punk films

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: A Punter’s Guide to 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film, Part 1

Illustration by Eric Bornstein

In June of 1977, much of Great Britain was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, who had ascended to the throne in 1952. At the same time, the punk rock uprising—which had been a disruptive presence in English society since the previous year—was reaching the apex of its notoriety. The Sex Pistols were certifiable public enemies by that time. They spent Jubilee Night on a hired Thames riverboat, sailing past the Houses of Parliament and railing against what they saw as an artificial figurehead looming over a fractured society and a declining economy. When the boat docked after this open-air shindig, the police were waiting…

Almost as soon as bands stared forming and a scene coalescing, Punk was being filmed. On the riverboat that night, camera in hand, was Julien Temple. While at university he became enamored of the French anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo and in 1976 befriended the Pistols. Also on the scene in these days, with a newly purchased Super 8mm camera, was Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ at London’s Roxy club. He filmed many bands during the famous 100-day period in early ’77 when the Roxy was an all-punk venue. This footage included performances by the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol and Generation X, the Clash, Subway Sect, the Slits and also American acts Johnny Thunders and Wayne County. He edited together his best clips of bands and fans at the Roxy as well as on the seminal White Riot Tour and released the endearingly primitive “Punk Rock Movie” in 1978.

The film ends with an electrifying 5-song clip of the Sex Pistols playing at The Screen on the Green in April ’77, their first performance with Sid Vicious. It’s an invaluable depiction of a revolutionary band as yet unburdened by their own infamy or by the Machiavellian manipulations of manager Malcolm McLaren.

Around the same time, a fledgling German filmmaker named Wolfgang Buld set out for London and shot many of the same bands as well as others like the Jam, the Adverts and Chelsea. Buld also paid homage to the first-column punk followers in several scenes, and for contrast ventured into a club chock full of conservative Teddy Boys (1st Ted: “One of them (punks), he had a dog collar on. There’s nothing good about that, is there?” 2nd TED: “That’s why we give them a good hiding every time we see ‘em.”) Buld also captured some bands playing live in their practice spaces, most notably X-Ray Spex and their dynamic singer Poly Styrene.


X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene in a still from “Punk in London”

The resulting “Punk in London” (like “Punk Rock Movie”) closes with an extended sequence of a top-line punk outfit. The Clash rip thru several of their politically-charged numbers on a spacious well-lit hall in Munich, making this one of the better filmed documents of the group’s early years. Both these movies show punk in straight-up mostly cinema verite form. It was a homegrown protest calling out Britain’s faded postwar promise and a raucous reaction against a stale pop music scene.


The Clash, “Garageland” Live in Munich 1977

Punk’s real Days of Rage started December 1st, 1976, when the Pistols where hastily invited to appear on the early-evening “Today Show” when the guys in Queen cancelled. A drunk and condescending host named Bill Grundy questioned the equally soused group and four members of their Bromley Contingent fan group. When one of them, future star Siouxsie Sioux, gets propositioned by Grundy, it’s more than guitarist Steve Jones is willing to take.


Forty-thousand pounds gone “Down the boozer”: The Grundy affair gets hashed out in Julien Temple’s 2000 doc “The Filth and the Fury

The British tabloids went off their nut. The Pistols had just released “Anarchy in the UK” their Molotov cocktail of a debut single and the uproar that followed the “Today” broadcast instantly gained them a national infamy. Glen Matlock, the band’s bassist and songwriting contributor, was soon after replaced by the less talented but more volatile Sid Vicious, born John Beverly and a friend of Rotten’s. This fit well into the game plan of the Pistols’ rakish manager, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to exploit this growing sensationalism for maximum shock effect and easy money. It worked only too well. By the spring of ’77, Sex Pistol gigs were getting banned in several cities and anxious record companies were signing and then quickly dropping them amid the general moral panic. Their status as media Public Enemies was no joke: both Johnny Rotten and drummer Paul Cook were viciously attacked by London street thugs. What was overshadowed in all this was that the band’s “God Save the Queen” single was a true cultural turning point in UK history.


The semi-fictional propaganda hodgepodge that was “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” was released in 1980 as some sort of twisted Malcolm McLaren testament. Rotten had long left the band and despised the idea of it but the movie (directed, in a sense, by Julien Temple) had its moments, including a couple of nice bits of animation.

Although vilified by the press and misunderstood by large portions of slightly older rock fans, punk did find an early ally of sorts in the person of left-of-center artist/designer/director Derek Jarman. His cult film “Jubilee” was shot in ’77 and released a year later. He used punk singers and personalities like Toyah Wilcox, Jordan, Adam Ant and the Slits alongside players who were more identified with Jarman’s Warholian London art clique.

The film was a dystopian fantasy where Queen Elizabeth I, curious to see what the future holds for her country, is transported by her in-house sorcerer to an England where a social breakdown has left a blighted urban landscape where fascist police battle politically radicalized punk gangs.

