Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Boredum…badum badum badum

Last night, sitting all by myself in a Bali evening I indulged myself in the DVD of Don Letts’ recently released docu-thesis, “Punk: Attitude”. I’d been quietly (I say quietly because most people around me these days seem would run a mile from a film about punk which is a shame…Harry suggested I get a bunch of older farts together to watch it, but I don’t know if there are many I know from the era concerned I’d want to spend that long in a room with) anticipating this, partially because Letts was there (and he gives himself the credit he is due in the film) as the DJ at the infamous Roxy, and as an associate of so many concerned has access to interviews and footage that most other filmmakers approaching this topic (which, to clarify is: “What is Punk?”) could only dream about; and partially because he is a self appointed social historian of his era, somewhat hit and miss but substantially more of the former.

His compilations, especially the superb “Social Classics” series for Heavenly (although the best of these, Dread Meets B-Boys Downtown ,is now, unfortunately, due to clearance issues, deleted and rare as hell) are beyond criticism and the exposure he gave reggae and dub at The Roxy had a monumental influence on popular music and the direction it took as UK punk died off, under its own weight and the arrival of followers rather than leaders, in 1978. As (I think) Henry Rollins says in the movie, Public Image Limited were far more interesting than the Sex Pistols and (the unspoken bit) Letts’ influence was a major part of that reason. I guess you could also argue that without Letts you may not have had The Police and the odious Sting would still be a schoolteacher, but you can’t have everything.

He also made all the Clash’s vids, and was in Big Audio Dynamite, so enough said….

So to the question at hand….filled with very rare and, at times, astounding, footage (James White & The Blacks contorting live, the Pistols watching themselves on the Grundy show and Howard Devoto with The Buzzcocks for example), incredibly lucid and sometimes hilarious (check out Sylvain Sylvain from the New York Dolls, the movie is worth it just for him) interviews which illustrate as much as anything that despite the raison d’etre of punk being a raised finger “fuck you”, it was an intelligent, directed, movement and the protagonists, at least until the early eighties knew why they were saying fuck you to, for want of a better phrase, “the establishment”. The film grasps and elucidates that well, drawing a direct line from Chuck and Elvis, through the sixties sub-Rolling Stones acts and on to The Velvets, MC5 and The Stooges before the style (although there was never a punk style, just a punk attitude, which is what this film is really about), most widely understood as punk (those that made it never used the term until much later) arrived in the early seventies. But it also grasps the social and intellectual side of punk….the Warholian, Westwood and Mcclaren aspect, plus the clear trans-Atlantic divide that both drove and separated the two major streams (he touches on the fact that punk movements erupted spontaneously around the world without reference to each other…NZ is a case in hand- but the UK and the USA are the clear focal points of this film and even then much (Pere Ubu??) is excluded due to time constraints), making mention of the enormous impact The Ramones had at The Roundhouse in 1976.

Where the film loses its way and starts to drag a little…actually quite a bit, is the last fifteen minutes or so where he forgets the social focus and moves into the US hardcore scene, which as, yet again, Rollins says, was and is an enormously reactionary movement and the antithesis of what punk was about. Of course by 1980 the essence of punk had moved into the UK post-punk scene and the US no-wave movement (Simon Reynold’s “Rip It Up and Start Again” is essential reading here) which also mutated and cross fertilized with disco and early hip-hop. All and all an incredibly exciting mashing which reverberates today, still outside, in the US at least, the mainstream. I’d also question the focus on Nirvana in the last part of the film…to me Nirvana were nothing more than middle American youth, and corporate tamed rebellion coming to terms with and going to a place NYC and the rest of the planet had got to a decade earlier. A couple of good songs though, but nothing could excuse paving the way for the gruesome Foo Fighters.

If punk is an attitude, by the mid eighties there were far more punk things going on in the warehouses of Chicago and the backrooms of Detroit and the studios of Brooklyn, Manchester and Cologne than there were in Seattle. “Voodoo Ray” or “Queen of Rox” were as punk a record as anything by the Stooges.

But despite it all I loved this film…so many people that meant so much to me from maybe the last gasp of radical post Chuck Berry rock’n’roll until the rhythms and raw technology of the late seventies onwards transformed the cutting edge forever. It comes as a shock to me, and a sign of personal fragility, to see the likes of The Clash as wizened old men and I would’ve loved to have seen a little bit of insight from the likes of Maclaren and Lydon rather than the hardcore twats later in the film, but c’est la vie...

Fuck…this turned into an essay and I didn’t mean it to…so lighter moments...ten records that made me smile this Monday in Sanur:

George Harrison: Hear Me Lord…a wonderful faux gospel pastiche, produced by Phil Spector back in 1971. The choir sounds like it is in the next room with someone opening the door as required.

Public Enemy: Public Enemy #1....I remember playing this on the radio for the first time when I pinched the promo from CBS….the body snatchers had landed and nothing sounded the same ever again…

Neil Howard: Indulge….such a wonderful nine minutes of primitive, completely radical early techno without which…check out the delay on the snare. Pure sex….

Mu: Hello Bored Biz Man…I found this on the Idjut Boys collection on Tirk and it makes me smile a lot. Mrs and Mr Maurice Fulton can do no wrong. Nutty piano nonsense…..

LCD Soundsystem: Too Much Love…one of the best tracks from one of the best albums of 2005. I guess what I love about these guys is the rawness so evident, even when the stuff is well produced….it embodies a spirit and a passion that eludes so much rock’n’roll.

Stan Getz: Chega de Saudade….a bit of latin cheese from the late, and justifiably lauded Mr Getz off the latter day, and not highly regarded, “Big Band Bossa Nova” album which has its moments of which this is one…

Carl Craig / Alexander Robotnik: Problemz…..nuff said

Todd Rungdren: Hello it’s Me….tried to clear this for a compilation once but no-one knew who owned it. I spoke to Todd himself who said Warner Music. So I rang Warner Music (again) here and asked; they said they had never heard of Todd, his label or this wonderful plaintiff ditty. Shortly after the big axe came down on Warner’s NZ’s staff. I wonder why?

Brenda Holloway: You’ve Made Me So Very Happy…everyone knows David Clayton Thomas’s take of this but the original by this early Motown chanteuse, leaves it for dead.

Pere Ubu: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo…….this must’ve scared the fuck out of downtown Akron back in 75 or so. It still sounds menacing and terrifying all these years later.