Punk Rock Docsby Williams Cole
For those of us who were teens in the 1980s and intently followed non-pop “alternative” music—bands like the Minutemen, X, Circle Jerks, Meat Puppets, Dead Kennedy’s, The Gun Club, Sonic Youth to name a few—the historical narrative of “punk” only went downhill after Geffen signed Nirvana in the early 1990s (and coincidently, CDs started to become the norm). Suddenly the music that was “ours” was “new” and all over MTV in what seemed increasingly like a sanitized and commercial form, a feeling likely (or not) shared by younger generations as commercial appropriation of any and all subcultures increases at warp-speed.
But recently a slew of docs offer a truer version of a ruminated history of punk than has appeared before. These films include IFC’s Punk: Attitude directed by Clash pal Don Letts, Ramones: End of the Century, We Jam Econo about the Minutemen and New York Doll, a film about the New York Dolls to be released later this year. Many of these films share a common (and sometimes truly similar) line about the sparking of punk that basically goes: in the mid-1970s when music was self-indulgent crap full of ten-minute guitar solos (Emerson, Lake and Palmer take a particular beating), bands like the New York Dolls, The Stooges and The Ramones, reacted to this with intense short songs and un-hippie-like style and, though looked at as crazy in the USA music industry, were the driving influence of the British punk scene that spawned among others the Sex Pistols and the Clash. In fact, according to Joe Stummer in Ramones: End of the Century a UK punk scene wouldn’t have started if it wasn’t for a 1976 Ramones show in London and in _New York Doll _a 1973 appearance of the Dolls on UK television is considered a major mind-blowing event.
The irony, of course, is that many of these English bands went on to define what “punk” was in the press while the American originators never really got their due. Punk: Attitude is especially disparaging of the Sex Pistols (Malcolm MacLaren in particular)—often seen as the beginning of punk in pedestrian analysis—a band that did have a public relations and fashion-savvy. On the other hand, We Jam Econo, _about the political SoCal iconoclasts the Minutemen, presents a band that emerged from a depressed working-class town and sounded like no one else, an attribute that invited scourge even from ignorant punks who sometimes spat at them at shows. A recently released DVD, _Looking For A Thrill: An Anthology of Inspiration directed by Braden King, also adds to this history with over a hundred interviews with musicians and friends of the Thrill Jockey record label about their inspiration and includes memorable bits from Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Steve Albini of Big Black.
As a group, these films rightly point out as absurd any idea that “not much” happened in music between the Pistols and Nirvana when “alternative,” “punk” or whatever became a hot commercial commodity. While folks can still get rarified vinyl complete with disturbing cover art, inserts and little scratch messages on the inside vinyl (if you know what I’m talking about), music is far on its way to becoming art and package-free, solely dependent on music videos for identity. The 1980s were a special time for a trenchant subculture of music that stretched way beyond classic three-chord punk into widespread and brilliant experiments on the rock genre. Now a version of this genre has pretty much become fully commercial (along with the tattoo/pierce uniform that is now common in advertisements), becoming sort of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of the early 21st Century. The question is if there is a reaction against this as vibrant as punk was in the mid-1970s . I hope there is one.
Occupation: Dreamland (Opens September 23rd at Cinema Village)
The precipice is opening for Bush and Iraq as opinion polls show falling ratings for the “march of freedom” and this film deftly portrays the real dilemmas that soldiers that are on the ground fighting in Iraq have about what they are doing. Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ film, having made successful runs on the festival circuit, now hits the theater. Don’t miss it. (See the interview with Garrett Scott in the Express section of this issue)
The Future of Food *(Opens September 14th at the Film Forum)
Deborah Koons Garcia’s (yes, that Garcia) exploration of genetically modified crops, Agribusiness and how the two have grown together hopes to expose the GM foods you unwittingly put on your table just as The Corporation or Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room took on the mechanisms of capital. Monsanto is especially in the crosshairs.