Back in the spring of 1977, Don Letts was the DJ at the Roxy, the legendary punk club located in London’s Covent Garden. The Roxy was the one club where punk rock hadn’t been banned, but the club’s life span was a mere 100 days, as it faced a maelstrom of violence, noise complaints and police raids. In that time, Letts bought a Super-8 camera and recorded the bands that played there, up-and-coming groups such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
“The Punk Rock Movie” is the documentary that Letts assembled from his footage. It’s almost entirely live performances, enlivened by a few inaudible interviews and random chaos. Unlike “Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London” (which documented ’60s psychedelia), there are no celebrity interviews or talking heads. In fact, there’s no context whatsoever — Letts just drops us into the club and lets us soak up the vibe.
The vibe in 1977 was, in a word, deranged. This was the year that Western youth imploded. Kids went from wanting more freedom — the ’60s — to wanting provocation, chaos and the irrational. You can see it in the swastika armbands, the safety pins poked through the cheek, the spasmodic, flailing dancing, and clearly in the eyes of people both on-stage and off.
Here’s guitarist Keith Levene shooting up speed in the loo. There’s drummer Dee Generate and his band Eater attacking a pig’s head with cleavers and clubs, beating it to a pulp, and heaving it into the audience. Then there’s the guy making long, painful-looking slices on his stomach with a razor blade.
Punk cultivated an air of in-your-face squalor and confrontation, and Letts’ film proves the shock tactics of the time remain disturbing some three decades on. The live performances vibrate with the same manic, mad, barely controlled energy. Musically, some are good, a few are great, many are a complete mess, but all are astounding theater. The Clash come off as the tightest of the bunch. “White Riot” sounds exactly as it does on record except faster, with Mick Jones’ guitar a snarling, curled fist of fuzz. While punk decried musical virtuosity (especially the guitar histrionics of ’70s hippie rock), The Clash show here that even the simplest, chord-driven rock benefits from perfect execution.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are critical darlings The Slits, who seem barely able to play the same song together. They’re so out of tune, they begin to sound like avant-garde gamelan music played by a pack of rabid monkeys. The Sex Pistols are, well, The Sex Pistols; they’ve been documented better elsewhere (“The Filth And The Fury”), but the film captures a raw version of “God Save The Queen,” one where Sid Vicious was still sober enough to play his bass.
Quite revelatory are Slaughter & The Dogs, an often overlooked band from the era (working-class lads, they were derided by the artier circle centered on Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren) who turn in a furious, hyperspeed 1-2 beat that threatens to explode: pure punk at its tightest.
Protogoths Siouxsie & the Banshees also turn in a polished version of “Carcass,” surprising considering the band had only formed a few months earlier and were still learning to play their instruments.
Cross-dressing New York expat Wayne County, looking like an early Marilyn Manson, hammers out a song that’s closer to a seizure than a performance. You can see why straights thought that punk was one of the signs of the apocalypse in ’77.
Picking up the music’s history in Tokyo is “Rockers,” a documentary by Hideaki Tsushima that explores the city’s punk scene circa 1978, featuring bands like Friction, SS, S-Ken, 8 & 1/2 and Speed. Locals will be pleased to recognize Shimokitazawa’s club Loft, the venue where much of this was filmed.
As with “The Punk Rock Movie,” “Rockers” was shot on the fly and looks it. Live performances suffer from terrible audio, interviews can barely be heard over the background noise of izakaya (Japanese pub) babble and bar TVs, but even so, “Rockers” captures a spark.
The music on display still sounds raw and abrasive, even to modern ears, and several of the bands — particularly Friction and the Blondie-inspired Mr. Kite — show style and originality. Still, this was Japan’s era of shouting singers apparently, and the out-of-breath barking becomes a bit of a harangue over the course of an hour. One member of Speed describes how a drummer they auditioned refused to play with them: “Konna oto, tsukareru kara,” said the drummer. (“This sound wears me out.”) The viewer will likely agree.
Compared to the banalities of J-pop, this stuff is admirable, yet — more so than London ’77 — you can already see the music dying its slow creative death as it mutates into hardcore with every band conforming to the same sonic rules, which in the end, is the antithesis of everything punk stood for.