With ‘X-Ray Eyes,’ Pere Ubu pays debt

Times Staff Writer

If there was a band destined to provide new music for the 1963 science-fiction movie “X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes,” it was Pere Ubu.

An exemplar of idiosyncratic, innovative avant-rock for three decades, give or take a hiatus or two, the Cleveland group has a profound affinity for pop culture and the stratum of exploitative entertainment represented by a movie generally regarded as one of the best products of director Roger Corman’s horror and fantasy factory.

At the beginning of Sunday’s memorable pairing of Pere Ubu and “X-Ray Eyes” at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Ubu’s leader David Thomas gave a little speech that noted: “The genre had an incalculable effect on the third generation of young rock giants who emerged in the ‘70s. Now it’s time to honor our debt.”

Beyond that connection, the band and the film -- which stars Ray Milland and was written by Robert Dillon from Ray Russell’s story -- share a similar sensibility in their fascination with the hidden layers of civilization.


During Pere Ubu’s set of rock music that followed the screening, Thomas alluded more than once to the band’s preoccupation with “ghost towns.” And earlier, when Milland’s doomed Dr. Xavier describes the city he sees with his altered vision, he could be creating a lyric for Thomas to murmur over a haunting Ubu groove:

“The city, as if it were unborn, rising into the sky with fingers of metal, limbs without flesh, girders without stone.... Flesh dissolved in an acid of light, a city of the dead.”

Positioned in the orchestra pit while the movie played on an on-stage screen, Thomas and the other four musicians replaced Les Baxter’s ominous, dissonant orchestrations with their own synthesizer- and guitar-led dissonance, though they smartly retained elements of the original’s celestial soprano for the more cosmic moments.

They occasionally sampled a line of dialogue and echoed it through a scene, and to help keep people from taking things too seriously they threw in “Paging Dr. Howard, paging Dr. Fine” during scenes in a hospital corridor, and a touch of “Louie Louie” over a shot of a tape recorder.

The music became intrusive a couple of times, but in the best moments, Pere Ubu’s music settled into the flow of the movie to accomplish what the best scores do: enhance the film without distracting from it.

You’d think this one-time pairing of musicians and movie, held on the long Halloween weekend and launching the revered band’s new tour, would fill Royce Hall with the denizens of L.A.'s avant-garde music/art world. But the half-capacity turnout suggested that that community has dwindled.

The sparseness of the audience combined with the formal setting of Royce Hall to make Pere Ubu’s subsequent 90-minute rock set a bit of a struggle.

Too bad, because this Pere Ubu lineup, most of it in place for a decade or so, showed that it can mount a fresh and frisky attack. It also had some strong new material to play from the recently released album “Why I Hate Women.”

Thomas forgot his harmonica, he said, and he lost his place in a couple of songs, suggesting that playing a movie score and a great Ubu set back to back might be too much, even for the champs of the genre.