Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Punk Rock Movie

The Punk Rock Movie was assembled from Super 8
camera footage shot by Don Letts, the disc jockey at The Roxy club during the early days of the UK punk rock
movement, principally during the 100 days in 1977 in which punk acts were featured at The Roxy club in London. (from Wikipedia)


It was a really exciting thing to find this artefact documenting truly epochal musical events on YouTube. I was 18 in the year the footage was filmed, living with my parents in Stellenbosch, in my first year at university and far removed conceptually and physically from the events depicted in the movie, vicariously experiencing every move in the punk revolution through the pages of the New Musical Express (NME.)

Don Letts had amazing access to the punk rockers in London because he was a scene maker in his own right. The colour footage has a grainy, blurry, drained, almost psychedelic, look. The sound is bad, typically distorted and messy. The first impression is how young the punks (bands and audience) were and, in a manner of speaking, how naïve it all seems from the remove of 38 years beyond the heydays of London punk. Billy Idol look incredibly young and innocent. Siouxsie equally so, and her acts of swigging vodka rom the bottle and necking pills smack of acting up for the camera. Perhaps the real scenes of debauchery and ugly antics were not filmed. The musicians seem almost sleepwalking through life albeit to the soundtrack of extremely loud distorted guitars. The faces are thin, unlined, not very surly or threatening. It is virtually opposite to how I perceived the punk attitude and conduct as celebrated in the pages of the NME, my sole, authoritative source of information on the punk scene between 1977 and 1979, by which time New Wave and beyond was in full swing. The Punk Rock Movie documents the second year of the punk scene following on the breakthrough of the Sex Pistols in 1976 and we see several of the well-known names in their nascent years making an unholy, energetic punk noise. The scenes at gigs are reminiscent of similar venues and types in Cape Town in the late Eighties and probably reinforces the idea that the scenes would be the same for any underground act regardless of the country. The sound is distorted and scratchy. The camera microphone would not improve the sound, which comes to us from a punter's vantage point. It must really have been just three chords played as loudly and as energetically as possible. Two American acts are on show: Wayne County & The Electric Chairs (he had the operation and then became known as Jayne County), a drag artist; and The Heartbreakers, fronted by Johnny Thunders, ex-New York Doll. The Heartbreakers' "Born to Lose" has a catchy pop chorus even through the murky sound. Where the British punks simply frantically strum the three bar chords the know, the Americans play recognizable rock and roll, have a slightly better sound and altogether appear to be the more professional musicians they were, more so than the average punk musician who allegedly picked up an instrument after seeing the Sex Pistols. Thunders and County had been gigging since at least the early Seventies.

Some of the best musical ideas emerge from rehearsals of the Slits and Alternative TV. Siouxsie & The Banshees has as much of a distorted thrash sound on stage as anyone else and it is a far cry from their recorded, post punk sound. The Clash are roaring; also clearly more rehearsed and versed than some of the others.

There are many scenes of tedium on the tour bus. Just a bunch of kids bored out of their skull on a long journey, seeking ways to amuse themselves just to get through the day. No Rolling Stones touring party excess here. The interview snippets are unintelligible because of the poor sound.

I was in my late teens when punk rock broke, living in Stellenbosch where there was a dearth of any kind of entertainment much less live music or anything resembling punk. I could not even get the records in the local record store and when I asked the manager for the Sex Pistols' debut album he looked at me blankly as if he had never heard of the then most exciting phenomenon on the UK music scene. The NME taught me all I knew about punk. I bought it very week, on a Wednesday, and absolutely devoured the contents. Sad fact was that it was generally a month to six weeks behind the times because it was sent to SA by mail boat instead of being flown in overnight, as is currently the case. It was like the light of a dead star that we see only long after the star has died. I read about vents that had long since happened and of bands that may not even have existed any longer by the time I read about them. It was still exciting though and informative, and because the NME carried such detailed coverage of the movement I might as well have been there. The great deficiency was that I never saw the bands play live and never heard the records. I had extensive theoretical knowledge of punk and its antecedents and almost no practical experience of it. Punk was not playlisted on SA radio. The record store in Stellenbosch did nit stock the singles or the albums and they were expensive to buy as imports in Cape Town. I wasn't a punk, at least I did not look like one or try to act like one. Best I could do was to wear a grey school shirt, skinny black tie and baggy, faded brown pants and read the NME. I did buy Never Mind The Bollocks, Ramones Leaver Home, Road to Ruin, End of the Century and My Aim Is True as soon as I could after release, and London Calling when it was released. That was the sole extent of my punk or New Wave record collection, except for a compilation of punk and post punk singles on the Fast label. During the Nineties I began buying some of those punk albums that I'd missed back in the day but it was merely scratching the surface of the significant amount of punk singles and albums released between 1977 and 1979. The Punk Rock Movie is a jolt to the memory, a reminder of all the major and minor punk bands the NME had covered and whose names were engraved on my mind at the time and who are now almost forgotten except by those who were there.

The last batch of songs in the movie are performed by the Sex Pistols at a Screen on the Green gig featuring Sid Vicious as new bassist in place of Glen Matlock. It is not an outrageous performance. As is the case with all the other bands, the Pistils take their performance seriously and concentrate on getting it right. Steve Jones does throw guitar hero shapes but Rotten does not behave outrageously or do or say anything that could be called confrontational. Sid looks like the guy who has recently joined and is scared shitless that he will make a mistake. The music is well played and over familiar and emphasises that the Pistols did have some good tunes. The footage is an intriguing look at the band that was briefly the most loathed group of individuals in the UK, for little or no reason at all, except fir swearing a bit on TV and for looking and dressing differently to the mainstream. For all that, the core values of the musicians were firmly linked to mastering their instruments, playing them competently and writing good, meaningful songs. Although the credo of the day was that anyone could do it and that it was not meant to last, I would imagine that the musicians, and everyone else involved in the business aspect of it, quickly became more ambitious once they realised that money was to be made and got addicted to the rush of fame or notoriety. The punk fans, whether hardcore or week punks, were the ones who were really outrageous, really got out there to challenge conformity and the establishment. They were the ones who were still gobbing long after the bands had expressed their extreme distaste for an act that had been a kind of joke in the beginning but was then saw as mandatory behavior at punk gigs, like violence. Ultimately the musicians wanted to play and to be taken seriously and to be respected for what they were doing.

Typically the success of punk was its downfall and in the pages of the NME many of the first generation punks, who were part of a truly underground scene where the musicians and the audience were mates, were starting to moan about how the influx of suburban weekend punks was ruining the scene and the music. That is how it goes with any new thing that becomes a media phenomenon. The original ideals are misunderstood and diluted and often completed trampled on by the newcomers who are in it for the fad. This is also why punk gave way to New Wave and New Wave gave way to the succession of musical movements that followed in the Eighties.

The Punk Rock Movie is not of the best video or audio quality but it is an amazing and vital document of some aspects of probably the first significant sea change in rock music since the mid-Sixties change over from clean shaven bands with neat hair and in neat uniform to bands with beards, wild and colourful clothes and psychedelic music. The first punks were probably as naïve as they look in the movie but they were determined to do what they wanted to do and quite a few of them became famous and significantly important musicians, such as Siouxsie & The Banshees whose career has stretched well beyond those noisy, ill-focused beginnings at The Roxy club in 1977.

Watching The Punk Rock Movie was almost an emotional experience. I'm thinking I should look for the DVD to add to my collection.


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