X Stood Alone
X marked the spot where Australian rock & roll found its most distinctive voices.
Looks like it’s all over now? Ian Rilen’s passing last year has left the Australian stage a poorer place, but the legacy of X endures. Aztec Music has just reissued the band’s second album from 1985, At Home With You, featuring the classic line-up of Ian Rilen, Steve Lucas and Cathy Green, produced by the late Lobby Loyde and engineered by Tony Cohen, larrikin rockers all. This juggernaut of a CD comes with a bonus unreleased live set recorded at Melbourne’s Prince of Wales in 1985, making it as fine a document of the brutal wonder of X as has ever hit the shelves.
I’m a fan – never loved a band more, in fact. If you’ve only ever heard X on record you’re probably wondering why the band inspires such devotion. Well, it’s the songs, the singer, the rhythm section and the delivery – bawdy riffs and ear-shredding melodies bashed out on the downstroke in a no-holds-barred fashion – but more than that there’s something vulnerable about the rawness of X’s performances. Something naked, truthful and human.
In the interviews that I separately conducted with X’s Ian Rilen and Steve Lucas back in March 2003 (for a magazine that went bust prior to publication), all of these qualities are apparent. Both were open, unpretentious and self-effacing in their conversation, recounting the bands often-tragic history with a wink, a smile and an upraised middle finger. That Ian Rilen and Lobby Loyde are no longer with us, only four short years later, is something that I have trouble coming to terms with.
Ian, your battered Fender Telecaster bass is as much weapon of mass destruction as musical instrument. I’m told there is a bit of a story behind how you got that guitar?
I used to drink with this guy who played and he needed some money immediately because he had a hot tip on a horse. I’d had a bass guitar before, a shitty one, but I didn’t have one at the time. So he showed me this Telecaster and said, “You can have it for $200”. And Telecaster basses have never been that popular, they’re a bit of a well-kept secret. So I ran home and got all the money I had, which I think was about $90, and when I got back he said, “Fine, give me the rest later”.
And did his horse come in?
I don’t know but the bloke actually robbed a bank later on that same week and was never seen again. I think he got deported or something. So it was a bit of a bargain for $90.
You had success with Band of Light and Rose Tattoo before getting together with some much younger musicians to form X. What made you decide to trade in the level of success you’d already earned to play with a bunch of youngsters in a garage rock band?
“We kicked harder than anyone else, played louder – it was amazing, to us and them.”
Just the music we played. It sounded amazing, right from the word go. My songwriting had turned around a bit and [Rose Tattoo’s vocalist] Angry Anderson and I didn’t see eye to eye on what I’d been doing. This drummer that Rose Tattoo auditioned – but who didn’t get the gig because he was too much of a hippie – he kept hounding me, telling me about these two young guitar players who were fantastic, Geoff Holmes and Ian Krahe. I’d got jack of Rose Tattoo and had my bass rig and everything at home. So this drummer told me that these two young guys had a band called Evil Rumours and were having a blow at a church hall in Balmain. So I went over and met these two guys, and their drummer Ed Fisher; they had never played with a bass player before. But I showed them my songs and they just tore the place to pieces. I left Rose Tattoo straight away. There were a few songs I brought to the party but basically we started writing together immediately. I walked in, started pounding away and then Ian Krahe put his unique noise on top and we were off. When I had my first play with them, Steve Lucas was just hanging around – a big tall skinny bloke with fleas and no shoes on. I think he was chasing Ian Krahe’s girlfriend around while we were rehearsing. I left the Tatts, joined Evil Rumours, who we then renamed X. But then about a month later we had a falling out and split in half, with Ian Krahe and me going one way and Ed and Geoff going the other. Then we found out about this big ex-cop [Steve Cafiero] who was a drummer and we had a play with him and he was fucking amazing. And then Ian decided that his mate Steve, who he said was a really good singer, should get involved. X just gelled from there.
Some X shows - at the Paris Theatre, the Bondi Lifesaver, the Civic, and later as a three-piece with residencies at the Stagedoor Tavern and the Heritage Hotel – are spoken of with awe by those who were there. What was so exciting about these gigs?
