by Mitchell Brown, Reporter
The first episode of “Punk” on Epix was like a simmering slow burn – the story contained in the second episode being the full flame and boil. The second episode was more interesting, dealing with the British punk explosion.
The episode opens with none other than John Lydon, who rose to infamy under the surname Johnny Rotten with the Sex Pistols in the late ’70s. This intro sets the tone.
The establishing shot of Lydon puffing on a cigarette is brilliant, in that it’s a slow motion shot of something so mundane and yet becomes so intense looking in his hands.
In an earnest and straightforward manner he announces “I’ve learned that telling the truth is a very good way of life.”
Some of the topics explored are a little heavier than the content of the first episode, topics ranging from drug deaths to sexual politics.
Familiar faces are found in this edition: Terry Chimes, the original drummer for The Clash, Pauline Black, lead singer of the ska band The Selector, filmmaker Don Letts, Viv Albertine, guitarist of The Slits, Dave Vanian, lead singer of The Damned. Such a selection of interviewees illustrates the variation within British punk.
Dave Vanian, with his dapper dress and composed, poised demeanor (which seems suited for a member of parliament) stands in stark contrast to the venom and verbal vinegar of Lydon. Regarding Vanian, I’m so glad that the Damned were included in this docu-series.
The Damned were the first British punk band to have any vinyl out, their “New Rose” single came out a month before the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” The Damned were also the first British punk band to tour the U.S. and to play CBGB, but they ended up being over shadowed by The Clash and the Sex Pistols, yet more recently they’ve received more due credit.
A component explored in this episode that was not as prominent in the first is the significance of culture, in relation to the music, cultural overlap, how American punk influenced Britain and vice versa – differences and similarities are explored.
One difference is that punk in England during that time took on a decidedly more political tone, feelings of frustration and being disaffected, some of it related to economic conditions. Vanian speaks of a sense of frustration abound in London, but also a sense of frenetic energy related to the then emerging scene. London of the late ’70s is spoken about as more than just a backdrop setting.
Briefly mentioned via Don Letts was that a difference in British punk and the American punk scene was a love of reggae by some of the British punks and the cross pollination between the two sounds.
Letts had a hand in that, as he was the DJ at the Roxy, one of the earliest punk clubs in London, and it was so early on in the U.K. Punk scene there were little to no actual British punk records out, so in between bands he would put on reggae records.
Letts elaborates on the subject, noting some punk bands and fans embracing reggae led to bridges being built between Black and White.
In relation to social dynamics shifting and changing, the role of the women in punk was brought to the forefront with The Slits, one of the first British all female punk groups, guitarist Viv Albertine and drummer Palmolive are interviewed – lead singer Ari Up passed away in 2010.
The talk of how punk changed what women could express musically and be viewed as is a part of the story, with John Lydon, Joan Jett and Thurston Moore all weighing in.
“Girl groups” were a thing in the 1960s, and said groups displayed musical talent, but behind the scenes was almost always a male manager pulling the strings. Women in punk bands were living, breathing decelerations of their own independent self-determination.
A large portion of social commentary is present in this episode, but the focus is always brought back to the music. The musical power of punk rock is displayed as records are played, and these shots are magnificent.
Most memorable is Terry Chimes putting on the first Clash LP, dropping the needle on “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” He notes that it still sounds good, cut to brief shots of other musicians listening to the same record. This seemingly simple sequence captures something so magical – the ethereal effect of this music and the connection the listener has to it.
The roving close-ups of vinyl spinning on a turntable serve as a subtle reminder that this musical movement happened before the days of digital.
About the last ten minutes of the episode, things really start to become intense – the mood becomes dark and dour, going from the excitement of contained chaos to implosion. Things start to unravel during the tumultuous, short lived Sex Pistols American tour, they were on their last legs, it had ceased to be fun, and Sid Vicious was in the throes of heroin addiction.
The implosion of the Sex Pistols happened as the band had their last stand at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.
Lydon speaks about the collapse with such a heartfelt, unguarded sincerity – he even candidly speaks about carrying an amount of guilt related to Sid Vicious’ death… 40 years after the fact.
Seems like such a heavy burden to carry.
It was in 1979, with the breakup of the Sex Pistols and the subsequent death of Sid Vicious that proclamations of “punk is dead” could be heard. By 1979, the initial spark of a couple years before had dimmed, but punk rock was not dead – it was getting ready to transform.
“Punk” is a four-part documentary television series appearing on premium cable channel Epix. For more information on how to view “Punk,” visit the Epix website here.