meta-scriptCity On Fire: X's Explosive Debut Album 'Los Angeles' At 40 | GRAMMY.com
City On Fire: X's Explosive Debut Album 'Los Angeles' At 40

X in 1980; (L-R): Billy Zoom, DJ Bonebrake, Exene Cervenka and John Doe

Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

 

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City On Fire: X's Explosive Debut Album 'Los Angeles' At 40

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of 'Los Angeles,' the Recording Academy chatted with the journalists, creatives and artists impacted by the classic punk album and its groundbreaking creators, X

GRAMMYs/Apr 27, 2020 - 07:01 am

Many misconstrue punk rock as a simple, bare sound: three guitar chords, screamed vocals, straightforward basslines and thrashing drums, all jumbled together and played at breakneck speeds across short, two-minute songs. Indeed, punk's DIY ethos did open a threshold for an everyman and everywoman musician to participate, and in many instances, succeed. But the impact of the sound and scene spans far beyond all those preconceived restraints. With Los Angeles, their 1980 debut album, punk icons X pushed the genre's boundaries while defying them all at once. 

X, the legendary Los Angeles quartet, are considered by many music and rock historians as the band that put L.A.'s punk subculture on the map. While the punk scene in New York City had already gained major momentum by the time they formed in 1977, X quickly became the West Coast's answer to pioneering acts like Television, the Ramones and Patti Smith, establishing Los Angeles on equal footing as its East Coast counterpart. Once X released Los Angeles, there were no questions asked about the validity of their hometown's punk presence.

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On Los Angeles, X combine a hodgepodge of elements and sounds rarely heard or seen in punk. Founding member and guitarist Billy Zoom brought his background in rockabilly, blues and R&B into play, while D.J. Bonebrake added crushing drum patterns. (The album, produced by original The Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, feature lots of psychedelic organs, too.) The true magic of Los Angeles, and of X in general, lives within the male-female dynamic of bassist/vocalist John Doe and punk-poet Exene Cervenka, who together wrote the majority of the band's songs and lyrics. 

Like the burning X-shaped figure on the album's cover, Los Angeles depicted the eponymous city and society on fire. X, whose members were all non-native Angelenos, except for Bonebrake, encapsulated the underbelly of Los Angeles. Album standout "Sex And Dying In High Society" talks of the city's upper-class indecency, while the title track highlights the city's racism and homophobia. 

"[The album is] the uneasy soundtrack of Los Angeles, with its songs about dashed dreams amid the palm trees and mountains," Mitch Schneider, founder and partner at music and lifestyle publicity firm, SRO PR, who worked with X in the '90s, told the Recording Academy.

Released 40 years ago today (April 26), Los Angeles has since been recognized as one of punk's best albums and immortalized as one of Rolling Stone's greatest albums of all time—in any genre. 

As for X, the band continues to pummel through the noise: This week (April 22), they surprise-released Alphabetland, their eighth studio album and their first full-length in 27 years. 

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Los Angeles, the Recording Academy chatted with the journalists and creatives who were on the scene when the album first hit and talked to the new wave of artists who have since been inspired by the iconic release.

The quotes and comments used in this feature were edited for clarity and brevity.

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What was your first memory of X and Los Angeles?

Mitch Schneider (founder/partner at music and lifestyle publicity firm, SRO PR; his previous company, MSO PR, represented X for the band's 1995 live album, Unclogged): Having first seen X at the NYC club Hurrah in November 1978 and then countless times after that after I moved to Los Angeles in January 1979, it was absolutely exhilarating to hear that they got it right with their debut album. I just played it over and over again in my apartment on Norton Avenue in West Hollywood. I still believe it's one of the top 10 debut albums in rock history, a list that also includes the debut album by The Velvet Underground. It's the uneasy soundtrack of Los Angeles, with its songs about dashed dreams amid the palm trees and mountains. I am still haunted by the characters in "Johny Hit And Run Paulene" and "Sex And Dying In High Society."

