The BBC is doing Punk this month, with Punk Britannia on BBC4 on Friday nights, along with a host of associated programmes, while 6music is having a month of Punk with guest DJs and themed programming.
A month is a long time, especially when most things I’ve watched and heard so far are bereft of analysis; tending to veer between re-documentation and nostalgia. In the words of Crass, I’m left asking, ‘so what?’
Here’s a round up so far:
Firstly, the good. The Evidently…John Cooper Clarke documentary was excellent. Intelligent, honest, respectful and it held no prisoners in terms of discussing Clarke’s heroin addiction. None of the ‘stay away from drugs, kids’ patronising schtick you usually get from celebrities who come out the other side of smack. With John Cooper Clarke it is more a case of it happened, he moved on, he survives. The messages are left for the audience to deduce, and the fact he couldn’t write for almost 20 years while under the influence, with his regret written across his face, says more than any rhetoric could. Clips of him reading his poetry were mixed from different eras, with some (unusually) perceptive talking head pieces from those that have been long time fans. Well worth watching, and the best thing that has been on so far.
This Friday BBC4 screened an Arena special called Who is Poly Styrene? Made in 1979, it follows the band X-Ray Spex in the studio, sound checking, and in the back of a van on the road, with a rambling monologue from Poly Styrene herself. It had a distinctively fitting ‘distant’ feel, and Poly came across phased and remote most of the time. The overall effect was compelling, and very 1979.
The previous week I fell asleep through much of We Who Wait: TV Smith & The Adverts, which appeared interesting, but not enough to keep me awake. But then I never ‘got’ The Adverts, and have had many arguments with friends about their supposed greatness.
I have so far missed the first two month of Sunday’s guest DJ slots on 6music, where John Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux chose records to play, but I have caught some ridiculous features on different programmes, such as listeners phoning in with their most ‘punk moment’, “but nothing illegal please”, came the caveat from Nemone this morning. Hmmmm! Unfortunately, I will have to listen to this trite again as I missed the interview with Viv Albertine of The Slits.
In terms of the flagship programming for this series though, the Punk Britannia Friday night triptych, it has so far been a mixed, and disappointing bag. The first looked at Pre-Punk, and was genuinely interesting, discussing how pub rock in the mid 1970s helped to fuel the desire for live music in London for anything that wasn’t Prog Rock. However, it completely failed to mention the importance from the US music scene, in terms of what followed. I understand that this series is about British music, but the influence of The Stooges and MC5, et al, was completely overlooked. The fact that these bands created the musical aesthetic which so many of the early British Punk bands styled themselves on, is a massive oversight. And the omissions continued into the second episode—first screened this Friday—which failed to mention many bands within the UK Punk scene in 1976 and 77, focusing mostly on the scene bands. Where were Eater, Wire, X Ray Spex, Alternative TV; to name but a few? And what of band wagon jumpers like The Lurkers, Nine Nine Nine, The Vibrators etc? All these bands were just as important as the majors to the story, regardless of quality. This is especially true because their inclusion would have demonstrated record companies moving in for the kill, and an over saturation of similarly sounding bands which ultimately made the Punk Rock aesthetic boring and obvious. Further to the musical aspect of this movement, the contextual story being told was one that has oft been repeated; Pistols held back from No 1—tick. River boat antics—tick. Spitting—tick. Safety pins—tick. Swearing on television—tick. It was so obvious and a missed opportunity to go beyond this nostalgic rough ride through the facts. What about Situationism, Dada and nihilism? What about the importance of Punk in influencing other mediums outside of music; from publishing and fashion to broadcasting and film?
Of the three episodes in this series, I always suspected the middle one, focussing on 1976–78, would be the weakest. Well, until the Post-Punk episode has aired next week, I can’t be certain, but it is looking that way. I truly hope the BBC doesn’t fuck up Post-Punk, being, in my mind, much more of an important time in music than either Pre-Punk or Punk itself. And it is a story that doesn’t get much of a showcase. Most of my music tastes were formed by this period in popular music history—Public Image Ltd., Wire, Gang Of Four, Magazine, The Au Pairs, Pop Group, The Fall, Crass; and on into Two Tone and early British industrial/electronic music. These innovative and explorative bands are the truly exciting things to come out of Punk, much more so than the Pistols, Clash and Damned. However, I’m not holding my breath that the BBC will do it justice. To do that, they should just set Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up And Start Again book to film, job done.