When I was young and foolish but not so foolish that I have regrets, I spent several summers living and working in London, England. That would be 1975-78.
Of an evening my friends and I went out for cheap drink and fun. I remember the clubs: The Roxy, the Marquee, the 100 Club, the Greyhound, the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington. I remember the bands: Dr. Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Sex Pistols, Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex, The Stranglers, Generation X, The Slits. This is all by way of telling you I have some knowledge of, and issues with, what I’m reviewing here.
Punk (Crave) is a four-part docu-series that first aired on the Epix channel in the United States last year. The executive producers are fashion designer John Varvatos and music legend Iggy Pop. Keep that in mind about this often brilliant and illuminating but sometimes vacillating series. Both Varvatos and Pop are from Detroit and their answer to gnarly questions about the place-origins of Punk is, of course, Detroit.
A case can be made, and the series pushes it. Iggy and The Stooges and the band MC5 were playing loud, anarchic, fast rock in 1969. MC5 in particular was polemical and angry. Both bands were a million miles from the stadium-rock giants of the time. They were doing their thing before the Ramones performed and became a cult band in New York and before the Sex Pistols caused a sensation in England.
The series starts off strongly. There’s excellent material on the Detroit scene and in particular Pop’s own chronicle of those years in the early 1970s. It’s also good on the New York scene that spawned the New York Dolls and others, at the legendary CBGB club. There are excellent anecdotes and rueful memories told with gusto. Among those interviewed at length are Sylvain Sylvain (the Dolls), Legs McNeil (from Punk magazine), Debbie Harry of Blondie, Wayne/Jayne County and David Vanian of The Damned. Best of all, there is the pugnacious, sarcastic and formidably articulate John Lydon (Johnny Rotten). At the beginning, various people are asked if punk is alive or dead now. “How can it be dead?” says Lydon, oozing a mocking contempt, “I’m still here!”
The second episode largely deals with the punk scene in England. It’s very good, with great footage and interviews. But the angle of approach is American – the set-up is that bands such as the Ramones and Blondie could not reach a mass audience in the United States so they headed for England instead. There is bickering about whether the Ramones inspired some English bands or was it mere coincidence that the music scenes overlapped.
What’s missing is a cultural context for the England scene. It wasn’t mere music. It was fashion and it was art. A good deal of the English punk scene was born in the Central School of Art and Design in London and other art colleges. Some of it was specifically inspired by the thinking of the Situationist International, an avante-garde collective in Paris in which “the spectacle” was key to understanding alienation in an advanced-capitalism system. Punk was a construction to inflame authentic experiences away from the commodity-obsessed mainstream.
The fashion part is loosely covered in a segment on Malcolm McLaren (Lydon’s withering contempt for McLaren, the original manager of the Sex Pistols, is gloriously alive) and his partner, the designer Vivienne Westwood. But there isn’t enough about it. I remember Poly Styrene dressed in a garbage bag and Doc Martens, a Situationist statement unto itself.
It’s in the third episode that Punk goes very astray. It is devoted entirely to the U.S. scene of the early 1980s and features the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Black Flag and other bands that, to me, define the utter mediocrity of what American punk became. It’s a mind-numbing hour about obnoxious young men telling tales about fistfights in clubs and the drugs they consumed. There is one nice note – Canadian band DOA is credited with creating the template for the do-it-yourself music business model that punk needed to survive.
In the end, in the final episode, thankfully there is more attention to women in the punk movement. Yet the episode makes the dubious claim that punk lived on and went mainstream with the likes of Green Day, Beck and even Nirvana. But that reaction might just be mine. The heart and soul of punk was in the creative misanthropy of the England scene in the late 1970s. It ended in nihilism, but that, too, is part of the story. And what a rich, bizarre and lively story it is, told here with some unfortunate gaps in the narrative.
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