Have you ever heard a local band cover X’s “4th of July?” Let’s hope it happens this holiday. To me, the Los Angeles punk/Americana band’s foot-tapping ditty is one of the best of the bunch.
Every summer, as Independence Day approaches, certain supposedly patriotic tunes tend to hit the airwaves, either as part of thematic playlists or some sort of tacky advertising campaign. Some of the worst ones are as corny as cartoon soundtracks. Others are cleverly ironic, with an element of sarcasm and protest. Some are blatant efforts to pander to a wide audience, written with obviously pro-U.S.A. or holiday-specific lyrics.
I’ll bet that somewhere in the Lowcountry, some band is attempting a rendition of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” or a rousing cover of Lee Greenwood’s stale “God Bless the USA” (a goofy anthem he’s been belting out since the early ’80s), or maybe even a funky version of the Charlie Daniels Band’s rednecky “In America.”
Hopefully, a misinterpretation of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” or a lengthy jam off of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” might pop up.
According to my list, a few acceptable theme songs for this week’s holiday include James Brown’s gaudy-but-funky “Living in America,” the amusingly dramatic “An American Trilogy” by Elvis Presley, Woody Guthrie’s classic folk anthem “This Land is Your Land,” Edwin Starr’s shouty “War,” Ray Charles’ soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful,” or Army veteran Jimi Hendrix’s wild reworking of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
And “Revolution” by the Beatles works fine for me. After all, a revolution was how this whole Fourth of July thing started. But the still-together, legendary L.A. rock band X’s “4th of July” is the rock song I always think of every Independence Day.
Considered a punk band when they started rumbling in the rock underground, X’s bassist/singer John Doe, singer Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebreak were a killer California act during the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Some of the coolest footage of director Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 rockumentary The Decline of Western Civilization featured X, on-stage and off.
I first heard X’s “4th of July” on a 1987 episode of MTV’s great old underground/college radio series IRS Records’ Cutting Edge (hosted by Fleshtones singer Peter Zaremba). The all-acoustic version they did for the cameras sounded more like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or the Everly Brothers than Black Flag, the Minutemen, or other L.A. punkish acts of their generation. On the studio version, Doe’s lead baritone blended perfectly with Exene’s quivering harmony.
Formed in 1977, X wrote and played fast-paced rock songs steeped in the underbelly themes of urban Southern California: guilt, paranoia, sex, drugs, heartbreak, smog, etc. The first four albums — Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun, and More Fun in the New World — incorporated bits of country, rockabilly, and power-pop into the mix. Penned by Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin, “4th of July” was featured on 1987’s See How We Are. Compared to their faster, aggressive early stuff, the arrangement seems pretty straightforward, falling in line nicely with what Los Lobos, Steve Earle, and Tom Petty were up to at the time.
Lyrically, it’s a lonesome, melancholic take on the holiday, sung from a working-class perspective and with a dash of cigarette romance. Doe croons the fist line, “She’s waitin’ for me when I get home from work/Oh, but things ain’t just the same/She turns out the light and cries in the dark/Won’t answer when I call her name.” It sounds like he and his lady are almost hopelessly on the outs. The festive atmosphere of the “Mexican kids shootin’ fireworks below” his stairs contrasts his feeling of desperation and anxiety. The last line goes, “What ever happened, I apologize/So dry your tears and, baby, walk outside/It’s the Fourth of July.”
I hope I hear a band cover it at some venue on Monday. I’ll buy ’em a round of ice-cold domestics if I do.