Those gigs were really special because the band was really special. We kicked harder than anyone else, played louder – it was amazing, to us and them. For instance we’d have a break from playing shows and then come back and play a new song like ‘TV Glue’ and it was like it was a hypnotic anthem. People from all over the hotel would be drawn into the sound. People seemed to need a release and we were it. I tell you what else made the band special – we were loose and a bit out-there, in all ways. It sort of gave the audience a rush of… uncertainty. We’d take a song so far out there, always on the edge and the crowd would think, “They’re not going to make it, it’s all got to fall apart”. And we’d increase the intensity and – BANG – back we’d come together and it’d just hit them so hard.
Can you describe what a typical X show was like back then?
Well our fans always brought extra people, ripe for conversion. We’d have a niche of followers but each show would see some new faces arriving with them. Our supporters would be there, hoping we’d be great so that we’d convert the people they’d brought with them! And we usually did. But there was that uncertainty because of that edge we’d reach while playing – y’know, like could Steve’s lungs even hold out or would he collapse from the exertion? A few times Steve had to fall off stage and put his face into a bag to breathe, just to get his lungs back to normal after the sheer physical effort.
X had a reputation for attracting mayhem and violence to gigs. Why do you think this was?
The audiences were always packed to the rafters, hanging out the windows, and they would get crazy. But the only time there was ever any violence it wasn’t our regular crowd, but a bunch of skinheads who liked us as well. They were agro dickheads. There was just one gig we did where the skinheads rocked up and caused lots of violence, at a show in a warehouse in Newtown. There was no security and it was packed – my wife got bashed in the face by some skinhead chick and I didn’t see it even though she was standing only three or four feet from me, that’s how crowded this gig was – chock-a-block. And the skinheads just pushed their way through the audience beating up the young punks. But, even though it was only one gig, that reputation stuck. Later on in one of the local music magazines, I think it was RAM, there were photos from that show of guys with blood on their faces and broken noses, with the headline, “X – Violence in the City”. So that didn’t look too good. We got labeled as a band that incites trouble. And we couldn’t get gigs for a long time after that.
Now you’ve said you had a lot of punks at those shows, even though I believe you never considered X a “punk” band, just a hard rock & roll band. But in a way you were stuck between both camps, doing shows with mainstream pub rockers like Cold Chisel and Rose Tattoo, as well as punk bands like the Psychosurgeons and the Hellcats. Who did you actually feel more of an affinity with?
No-one really. I liked doing shows with The Flaming Hands but then again I had the hots for the lead singer, so that probably had something to do with it! We preferred playing with bands that came up from Melbourne, the local punk bands were pretty wimpy with that [makes a noise like “rinky-dink”] style. The Melbourne punks were a bit more impressive, more energy. Our thing was playing on the downstroke, as fast as you could go on the downstroke, so we’d punch out our sound. And so listening to that safe strumming that most bands did, it just didn’t impress us. You can play as fast as you like but that’s pretty easy; to actually punch out that X sound on the downstroke was physical, very labouring and it had a different effect on the audience, on their bodies. It was an intense feel, a groove that punched hard.
It was as a trio that you recorded the classic 1980 debut X-Aspirations, in only five hours? How did you meet Lobby Loyde, who produced that and the later albums, and what was your relationship with him like?
I don’t know how Lobby and I originally met but we’d been friends for a long time. He moved over to London for years. We couldn’t get in a studio and no one who could put us in one seemed to care that much about what we were doing. But when Lobby came back he said, “Fuck, I think you guys are great” and he organised some studio time and off we went. We had tried to record something with Charles Fisher, who worked with Radio Birdman, and he had felt we might be the Next Big Thing. So he sent a guy around with a 4-track to record some songs to see how we brushed up on tape. He must have thought, “Oh yeah, not bad”, ‘cause he asked us to go in with him to Trafalgar Studios – the same studio we eventually recorded our debut album in anyway – but Fisher then said, “No, go away, come back when you’ve got a hit single written”. And we thought, “No, you can sit on that mate.” Then Lob came along and in we went again.
What do you remember about recording the album?
I remember Lucas struggling and battling with his guitar, but going off and making a great go of it. And on one song – I can’t remember which one now – by the time it ended during recording there were only two strings left on that guitar. But it still sounded OK so we ended up using it anyway. That record was a big challenge for Steve, who was just learning how to play after Ian Krahe died. It was physically impossible to play guitar the way Ian Krahe did and to sing the way Steve does at the same time, we had to dump a bunch of songs that we knew and come up with some that suited this new three-piece sound. Later of course, after Steve had been playing for a few years, those old songs came back in again.
