
“We were revolutionaries in some way, but it was all about fun. The Ramones were fun and X was fun. L.A. was the goofiest scene. We had so much fun just running around like kids. So that’s why I think it’s still around, because it has all the fundamental things that make something important.”
One of the guiding principles of the original punk movement was to mark a radical break with rock’s past, to claim you hated everything that came before — and of course, much of that was just posturing. All bands have to carry some musical influences. What was notable about those early X albums — like the 1980 debut, Los Angeles, Wild Gift from 1981 and especially 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun — was that they combined punk fury with a surprising fondness for earlier forms of rock ‘n’ roll, including country and rockabilly.
“Yeah, we had that more than most bands, because Billy had been around longer and he’d played music since he was a kid in the ’50s,” said Cervenka. “So he grew up before the Beatles. He remembers American music before. He remembers hot rods and all that. So that’s definitely a foundational aspect.
“Also, you know we’re all into big band, we’re all into blues. We’re all into different kinds of music and we always have been. A lot of the younger bands, they only went back to, like, Ozzy (Osbourne) and KISS. They didn’t like the ’60s. We were more like the Cramps. But then there was the Gun Club that did that and the Blasters that did that. Even the Go-Go’s had their girl-group thing going on.”
Punk exploded in a big way in the U.K. in its first wave, but didn’t have the same commercial impact in North America. Bands like X and the Ramones didn’t sell millions of albums, and their influence would only be felt much later. In this part of the world, punk only really hit the mainstream in the first half of the ’90s, thanks to bands like Green Day, the Offspring and Bad Religion. But Cervenka has no bitterness over the fact that the first punk wave didn’t hit the top of the charts.
“I’m glad it didn’t, because it’s too good for that,” she said. “It wasn’t commercial. It wasn’t sensational. It wasn’t something that everyone could relate to. It was a way of thinking, and you can’t market a way of thinking. You can market things that represent your way of thinking. But you can’t market freedom, and that’s what it was. It was all about freedom. It was all about self-expression, individuality — and I’m sorry, but corporations can’t grasp individuality. That’s their enemy.
“So I’m glad that L.A. punk never caught on. I’m glad we’re not on lunch boxes. We don’t want that.”
The ’77 Montréal festival marks the 40th anniversary of the year punk first made noise around the world, and some are criticizing the celebration of a milestone for a movement that was supposed to be all about crashing and burning rather than sticking around. But Cervenka is not doing that sort of criticizing.
“Everyone has the right to say everything they want,” she said. “That’s what punk is all about. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I only care what I think. I still feel that way. And I also think of course there’s nostalgia, because it was the last great time.”
AT A GLANCE
X performs Friday, July 28 at 7 p.m. at Parc Jean-Drapeau as part of the ’77 Montréal festival. Other acts at the one-day festival include Rancid, Dropkick Murphys, the Vandals, the Bouncing Souls, Madball, Stiff Little Fingers singer Jake Burns, the Kingpins, Joyce Manor, the Creepshow, Barrasso, Genetic Control and Pale Lips. The music starts at 12:30 p.m. Tickets cost $60 via evenko.ca or 77montreal.com.