Sally Sedition, 1979: “My granny lives up there on the 12th floor and ‘alf the time the lift’s broken. It’s a travesty, that is.”
Text by Rick ouellette/Illustrations by Eric Bornstein
Never underestimate the symbolic value of the hated “tower blocks” of working-class London as rhetorical ammunition for punk rockers in their skirmish with the UK establishment of the late 1970s. On their second LP, This is the Modern World, the Jam posed under the same shadowing underpass as Sally did in the above drawing, with the same applied animus of inhumane council estates. This perceived cattling of the populace was immortalized in songs like the Clash’s “London’s Burning,” Chelsea’s “High-Rise Living” and XTC’s “Towers of London.”
In reality, not a ton of these early punks actually lived in these dreaded high rises, many coming from more outlying London districts or suburbs (the Jam hailed from Woking, 23 miles from the Charing Cross measuring spot). An exception was Clash guitarist Mick Jones, who indeed lived way up off the ground with his granny. The group made a point to be filmed looking out from an outdoor balcony down to the elevated Westway and the city beyond. This footage made it into Julien Temple’s 2007 posthumous docu-pic Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. In that film, Jones is seen on the same balcony and says, “All you have to do is look out there to write a song. It’s all out there.” That “roar of the city” that Jones refers to can be absorbed by anyone who wants to experience and understand it, regardless of their origin. Joe Strummer himself was born in Ankara to a foreign-service family and went to a private boarding school for a while. But he absorbed the street and its varying forms of the human condition to be able to write about like few had done before.
By the time of the Sandinista! album, released in late 1980, the Clash’s critique of high-rise public housing had advanced from rabble-rousing phrases to more of a news editorial bent. “You can’t live in a home which should not have been built/By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt” Mick Jones sings The song’s somber eloquence is reflected in the montage of this fan-made video, which includes the band-on-balcony footage mentioned above.
The creative impulse to strike out in anger and protest, an indignation often leavened with raffish humor, is a British tradition dating at least as far back as Jonathan Swift (Johnny Rotten has been likened to a modern-day Artful Dodger). In 1979, Julien Temple showed his debt to radical French director Jean (Zero for Conduct) Vigo when he made the 19-minute short subject Punk Can Take It. He recruited the conversant second-line punk outfit the UK Subs (along with a couple of carryover characters from his filming of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) in creating a cheeky parody of Humphrey Jennings’ acclaimed 1940 newsreel London Can Take It. The wartime documentarian made several skillful morale-boosting works, showing the English population banding together in the face of Luftwaffe attacks. In Temple’s version, the band (and the safety-pinned kids in general) have to withstand the bombardment of an uptight establishment that would suppress and/or co-opt them. The pithy narrator mimics the authoritative tone of Jenning’s source material. He assures us that the big noises we here “are not Hollywood sound effects” as we join the Subs regaling a sweaty, pogo-happy club crowd with such two-minute buzzsaw bursts as “Stranglehold” and “I Live in a Car.”
Sally notes the prominent role played by “poxy politicians” in the attempted demonization of punk, rivaling the role of the tabloid newspapers as they chronicled the “foul-mouthed yobs” and their “rock cult filth.” Notable among these officials was then city-councilor Bernard Brook-Partridge, seen below.
Punk Can Take It hints at a punk purism, dispensing with hippies and even neo-Mods with cartoonish violence. But the new scene was diverse even in the early years of 1976-77. The Jam wore sharp suits and slashed away at their Rickenbackers, evoking mid-Sixties Who and Kinks, but with an extra dose of sneering. In the 2015 doc, The Jam: About the Young Idea, director Bob Smeaton (who also helmed Festival Express) shows how kids from the outlying “satellite towns” embraced an image that was less confrontational than the Kings Road early adopters, who were often marks for bobbies and skinheads. Although the songs of frontman Paul Weller were more thoughtful than many others, the delivery system was just as fierce, as seen in this 1980 version of “Private Hell” from the German music show Rockpalast (the full show is available as a bonus disc on some DVD editions of About the Young Idea).
