Punk Britannia – Still Available on BBC iPlayer
After attaching the Britannia epithet to numerous genres, including Synth, Prog rock and Heavy metal, the BBC finally got round to adding Punk to the list and they did justice to the movement with a three part documentary series and several additional films and radio shows. So how well was the memory of Punk served?
The three documentaries were set out in a logical fashion with Part 1 being Pre-Punk, Part 2 the Punk Years and the final part moving to Post-Punk. The first part started with a surprise nomination for the band that started the punk revolution – introducing us to a MOR/Country band from the States called ‘Eggs Over Easy’. It’s hard to see these hippies as the godfathers of punk, but the argument was that their residency as a pub band at the Tally Ho pub in kentish Town. Starting in 1971 this move away from Jazz music in pubs paved the way for the Pub-Rock scene leading to the rise of iconic venues such as the Hope & Anchor and the Dublin Castle in London. As mainstream music gave a singles chart of glam rock and a rock’n’roll revival so major selling albums from Prog Rock dinosaurs dominated the album charts. Seemingly the only let-out for an alternative scene was the pubs around London and Punk Britannia focussed on the rise of this Pub-Rock scene with brief glimpses of the some of the influential bands such as the old musos of Bees Make Honey and Ducks Deluxe followed by the music developing into a faster RnB style,and scene stalwarts Dr Feelgood and Eddie & the Hot Rods as well as Joe Strummer’s 101ers came to the fore. This was an interesting angle for the first programme to take as this influential scene is often airbrushed from musical history, with punk being attributed to a combination Of New York Dolls influence, Malcolm McLaren’s eye for making a buck and the Pistols’ youthful attitude and lack of charm! That’s not to say these factors were ignored, McLaren’s switch of youth trend from selling revival teddy-boy gear to setting up his “sex’ boutique was covered and the impression made by his relationship with the Dolls, but it with contributions from Adam Ant, Billy Idol, the always entertaining Wilko Johnson and other contemporaries, the message was clearly without Pub-Rock there would have been no Punk – a phrase coined by Caroline Coon, also sharing her memories.
Eggs Over Easy – Punk Pioneers
Part one’s parting shot was the importance of Stiff records, set up from a £400 loan from Dr Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux, their signing of many of the Pub-Rock luminaries saw the release of the first recognised punk single with ‘New Rose’ by the Damned in November 1976. This paved the way for the second part of the series: Punk 1976-1978, this was the considerable meat in the sandwich. We’re treated to a lot of familiar ground here, the background of a dark, decrepit country filled with dark and disaffected youth leads to the young searching for an outlet. The Sex Pistols calling an old TV institution a ‘dirty fucker’ at teatime seemed to be the spark needed and the incendiary movement spread across the country, burning out from it’s London roots set in the Roxy club, through to the Buzzcocks in Manchester, the Au-Pairs in Birmingham, the Adverts from Torquay and so on. the clear message from this part of the documentary was the DIY ethos that prompted the untalented to pick up their instruments and have a go – get some cash together to release a record – set up a fanzine to spread the word – the choice was yours. A clear definition was made between the angry youth of the Pistols compared to the more considered anti-establishment stance of The Clash, proudly wearing their reggae influences on their sleeves. Contributions from Rat Scabies, Mick Jones, Siouxsie Sioux, Paul Weller (?) Pete Shelley and John Lydon set the scene amongst others and it was truly possible to get a sense of the feeling of musical revolution that was taking place in 1977, causing ripples that were taken as genuine threats to government and monarchy. The Pistols anti-jubilee boat stunt (Oh where were you a couple of Sundays ago Johnny?), the Notting Hill riots and Lewisham anti-fascist clash set the background as other bands began to breakthrough for their 15 minutes in the spotlight.
Mick Jones Shares His Memories
Equally it was easy to see why punk lived so fast and died so young – when it became apparent that you could buy your punk-kit from a catalogue, that do it yourself vibe had been lost. Pioneers of the scene despaired as suburban kids around the country became ‘part-time punks’, a parody of the early spirit and in two years the major bands had either fallen out or sold out! It’s easy to forget that the Pistols’ bookending of the punk movement only resulted in one album and four singles – and although the follow-up bands such as Sham 69 and Stiff Little Fingers receive coverage – both Jimmy Pursey and Jake Burns are always able to be mouthpieces, they are seen as more of an afterthought despite taking up the cudgel on behalf of working-class youth. It was also notable that there was a distinct lack of camaraderie within the scene – bands would prefer to sneer at others success and rejoice at their downfall like local football rivalries.
