Friday, January 6, 2012

DVD Review: X: The Unheard Music (The Silver Edition)

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

X: The Unheard Music (The Silver Edition)
Written and directed by W.T. Morgan
Angel City Media, 1986 / 2011
84 minutes, USD $16.95

The band X (aka X The Band), formed in 1977, was one of the greats to come out of the early SoCal hardcore punk scene for many reasons; for me, the most impressive was that while they their music was on the cutting edge in both sound and style, with biting, sarcastic and ironic lyrics, they were not hardcore. I would describe it more as rockabilly-punk, leaning more towards, say, the Blasters and early Cramps sounds than the Circle Jerks or Black Flag.

Like the Who, all performed their parts as lead: elder member Billy Zoom, a master at the six- and twelve-string (among other instruments), played like a house on fire, all the while a big smile was usually plastered on his face (some would say smugly, but I say even if so, why not?). Bassist and co-vocalist (and key songwriter, not to mention film actor, much like Henry Rollins) John Doe handled his ax with a strong hand; while not as fluent on it as Entwhistle (then again, who else is?), he had a solid command of it. His vocals are classic rock and roll, and yet unique enough to pick out of a crowd. No one would ever call Excene Cervenka a great singer, but of course, that’s what makes her such a great singer. Her slurred and whiney vocals are a key to the distinctive sound that is X. Her tortured artist / poet soul is a key component of the band. DJ Bonebrake is one of the better drummers (and avid xylophonist, as is demonstrated in this documentary), with his schoolboy charm looks and devil glint in his eyes. One amazing section of this film is when he taps three different rhythms at the same time with his hands and foot while standing in a kitchen. I’m happy enough just to tap my head and rub my stomach.

My first experience of X was the single “White Girl,” which ironically I heard just about the same time as the Vktms’ “100% White Girl.” It was a couple of years later that I got their albums Los Angeles and Wild Gift. I was intrigued, but not bowled over. I did, however, enjoy the band’s appearances in the ’80s on American Bandstand (including doing an abbreviated “True Love Pt II”). And yet, though not appearing on this DVD, my fave cut of theirs remains “Burning House of Love.” As time has gone on, I’ve appreciated them more.

The documentary X: The Unheard Music came out 25 years ago, and yes, it is a good view of the history of the band, but it also is a record of the punk scene of the time; or at least the frame of it. For example, we get to see Brendan Mullen, owner of the infamous Masque Club, revisiting the club after years of it being shuttered. We also get to visit the studios of KROQ and meet DJ and ex-Black Flag vocalist Jello Biafra and the Mayor of the Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer, who discuss the band. A chilling moment is when we se Excene backstage at the closing Whiskey-A-Go-Go touchingly explain the famous night the band played right after they learned about her sister, who died on the way to the gig.

The documentary proper starts off, though, with a focus on all the members of the band individually, including home shots and pictures from childhood. Thrown in is audio clips and a (public access?) television interview with the band who conveys the story of the band’s formation.

Through live shots of the band playing on stage, then-MTV-style music videos, and studio recordings over b-roll, we follow the group as they are about to break. This leads to some interesting moments, such as a blending of one interview with an MCA Records A&R person who dismisses the band, and another of Slash fanzine’s Bob Briggs, who brought the band to him. The director shows a keen sense of humor as he interchanges the executives professing for the band Point Blank as the next-big-thing with a commercial for the Edsel (which was, coincidentally, the final Jeopardy question/answer the night I watched the DVD), which made me laugh.

This is just part of the undercurrent of social culture that is thrown into the mix throughout the entire film. For example, Tommy Hadges, program director for KLOX-FM, discusses how FM radio was to open up airwaves for indie music, but instead became swallowed up by corporate interests. Luckily, X signed with Elektra, and we see the beginning of the rise, such as it was, as they do in-store signings and performing on stage; the rest became history after the end of the documentary.

One of the other much-discussed scenes is the filming in the studio of the recording of “White Girl,” with their producer (and ex-Doors) Ray Manzarek. In a brief interview piece, he comments that after seeing the band at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, he wanted to take them into the studio. It’s definitely a goofy moment, which is explained in the extras as Doe admits that the scene was faked / lip sync’d. Doesn’t matter, it’s still a wonderful moment as Doe drops his cigarette to sing and JD is wearing sunglasses in the studio, among other fine shots.

Director Morgan does quite the duty of telling the story of X, a nearly post-punk history of the SoCal clubs, and mixes them all with appropriate file footage from yore days of television and film. There is also many quick edits that are similar to the band’s “Wild Thing” video (did he direct that?).

Even in the early parts of this film, some of the future shows itself when Excene and John sit in their apartment singing the roots songs “Ramblin’ Man” and “Honky Tonk Blues.” This is prescient of them later forming country/rock/blues/roots band the Knitters, with members of X and the Blasters.

Besides being released in both stereo and 5.1 Surround HD, there are a few nice extras included. First up is an 18.5-minute current interview with John and Excene, who posit their experiences with X in general, and with their memories of the actual filming of this documentary, which was quite fascinating. This is followed by an interview with the Angel City crew who filmed the doc, including its director, around the time of the shoot. Next is a live outtake of the band on stage playing “Some Other Time.” The last two are the original trailer for the film (below) and still photos of the self-decorated song and poetry books of Excene.

While X did not last, due in part of impatience of band members and infidelity of others, it’s great to have this film as a testament of what it was all about at an important time in the band’s career. Meanwhile, they have reformed both X and the Knitters, so there’s still much to watch for coming ahead.

Song list:
Los Angeles
Year One
We're Desperate
Because I Do
Beyond & Back
Come Back to Me
Soul Kitchen
White Girl
The Once Over Twice
Motel Room in My Bed
The Unheard Music
Real Child of Hell
Johny Hit & Run Paulene
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss
The Have Nots

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