Robert Christgau (a rock critic since 1967, Christgau writes weekly or more for his own part-subscription, part-free newsletter And It Don't Stop at Substack; he originally reviewed Los Angeles in early 1981; in the year it was released, the album ranked in Pazz & Jop, the annual music poll he created during his tenure as chief music critic and senior editor for New York City alt-weekly, The Village Voice): My brief as a Village Voice critic-editor who started pumping punk in 1975 and published a monthly Consumer Guide of 20 letter-graded album reviews was to home in on any major American punk LP. But for most of 1980, I was on leave, immersed 16-18 hours a day in finalizing my first Consumer Guide collection. So while I must have played it a little, I don't recall it the way I do, for instance, checking out Grandmaster Flash's "The Birthday Party." 

But in early '81, when I annotated the Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll with capsule reviews of my favorite albums of 1980, I began thusly: "From poet-turned-chanteuse Exene to junk-guitar journeyman Billy Zoom, these aren't mohawked NME-reading truants who think Darby Crash is God or the Antichrist. They're sexy thrift-shopping bohos who think Charles Bukowski is Norman Mailer or Henry Miller."

Mike Berault (keyboardist for Southern California ska/pop/punk band Bite Me Bambi and co-host of Mixtape Mixtape Podcast; his previous band, LP3 & The Tragedy, toured with X on the group's 40th anniversary tour in 2017): I remember I watched The Decline Of Western Civilization [1981 documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene], and I saw John Doe giving tattoos in the dressing room before their gig with a needle; this was during the AIDS scare when I saw it. I thought to myself, "These guys are so fucking punk!"

Drea Doll (guitarist/vocalist for all-female punk rock trio The Venomous Pinks): I was first introduced to Los Angeles and X through The Decline Of Western Civilization music documentary. I was 17 at the time, and I found myself at a party with a bunch of punk rockers. The song "Nausea" blasted through the opening scene. I was completely mesmerized by Billy Zoom's guitar riff and the dueling vocals. The unique sound shook my core and woke me as a young musician.

Read: Meet Armageddon Records, The Record Store-Turned-Label For Punks And Metalheads

What is it about Los Angeles that's allowed it to cross so many generations throughout the decades?

Mitch Schneider (SRO PR): I think music fans are still amazed by how the band synthesized their influences into a completely unique sound. There are the breakneck tempos of the Ramones, the virtuosic rockabilly riffs, the off-kilter male-female vocal sound that's rooted in Jefferson Airplane and the Beat-Generation-inspired lyrics. It's an unbeatable and mind-blowing combination of sound and vision.

Mike Berault (Bite Me Bambi/Mixtape Mixtape Podcast): The songs are as fresh and relevant today as they were when they were released. X proved that punk rock could have a relevancy as a genre on its own, like rock or jazz. Until this point, if you thought of punk rock, you probably thought of the [Sex] Pistols, the Ramones or any number of [L.A.] bands: Germs, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, FEAR, Middle Class, etc. X took a step away from what we were coming to know as a "punk" band. They taught us that the songs could be longer than a minute-and-a-half, could have meaningful lyrics [and be] dynamic, with different parts and tempos. X is real, not that the others weren't. They didn't necessarily have an axe to grind. They were describing their real lives, and that kind of honesty is timeless. 

Drea Doll (The Venomous Pinks): The diverse approach with their songwriting is what really makes this album so genuine. It's punk, but it also has rockabilly, early country and Americana nuances. There is truly something on this album for everyone. [The title track] "Los Angeles" is an original punk reflection of what was going on in the world in 1980 that still holds truth today. At the time, so many L.A. bands were staying with the same approach by playing straight-up thrash punk rock. Contrastingly, X stood out by unapologetically incorporating different genres. In between experimenting with various musical elements, they still maintained just as much passion and aggression as the run-of-the-mill "hardcore" band.

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While X were considered punk pioneers, they also flirted with diverse sonic elements like rockabilly and country. In what ways did Los Angeles define and defy what punk was "supposed" to sound like?

Robert Christgau: Like The Blasters, who nobody mistook for a punk band, and Gun Club, who some did, X went against the grain of the D.C./Minor Threat-inspired avant-anarchistic notions of L.A. punk typified by Black Flag and Germs. Their taste for the roots genres both John and Exene spent their rather different individual careers pursuing began with their 1985 hookup with The Blasters' rhythm section to form the less-than-memorable Knitters. But in X's great period, which I don't think survived John and Exene's 1985 divorce, it was their transmuted fondness for folkish forms that made their songwriting stand out.