At the gang’s dockside they work up militant manifestos but also aspire to be pop stars despite a global media machine as represented by an all-powerful impresario, the cackling Borgia Ginz. “Jubilee” was didactic arthouse fare that was not widely-loved when it came out in 1978. Many punk rockers were pissed off at the film’s implicit idea that they were callous and violent by default, booing at the premiere at a scene of one of the impresario’s hangers-on being tied to a lamppost with barbed wire.


Just another day in the dystopic Docklands of “Jubilee”

Today, Jarman’s movie looks more astute, pre-figuring the divisive Thatcher years and the modern media-industrial complex that marginalizes true rebellion by feeding the general public an “endless movie.” Speaking of which, the establishment got into the game by 1980, most notably with “Breaking Glass.” The script seemed to emanate from the boardroom instead of the street, although the sole credited writer-director was the BBC-trained journeyman Brian Gibson.

It starred the strident vocalist Hazel O’Connor playing a singer whose rise to messianic status defies both logic and musical greatness. Even the solid presence of Phil Daniels as her original manager/love interest doesn’t help much (Gibson, to his credit, would gone on to make two much better fiction films of real iconic female singers: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Josephine Baker Story”). The year before, Daniels had starred in Franc Rodman’s brilliant screen adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Quadrophenia.” The film was embraced by the punk community and showed in a way that this new cultural uprising was also part of a longer continuum and would eventually be looked on with the same sort of nostalgia it was then detesting. But more of that in Part Two.

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.
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A Hard Day’s Fight: In Troubled Times, the Clash’s “Rude Boy” Can’t Fail

Though it will never be regarded in the same zeitgeist-defining terms as the 1964 Richard Lester film, the 1980 Clash vehicle “Rude Boy” can be re-considered nowadays as a “Hard Day’s Night” of punk. Both films focus on era-defining bands in a format where documentary elements cohabitate with a lightly-fictionalized script. But whereas the Beatles quipped their way through a trend-setting capital city that was finding its post-war footing, the London Town that the Clash inhabit 15 years later looks a lot different. Grim high-rise council estates, economic misery and openly racist National Front rallies in downtrodden districts seem to be the order of the day. Of course, this is the backdrop from which sprang the punk-rock uprising in England a few years before. By the time of the events of this movie—-1978 and early ’79—-things only look worse and Margaret Thatcher, with the support of multitudes of aggrieved white voters, is poised to be elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Clash—-who keenly identify with multiculturalism—-lash out against all this with their razor-sharp riffs and impassioned lyrics. But the film’s shiftless protagonist (played by Ray Gange) plays like a blank slate on which we are not sure what will be written. He’s like a low-information voter in perilous times, making the film retroactively relevant in this age of Brexit and a Trump presidency.

rudeboy_header

And it is Ray who’s the more-or-less sole focus of “Rude Boy’s” first fifteen minutes or so. We first see him in an iconic UK image of the day: staring down disaffectedly on a grey cityscape from the upper floors of a council tower block. Down the stairs he goes past the KKK graffiti and on out to the unemployment office. Out on the streets of his racially-mixed Brixton neighborhood, the leader at a National Front rally is spewing a xenophobic tirade that would make the Donald look like a Rainbow Coalition spokesman. (Well, maybe not but you get the picture). Although he’s on the dole, Ray works (at least part time) at a dirty bookstore but spends the after-hours in gritty punk venues, eventually shuffling into his screenplay destiny to become a Clash roadie. He’s standing at the back of the club as Joe Strummer and the boys tear through their amped-up version of the reggae anthem “Police and Thieves” and starts to meet them soon after. Gange’s character gets it to a certain extent. Hung up between the long arm of authority and the general malaise, he is attracted to the Clash’s aspirational indignation—-especially so after getting a night in jail for walking down the street and then having the nerve to get “lippy” with an officer who stops him for no reason. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that this case of punk profiling takes places at the corner of Whitehall and Downing Street—-the seat of British of British government power.

Still, Ray makes it clear early and often that he has little use for “left-wing wankers,” making his scene with Strummer at the bar one of the more useful in the film. Ray reveals himself as one of those wishful-thinking “undiscovered millionaires” so beloved of Conservative Party and GOP strategists, while Joe’s rising tide would lift all boats. Strummer’s vision of what lies at the end of a blinkered pursuit of materialism is typically blunt and earnest, a touching up-close moment with the punk populist who died in 2002.