Magazine – the First Post-Punk Band
So moving on we came to what was possibly the most interesting part of the series – the Post Punk era. I say interesting because this splayed off on all sorts of tangents and had something for everyone. There was the intelligent attempt to take punk to another level by Howard Devoto’s Magazine and Wire – dismissed as middle class intellectuals by Lydon. There was the first dabbling in synthesiser music, pioneered and championed by Daniel Miller, who felt that fiddling with a few knobs on a keyboard was the logical next step on the DIY ladder for those who couldn’t even master three chords. The growth of ska and two-tone was described by Jerry Dammers looking vastly different from his toothless days on the Specials’ keyboards. John Lydon continued his rant against the musical world but showed an often well hidden human side by explaining the lyric of Death Disco relating to the death of his mother – remember he was only 23 at the time, – footage of the track was backed by the marvellous Jah Wobble describing his use of BBC make-up to blacken his front teeth!
The Post punk era encompassed genuine descendants and mavericks, Mark E Smith discussed The Fall sat on a sofa, looking for all the world like a man dodgy uncle recalling his salad days, whilst Mark Stewart of the Pop Group put everything in context by stating ‘Punk was about experimenting, not listening to some fat old bloke on fucking BBC 4!’ Whilst the influence on Joy Division is plain to see, stretching the point to include the Human League, Billy Mackenzie and Martin Fry through to Orange Juice was perhaps labouring it too much, especially when the Police were glossed over because they became too big. It is always sobering to think that for every Adverts or Undertones we were also left with Sting or the Style Council!
Surprisingly little coverage was given to the real bastard children of the punk movement, those that still churned out the same style as early pioneers. The nihilistic anarcho-punk of Crass was summed up by Penny Rimbaud regaling a tale of a fight between Vegetarians and Vegans, whilst Garry Bushell hit the warpath on behalf of Oi, insisting that the Cockney Rejects et al were the working class taking punk back from the art school, a point that dimmed as he slipped into a paranoid rant against the middle-class music media not giving Oi the coverage it deserved as a result. It wouldn’t be there was a lack of coverage as the press believed that these bands were poor shadows of what had gone before and not as interesting as Gang of Four, who were targeted as an example of a press favourite?
No coverage at all was given to the alternative bands that followed in the 80s such as New Model Army, Killing Joke or any of the Goth bands like the Sisters of Mercy or Southern Death Cult who must be able to trace their roots back to post punk.
The Specials – Last of the Punks?
Although ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials was singled out as the first punk record to take up the legacy of the Pistols social commentary, it was Lydon who shone through the programme, understanding the time to move on in forming PiL. The band provided the highlight with Jah Wobble & Keith Levene playing parts of ‘Poptones’ acoustically and fittingly Lydon had the last word, playing a track from PiL’s new album, whilst describing the band as ‘a working class university.
John Lydon in Punk Britannia
As with many of the talking head retro shows each part of the documentary was a memory jogger, but it gave merely a taste of the music and this is where the other programmes satisfied the urge. The excellent film on TV Smith and the Adverts, gave maybe a little too much kudos to one band and the contemporary Poly Styrene film seemed to just address a gender balance. Punk Britannia at the BBC trawled the archives for performances on Top of the Pops, Old Grey Whistle Test, Something Else and Nationwide amongst others. It was great to see performances from most of the bands featured in the documentary, but for me the most interesting programme was Top of the Pops years 1977. It showed just how bad most of the music of the period was. The charts were full of awful MOR bands, poorly made British disco, and previous icons trashing their past. The flagship music programme was deliberately set as a variety programme aimed for family viewing and it was this shallow party that the punk bands were able to crash right through. It’s hard to recall the effect that these bands had in living rooms up and down the country, as cosy family groups were outraged by these noisy upstarts who had kicked some of these icons aside.
So thanks BBC for a superb series taking us back to that teenage excitement that really did change the music scene in this country. Danny Baker, a journalist at the time, seems keen to deny the importance of punk and the need to combat the pomp of Prog rock, but then again he couldn’t understand why punks jeered him when he announced the death of Elvis! When you look at the legacy highlighted in the third documentary and the many different genres that Punk influenced, you have to acknowledge just how vital that short, two year period was.