Mike Berault (Bite Me Bambi/Mixtape Mixtape Podcast): Los Angeles put it out there that punk can be anything—it was an art form unto itself. It was OK to have organ/keys on the record. It was OK to have rockabilly guitar licks. It was OK to have pop hooks and poetic lyrics and the harmonies-melodic with a street punk sensibility.

X rose from the Los Angeles underground punk subculture yet they are considered one of the city's quintessential bands, regardless of genre. In what ways are X and Los Angeles representative of their hometown?

Robert Christgau: I wouldn't say X are seen as quintessentially L.A. the way The Beach Boys or the Eagles are, because they made no attempt to be smooth or escapist. Theirs is the L.A. of noir novelists like Chandler and Mosley—an L.A. where getting high isn't always a trip, where the rich tell ugly lies of their own as they make the most of capitalism's ugliest secret: the myth of trouble-free material comfort for everyone.

Mitch Schneider (SRO PR): The music is an honest depiction of Los Angeles. Alongside the physical beauty and wealth of the city, there's an underbelly of financial desperation and dreams that went awry. Don't be fooled by the blue ocean, the palm trees and the hills—there's a lot of desperation in L.A.

Mike Berault (Bite Me Bambi/Mixtape Mixtape Podcast): Opposite from the city itself, which reveals a grit with anything beyond a surface or tertiary glance, X gives you the grit first and then hits you with the beauty after and then judges you for not seeing it sooner. In many respects, that is very L.A. 

Read: From Punk Rocker To Motivational Speaker: The Surprising Evolution Of Angst

X were leaders in the first wave of the Los Angeles punk scene. What impact did X and Los Angeles leave on the city's punk scene and its overall music and artist community?

Drea Doll (The Venomous Pinks): X implemented their own attitude that screamed, "Take risks and do what you want". Punk rock is not about conforming to anyone's rules or standards, and this album demanded individualism. X defies what we think "punk" should sound like, and that is what truly makes them "punk". The early scene was communally collaborative. These early punk rock ethics laid down the foundation of today's scene.

Kelsey Goelz (Associate Curator at GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles; in 2017, she helped curate X: 40 Years Of Punk In Los Angeles, an exhibit celebrating the 40th anniversary of X): One of my favorite moments during the installation process [of the X exhibit] was following John Doe as he paced along a row of framed photographs in our gallery. While I took furious notes, he rattled off stories from the band's late-'70s/early-'80s beginnings. I was astonished at the level of detail he recalled so easily: identifying the exact L.A. street corner he stood on when a photo was taken or naming a now-closed concert venue from just a quick glance at its interior walls. These stories became the captions that accompanied each of those framed photos.

During the run of the exhibit, Exene and DJ participated in an education program for a visiting school group in the Museum's Clive Davis Theater. They spoke to the importance of having a supportive musical community, citing their early years among L.A.'s budding punk scene, and offered tips on songwriting and collaborating. It was amazing to watch a new generation interacting with, and becoming inspired by, these L.A. legends.

X were widely known for their literate songs and poetic lyrics, with punk-poets Exene Cervenka and John Doe heralded as some of the best lyricists and songwriters in the punk genre. Los Angeles, for example, lyrically paints a vivid snapshot of the city—scars, scabs, warts and all. What did Los Angeles say about the state of the city itself and the wider American society at the time of its release in April 1980?

Robert Christgau:"Scars, scabs and warts" are their specialty, and good for them. Los Angeles is darker, thematically, than anything to emerge from NYC punk—Ramones, Voidoids, Heartbreakers, whatever. Sure, I prefer John Prine, who's funnier and more measured. But there ought to be brutally frightening songs about rape like "Johny Hit And Run Paulene," even if the slam dancers don't know it. "Sex And Dying In High Society" is about what it says, and so is "Nausea." Not an upful song on the entire album.

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How has Los Angeles influenced your own music and art?

Mike Berault (Bite Me Bambi/Mixtape Mixtape Podcast): X gave me permission to create: Just create, and something will come out of it. You don't need to know how you are going to get there or where you are going—just stay on the path of creating and you will get something of value out of it. 