Most Brit punk documentaries focus on a few of the same elements that gave rise to this new contentious sound that rattled the status quo in Old Blighty. Primary causes were the nation’s social and economic upheavals of the mid-70s, the blandness of mainstream culture and the perceived pomposity of arena-rock groups. Bands like Yes and Pink Floyd came in for a right bashing. As Sally tells it: “Before punk, it was all prog-rock tossers and 20-minute guitar solos. That’s boring, innit?”
Don Letts, who had made the seminal Punk Rock Movie in 1978 (discussed in Part One), joined up with Mick Jones after he left the Clash, forming Big Audio Dynamite. Letts latter returned to film making and produced the excellent wide-view documentary Punk: Attitude in 2005. Instead of slagging off anything that came before the Pistols, Letts see the outrage of the Class of ’77 as part of an evolving struggle against complacency—even a “spiritual thing within,” as Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones puts it. Here, the survey of that attitude stretches back to Woody Guthrie, the Fifties’ rock & roll pioneers and even the war-protesting hippies that the punks were aligned against. Letts has directed several other music docs as well: for the purposes of this post, the 2000 Clash profile Westway to the World is also recommended.
In the 21st century, the punk spirit can be re-lived and hopefully spark new inspiration in younger generations through the flock on related films that have been released in the last two decades. Sometimes they are not documentaries: maybe the two best cinematic depictions of the vibrant Manchester is the brilliant feature film Control (directed by Anton Corbijn, 2007) about the life and tragic death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and the wildly entertaining 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) starring Steve Coogan as the city’s punk-scene impresario Tony Wilson.
Among the newer notable docs is Don’t You Wish We Were Dead, the alternately hilarious and sobering profile of the UK’s irreverent trailblazers, and The Slits: Here to be Heard about the fearless forerunners of riot girl bands. Meanwhile, Julien Temple has gone on to become a virtual Sex Pistols documentary cottage industry. He filmed their 2007 concerts in London to mark the 30th anniversary of their classic Never Mind the Bollocks album. Their pariah status long behind them, they came across like modern English folk heroes, playing their nuts off for a mult-racial and multi-generational crowd for whom the lads’ “God Save the Queen” is now an “alternate national anthem.” Another recent Temple production, Christmas With the Sex Pistols (2013), is even better. Combining his old footage with new interviews with the band and attendees, Temple creates a heartwarming (yes, really) remembrance of the band’s secret holiday party that they threw for the children of striking firefighters on 12/25/1977. Naturally, the kids have no problem getting into the anarchic frame of mind, covering Johnny Rotten’s head in frosted cake, mid-performance.
From the 1980 film “Rude Boy,” the Clash front-line (from l to r, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones) are seen performing at a Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park. The offending tower blocks loom in the background.
The punks’ visceral suspicion towards the concept of public high-rise housing came to a horrifying realization in June 2017 when the 24-story Grenfell Tower in West London erupted into a shocking conflagration that killed 72 people. The shoddy, cut-rate cladding and lax attitudes towards safety regulations and upkeep were major contributing factors to how a simple fridge fire quickly engulfed the entire building. The rhetorical aggression of punk rock pales in comparison to the “passive violence of civilized life” mentioned by the narrator of Punk Can Take It.
The Grenfell Tower inferno, June 14 of 2007.
Few rock songwriters would have understood this better than Joe Strummer, who died suddenly from a congenital heart condition in December of 2002. He and Mick Jones wrote a song for the Clash’s first album called “London’s Burning”. Naturally, it was not a call for mass arson—after all, London was burning with “boredom”—but instead was one of many songs coming from the UK at that time calling for a unity among kids to combat the de-personalizing nature of modern society. Joe, lost late at night in a housing project sings, “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home/I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.”
In Julien Temple 2007 Strummer doc The Future is Unwritten, the cinematic auteur of British punk, used a repeated motif of having groups of people (bandmates, friends, celebrity fans) sitting around bonfires sharing their stories of Joe and lauding his sense of globalism and social justice. One can only imagine Strummer’s reaction to today’s political climate of nationalism, bigoty, authoritarian rule and the whole Brexit folly. But no matter what the current conditions, it’s always best to remember his parting words from an old taped interview: “You can change anything you want to. People are out there doing bad things to each other because they’ve been de-humanized. It’s time to take humanity back to the center of the ring.”
You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.