Punk Rock's Wild Gift

This month's music feature, by Mike Mettler, is an interview with John Doe, best known as cofounder, in 1977, of the legendary punk band X. During X's long recording career, Doe's urgent voice has offset the starkly contrasting voice of co–lead vocalist (and songwriting partner) Exene Cervenka, who was Doe's girlfriend before she joined the band; it's one of the most recognizable sounds in punk. Over 45 years, X has continued to record (sparingly) and to evolve, from the literate punk of Los Angeles—to me one of the great albums ever, in any genre—through Wild Gift, which leans toward country, to Under the Big Black Sun, which went in several directions at once: rockabilly, funk, folk, pop, and beyond.

Meanwhile, Doe has maintained a career as a solo and collaborative artist, with a dozen or so albums to his credit, including collaborations with prominent artists like Eddie Vedder and Aimee Mann. In one of the weirdest matchings in movie-music history, it's Doe's version of "I Will Always Love You" that plays on the jukebox in the 1992 film The Bodyguard as Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner dance.

Punk, with its intentionally crude musicianship and homebrew aesthetic, isn't exactly known for the quality of its recordings. During his interview with Mettler, Doe takes a moment to diss Steely Dan in a non sequitur: "There's just not a hair out of place on those records. You wind up thinking, 'What the hell? Where's the juice? Where's the messiness?'" One man's meticulous care is another man's soullessness.

To me, Steely Dan's music has plenty of juice; it just takes a different form. Still, as a generalization, "audiophile" recordings tend to show off sound, not music—polish, not juice. Dismissing juicy music—music with life and spirit—because it doesn't sound great worries me.

I love a lot of punk music—though not all of it—because of its energy, spirit, and anger. Let It Be by the Replacements and A Different Kind of Tension by the Buzzcocks are among my all-time favorite albums. So is Los Angeles, X's debut. I like country music, too—the good stuff. I chose Jerry Jeff Walker's ¡Viva Terlingua! as one of my Records to Die For in 2017.

Most nights, though, I listen to jazz. Sometimes it's classical, especially chamber music or solo piano. The world is blessedly full of varied and distinctive music and musical taste.

In 2020, I asked Jason Victor Serinus to write a piece on the classical voice. When it was published in late 2020, it featured (as I anticipated) many recordings in what's often called "historical" sound; that's something it shares with a large quantity of classical music and much jazz. Should we restrict ourselves to recordings made in the last few decades, which rules out some of the greatest music on record? Should we ignore Charlie Parker because the sound of his records is typical of the era when they were recorded? What about Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens? What about those great Duke Ellington bands through the 1940s and early '50s? What about Caruso? I'm not gonna ignore these masterpieces.

Do we need high-end systems to appreciate such recordings? Apparently, it helps. In his review this month of the very expensive Karan POWERa monoblocks, Jason found himself drawn not to the latest perfectionist recordings—although he listened to some of those, too—but to a 1952 mono recording by contralto Kathleen Ferrier and pianist Frederick Stone. Why? More juice. "To my astonishment, the POWERa monos brought newfound clarity to Ferrier's singing and conveyed all of its magic," he wrote.

There are some unfortunate clichés about audiophiles. That we listen to the same half-dozen records over and over because they make our systems sound great. That we use music to listen to our systems instead of using our systems to listen to music. Such people, I've learned, do exist, and that's fine. Our tent is large; there's room for them. I stand, though, with those for whom music is the sole (soul?) rationale for assembling a good stereo system. I invest in hi-fi to extract from music as much juice as possible. Better system, better music, more juice.

Punk rock, early jazz, classical voice—it may not be your cuppa, but juice it's got. The first step to appreciating such music is to set aside that silly "absolute sound" nonsense. Sure, when it comes to evaluating a system, well-recorded acoustic music has clear advantages, but an album shouldn't sound like live acoustic music unless it was recorded to sound like that. Every album should sound like itself (footnote 1). Appreciating this obvious fact—embracing it—can contribute greatly to our enjoyment of this hobby.

