Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rock on Film Part 12: A pot pourri of punk

First, parameters. Long ago, I heard someone's opinion that there had only been three true punk songs. They were Anarchy in the UK, Helter Skelter and Rock Around the Clock. The opinion was reported rather than heard directly so I couldn't ask at the time what they'd meant by true punk. That kind of opinion was a typical pre dawn conversation topic when the party had dregged and nought but Fruity Lexia and Blackberry Nip were left to quaff: rhetoric, nectar and garbage all seem to find their own level. More recently there has been a trend to speak of punk rock as an American invention exported to a grateful UK. As to that I still like Lydon's comment about grunge: "Now they get it."

For purposes of this article my position is that punk was a British music that was born and died in the late 70s. Anything calling itself punk after that was nostalgia or laziness. I care not where or when or for whom the term was coined but as fine an album as it is Marquee Moon does not resemble Never Mind The Bollocks, Damned Damned Damned or The Clash in any useful way at all. Sorry, I'm old and that's my world.

The title of this post, by the way, is from a gig review in RAM magazine from the late 70s. I still find it funny.

Also, I'm omitting movies about the Sex Pistols as I've covered them here.

Punk in London
As flat a record of the good, the bad and the ugly of the scene in 1977 as you could hope to find. A few mumbled interviews and abortive manifestos pepper what is a series of live performances all done with a sole camera (probably a little Arriflex) from the audience. The image of a young (and still white toothed) Shane McGowan being a drunken bleached yobbo has become quite famous through its appearance in other documentaries. But, and you need to approach my vintage to care about this one, see if you can spot a very young Ian McCulloch later of Echo and the Bunnymen dancing in a crowd.

The real value of this footage, though, is precisely that it was taken at the time. All sorts of acts were included that wouldn't rate a mention in today's reminiscences not only appear but are highlighted. Slaughter and The Dogs, for example, look so try hard that it's hard to imagine what they had to do to share a stage with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Well, try-hard or not, they were part of the scene and muscled their way on to a stage or seven. This alone raises the archeological value of the piece. Of course it's great having the likes of Subway Sect and Chelsea playing through footage as untamed as the scene itself but the wannabes and neverwoulds complete the picture better than more extensive material from the major players might. All scenes have these fielders (I know, I was in a few of them in my own little corner of the Brisbane scene in the terrible winter of '82) and it is to Punk in London's inadvertent credit that it includes them.

As there is no commentary outside of the interviews this film's only essay comes from the rough cut footage itself. While this can get as tiresome as sitting through anyone's super 8 dreck from back in the day, the whole yet bears the weight of witness. As such it remains the truest of the accounts dealt with here. All the others are flavoured and spiced through hindsight.

Available as a twofer with the Clash-related Rude Boy on local DVD.

All in the title. The idea is that punk is not a time bound phenomenon but a mode of expression. I shown this to people who have thought it a betrayal as it was made by a Brit who was there at the time but reaches back to US bands and scenes like the Stooges and the New York Dolls. I didn't get that from any of the viewings I've made. It's always seemed more a quest for chronological completeness.

The profound differences between the American and British scenes are made clear in the film. People who think as I do just tend to resent the American story being told on consecrated ground and I'll admit that it's easy to think that's what's happening in this film. The bigger problem in the presentation, for me, is that on the one hand Don Letts is saying here's a history of punk and on the other that punk doesn't have a history as it's an attitude that stands outside of time.

Outside of this Punk:Attitude is a strong quilt of accounts by players like Ari Up, Steve Jones, Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene etc. Left as this and the video record the film is a delight. the problems start with the carriage of the attitude into the post punk era, the 80s, the 90s, the noughties and on where the examples get less and less convincing. As charming an interviewee as Henry Rollins is he cannot hide his ridicule of the more recent attempts on the American scene to keep the baton afoot. The scenes of sweaty cryptofascist gigs or the more mainstream versions like Blink 182 in front of massive outdoor crowds all just look like the kind of cutesy 50s revivalists of the 70s. The fact that their audiences manifestly clamour for this borrowed tradition (there, you go, "we're a trad punk band": I wonder if anyone has been funny enough to say that with a straight face) is a head shaking grimness.

