Punk: Attitude by Don Letts
This Saturday night, July 9, the America cable TV station Independent Film Channel broadcasts the premier of Punk: Attitude, a Punkumentary (yeah, mega ouch) directed by Don Letts. Regular iJamming! readers will be fully familiar with Letts as an ex-Tenisonian who started Acme Clothing on the Kings Road, became a punk figurehead as the dub-loving DJ at The Roxy, mutated into a job as The Clash’ video director, then as Mick Jones’ band-mate in BAD, and eventually directed the Grammy-winning Clash documentary Westway To The World.
Punk: Attitude differs from the many other documentaries on this now well-worn subject in that it attempts to discuss the movement as an international phenomenon. The first half comes across like a visualisation of Legs McNeil‘s oral history, Please Kill Me, as Letts traces punk’s path from The Stooges and the MC5 through to the New York Dolls and, inevitably, The Ramones and the whole CBGB generation. The second half finds Letts on firmly familiar ground, detailing the birth of punk in England (using familiar footage from previous such documentaries, though I don’t recall ever seeing the Sex Pistols-Bill Grundy incident in such clarity), before finally jumping back to America for a brief history of hardcore, straight edge and grunge.
As has now become his style, Letts allows his interviewees free reign to tell their stories, his skill being to edit their recollections for maximum effect. Separate interviews with Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, for example, prove particularly funny as the pair virtually finish each other’s sentences. Other characters as diverse as Henry Rollins, Captain Sensible, Chrissie Hynde, Jello Biafra, Hilly Krystal, Mick Jones, Ari Up, Paul Simonon, Wayne Kramer, Thurston Moore, Tommy Ramone, Legs McNeil, and Glen Matlock all appear almost uncommonly at ease in front of Letts’ camera. Perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the most astute observations come from those who themselves have built careers by looking through a lens: film director Jim Jarmusch and photographers Roberta Bayley and Bob Gruen all prove extremely erudite in understanding and observing the international interplay that ultimately made punk not a pissing match between capital cities, but a global movement that changed a generation. Some choice quotes follow below:
“In England there was this controversy because this guy said ‘Mock Rock.’ I could have cared less at the time, but I could see how it galvanised kids who thought ‘Well this is the real deal, so what do you know, you old fart?'”
David Johansen, New York Dolls (followed by Bob Harris disparagingly introducing the Dolls on the Old Grey Whistle Test as a “pale and amusing derivative” of the Rolling Stones.)
“I remember seeing The Ramones and hating them. I hated them. For 24 hours I could not think of anything else except how mad I was that this guy brought me out to see this lousy band. The next night I was back.”
Dee Pop, Bush Tetras.
“The Pistols were really angry and loud but just yelling about it. Where the Pistols were just screaming about how something is wrong, The Clash would kind of say ‘Well this is wrong but what areyou going to do about it?'”
“(Joe Strummer) had that kind of Woody Guthrie thing or that thing that Dylan had and Bob Marley had and sometimes John Lennon had, where that they were aware of that power but they weren’t egotistical about it. He had that sense, and he knew and it was true, that something he would think of in his basement in Ladbroke Grove had the potential of affecting young people in particular all over the planet.”
Jim Jarmsuch. (Punk: Attitude ends with the dedication: “For Joe Strummer.”)
“Punk proved to people – and it is now ingrained in people – that what they thought is impossible is not impossible.”
Marco Pirroni, Adam and The Ants
“Punk rock gave me a platform to put a band together and do it my way. And that was good for an 18-year old kid.”
Poly Styrene, X-Ray Spex.
“It’s easy for a young person to say, Fuck you. I’m 43, I’m still saying Fuck you. I’m still pissed at something; whatever you’ve got, I’m mad at it.”
“Fuck you to corporations. Fuck you to branding everything and fuck you to corporations having dictatorial control over society and governments.”
“Being able to look people in the eye and say ‘Fuck you, I don’t care what you think, I’m doing what I wanna do. To have that to hold on to is really important, to move forward.”