Some people maintain that a good hi-fi system makes bad recordings sound worse. That has not been my experience. A good hi-fi system, rather, can make bad recordings make sense. It can sort them out, allowing me to hear more clearly the various contributors to each recording's signature sound, including faults. Occasionally, that new insight turns a recording I thought was poor into one I enjoy. But even if that clearer view fails to redeem a recording—even if it's just bad sound—there is pleasure to be gained from listening through those flaws to the music, which is easier to do when the flaws are well-resolved.

Great-sounding recordings form a tiny fraction of all recorded music, and they rarely intersect with the very best music. What's more, listening only to the best-recorded, most natural-sounding music excludes the use of recording technology to create specific moods and impressions; X's Los Angeles is a fine example of that. No one will mistake it for live or for the state of the recording art, but it sounds exactly as it should.

Footnote 1: "In the great majority of cases, there is no original musical event that a record records or reproduces," wrote Evan Eisenberg, in his book-length essay The Recording Angel; John Atkinson quoted Eisenberg in his March 2011 As We See It. "Instead, each playing of a given record is an instance of something timeless. The original musical event never occurred; it exists, if it exists anywhere, outside history."

FDroadrunner's picture

I can perfectly understand why John Doe would not connect with the production on Steely Dan records; they represent the kind of refined, professional artistry that punk rock and its progeny were rebelling against. Looser production is a part of punk rock's aesthetic for authenticity and realism.
Some punk rock is actually well produced, such as those first X albums mentioned here. I just listened to my original Slash pressing of Wild Gift the other day and absolutely love the sound of Billy Zoom's guitar.
Strangely enough, some poorly-produced punk somehow benefits from shoddy production. The Sid Vicious live album and Metallic K.O. come to mind; the poor production has an audio vérité quality that oddly adds to the listening experience.
Another example that comes to mind are the records by Dead Moon, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the greatest garage punk band that ever lived. Fred Cole recorded, produced, and mastered the band's records on his own (and in mono), which means that you'll never listen to a Dead Moon record and marvel at realism of a cymbal's decay or the delicate finger-picking of an acoustic guitar. What you will do, however, is respond emotionally and viscerally to energy of the performance and the songcraft.
That where I'm at anyway. Sound quality is extremely important for creating an engaging, emotional listening experience, but it always takes a back seat to the song and its performance.

ok's picture

..that low-fi recordings make more sense when played on a hi-end system. In my experience mediocre or bad recordings make much more sense when played on an entry-level or even low-fi system (mp3 and cheap tables included) that keeps the main idea intact and throws the garbage out.

FredisDead's picture

authored a fantastic editor's piece. Thanks Jim. One of the first LP's I ever bought, at age 13 and on the suggestion of a nerdy older cousin was "Countdown to Ecstasy" and 50 years later it remains one of my favorite albums and yet, I find it sterile and at times boring. Donald Fagen has been widely documented as having been a pain the arse perfectionist in the studio but to what end? Five years later or so came punk and then a few years after that X came on the scene and they became a new favorite of mine. "Wild Gift" to this day is right up there with my love of "Countdown to Ecstasy". I would venture to say that the production values of "Wild Gift" is perfect for the genre while "Countdown to Ecstasy" would benefit from a little less slick production. Don't get me started on "Aja".
There is another end to spectrum-contrast ZZ Top's "Tres Hombres" with "Raw". The former is loose and perfect as produced and the latter is deservedly named.

Glotz's picture

One of the greats and key to the West Coast Punk scene of the 80's. First caught them in 1986.. still love them and anything else Doe touches. Just glad they're alive!

I agree with Jim here... a great audio system lets you hear a 'crap' recording for what it is. It simply communicates what was used in the studio, and defines its own personality, specifically with their own low-fi images and feels. Whether it sounds 'good' or not is immaterial. It simply is.

Hearing with something else is fine, but listening through a thousand different crappy stereos in the 80's simply created multiple audio impressions of the same recording. It took a higher res system to define what it really sounds like, crappy sound or not. JGH's mic recordings on the original Stereophile Test CD comes to mind.