The first thing you see when you watch W.T. Morgan’s 1986 documentary The Unheard Music about the difficult-to-Google Los Angeles punk band X is a caption reading “PLAY THIS MUSIC LOUD.” Always good advice, of course. Morgan worked on the documentary for five solid years while the band was at its peak, and The Unheard Music emerges as a darn good document.
X was one of those bands, like the Who, where all four members contributed something essential to the music as well as the band’s persona. Exene, Doe, Zoom, and Bonebrake had distinct, interesting personalities that turned out to exhibit the quintessence of chemistry. The band was so much more than the sum of its parts. Exene’s striking vocals and John Doe’s Americana tendencies meant that X’s identity would transcend the confines of the punk movement. As you watch, there are plenty of killer live performances, so you can conduct the debate in your own mind if they were truly merely a punk band.
Because the movie was shot over such a long time, we get to see the band at different stages. Morgan’s editing strategy is a very 1980s one, which is to say there’s a fair amount of TV collage, and he doesn’t take things too seriously, which is always a help. Morgan clearly had a lot of footage to choose from, which means that there are a lot of fun bits. Doe amusingly tells of scavenging a sizable letter X from the Ex-Lax Building in Brooklyn, funny to me because I’m good friends with a family who currently lives there. Bonebrake displays his polyrhythmic skills on the vibraphone while Exene and Doe fool around with some Hank Williams ditties in a scuzzy apartment.
Ray Manzarek of the Doors, who produced X’s killer first four albums (Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun, & More Fun in the New World) before being unceremoniously replaced by Michael Wagener for Ain’t Love Grand (big mistake), is on hand to testify to X’s unmistakable power as a live band the first time he saw them. (He also joins them onstage for a version of “Soul Kitchen.”)
There’s a terrific bit in which two interviews are intercut, from Bob Biggs of Slash Records and some stooge from MCA Records named Al Bergamo, in which the unimpeachable values and good taste of the former are contrasted with the horseshit coming out of the pie hole of the latter. Bergamo claims to find the potential for “limited sales” in X while unconvincingly feigning excitement about some forgettable band MCA had on their roster called Point Blank. Ugh.
Among other things, the movie is an interesting document of the scruffy Los Angeles of the early 1980s. Billy Zoom would depart the band soon after the movie was released, to be replaced by Dave Alvin, which definitively ended the original classic era of X. For a portrait of that important band and its music, you can do a lot worse than The Unheard Music.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
John Doe and Exene on late night TV, 1987