The old story of punk origins goes something like this: the Sex Pistols, created by svengali Malcolm McLaren, scandalize England in the mid-seventies, take the Deep South by storm in 1978, fall apart, and usher in a hoard of mohawked hooligans and the decay of Western Civilization, which is then saved from anarchy, or damned to banal tyranny—depending on your leanings—by the iron fisted militarism and soft power laissez-faire capitalism of the Reagan/Thatcher years. Something like that. There are several revisions that date punk’s origins earlier and place them in the U.S.—in Detroit with the MC5 or the Stooges, or New York with the Ramones or Patti Smith. One could reach back to 60s California garage rock and early New York glam. It’s mostly an academic question now. But in the late seventies, it was all about the Sex Pistols, their entourage, and hangers-on—and punk rock was a British invention for export—or so went the dominant narrative.
That’s the tale that’s told above in Punk: the Early Years, a very early document of the movement in Britain. Originally created for U.K. television in 1998, the documentary collects 1977-78 concert footage and interviews with musicians and scenesters who witnessed the birth of a style characterized by “pogoing, spitting, and safety pins.” Part of the fun here is watching legendary events unfold almost immediately as they happened. EMI’s dropping of the Pistols from their roster after the infamous 1976 Bill Grundy incident, for example, gets retold just a year or so later by an EMI rep. Not every interview is stimulating; some dull industry hacks have their say. But it’s the loads of amazing, crystal-clear footage of live gigs from giants like The Slits, Siouxsie Sioux, Eddie and the Hot Rods (with their Chuck Berry impressions on speed), Billy Idol’s first band, Generation X, and the Pistols themselves that makes this an archival treasure. What also stands out is the greater gender parity in the British punk scene, something Stateside punks didn’t do so well (and that the 90s Riot Grrrls fought for).
There’s no doubt that ’70s punk evolved into hundreds of subgenres in the early to mid-eighties—most notably, in the U.S., into several forms of hardcore–but it remained fierce, iconoclastic, and confrontational. There’s also no doubt that the music was considerably domesticated as it aged, especially with the emergence of “pop-punk” (which should be, but somehow isn’t, an oxymoron) and the empire of Hot Topic stores. This is tragic, I think, but unavoidable. Whichever way the story is told, it must celebrate the U.S. and its variety of regional variants of punk rock, each one with its own sound, look, language, politics, and legacy. The 2007 documentary below, Punk’s Not Dead, mostly focuses on 80s and 90s U.S. bands, and it works because of its inclusiveness, its lack of factionalism and cliquishness, which for me were always surefire signs that some punk scene was on its way out.
It’s that sense of community that comes through here–in the midst of some depressing commercialism–in interviews with diverse figures from bands like Minor Threat to Bad Religion to Social Distortion. Early in the film, Henry Rollins says: “being this far from Dee Dee Ramone at Louie’s Rock City in Falls Church, Virginia, does make Frampton Comes Alive pretty pale in comparison, and you know you’ll probably never be back to the arena.” It’s a nicely succinct summation of what made punk a mass movement for outsiders: it embraced them from the stage with open arms.
Both of these documentaries play the game of cutting between mass media sensationalism and scene-insider truth-telling, but Punk’s Not Dead also documents an important piece missing from the take on punk history in Punk: the Early Years: the DIY ethic in which snubs from the majors created opportunities for dedicated kids to build their own labels with little more than volunteer know-how and hometown scene pride. Much more than fabricated attitudes and mass-produced mall fashions, it’s this kind of communal spirit that is the gift of punk rock.
Both films have been added to our collection of Free Movies Online.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on land, literature, and labor.