Politics aside, the main draw of “Rude Boy” would be the generous serving of concert clips from the Clash’s early prime. Though the tough issues are never absent for that long, there is still an unbridled joy in watching them bounce onto the stage at the huge Rock Against Racism rally at Victoria Park and get 50,000+ kids bouncing up and down in unison to “London’s Burning.” Jacked-up versions of “White Riot,” “Complete Control,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “What’s My Name” and “I Fought the Law” perfectly capture that era’s twin themes of sedition and disaffection. The stage performances work well with Mingay’s documentary street-protest footage: if you ever needed a real-life visual for “White Riot’s” admiring opening line (“Black people gotta a lot of problems/But they don’t mind throwing a brick”) you’ll get it here.

rude-boy-vic-park

Clash fans will be quick on the draw with the second half of that couplet: “White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick.” Which brings us back to Ray Gange. When one of his crew takes leave after the RAR rally, road manager Johnny Green pops into the sex shop to offer Ray a job on the band’s upcoming north-of-England tour. Internal and external forms of repression circulate: there are unnerving scenes (scripted or not?) of thuggish security men throwing fans out the side door, in the day when being a gate-crasher or stage-rusher could be very bad for your health. At one point, Ray intervenes on behalf of the kids and the bouncers give him a right pounding as well.

In a more genteel but no less disquieting moment, there is an intercut Thatcher speech. Any quaint notion of broad-based social justice is out the window here, replaced by the Iron Lady’s claim that (Caucasian) people “above all” want to be protected from the strangely omnipresent threat of “violence, theft and intimidation.” Joe Strummer captured this grim turning point in a way that echoes bitterly right down to the 2016 U.S. elections. In “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” the group’s jaunty reggae number sliced through with ear-splitting punk dynamics, Strummer sings of being one of the few palefaces at an all-star revue of Jamaican performers. He seeks solidarity but comes away dismayed at the perceived indifference to the looming political threat. In the live version seen here, Joe delivers the song’s famous climatic line while the camera hones in on Gange, crouched in the wings. “All over, people changing their votes, along with their overcoats,” Strummer cries out, his voice brimming with rage, “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway!” Ray’s expression stays neutral.

rude-boy-today
Ray Gange in a recent photo. He received a Fine Arts degree in 1997 and has found some success as a painter and sculptor.

Well, they do say all politics are local and it’s in some of “Rude Boy’s” quieter moments that we see a bit of a breakthrough. Gange the inner-city kid appears seems genuinely moved while talking to lead guitarist Mick Jones after he completes studio vocal for “Stay Free,” his neighborhood narrative of meeting up with a childhood mate who’s just been released from Brixton jail after serving a 3-year burglary sentence. Other scenes are just gratefully played for fun: Ray holds the heavy bag while drummer (and martial arts enthusiast) Topper Headon works out, eventually turning his attention to the roadie whom he playfully pummels. In other scenes, Ray does a bit of the ol’ soft shoe while Strummer plays the rehearsal-space piano and Jones, Headon and bassist Paul Simonon are seen in their full rock-rebel glory in several scenes outside a courthouse while they were up before a judge after the air-gun shooting of some birds–who turned out to be expensive racing pigeons—-while their de facto manager at the time, Caroline Coon, also makes a cameo. The Clash are seen quite correctly as a band on the upswing with all that entails. “Things have tightened up,” Johnny Green tells the semi-competent Ray before he’s eased out a job and shambles off into Thatcher’s grave new world, while the band finish up with their mission-statement cover “I Fought the Law,” charging into the 80s as the conscience of rock.

Why in hell the Clash came to disavow this well-meaning and often vital film is puzzling at best. OK, so “Rude Boy” (unlike “A Hard Day’s Night”) will never be thought of as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” The documentary and fiction elements sometimes seem uncertainly cobbled together and the under-developed subplot about a group of black kids caught up in a drug sting would have been better off as a separate project. Johnny Green, in his entertaining and fair-minded 1999 memoir “A Riot of Our Own” says the band made it quite clear they wouldn’t attend the premier at the Berlin International Film Festival and that the same would go for people working for them. Green, who comes across as nobody’s fool, writes “I took delight in telling Mingay on the phone, within Mick Jones’ hearing, ‘See you at the airport.'” He and his road crew partner Barry Baker (who’s also in the film) sat in the balcony and afterwards came down the front aisle, to great applause, to be acknowledged. The film won an Honorable Mention and was playing in London the following month over the band’s objections.

rude-boy-book
A recommended read for Clash fans.

As the giddy-up ska beat of Clash’s ebullient “Rudie Can’t Fail” plays over the end credits it’s not hard to re-live the enthusiasm of the Berlin festival crowd. It’s not like a lot of them were thinking “Well, someday this will be a valuable record of that era.” I like to think it was just them getting caught up in the film’s implied idea that when the outside world, with its endless perversions of power and money, brings all its pressure to bear and “You need someone for a savior” at least you can follow Rudie’s example, being “rude and reckless” while “drinking brew for breakfast” and in general caring fuck-all for what anyone else thinks because you’ll go it your own way. May it ever be thus.

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available on Amazon and through my author page at BookLocker.com Please click on the book-cover image (or the link below) to access the 30-page excerpt at BookLocker.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html