When UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN was published in 2016, I mistakenly expected it to be a biographical piece on X as told by John Doe. There’s certainly a worthy book in there and I’ve no doubt that John Doe’s perspective would have been an impressive one, but apparently he was reticent to indulge himself, opting for a multi-angled overview instead of a personal memoir.
The book settled into a structure of remembering LA punk’s formative years through the lens of a host of invited survivors and other alumni. Although an engaging enough read, this was well tread territory with similar stories in books by Brendan Mullen, Keith Morris, Mark Spitz, Jack Grisham and others (including a generous splatter of unauthorized biographies). In 2016 it mostly seemed like information that was already a matter of public record if you were inclined toward this strain of publication, and not necessarily something to be overly excited about.
UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN’s cut-off point was 1982, and like many books about punk music spawned in the late 1970s, initially suggested that history was over and that there was nothing to see beyond here. This convenient buttressing of “eras” is probably the worst habit of modern music biography, and a particular blight on punk memoirs – nobody writes about the 80s. The voices that declare it all over once they lost interest, those too deep in a hole of alcohol and drugs to remember, and the fortunate ones who ended up with a music career – They all skip over that middle bit to preserve the myths and fables of the golden era, and to enhance whatever comeback they’re invested in. In a nutshell, it’s a VH1 documentary habit where there is a complete historical vacuum between the death of Sid Vicious and the release of Nirvana’s NEVERMIND.
What piqued my interest in MORE FUN IN THE NEW WORLD (aside from the fact of it being named after my favourite X album) was that it specifically followed through and addressed the years 1982 – 1987. And while some of the same characters from UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN – Dave Alvin, Jane Wiedlin, Keith Morris, Pleasant Gehman etc. – were back for more, there was an enticing list of new voices being added to the narrative. These included Mike Ness, Tony Hawk, Maria McKee, Tim Robbins, Terry Graham, Allison Anders, Angelo Moore, Norwood Fisher and Shepard Fairey.
It’s worth noting that this is a book that traces the alumni of LA punk into the 80s and not a book that examines 80s LA hardcore, although the presence of Henry Rollins and Keith Morris at least acknowledges that lines and boundaries are often blurred.
Fairly early on, Jane Weidlin’s Go-Go’s woes set a high standard – self abuse, escalating fame and winding up as the only sober member in a band of degenerates makes for compelling content. Butting heads with record labels and the cocaine smarm of 80’s A&R personnel is a recurring theme, probably expressed best by Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Louie Pérez of Los Lobos. I’m pretty sure the Keith Morris chapter is straight from his MY DAMAGE book with Jim Ruland, covering the GOLDEN SHOWER OF HITS era of the band (I’d fact check this but I lent this book to someone and never saw it again). Mike Ness makes an effort to win our sympathies for his drug problems but is completely and utterly outshone by Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey – the undoubted fuck-up of the book here – her chapter is grim and captivating for all the wrong reasons!!
John Doe interjects throughout, sometimes with brief chapters and occasionally with interviews he conducted with X guitarist Billy Zoom, a less stubborn than usual Henry Rollins (because when John Doe calls, switch off your juvenile intensity), and the always-engaging Angelo Moore and Norwood Fisher of Fishbone. The Fishbone interviews in particular are of interest because they examine a greater cultural divide and why the group ended up feeling more aligned with punk and loud guitars (guaranteeing them iconic obscurity) than hip hop (the path to fame AND fortune).
The book also comprehensively includes a host of bands that embraced roots directions with a punk influence – Tex and the Horseheads, Rank & File, Long Ryders, Blood On The Saddle and Lone Justice. I really wanted Maria McKee’s contribution to be revelatory but it flowed in one side of my brain and out the other with all the substance of tainted dishwater. Why her fiery enthusiasm couldn’t translate to paper is a mystery but the Lone Justice story deserves something more.
Annette Zilinskas of the Bangs (later the Bangles) makes a case for why the greatest commercial success of the “Paisley Underground” achieved their musical ambitions where the successful Go-Go’s imploded, stating that there were “no drug habits in the band, no mental issues, no fuck-ups.” (Zilinskas decamped to Blood On The Saddle just as the Bangles were breaking as a mainstream act – interestingly she rejoined the band in 2018).
Terry Graham’s chapter on The Gun Club outlines a shambles of a band with an insufferable front man in Jeffrey Lee Pierce. That they managed to record the wonderful FIRE OF LOVE in 2 separate 6-hour sessions for $2000 is one of the many miracles of how The Gun Club transpired to have any legacy whatsoever, never mind a worthy and influential one.
The non-music contributors – Tony Hawk, Tim Robbins, Allison Anders, Shepard Fairey – all speak of the importance of punk and the DIY ethic in giving them a creative direction.
Probably most fascinating of all is John Doe’s chapter on how X arrived at their “difficult” 5th album AIN’T LOVE GRAND and bellyflopped an attempt at commerciality when all bets would have been on them rising to the same heights as the Pretenders, the Go-Go’s, REM, the Replacements and Blondie. This creative pothole in the X discography has forever been cast aside with prepared interview one-liners that basically say, “next question”, so the eloquence and bluntness that John Doe uses to dissect what went wrong is a pleasure to read…
“Never believe your own hype. How did we miss this valuable lesson? I suppose we felt outside the rules. We broke rules. We wrote new rules. It’s not as if some rock’n’roll musician’s guidebook existed and we could turn to page 127 to find out how to proceed after four critically acclaimed but financially underachieving LPs. How did an antiestablishment band like X fall into the most cliché trap?”
As to whether this project rolls any further – there’s definitely the clear shape of a book relevant to this cast of characters covering 1987 through 1995, straddling Gulf war/Lollapalooza era America and the great major label panic to sign any alternative guitar band with an underground legacy. X was there with the very underrated HEY ZEUS, and it’s certainly a time period relevant to the trajectory of Rollins Band, Circle Jerks, Fishbone, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Allison Anders etc. – or maybe this misses the initial point and MORE FUN IN THE NEW WORLD already provides more overreach than was ever intended.
Whatever (if anything) happens, MORE FUN IN THE NEW WORLD succeeds in a way that the first book UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN didn’t because reading about how wild and crazy the good old days were from a multitude of voices gets boring very quickly. MORE FUN IN THE NEW WORLD is far more ambitious – It collates widely varying paths of cultural change, drug hell, commercial success, music industry woes and road weary troubadours in vans with no plan B. This is an important and grossly under-documented story of fate randomly collecting debts and doling out credits on the misbehavior of those formative years.