How would you explain the importance and legacy of Los Angeles to someone who's never heard it before?

Mitch Schneider (SRO PR): It's real, it's fearless, it's visceral, it's cerebral. It's original and utterly timeless. Art triumphs over commerciality in the end.

Read: The Ramones' Pioneering Punk Rock

Los Angeles celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. In your opinion, what will be the album's lasting legacy? 

Robert Christgau: To my ears, Los Angeles' lasting legacy is 1981's titanic masterpiece, Wild Gift, and 1983's excellent More Fun In The New World. Many believe that John and Exene then spent a lifetime making meaningful music separately, not counting reunion tours. But I say they were never better than when turning their painful frictions into noise and song.

Mike Berault (Bite Me Bambi/Mixtape Mixtape Podcast): After 40 years, I would say their lasting legacy has already been proven. Before X, punk bands, in my opinion, were considered disposable and adolescent—no pun intended. After X, the genre was one that demanded to be taken seriously and had artistic value beyond the fashion or politics of being punk. That kind of artistry doesn't come along often, where the culture, the fans and even the music business all have to respect that artist. That is why they are still celebrated today. 

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How Las Vegas Became A Punk Rock Epicenter: From When We Were Young To The Double Down Saloon
Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day performs a"not-so-secret" show at Las Vegas' Fremont Country Club

Photo: Fred Morledge 

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How Las Vegas Became A Punk Rock Epicenter: From When We Were Young To The Double Down Saloon

Viva Punk Vegas! It might have seemed unthinkable a decade ago, but Sin City is "the most punk city in the U.S." GRAMMY.com spoke with a variety of hardcore and legendary punks about the voracious vibe in Vegas that lends itself to punk spirit.

GRAMMYs/Oct 25, 2023 - 04:28 pm

These days, what happens in Vegas, slays in Vegas when it comes to the harder side of music.

It might have seemed unthinkable a decade ago, but as Fat Mike of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords has been putting out there for a while now, Sin City is basically "the most punk city in the U.S." at the moment. Some might find this statement debatable, but Vegas has long attracted subculture-driven gatherings, from Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekend to the all-metal Psycho Las Vegas to the mixed bag that was Las Rageous. The latest slate of huge punk and punk-adjacent music events (from Punk Rock Bowling and When We Were Young to the just-announced new lineup of Sick New World 2024) back his claim even further. 

Mike’s own Punk Rock Museum, which opened in April of this year, has cemented the city’s alternative music cred — even as it’s still best known for gambling, clubbing, and gorging at buffets. 

In fact, A lot of the audacious new activity is centered away from the big casinos and in the downtown area and arts district of what is known as "old Vegas." Just outside of the tourist-trappy, Times Square-like Fremont Experience, there’s a vibrant live music scene anchored by a few key clubs, and an ever-growing slate of fests.

*Attendees at 2022's When We Were Young Festival┃Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/FilmMagic*

Live Nation’s second annual When We Were Young Festival brought out a largely Millennial crowd to see headliners Green Day and blink-182 this past weekend, alongside over two dozen more recognizable openers from emo/pop-punk's heyday. Tickets sold so well when it was first announced, that a second day was added to the schedule.

Green Day didn’t stop with their fest gigs; the band played a "not-so-secret" pop-up show last Thursday night at one of the most popular venues in town for punk, alternative and heavy music: Fremont Country Club, just blocks from festival grounds. The show served as a warm-up gig as well as an announcement by Billie Joe Armstrong: His band will join Smashing Pumpkins, Rancid, and others for a 2024 stadium tour. The band also debuted a timely new track, "The American Dream Is Killing Me."  

Read More: Why 2002 Was The Year That Made Pop-Punk: Simple Plan, Good Charlotte & More On How "Messing Around And Being Ourselves" Became Mainstream

"People who like punk and other heavy music want to be in a club environment like ours, not a big casino," says Carlos "Big Daddy" Adley, owner of Fremont Country Club and its adjacent music space Backstage Bar & Grill. Both have become live music hotspots not unlike the ones Adley and his wife/partner Ava Berman ran in Los Angeles before they moved to Vegas over a decade ago. 

"Fremont East," as the neighborhood is called, will soon see a boutique hotel from the pair. Like everything they do, it will have a rock n’ roll edge that hopes to draw both visitors and locals.

