Reliving the magic of Aussie punk heroes X, 40 years on
Forty years ago, a ragtag crew of four Sydney musicians played their first show at the Bondi Astra in Sydney. The band called themselves X, and they would soon be the most notorious band in the country.
Only one of those men is alive today, but frontman Steve Lucas is using this 40 year milestone as a chance to celebrate the band’s exuberant early career
People used to carve Xs in broken glass on their arms to prove their devotion. It was kinda sick on some levels, but it was kind of endearing.Steve Lucas, X
“It wasn't something I had intended to do, other than maybe one or two shows just to mark the passing of time and to honour the dead,” he says. “But it's turned into something else, which is typical X.
“It feels very strange. Some of it feels like yesterday, some of it feels like several hundred years ago. There's a lot to think about. There’s a lot that's happened, there's a lot that didn't happen, so it's a strange feeling.”
X were atypical of any band at that time. In fact their story is unlike many other bands that have come since, as well. Two upstarts fresh out of high school meet two well-established rock’n’rollers and the chemistry is immediate.
“Ian Krahe [guitar] and I used to go to school together,” Lucas explains of the band’s origins. “We were born in the same hospital, actually, If you go back far enough. So, you could say we knew each other when we were four or five days old because that's about the distance between our ages. Ian and I were very close.
“Ian Rilen and Steve Cafiero were ten years ahead of us. Both of them had been working in the industry for quite some time.
"Ian Rilen had been with Rose Tattoo. Steve Cafiero used to drum with bands like Ray Brown & The Whispers, he used to manage Hush and used to work with The Easybeats. So, they were both well founded indie pros, and Ian Krahe and I were novices.
“We met through a mutual association in a church hall in Balmain where we used to rehearse. And, out of the chaos, X emerged.”
For two young guns to have the gall to mix it with such seasoned rockers required chutzpah. But Lucas and Krahe had that in spades.
“We were cocky,” Lucas laughs. “We had a lot of attitude.
“I think that was the magic of X, having a slightly cynical kind of take from the elder Steve and Ian, and our naivete. The combination worked really well, it kind of created a balance and a relationship that not a lot of bands have. You look at most bands, they lived in the same area, they all had the same influences, they were all best friends or brothers or whatever.
“So, we had something that a lot of other bands didn't have, that generational difference within the band. But we had in common a love of the music that we accidentally created.”
Even today, stories of X shows in the 70s and 80s are legendary. Thousands of people crammed into pub band rooms to experience the raw power of their filthy, pummelling take on punk rock.
“Everything people have ever said is an understatement,” Lucas says of the X live experience. “The shows were riotous. We were kind of blessed in the early days, we had people like Radio Birdman coming in and checking us out.
"On a good X night, you could stand on the stage and look out and see just about everyone who was in a band in Sydney that wasn't working that night.
“We were like a band’s band on one level. But we were also a very working class band, so we could we appealed to the guy on the street or girl on the street equally.”
The crowds would show up in numbers, and they would show up determined to make an impact. Venues soon knew that hosting an X show wasn’t like hosting any other band. Some were prepared to wear the consequences, many weren’t.
“There were venues that hosted us once only, because there wasn't anything left of the venue after we finished playing,” Lucas recalls. “There were some venues that, even though the place was destroyed, they still did so well over the bar that they’d have us back and just refurbish once a week.
“People would climb up drain pipes and smash windows to get in for nothing. People used to carve Xs in broken glass on their arms to prove their devotion. It was kinda sick on some levels, but it was kind of endearing. Not the carving itself, but the actual devotion of some of the people was very endearing.
"It was chaos and it was dangerous at times. But then other times it was oddly harmonious. When everyone was really there for the music and not to be part of a punk scene, it was one of the best night you could have out.”
Tragically, Ian Krahe passed away just months after the band’s first show. Losing a close friend and collaborator was a devastating personal blow for Lucas, prompting him to reconsider the band’s future.