How did you go about promoting and selling a totally independent record in Australia back then, without any record company support?
I don’t really remember too much about it. A guy called Bob Nimmo helped us, other people too. Later I remember finding a carton of 100 or so albums and sharing them with Steve, a fucking goldmine we thought. I’ve long since sold all of mine, I wonder if Steve has?
Other bands like The Saints and Radio Birdman were starting to make a bit of noise overseas. Did it give you the shits that bands that you could easily match, if not better, were getting that kind of attention?
I think a lot of our lack of success of that kind was down to us. We were a bit lazy. Or it was bad timing. When Cathy [Green, drummer 1984 -2000] joined the band we were really hot to travel, but Steve had just had a baby. He wasn’t keen to spend every cent we had going to the States and then to come back with the arse hanging out of his pants. Y’know, I’m still a bit the same way. Not lazy, just that kind of thing’s a job for someone else. If touring or whatever doesn’t get sorted out I’m just not the man to do it. I co-write the songs and play them. If someone else has the ability to take those songs and the band somewhere, then great. But if no one comes along going, “Right, let’s do this and do that and here’s the plan”, then I’m not interested.
At a recent gig, you and Lucas were laughing about your 25-year dysfunctional “marriage” together. How turbulent has it been between you?
[Laughs] Well, pretty turbulent but we don’t want to get too personal. A lot of shit can go down in 25 years, for a lot of different reasons. We’ve managed to stay together for all this time, despite our differences, because we don’t live in each other’s pockets. In the early days, we lived in the same houses and hung out together, like all snotty young rock bands do. But as the years progressed, Steve and I kind of kept our lives separate from each other, in lots of ways. Steve was more settled than me, living a different kind of life. We’d often give each other the shits – “Lucas is a fucking prick”, “Rilen’s an arsehole”, that kind of thing – but when we’d meet up and play a gig, we were brothers. So X could keep rolling. Our sense of humour is the same too, that helps.
Are you surprised after 25 years to still be playing a bunch of songs you wrote a lifetime ago?
Not really, they still work. X is not the kind of thing where we have to sit down together wondering, “What on earth are we going to do now?” I prefer to take a real back seat in X for that kind of thing – if Steve says we should do something, I’ll generally be up for it. I’ve been down in Melbourne for the last few weeks and I kept getting these urgent calls from Steve, saying, “We’ve got to talk about this” and “We’ve got to plan that”. I said, “What do you want me to say, yes or no?” He said, “Yes”, so I said, “OK, yes”. End of story. Steve’s a very generous person, at the same time he’s very astute, very sharp. So if he’s ready to sign something I know I don’t even have to read it, I’ll just sign it. If he says yes to something, I know it’s good for both of us.
What do you think the biggest misconception about the band has been?
[Long pause] I’ve always been classed as unmanageable, unreliable and a total pisshead who fucks things up, that kind of thing. And sometimes that might have been slightly true, but it never gets in the way of the shows. I live to play. We might have fucked up one or two gigs over 25 years but our critics, in the straight side of the industry, prefer to talk about those one-offs than the hundreds of good shows. I suppose X is a bit inaccessible, as far as radio and mainstream music goes, but the Australian music industry really didn’t want us, we didn’t get any help there. But maybe that’s because for the first few years we spent a lot of our time putting shit on them, in our songwriting and our interviews. In the early days we just didn’t want to know about the industry, I’d already been through years of that political bullshit. In X, we really enjoyed not being accepted – that was part of our attraction too, I think.
And you welcomed your status as outsiders?
Yeah, it was easy – we didn’t have to try to get that reputation. X stood alone.
Can you tell me about the first time you met and played with Ian Rilen in 1977?
I think I sort of walked out on the session. I thought it was a little brutal – unnecessarily brutal – having just come down from my peaceful hippie existence in Armidale. Ian turned up with his fur coat inside-out and his lipstick and eyeliner – more of a glam Rose Tattoo look. Y’know if you’re going to dye your hair and wear make-up it’s still pretty glam, no matter how tough you are! I was into more melodic type of stuff then and I wasn’t sure if I could sing this new stuff. But then [guitarist] Ian Krahe rang me up and said, “Look there’s this drummer, he used to be a cop and he’s fat and he’s awesome and you should come along and sing.”
