TRACK LIFE: X – “4th of July”
Welcome to Track Life, a new daily column in which Jacob Knight shares what he thinks to be the best in music, both new and old.
X has a weird history.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1977, the band orginally emerged as one of the most lauded members of the city’s punk scene. Combining John Doe’s frenetic bass lines with the shredding guitar of Billy Zoom and female singer Exene Cervenka’s high pitched squeals, they were the epitome of “fast, loud and fucked up”. Their first record, Los Angeles (which was produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek), was critically acclaimed and became a cult hit seemingly overnight. 1981’s Wild Gift was named Rolling Stone’s “Record of the Year”, despite the fact that it sounded even less mainstream than their debut, speeding their tempos to a near breakneck pace and inspiring furious crowd responses when performed live.
In 1982, X signed to Elektra Records, leaving behind indie darling, Slash. While the punk sound remained, there was a refinement in their songwriting process that saw them slowing down a bit for moments of country tinged introspection on Under the Big Black Sun. The album was heavily influenced by the death of Cervenka’s sister, Mirielle, who was killed in a car wreck almost immediately following X’s debut album. Three songs on the record, “Riding With Mary”, “Come Back To Me”, and the title cut all directly reference the death of “Mary”, switching up the band’s lyrics from Charles Bukowski sounding misanthropy to something more universally relatable. More Fun in the New World showed the band attempting to craft “radio friendly” singles in 1983, the success of which is still debatable to this day, and saw X ditching the straight up “punk” sound for more of a swinging rockabilly vibe.
After the commercial floundering of their initial output, guitarist Billy Zoom vowed that if their fifth record, Ain’t Love Grand, wasn’t a hit, that he’d quit the band. It wasn’t, so Zoom kept his promise, exiting and being subsequently replaced by former Blasters guitar player Dave Alvin. The band also added another axeman, Tony Gilkyson (strengthening the alt country sound they had been shifting toward), and saw John Doe taking over lead vocals on several tracks. Their sixth album, See How We Are, was the result, and “4th of July” was probably the single most indicative of what the fully transformed LA punks were going to sound like from there on out. Gone was the speed and the debauchery, replaced with a riff-happy blues tinged sound that was far easier to consume for the mainstream (the video was one of the band’s few to receive regular play on MTV).
To compare “4th of July” to early Pearl Jam wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Both Doe and PJ front man Eddie Vedder share the same scratchy baritone and throaty range. But where Pearl Jam’s music was full of angst and darkness, the newly realized X had an almost Springsteen quality to their everyman tunes. “4th of July” is the portrait of a doomed relationship on the brink of utter failure. Over twangy, chugging guitar, Doe pleads with his love to “dry her eyes” and join him on the steps for a cigarette as the fireworks of the titular holiday are ignited. It’s a portrait of the mundanely morose, painting a clear, grungy picture of the two’s apartment complex being populated by “Mexican kids shooting fireworks below”.
“4th of July” is X at their most catchy, and it’s kind of a shame that Zoom departed the band before this track was written (though it could be argued that his over-arching Skid Row influences would’ve eclipsed Doe’s simplistic songwriting). The track was really the last great one that the band ever wrote, as they went on hiatus until around 1993 immediately after the tour to support See How We Are. Nothing in their catalogue would ever reach the same heights as “4th of July” and, truth be told, if you’re going to go out on a song, they probably should’ve just let it be the final inscription of their musical tombstone.