There have been few Australian bands to embrace primal chaos as enthusiastically as X, formed by singer (and later guitarist) Steve Lucas and the late ex-Rose Tattoo bassist Ian Rilen in 1977.
With a new ‘Best Of’ compilation under his arm, Lucas has assembled a new line-up of X, and returns to Western Australia for the first time since the band imploded on-stage in Fremantle supporting The Ramones in the late ‘80s.
Best Of X And Rarities 1977-1983 Vol 1 is a raw, throbbing visceral thing of ragged beauty. It collects single tracks, demos, live tapes and more from the first two line-ups of the band, up until late 1979. During that time original guitarist Ian Krahe “died in his sleep” after one heroin fix too many. Rilen thrust Krahe’s “beat up old Tele” in Lucas’s hands and said, ‘You’re playing guitar now… start practicing’.
Lucas admits that compiling the crowd funded compilation was an emotional experience.
“Apart from the old memory lane thing,” he says wearily, but enigmatically, “it takes you back. It brings you forward. It messes with your head. But, at the end of the day, you pick up the guitar, turn up your amp, and then it's rocking.”
The teaming between Lucas and Rilen was volatile, to say the least. On multiple occasions they broke up, threw punches, sacked each other. Lucas describes it as a love-hate relationship.
“Yeah - but I'd say it was love-hate, in that Ian loved hating me, and I hated loving him, or words to that effect. It was a bit of the drugs and booze - it was an extreme band. We're a hard mob. Ian was a hard-living person - I wasn't a slacker either. We did what we had to do. Sometimes you'd clash. You'd say things you wished you could take back, but you can't. We had that kind of relationship. You'd punch each other in the head then five minutes later go down to the pub and forget all about it. We were both very passionate about what we perceived X to be and that's all you can really say.”
Talking of the zeitgeist of the times, Lucas says they just happened to be there as punk broke, even though they were something different to The Ramones, Saints, Pistols, etc.
“It was a wave that swelled and broke,” he explains, “and we caught the wave, but we didn't want to BE punks just because there was punk happening - we wanted to be a rock and roll band that got CALLED punk because that's what was happening. We had it in our political and our social observations but we were still in essence a rock’n’roll band. X-Aspirations was a bit more of an exception because of my newness to playing the guitar. It made it, luckily for me I suppose, made it sound more avant garde and a bit more jazzy, because Ian and Steve were there. Their rhythm section was so unique. There's never been another one really like it.
“Those guys... you know, I listen to that and if I took my guitar and vocals out, it would sound like a really cool scream jazz fucking combo. There was - and I've seen this in comments from other bands and writers - the one thing that separated X from other bands of that ilk, and I say this as a quotation, not just my opinion, is that ‘X had a musicality and an ability to play their instruments a lot better than a lot of other bands at the time’. Them – not me - I was learning. I was pretty crap.”
It should be obvious to anyone who bothers to look past the sheer noisiness of early X, past the raw power and bad attitude, that there's musicianship there, great songwriting, and a marvellous melodic knack to the band that was present from the very start.
“I listen to it and, well, I get all sorts of mixed emotions, as you can imagine,” Lucas admits. “Sometimes it makes me angry because of the lost opportunity. Sometimes it makes me exhilarated because I got to be part of that. I certainly could have done a lot worse. But what can you do? It is what it is. It's not a painful thing, but it is... it challenges me on many, many levels.
“I'm older so it challenges me on physical levels. Mentally, for the same reasons. Because I'm older I don't necessarily feel the angriness I felt when I was a callow youth. Spiritually, have I developed? I would like to think so. Emotionally I'm probably as entitled as ever. I remember the first gig vividly, like it was yesterday. I can remember the next three or four. After that it gets a bit blurry, apart from the major disasters.”
I ask Lucas if he feels that X – forever a cult band, really – were important in the face of Australian music?
“Well, I have to say yes, but that's not because I'm thinking, ‘goddamn, I was so important’. We had no idea what we were doing - we just set out to play music, yet over the years, I cannot keep track of the amount of bands that say X-Aspirations is their all-time favourite album ever. Or that X made them want to be in a band. Or that X changed the way that they saw the band they were in.
“Then I've read the articles saying that the records are some of the most influential records ever in Australia's rock history. I would be pretty stupid if I said, ‘no, we haven't had an effect’. At the same time, I'm not sitting here puffing up my chest and fiddling with the gold chains, smoking a cigar going, ‘yeah, we rock’. Like I said, there's a lot of pain, there's a lot of death along the way. It kinda takes the shine off it.”
For the new tour, Lucas has enlisted the help of drummer Doug Faulkner and bassist Kim Volkman. In a nice piece of synchronicity, Hunters & Collectors’ Faulkner was on standby for the position in X in the early ‘80s when Cathy Green first replaced Steve Cafiero.