Yeah. That line-up just immediately went “click”; we rehearsed for three weeks and did our first show at the Bondi Astra. And I remember getting to Bondi and saying, “Come on you guys, let’s go for a swim!” That’s how naive and innocent I still was! [laughs] So I go down there bodysurfing and come the time of the gig my ears are full of water and sand, so I was struggling just to hear. Swimming in salt water always closes your throat up, too. And my jeans were torn so I had to go up to a real punk and borrow a safety pin! From one of the guys in Johnny Dole & The Scabs. So I think that was when I crossed over to punk, when I needed a safety pin!
And before you knew it you were writing slogans on your jeans?
Yeah, that’s right, “Hate City” and “I Hate You” and “Fuck Off”. Cool, huh? And so that was our first gig: playing to a half dozen Maoris and a few hardcore punks who liked the big, red X symbol on our posters. And then the second gig we did was at the Paris Theatre with Cold Chisel and Rose Tattoo. That was a pretty big crowd for our second gig. Then we started doing things like the Unicorn in Paddington, the White Horse Hotel in Newtown, the Settlement…
X are kind of portrayed as outsiders, independent of both the late ’70s Australian pub rock circuit and the punk scene – even though on occasion you’d gig with bands from both sides of this divide. Who did you feel an affinity with? Which bands did you respect, personally and musically?
No-one! I thought Cold Chisel were… the day we played with them, Ian Krahe and I were side of stage laughing ourselves stupid at how shit we thought they were! I think Ian Krahe put it best, too, dismissing Rose Tattoo as being old men’s boogie. And the Radio Birdman crap was coming on at the time. We didn’t really like them either, they were just recycling an American thing. And most of the other punks were just Sex Pistols wannabes. If that was the model then we weren’t real trashy punks because we actually liked playing rock & roll, but harder, faster and a little weirder. We didn’t fit in with anyone. We stood alone. The Saints, all those people, they didn’t want to know. Midnight Oil point blank refused to do gigs with us at one stage.
But is that because of the reputation you had for attracting mayhem and violence to your shows? How did that reputation come about?
Someone just turned up one day and went off. Then a few others joined in and then I think other people just followed, thinking “Well, that must be what they do here,” In those days the Sydney social life was vastly different from what it is now. Everyone knew everything about everyone, what was happening and what was not. Not just the fans, the press, the shops. Like when we put out X-Aspirations I’d walk into Anthem Records at the bottom of Town Hall Station with a box of LPs and say to Rob Younger, “Here’s another box” and take the money and toddle off to Angel Records and give them a box of 25 copies. It was a totally different vibe. So if someone trashed a place, word would go out and then everyone who ever wanted to trash a place would turn up at the next gig and have a place-smashing session and know that they’d be anonymous, because so many others were doing the same thing.
That must have made things very hard for you, as a band just starting, trying to find places you felt comfortable playing where you could also make a bit of money?
Yeah, we were banned from 32 different venues in the Sydney metropolitan area at one stage, yet were still playing regularly. We started hiring halls like Balmain Town Hall – sorted everything out ourselves.
Given the age gap between you, did that affect the band’s ambitions? Were you all in synch in terms of what you wanted to achieve?
“Being successful or unsuccessful has nothing to do with the fact that you might have told some people to get fucked or taken drugs.”I didn’t have any ambitions at the start so it didn’t make any difference to me. Ian Krahe really wanted to be someone, to do something important, but he did that whole James Dean/T-Rex number. He wanted to live hard and fast and he did [in May 1978]. I think Steve and Ian liked our naivety and we certainly liked their physical presence. Especially with Steve, who was like having this big, massively strong devoted older brother. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt us youngsters at all, he was very good like that. And Ian Rilen was really impressive too. He lived such an outrageous rock lifestyle – we couldn’t believe anyone actually lived like that. So there was plenty to learn from their attitude. And we hadn’t been processed as much, Ian and Steve wanted to break from what they’d experienced before and we gave them some leeway to do that.
X secured residencies at places like the Stagedoor Tavern, the Whitehorse and the Heritage Hotel, gigs which are spoken of in awe by those who were there – what was so exciting about these shows?