So if the old stuff cannot be dressed up simply as the beginning of something that's good today why make a film like this? The real argument of this film comes late and briefly: if you've got the energy and the gear to get onstage and rant, don't: at best you'll be vacuumed up by a record company that no one buys from anymore and at worst you'll look like a busker from the 70s doing 60s protest songs. You got the 'tude get with the mude: Use the net, make a docco. The rock version is old (well, it was old in 1980 but let's not split hairs).

Punk:Attitude is a fine effort that makes the mistake of pandering to revisionists and irritating traditionalists and is not helped by the appalling attempt at suavely inserting its creator's role in the scene through interviews with the players (Letts was there and important but this is a sleazy way of making the point). See it for the great interview footage and ideas at the end.

Out locally.

Kill Your Idols
Self-threateningly uneven documentary about the nowave scene in New York in the late 70s and early 80s, useful for the reminiscences of highly articulate folk like Thurston Moore, Michael Gira, Lydia Lunch and Jim Thirlwell. And it's an interesting tale. After the storm of punk there seemed nothing left so that's where the artists that came after began. This and in the UK's post punk scene (to say nothing of a very rich vein right here in Australia which went even further by not giving itself a name) was where I see the real revolution, not in the charge of the light brigade of the terrible summer of '77. This was when the uniforms came off and the music mutinied.

The influence on later music was subtler but I think more profound and has more to inform today's highly affected indy scene than the last of the Mohawks. This is where Kill Your Idols both finally finds its argument and loses its power. About half way through the current New York band scene is examined. Everyone in it talks about how much they love the old stagers like Sonic Youth (the film's  title is from their album Evol) and Swans and then proceed to make babbling idiots of themselves every time they open their mouths (the A.R.E. Weapons spokesperson talks like a World Wrestling Federation contender).

This begins to look increasingly like agressive editing done once the Eureka moment had struck the filmmakers and they locked on to the kill. Now I hate bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs who sound like record company designed punk from the early 80s (youtube Transvision Vamp and try to spot the difference) but is Karen O really as stupid as she sounds here? Britney Spears comes across as a Rhodes Scholar by comparison. O's interviews really look like a film school assignment in misrepresentative editing. It's almost too obvious to opine that today's fringe music sounds like yesterday's mainstream but the point of that has long passed its shelf life. No one cares and maybe no one should. Still, it's fun to listen to Michael Gira or Lydia Lunch rant against it.

Initially I liked this docco but the more I thought of it the more I had to admit how indigestibly smug it is once it has found its point (which takes a lot of screen time to reach). If No-Wave didn't care then why should anyone, least of all the scenesters o' today who seem happier to receive its mantle than they should. 

I Swear I was There: The Gig that Changed the World
Hands down funniest title and freshest take on the history. This is the story of how two Mancunians got the Sex Pistols to play in their hometown and thus inadvertently ignited the fuse of the northern scene which informed the world of what would come after punk. The pair in question were Peter McNiesh and Howard Trafford who were far better known as Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto once their band The Buzzcocks emerged. They had dipped down to London, soaked in the scene there and saw the Pistols live and resolved to get them north.

This they did and the rest is hysteria. Through a quilt of interviews and contemporary footage the deals and logistics are revealed of a feat of epoch-making significance that, however plagued by turbulence, seems to have been achieved so simply.  Shelley and Devoto really just went to London, asked and received. The resulting gig at the Free Trade Hall was the stuff of legend, germinating an ethos still influential today in music and pop culture. The attendant tv appearance on Tony Wilson's show So it Goes only cemented this and to witness, as this docco allows, the act the preceeded the Pistols on the show is to witness the most important guard change in British music history. The other act (whose name has fled from me but it was something like Gentleman) are energetic and forceful, a kind of Roxy Music for accountants, They vanish from memory as soon as the Pistols appear. Seriously, watching it, you even stop laughing at them when the familiar lines and colours of the So it Goes Pistols clip commence.

Lydon, the funniest loudmouth in the history of rock music from his time to now (apart, perhaps from the Fall's Mark E. Smith) is absent from the direct interviews in this account which is appropriate as it is best told by the events' architects. We are witness to a good idea that made history. It feels like it but (this is a British documentary) you get all the minor annoyances, long held slights and grudges (the surviving Slaughter and the Dogs are unintentionally hilarious here) and throwaway humour. As such I Swear I was There is purely bloody wonderful.

Possibly available on import.

SHADOWS recommences March 4 at 8pm. Program here.

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