Punk Attitude Review
Henry Garfield...er, Rollins must be a great believer in John Maynard Keynes. It was Keynes that first posited the idea that those who win an argument do so only they are the most emphatic at putting forward their point. Show doubt and your argument will fail. Indeed, it can simply come down to whoever has the loudest voice as they will, most probably, dominate the argument.
Not only does Rollins remain convinced of the need to shout out an argument but in building upon Keynes' idea, Rollins also seems to believe that one only has to hang around long enough before their point of view becomes accepted. Rollins has been playing the punk card since he stepped up from roadie for Black Flag to being their lead singer and thanks to twentysomething years of just being there, filmmaker Don Letts seems to be so convinced of his stature that Rollins opens the second disc of this DVD. His contribution of an introduction does rather miss the point somewhat, only accentuating the difference between US and UK punk.
To Rollins, punk is as much a cut of one's hair, the pushing of a shopping trolley into a parked Hummer or the saying of, "Shove it!" to a teacher. But that reflects America's short affair with punk, after which, to make good use of the word, it was used to describe anything that was a little bit skewed from society. Stateside, punk has been used as much to describe The Ramones as it has been a way to tag small town losers. When the word is appropriated by even John Hughes to describe the John Benders of this world, its possible to see that despite a smattering of punk bands, America didn't quite know what to make of punk. Indeed, much as we may snigger at the French at their love of a kind of rock'n'roll that holds dear to the leather biker look - Vive le rock! - American punk is just as laughable. Needless to say, the punk explosion in the US was but a sneeze compared to that in the UK.
Over on this end of the Atlantic, the impact of the music of punk was felt long after the fashions for bondage trousers faded. Punk was the Sex Pistols swearing at Bill Grundy on teatime television - Grundy: "What a clever boy!"; Steve Jones: "What a fucking rotter!" - and it was God Save The Queen riding high in the charts in the week of the silver anniversary of the coronation. It was The Damned's New Rose, The Clash's White Riot - "Waah raah, ah wanna raah" - and The Buzzcock's Orgasm Addict. It was a T-shirt of two cowboys standing face to face whose cocks were almost touching and it was a safety pin through the Queen's nose. But it was mostly dreadful and it was as short lived as the US scene.
But where American punk scuttled back to the suburbs and inner cities, British punk, which really wasn't much more than an awful Chuck Berry thing, gave itself up to New Wave or Post-punk. This was the kind of music that ought to have accompanied the attitude that punk had with Magazine, Wire, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division and the early, squalling The Fall being even the sort of thing that would have the postcard punks of London running back to Friggin' In The Riggin' and Sham 69. Try hard enough and you can even trace post-punk into 2 Tone, the New Romantics, early synth pop like The Human League and on into digging the foundations for eighties indie like The Jesus And Mary Chain.
Back in the US, Lydia Lunch, Suicide, Sonic Youth, Husker Du and The Swans showed a way out of three chord riffs but things stayed well underground until Nirvana appropriated the sound of the Pixies, the Beatles and Black Sabbath and took the sound into onto MTV. Thankfully, though, they took Billy Idol off our hands where, thanks to their attitude to punk - the average American punk keeps it as real as Busted - he remains an icon of punk style.
And yet, despite the involvement of Don Letts, this DVD of Punk Attitude rather misses all of that in favour of a rose-tinted look back at the supposed glory days of 77/78, much like a BBC-crafted I Love Punk! As though Letts had called at a retirement home for punks and walked them about the swastika-bedecked rose garden whilst asking of their memories, everyone interviewed for the film is happy to recall their part in the punk battles. What is great about Punk Attitude is the dropping of an assumed incoherence by the participants, which allows Paul Simonon, Steve Jones and Jello Biafra to talk about their influences, actions and legacy. In the case of someone like Jones, that's genuinely a first as he's often been a stumbling presence in documentaries like this but Letts seems to have brought out the best in many of his subjects.
