Tuesday, 5 June 2012

You're history: Punk Britannia review

In honour of the jubilee (yes, I know), the Guardian asked some 60-year-old writers to ruminate on their lives. Sean O'Brien, in a rather good piece, wrote: 'One of the mixed benefits of ageing is reading accounts of your lifetime by people who weren't there.'

Shit. That means I'm going to have to get used to it.

Already this year, we've had the BBC's 1970s series treating my past as some kind of retro theme park. I can't remember which programme it was, but I recall a couple of Guardian music writers who were babies in the 70s pontificating about pop music of the time. Not to mention the 'historian' Dominic Sandbrook telling us what 'we' felt about living through the 1970s.

Now, we've got Punk Britannia on BBC4, a three-part series brought to us by some 'thirty-something' directors. Wasn't there a fifty-something director who could have got the gig? That might have taken the guesswork out of what to put in the show.

Andy Doran, who directed the first episode, says in a BBC blog: 'Well it's our version of the story at least.'

He goes on to explain their version: 'It became clear that the origins of punk lie in a generational struggle for identity.' So far, so good – vague enough to be uncontroversial. Then he talks about the hippies losing their way (I can't recall that being an issue). And then he talks about the new generation looking back to the 1950s for inspiration. Well, I loved 1950s rock'n'roll but it wasn't that which made me into a punk.

Malcolm McLaren didn't invent the 1950s revival in the 1970s. There were a lot of strands in there: Grease (premiered in 1972), Charlie Gillett, Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets, the film That'll Be The Day, Showaddywaddy... Where I grew up, there were still hangouts for ageing teddy boys – and young ones, like the boys from my youth club. (You could buy drape coats as well as loon pants from the classified ads in the back of the NME.)

And Malcolm McLaren didn't invent punk either. That's just one of the stories.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the programme. The interviews were great, the footage greater; you could always ignore the narrative and follow the Twitter comments instead. And as John Robb wrote in his Louder than War review, 'Whatever is up there on the screen will always be wrong to somebody'.

What bugs me is that the directors didn't actually need to impose their own story at all. They could just have let those who were there tell their own stories. The stories wouldn't necessarily match up, but that doesn't matter. Everyone's going to tell a story with themselves in the middle. Everyone's going to promote their own myth.

It's rock'n'roll. There's bound to be myths.

There's the myth that the 70s was depressing and boring, without any good music. I was depressed and bored a lot of the time, but that was mainly because I was a teenager. And I was listening to music I loved: glam rock, and The Who, and Dylan (and some other stuff I'm not going to admit to).

There's the myth that punk was a social/political movement. That came later (and wasn't clear cut at all).

There's the myth that everything started with the Sex Pistols. The myth that Malcolm McLaren invented the entire London punk scene. The 'ground zero' myth.. well, OK, I did buy into that one at the time because I gave away most of my old albums. (And later regretted some of them.)

And – the story that took up most of this programme – the myth that punk wouldn't have happened without pub rock. Leaving aside how London-centric this story is, let's just remember, for most of my lifetime the phrase 'a bit pub rock' has been an insult. It means mediocre, uninspiring, unoriginal. None of which could apply to punk.

OK, I liked Brinsley Schwarz. But pub rock as a musical influence? I don't think so – unless you count Dr Feelgood and Eddie & The Hot Rods, who were in a league of their own.

There was so many musical connections that were missed out: the programme mentioned the New York Dolls (because of the McLaren connection) but what about The Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman and of course the Ramones? What about Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Roxy Music? Or even further back: Jem Stone's done a Punk Britannia playlist on Spotify and it starts with Shakin' All Over by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates.

We could argue about this all night. But that would imply that this is just about music. Of course, it's not.

I'm going to defer judgement until I've seen the whole series but one thing that stood out for me was that the programme was only about the bands. Punk was so much more than that. If, in the next two programmes, they don't interview the fans as well, they've really got the story wrong.


  1. Those of us who have been following the Top of the Pops repeats from 1976 or 1977 know the real reason why punk happened. It wasn't a reaction against the dinosaurs of rock music. It was a reaction against the blandness of pop music. Bucks Fizz, Johnny Mathis, Brotherhood of Man... god it was so shite, punk had to happen to improve matters! And yes I was there aged 17: I saw the Adverts, Talking Heads, Tubeway Army, the Cure... and thank god for punk.

  2. I was 16 when punk happened and thought that something similar would happen for every 16 year old every year from then on. I was wrong. I don't know why, but it hasn't really happened since.
    For me, it is only the music that endures. I still listen to Siouxsie, Joy Division, Au Pairs, Gang Of Four etc. and the thrill is still there.