At the Stagedoor, the place would be rammed and you’d be looking out from the stage at this ecstatic mob. It sounded like shit on stage half the time but out there, it’d be pretty intense. Ian used 400-watt heads with four 14-inch speakers on stage. Steve had arms bigger than my legs and he had muscles on his calves like ship rope and could just hammer away. My amp? Well, the sound guys would ask me to point it across the stage, they just couldn’t stand the sound of it! I’d be screaming my guts out, hyperventilating, falling backwards like Johnny Ray. But crazy crowds – we got such an extreme response. The beginning of extreme sport was going to an X gig I think! It was really good, really funny, but scary, too.
Well, like the time I got all my teeth knocked out when someone threw themselves at the microphone stand. Or there’d be so much smoke and I’d be screaming so loud and suddenly there’d literally be no air left around me to breathe. I remember going completely numb down the left side of my body, I thought I was having a stroke! But then you’d go to a gig like we did at the Petersham Inn after Steve Cafiero died [in December 1988]. There were so many people in there and it was so hot that all the moisture was rising off people and condensing on the ceiling, so that it actually started to rain inside the pub. That’s not an exaggeration, it was actually raining. I still bump into people who mention to me that they were there the night it rained inside the pub! Also let’s not forget the Strawberry Hills too, those were great gigs. At the Heritage Hotel the owner got so sick of people smashing the toilets, first he put in stainless steel ones but then people ripped them out, too. In the end he just cemented them up! If you wanted to have a piss at the Heritage, you were in a spot of bother.
There are stories of Ian’s bass having a life of its own and just giving up at the end of a gig, unable to play anymore?
Ian’s bass was a neglected instrument so occasionally it would die in the arse. The thing is, if his bass went, his amp usually went too. Every time he’d bring the thing onstage it was touch and go, but he’d say, “No, no, it’s cool, I’ve fixed it”, with every roadie in the house looking on in fear for the next three hours.
Over the years, when I’ve spoken about X to music industry figures, they’ve always said something like, “Those guys were there own worst enemies.” Do you agree?
What, ‘cause we were uncompromising? No, because we took drugs, right? Oh fuck that, that’s so lame. How many bands are there that have had fucked up members? Look at the Rolling Stones, look at anyone! Most bands are mad or on drugs. Everyone, from The Go-Betweens to Led Zeppelin, they’ve all been off their heads. Being successful or unsuccessful has nothing to do with the fact that you might have told some people to get fucked or taken drugs. Why was it fine for Nick Cave to have been smacked off his tits or whatever, but with us it’s the “reason behind our failure”?
When I first heard Nirvana’s Bleach I thought it sounded like X – Kurt Cobain’s vocal delivery especially reminded me of you. Do you resent that younger bands have found such huge acclaim with a sound that bands such as X helped develop?
It doesn’t worry me at all. The only reason bands become successful is that they really want to be somebody. If you really want to become a star, it’s probably easier to become one than to not become one. With us, Ian wanted to become a star but not enough to cover his tracks. With me, there was never a real need to go overseas or do some of the things that we probably needed to do if we were going to go to that next level. I still don’t care about “being someone”, or 25 years later, being famous. That’s not the issue. I really like playing X music. I like playing music with other people too. I like writing songs, but once I’ve written them and played them and if people like them, that’s generally enough.
Are you surprised after 25 years to still be playing a bunch of songs you wrote a lifetime ago?
Actually yes and no. I don’t think it’s too sentimental to say that when you’ve been playing for 25 years, you have intimate connections with people’s lives. I’ve had people come up to me and say they saw the band 25 years ago and met their future wife, that the songs track their lives, their relationships, the births and deaths. They say their lives would have been very different without X’s music and thank me. And that’s more gratifying than any album sales or magazine covers.
Is that the reason you and Ian continue to play together that family-like chemistry?
Ian and I have a classic love/hate relationship. When we’ve got the shits with each other, there’s nobody we hate more in the world. But when we love each other, nothing touches that. I can go without seeing Ian for years but we’ll rehearse and within seconds, our harmonies and timing are there straight away. And that’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted but it is very precious. People say to me, “After all these years and Ian’s done this and that, how can you possibly still play with him?” And the answer is when I’m playing, I’m not just playing with Ian, I’m playing with the music. X music supercedes all the personal shit, the emotional shit, the financial stuff, the philosophical stuff – that all takes a backseat. ‘Cause he’s playing his bass and I know exactly what I need to do to make my playing work with it. And when we sing I know our voices will just slot together. I’ve played with lots of other people and am always consciously aware of doing it. But with Ian, the playing just happens, it locks in. We don’t even have to think with X, the music just locks in and takes over us.