I first heard X’s music in the early 1990s – I always mixed them up with Billy Idol’s Generation X band, and I found John Doe’s non-name pseudonym to be confusing the first few times I read it in print. That said, everything I heard and read left an impression, and by the time I took my first deep dive into the music, I was ready for a baptism.
My breakthrough introduction to X and their music was a friend’s VHS copy of the 1986 documentary X: The Unheard Music. By the time I saw that film, the band had already broken up – or had they? X’s last studio album, Hey Zeus!, was released in 1993, but they’ve continued to issue live recordings, singles and compilations. The band was recently in Nashville playing a show at the City Winery to celebrate 40 years of music-making. The Belcourt Theatre’s Music City Monday screening of their classic documentary this week is a loving tribute as well as a great opportunity for the uninitiated to partake of X’s poetic, revved-up, West Coast punk.
The band was founded in the late 1970s, but it’s their 1980 debut album, Los Angeles, that cemented X’s identity as the quintessential L.A. punk band before the heyday of hair metal. Compared to their NYC contemporaries, X were a bit like the Ramones with Patti Smith – Billy Zoom’s pompadour and guitar hero posing threw back to the same 1950s rock ‘n’ roll the Ramones evoked with their black leather jackets. Along with singer/songwriter/bassist John Doe, Excene Cervenka’s lyrics and distinctive vocals called upon the same poetic spirits that Smith was summoning in New York, making X a band with both beauty and brains to match the boyish bombast being blasted along by drummer extraordinaire D.J. Bonebreak.
Director W.T. Morgan’s rockumentary gives us the band roaring onstage before introducing the members through a montage of sound, images and voice overs that tells an origin story of musician want ads and drunken introductions that led to the formation of the band. Morgan’s movie took five years to make and it documents most of X’s core career between 1980-1985. Nowadays it’s still an exciting movie to watch because the music – its spirited intensity – and the band’s fervent performances on film remain undiminished in the 21st century. And Morgan’s capturing of these compelling characters on and off stage smartly mirrors Cervenka’s poetic, imagistic rhythms, and even uses Cervenka’s verses in voice over as a kind of narrative commentary on the punk proceedings.
Morgan also uses silent film tropes, and stock footage picturing Los Angeles in the 1950s to play with both Hollywood’s image as a land of dream-making, and LA’s reputation as a kind of sun-kissed paradise. He contrasts these takes on tinsel town with early 1980s footage of former clubs like The Masque where X started out – the underground dive that was drenched in graffiti before being shut down by a litany of municipal departments concerned about public safety.
What separates X and this film from the predictable punk pack is the diversity of influences that inform the band and their music: Zoom is a multi-instrumentalist who’s just as comfortable jazzing it up on a clarinet as he is shredding his guitar. Bonebreak approaches his intricate drum parts more like a classical composer than a crash-bang rocker – thankfully such thoughtful percussing never impedes his merciless snare-smashing. Cervenka and Doe met at a poetry workshop, and one scene Nashvillians will take note of finds the pair crooning Hank Williams classics like “Honky Tonk Blues” and “Ramblin’ Man.”
But the thing I love most about X is their intense, propulsive rock, and this film is at its best when it captures the band slamming through their set onstage. The Doors keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, produced X’s first four albums, and while X never really sounds like The Doors, both bands created a unique brand of dark, poetic rock while holding a mirror up to the City of Angels. Both bands were also famous for intense, risk-taking live performances, and Morgan’s decision to spend five years working with the band likely had a lot to do with their being so inherently cinematic. Of course, this documentary is also informed by the insightful commentary of the eloquent artists who created this wild, beautiful music. Did you have a good world when you died? – enough to base a movie on?
(X: The Unheard Music played the Belcourt Theatre’s Music City Monday, May 15.)
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.