“We thought we'd do one gig as a memorial and we got Geoff Holmes to play guitar,” he recalls. “Apart from the absolute woe of Ian Krahe not being there, it still sounded kinda like X, so we stumbled from one gig to the next and kinda found our feet again.”
From there came multiple line up changes, plenty of wild live shows and a true Australian classic album in 1980’s X-Aspirations. X eventually became a three-piece in the late-‘70s and have remained so ever since, but Krahe’s influence never truly dissipated.
“The loss was horrible,” Lucas says. “I kinda wanted to be him. Well, not be him, but try to absorb his characteristics. I used to notice the way I’d write, after he died, resembled his writing. Just subtle things to keep him alive. I don't think you do it consciously, you do it unconsciously.
“After a while you accept it. I don't know if it fades or it becomes so much a part of you that you don't notice so much anymore. But I carry him with me. Still, after 40 years, something is still around in my conscience.”
X-Citations: Best Of X 1977 – 1983, is a collection of 16 recordings from the early days of X, with the entire first side of the record dedicated to the original four-piece line up. They are brash, energetic and angry cuts of garage rock fury that paint a thrilling picture of the band in their earliest incarnation.
Side two shows how the band evolved as new members came and went, but once it’s all over, there’s still plenty of the band’s story left to tell.
Eventually, Lucas wants to release more compilations of X material that brings in performances from members of the band who came later, or who he couldn’t source recordings of for this collection.
“I hadn't planned any of this,” he says of the archival releases. “But, as it develops and it as a grows people who have been sitting on [rare X recordings] for 30-40 years suddenly decide they're gonna tell me that had them all this time. I do intend to make sure everyone gets their moment in the sun.”
We used to be banned from 32 gigs in Sydney alone, you’d be lucky to count 32 now.Steve Lucas, X
Another part of the 40 year anniversary celebration of X is a national tour, which sees Lucas tour with Hunters & Collectors’ Doug Falconer on drums and Kim Volkman (Love Addicts).
“I finally feel comfortable enough in my own skin to say, ‘Yeah, I am X, so whoever I choose songs they were that you know is X’.
“Because I've got a great rhythm section, it means I can do my best. I don't have to waste time worrying about if anyone's losing the plot or missing the feel.
“The general consensus from the last two gigs we've done is it's the best X line up that's been around for a long, long, long, long time. That's not me saying that, that's what people are telling me. That's coming from people who have known the band for a long time – 30, 40 years – so it must be good.”
The key question when approaching an anniversary like this is always pretty simple: does anyone care? Lucas says the audiences at their first couple of shows have suggested the band are still relevant, both musically and from a social and political standpoint.
“It's good to know that the music still touches people and it's good to know that I'm still physically capable of doing it. But it's also interesting to know that, politically, the music is as relevant as ever as a social commentary.
"The only depressing thing about it is how little has changed socially in the last 40 years, apart from the decline of numbers of people attending gigs these days. And, in Sydney's case, the lack of gigs pretty much all together. We used to be banned from 32 gigs in Sydney alone, you’d be lucky to count 32 now.”
Lucas is quick to acknowledge the cynicism that often surrounds these kinds of tours. He is determined to honour his band’s legacy, not cash in on it, and he says the support of fans is key to making this a special celebration of the badn’s music and the members no longer with us.
“If anyone ever has any doubts that the music has lost anything, they shouldn't. They should come and have a look before they make any judgments. I know it's an easy thing to do, especially if you were a fan of someone, but it's not like I've gone around and sacked people from the original line up. It has just gone the way it's gone because of fate. I am doing everything I can to make it as real as possible. The more faith they give me, the more the band gives back to them.”
Catch X at the following dates:
Saturday 29 July – The Triffid, Brisbane
Thursday 3 August – Mojo’s, Fremantle
Friday 4 August – Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Saturday 5 August – The Gov, Adelaide