Would-be guitar heroes who play 289 notes per second are dime a dozen. Yet those guitarists who possess a truly awe-inspiring ability with their instrument are rare, with so much style that would never be displayed in a vulgar, shallow-minded way. Billy Zoom is one of them, and before the hardcore years introduced a fairly rigid musical formula to Los Angeles punk, his band X were doing things in their own, unique way.
Billy alternated between sharp rockabilly licks and Ramones-style power chord thrashings while Exene Cervenka wailed earnest neo-beatnik poetry. X’s combination of wildly different personalities and influences shouldn’t have worked. But it did. This is perhaps why Billy never seemed to get that irritating smile off his face when on stage. In many respects the most conservative member of X, he somehow seemed secluded in his own, traditionalist rockabilly world, never taking seriously what the rest of his band were doing. To satisfy his more purist instincts, he also played in his very own Billy Zoom Band.
By the time Orange County hardcore arrived, X had moved on to bigger and better things, releasing increasingly Americana-tinted albums and, for a short while, becoming a fairly successful alternative rock act. Much has been written about the band since those early years, but the focus of my interview is the environment that bred X; those little-documented days of early LA punk before the hardcore kids from the beaches flooded the gates of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go.
Billy, how would you describe the first generation of LA punk rockers, what kind of people from what kind of backgrounds were they?
A pretty eclectic group, many of whom had come to LA to play music, but couldn’t find any. I think the only common denominators were a dislike for 70s music and frustration with the lack of a live music scene in LA. Most of those people were old enough to remember and miss the 60s.
What was it like to live in LA in those days?
Poor and hungry, but we had a cause. There were no live music clubs except for the Troubadour, which only booked acoustic acts. There was a small but dedicated rockabilly crowd. Our only venue was the Palomino club in the Valley. It was a country music bar, but they let us do rockabilly nights once in a while. The rest of the time, I played small bars, restaurants, and car shows.
How was LA punk different to New York punk and London punk?
In the beginning, we didn’t know there was London punk. We just knew about New York and the Ramones.
How did you and your friends feel about the New York scene?
We listened to the New York bands. I don’t think I knew or cared anything about the scene there. After all, it’s just a tiny island off the New England coast.
What drugs were common in those days? Was heroin as omnipresent as in the New York scene?
You’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t even know what heroin looks like. I just remember everybody drinking a lot.
It’s almost common knowledge that the LA punk scene was exceptionally violent. Do you agree?
Not at all. That came later when the kids from the suburbs caught on. The hardcore bands like Black Flag and Circle Jerks drew in kids from the suburbs who were into slamming and violence. Until then, we all just wanted to pogo and have a good time. They were resented because they caused problems and got clubs and shows closed. We had all worked very hard to get those opened, and we didn’t want to see the scene go down the toilet because of a bunch of spoiled kids.
You’re saying spoiled kids. Did they usually come from wealthier parts of LA than the first generation?
They were little spoiled rich kids from the beaches. Huntington Beach in Orange County got most of the blame. I don’t know how many of them were really from there. They gave Orange County a bad name, though.
What was the new crowd’s attitude towards X?
They seemed to like us a lot more than we liked them. The violence was hard for us to deal with. It made it hard for our fans to enjoy our shows. It also made it hard for us to play shows. They used to like to jump up on stage and disrupt the show. We had our amps knocked over, our lips split by mic stands, and I got my guitar broken by one of those little shits. That’s when I started to wear steel-toed boots on stage. I did my best to hurt them.
Watching the Decline of Western Civilisation documentary on LA punk, it seems like racist attitudes were quite common among young LA punks?
I can’t watch that movie, but I’m not aware of any racism in the scene. Of course, I didn’t hang around with those beach brats.
Who were your idols in music when you started X?
Too broad a question. I guess Eddie Cochran and the Ramones were important. I always think more in terms of producers, engineers and studios because that’s where the sound comes from.
What did you think of the LA rock establishment? And wasn’t it a very ‘uncool’ move at the time to have your album produced by Ray Manzarek of the Doors?
For some reason, the Doors were considered cool, even though they were a mainstream Elektra band. As for the LA rock establishment: sucked then, sucks now.
Looking back, what do you think was great about the early LA punk days, and what sucked?
Everything about the early scene was cool. It was a great time. It started sucking when it caught on and got popular. As soon as we started making records and touring and being sucessful, it was all over. On the other hand, if we hadn’t made records, toured and become successful, that would have sucked too. These things can’t last. I’m glad I was old enough to appreciate it for what it was at the time.
Is there anything you learned from that time?
I learned not to drink so much and to wear earplugs no matter how wimpy it looks.