Nice Guy, Punk Legend

OC guitar god Billy Zoom on life before and after X

Zoom played with a roots band called the Alligators in '72 and '73 before starting up his own rockabilly combo the next year. The Billy Zoom Band recorded on the tiny indie label Rolling Rock Records along with such fellow LA revivalists as Johnny Legend and Chuck E. Weiss and such first-string pioneers as Ray Campi, Jackie Lee Cochran and Mac Curtis. Records from these days are nothing short of revelatory: what we know from his days in X is that Zoom can peel off hot licks la Cliff Gallup and Paul Burlison. But who knew Zoom was also a very good singer? Hearing these old sessions makes one wonder why Zoom never took any lead vocals as a member of X. There was a rockabilly revival going on in LA in the mid-'70s, but its followers were small in number--or, as Zoom succinctly puts it: "You couldn't give rockabilly away in those days. Nobody really cared about it until years later, after the Stray Cats and all that happened." Zoom was still searching for something new to conquer, and he finally found his niche in 1976. "My bass player, Patrick Woodward, read me this review in some magazine where they were trashing the Ramones," Zoom recollects. "It said the songs were too fast and too short, too simple; they had stupid lyrics; no guitar solos; no Eagles, no Doobie Brothers, no anything. I said, 'That sounds good to me!' So I was curious, and I went to see the Ramones, and it just kind of clicked for me. It was like rockabilly turned on 10. It seemed like that was gonna take off, so I thought: 'You know, I should start something like this--take what they've done and move it a step further, make it slightly more musical, but not enough to wreck it.'"Zoom placed an ad looking for musicians in the Recycler, and a punk dynasty was born. The first person to respond was a singing bassist named John Doe. The two got together to jam and soon found they were of a kindred musical spirit, even if Doe wasn't nearly Zoom's match as a musician. Listening to tapes of these early rehearsals, you can feel the energy coursing through the air in that room like razor-clawed atmosphere creatures straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. Particularly interesting was their take on Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't" that Doe sings la Lou Reed while Zoom's guitar blazes like Johnny Ramone's--while retaining his essential mastery of technique. Zoom might have made a conscious decision to go punk, but there was no hiding his sophistication as a musician. This was no noble primitive.

After a few months, Doe started bringing his friend Exene Cervenka to rehearsals. She wrote material for them; Doe encouraged her to sing it. Untrained and something less than a sensational vocalist, Cervenka nonetheless wrote intriguing songs and had undeniable charisma, and her chemistry with Doe was something special. "I was kind of reluctant about it to begin with, but she ended up in the band, and it worked out good," says Zoom. "I remember one of our first gigs with her: the crowd went nuts for Exene; they were all chanting her name. So I said, 'Yeah, well, this must be okay.'"

The final piece of the puzzle was in place when drummer D.J. Bonebrake joined the group in 1978. "I had a standing joke that I wanted a drummer who played simply and used a parade snare. Then John called me from the Masque one night and said, 'Billy, there's a drummer here who's got a parade snare, and he's really good.' He held the phone up for me to listen to him, and I said, 'Find out what he wants and promise it to him--major recording deal, free pizza, whatever it takes. Lie to him--just get him.'" X spearheaded the LA punk movement of the late '70s, working nightclubs like the Masque. The scene was small and a bit late compared with what had already transpired in New York and London, but such groups as the Go-Go's (a legitimate punk band years before anybody heard "We Got the Beat"), the Germs, the Alley Cats, the Plugz and the Controllers made LA an intriguing center of punk in its own right--at least for a while. "The best thing was the media weren't jumping on it yet," says Zoom. "There was this group of people who weren't going aboveground--the underground thing was growing by leaps and bounds. It was huge--well, relatively huge. It was a really nice scene for a couple of years. Everybody knew each other and helped each other out. I still think that X's peak was in '78, '79, before we put records out. That was the zenith of our career, when we were playing at the Hong Kong and Club 88. It was great.

"I think the term 'punk' meant something until the Sex Pistols hit and the media jumped on it," he continues. "I liked their album okay, but I didn't like all the Malcolm McLaren B.S. that went along with it. I didn't like the way kids in the boonies read about it and said, 'Let's go to Hollywood and go to a punk show and raise hell like it says we should do here in the paper.' That sort of ruined the scene for a lot of people. The more the media got into it, the more they defined it. I was comfortable with [X being called a punk band] until that came to mean making a lot of noise and spitting on people. I was put off by all that.

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