There's far too much of Rollins but Don Letts wisely lets Jim Jarmusch have his extensive say on the influences of punk not only in music but also in other arts, including theatre, film and traditional art. Similarly, there are nice surprises in the film, such as Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley talking about the recording and release of the Spiral Scratch EP, Paul Simonon finally getting to talk at length about the dub and reggae influences on The Clash and Jello Biafra memories of how punk shows were ruined by Californian jocks. The occasional anecdote by the likes of Glen Matlock - recalling how Led Zeppelin turned up at the 100 Club to see The Damned, after which a drunken Bonham took to the stage to berate them for doing only a twenty-minute set - is certainly worth a watch but better still are the articulate fans of punk such as Thurston Moore who were not only there for the first No Wave shows but have sufficient memories of the time to be a great subject for interview.
And yet, Punk Attitude doesn't quite capture what it must have been like in London and New York in 77/78 and how strange it must have been to be, like Siouxsie Sioux, to be catching public transport wearing a Swastika and a top that showed her breasts. It must have been a strange time to have seen punk land like a cultural bomb in the grim, grey late-seventies but this doesn't really articulate that. Indeed, it offers much too little time to Sioux who, despite being a dreadful musician - the wonderful Peek-A-Boo excepted - is a very articulate interviewee.
Much as I might compare this to a BBC production, the corporation has done a better job in recent years with a number of punk documentaries setting the music in context, both culturally and historically. Indeed, in writing this in the same week that the BBC has broadcast No Direction Home, the difference is obvious. Whilst the Dylan documentary is a serious, detailed and lovingly crafted series that really does capture what it must have been like to be Dylan, as strange as that might have been - this feels light in comparison. If punk desires a legacy of being considered a genre to rank alongside the likes of Dylan, the high number of pretty but flimsy documentaries on the subject, such as this one, do it no favours. There's certainly enough in here to justify a watch or two but not really very much more.
Presented in 1.78:1, it looks very much like a made-for-television production but with many shows being produced on HD video, that's not the insult that it might once have been. Punk Attitude has a clean, crisp, stable image and a nice amount of detail. The talking heads don't make for a very exciting picture but it's more than functional. The audio track is very similar - good but not particularly interesting although the excerpts of songs by Captain Beefheart and Lydia Lunch are most welcome.
Culled from footage outside of the main feature, this features a second disc that breaks interviews with the main cast into such short features as Fanzines, Women In Punk, The Attitude/Spirit Of Punk and Punk On Culture And The Arts. These run to some 150 minutes in total.
In addition, although these were not included with the check discs, Punk Attitude includes replica issues of Sniffin' Glue #1 and #7.
You might think that I rather have it in for Rollins and, well, I do. Having already had a pop at him in a review for Full Metal Challenge, I received an email criticising the rather insulting tone that I took. Interestingly, though, the email came from the address firstname.lastname@example.org. Which really is not punk.
That kind of spinelessness defines much of punk, which was a sneaky, crafty thing that tended to limp away from a fight. Punk Attitude even asks the question of what happened to punk and whilst Rollins - the fool! - asks where the Kick Out The Jams of 2005 is at, Jello Biafra and Thurston Moore quite correctly answer that punk is now to be found in hip-hop. If punk is an attitude, Fear Of A Black Planet is a great punk album and whilst guitar punk got stuck in a Straight Edge rut, hip-hop took over and eventually had the white suburban kids adopting a pimp roll where they might once have had a mohican.
Punk didn't really die and it certainly doesn't deserve a documentary like this that suggests its time has passed. It evolved into Hex Enduction Hour by The Fall, Conviction by Ut, 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, Upside Down by The Jesus And Mary Chain, Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, Throwing Muses' eponymous debut, Straight Outta Compton by NWA, Dynamite by Stina Nordenstam and () by Sigur Rós.
What became of three-chord punk was Oi!, Skrewdriver, the writings of Gary Bushell and New Labour moshing to If the Kids are United by Sham 69 at their 2005 conference. And no-one, with the possible exception of an idiot like Rollins, can mourn the passing of a movement that gave us memories such as those.