“That's true, yes,” confirms Lucas. “That was one of the times I put my foot down. When we did the audition with Cath, I thought there was just something really new in her playing and her approach. And that horrible word that I cringe when other people use, but there's that chemistry thing. Ian couldn't see it because he just thought chick drummers were a waste of time. I was just talking with Cath the other day, via the internet, and she was saying, ‘I remember you saying come to the gig the next day. We'll get there an hour and a half before sound check and we'll run through all the stuff again’. While I’m giving her a crash course, Ian pulled up and he could hear the music coming out of the venue and just thought, ‘fuck, who's that? It sounds awesome. Oh my God, that's Steve and Cath!’ And that was that. Doug was still sitting in the driveway with his car full of drums. I had to go out to him to say, ‘don't worry about it’.
“I asked Cathy if she'd be interested in doing this reunion, but she said, ‘No way – I hate the drums!’ She’s playing bass now, doesn't even have a kit anymore. I thought, ‘well I can balance the books - I'll get Doug in’.
Through all the dramas, chaos and loss, Lucas is adamant that there are some things he’d do exactly the same if given the chance for a do-over.
“I'd do it all again if I was allowed to make a few minor adjustments. I'd like to spare the death of Ian Krahe and Steve Cafiero. God… there's just so much I'd do different. I'd like to write the same songs and I'd like to play them the same way, but I could have done without all of that tragedy.
“Every time I had my heart broken again and I thought nothing could ever hurt me this way and then something would happen and I thought, ‘well, my God, I've only just begun to feel pain’. It's been a lesson.”
X play Mojos on Thursday, August 3, with Datura4 and Axe Girl, and head to the Four5Nine Bar (Rosemount Hotel) on Friday, August 4, along with The Floors and Axe Girl in support.
X: DISASTER IN FREMANTLE!
In 1989 The Ramones toured Australia, and with X (now featuring Steve Lucas, Ian Rilen, and drummer Cathy Green) supporting, played Cargos Nightclub in Fremantle on November 6. I was in that packed, sweaty crowd to see The Bruvvas – though X overshadowed their performance with a display of dysfunctional angst that I’ve yet to see repeated in 35 years of concert-going.
We’ll let Lucas take up the story.
“Yeah, it was the product of a few things, that gig…” he starts, hesitantly. “To put it simply, we were having a huge falling out with Mushroom Records. That was part of it. We travelled separately to Perth. Ian and Cathy and the tour manager and I think the crew elected to hire a car and drive from Melbourne to Perth.
“Of course, they got lost and broke down, blew radiators and all that shit, so they weren't happy when they got there. I elected to catch a train because I thought it'd be interesting - and it was. But my reading material for that train trip was a biography on The Who. Whether that got subconsciously into my mind about smashing up guitars and all that stuff, I don't really know.
“The Ramones' managers were giving us a fucking hard time,” he continues with this litany of disastrous factors that contributed to the ensuing chaos. “The Ramones weren't even talking to each other at that stage. They each had their own bloody managers. They were standing near each other saying, ‘can you tell your manager to tell my manager to do ...’ It was just stupid.
“So we were kinda pissed off, because we thought they’d be a lot more fun. By the time we got on stage we were pretty tanked up, but we were ready to rock, like we were ready to kill. It's just things started going wrong… my strings were breaking left, right and centre. I had two guitars and the stage tech couldn't keep up with the strings I was breaking, which made Ian and Cathy go harder, which made me go harder when I got the guitar back. Then I'd hit it once and it’d just go straight out of tune because the strings hadn't been tightened. I cracked the shits and threw the guitar at the stage roadie. He ducked. It hit something and broke - the neck snapped off.
“So I got the other guitar and then I trashed that guitar, and then I thought, ‘oh fuck, there's no guitars left’. So I think I sang a song, just with the bass and drums. Then I picked up my speaker box and body slammed it in the middle of the stage and we thought, ‘fuck it - that's enough’. We walked off stage.
“I've had people come up to me over the years and go, ‘hey X – Cargos – Perth: I was there!’ So… it left an impression.”
It certainly did – I recall Lucas leaving the stage first, Rilen - still playing - kept growling into the microphone, ‘get fucking back here you c---’ or words to that effect. Eventually Green gave up and walked off as well, and he was just standing there yelling into the microphone, ‘both of you c---s get fucking back here’. Then he stormed off and dragged Lucas and Green both back onstage, and it went on and on. The image of Lucas strumming disinterestedly at his guitar without bothering to make any chords with his other hand, while droning, ‘blah blah blah’ or the like into the microphone is indelibly etched on my mind’s eye. The sheer violent tension on stage was palpable. I always wondered if there was a violent scene backstage afterward, after all that?
“No, not with us!” Lucas recalls. “No, but we did have a huge fight with the managers of the Ramones, and with the owner of the venue, who wanted to dock us. Then somebody just said, ‘If you want to dock them, you'll have to go into their band room and tell them’. He was too scared, so they paid us. But I actually went off stage initially to see if I could get another guitar, because the Ramones had 15, but of course they wouldn't give me one!
“After it all, as soon as Ian walked off stage and stopped posing, he came up to me and said, ‘that's the best gig I've ever seen you do!’” Lucas says, bewildered, exasperated, or just plain amused almost 30 years later. “Ian wanted to save face in front of the crowd, but yeah off stage, he was totally different.”