*Outside Fremont Country Club┃Photo: Fred Morledge*

The duo told GRAMMY.com that a visit to Double Down Saloon, Sin City’s widely-recognized original punk bar and music dive was what first inspired them to come to Vegas and get into the nightlife business there. Double Down has been slinging booze (like Bacon Martinis and "Ass Juice" served in a ceramic toilet bowl mug) and booking live punk sounds since it opened back in 1992.

"It's kind of a stepping stone for a lot of bands," says Cameron Morat, a punk musician and photographer, who also works with the Punk Rock Museum as curator of its rockstar-led tour guide program. "People always assume that Vegas is just the strip, but that's only like four miles long. There's a lot more of the ‘‘other city.’ There are people who are just into music and into going to local shows who don't ever go to the main strip."

In addition to the Double Down, Morat says Vegas has always had a history of throwing local punk shows at spaces like the Huntridge Theater, which is currently being remodeled and set to re-open soon for local live music. He also points to The Usual Place as a venue popular with local punk and rock bands now, and The Dive Bar — a favorite with the mohawk, patched-up battle vest scene, featuring heavy music seven nights a week, including a night promoted by his partner Masuimi Max called Vegas Chaos.  

*Cameron Morat┃Photo: Kristina Markovich*

While glitzy stage shows from legacy artists and mega-pop hit makers like Usher, Elton John, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood, Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga still get the most media attention, raucous local shows are starting to factor into a new generation’s vacation planning, too.

"There’s a really good scene here," Morat proclaims. "It's funny because a lot of people, the sort of gatekeepers of punk, ask ‘why is the punk museum in Vegas?’ But it is a punk city, and not just because you've got all the local bands and the venues."

Read More: City On Fire: X's Explosive Debut Album Los Angeles At 40

Morat, whose own band Soldiers of Destruction, plays around town on occasion, also notes other acts such as Gob Patrol, Suburban Resistance, and Inframundo as having fierce local followings. He says there’s a certain voracious vibe in Vegas that lends itself to punk rock creation, performance and attitude. "A lot of the anger from punk rock — like the disparity of wealth, for instance, is here," he says. "Five minutes down the road, you've got people throwing away a million on the roll of a dice. But you've also got people who are doing like three jobs just trying to pay their rent." 

Over at the Punk Rock Museum, Morat, who moved from Los Angeles to Vegas about seven  years ago, is keeping busy booking big-name guests to share inspirations and war stories, both weekly, and specifically timed with whatever big festival or event happens to be in town. He says he wants to feature artists that might not be thought of as traditional punk rock, but who have relevant backgrounds and stories to share. 

"A lot of these people have punk history the public doesn’t know about," he says. "I think if we just stick to a very small well of people, it's going to get pretty boring. So I'm trying to open it up for a bigger cross-section." 

*Imagery from "Black Punk Now" | Ed Marshall*

The museum is already showing the breadth of punk rock’s influence on music in general. During WWWY, the museum held events tied to its new exhibit "Black Punk Now," curated by James Spooner, director of the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk. As Spooner spoke about the film’s 20th anniversary and his new book of Black punk authors, musicians playing the weekend’s festivities from Sum 41, MxPx, Bayside, Less Than Jake came through to talk too. Warped Tour’s Kevin Lyman and Fat Mike himself also took part in the museum’s new after-dark guided tour series.

Bringing in a wider audience and a new generation of rebellious kids who seek to channel their angst and energy into music is part of what the museum — and, it seems, the myriad of events in Las Vegas these days — is all about. Despite what some punk rock purists and gatekeepers might say, the inclusion of tangent bands and scenes is in the original punk spirit. He’ll be booking guests tied to next year’s Sick New World, the Viva Las Vegas rockabilly bash and even EDC in the future (electronic bangers are not unlike hardcore ones and even Moby was a punk before he became a DJ). 

"I think that the museum is great for the punk scene here," he adds. "People will literally come to town just to see the museum, and then if there's a band playing in town in the evening, they'll go. So it's broadening the support for all the bands, local and touring. Some punk bands used to skip Vegas completely on their tours, but not anymore." 

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

**Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?**

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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