“Anyone who says punk is dead,” filmmaker Penelope Spheeris sneers, “that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
She ought to know. After all, the Wayne’s World director has chronicled the West Coast punk scene for decades, primarily through her documentary trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilisation. This time out, though, she’s on the other side of the camera, being interviewed for director Jesse James Miller’s documentary series, Punk over the course of four (One! Two! Three! Four!) episodes, the series ambitiously charts the entire history of punk rock from its roots in late ’60s Detroit and New York City through to its late ’90s/early 2000s revival, to the current state of hardcore play.
Spheeris is only one of the impressive roster of rock luminaries who come out to play, with Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) , John Lydon (The Sex Pistols), Dave Vanian (The Damned), Ian MacKaye (Fugazi), Sylvain Sylvain (The New York Dolls), Wayne Kramer (MC5), Marky Ramone (er, The Ramones) and more telling war stories for posterity.
The younger crop are well represented, too. You want to hear Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong talking about the 2000 Warped Tour? Or Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill recall both the birth of riot grrl in the Seattle indie scene and the fateful night she scrawled “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on the wall of Cobain’s apartment? It’s all here.
Of course, you are going to get an impressive roster of talking heads when your executive producer is none other than Iggy Pop – the legendary Stooges front man only has to reach for his little black book, after all. Pop looms large in the series, with all involved unanimously citing the Stooges, alongside fellow Detroit rockers MC5, as ground zero for what would later be called “punk”.
Reflecting on the opening stanza of the Stooges’ revolutionary “Search and Destroy”, music journalist Legs McNeil, one of the founders of the Punk ‘zine that gave the genre its name, declares it “…the greatest f***ing lyrics in the…” he catches himself. “Well, besides The Ramones.”
There are times when the whole thing edges towards the hagiographic, but Pop’s erudition and self-awareness pulls us back from the irony of old rockers extemporising on the youthful rebellion becoming too bitter. Elsewhere even the ever-pugnacious John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon has some humanising moments, mournfully intoning, “I miss my mates” as he recalls the late Sid Vicious. He can’t quite bring himself to shed a tear for the equally late but much less lamented Malcolm McLaren, though, lampooning the musical Svengali mercilessly. (He’s not alone in his disdain, with the vampiric Dave Vanian calling McLaren “a Fagin-like figure”.)
But it’s not all fond reminiscences of errant anarchy. Punk's central thesis is that the genre and the culture are evergreen and ever-evolving. There are always going to be young people angry at the state of things, short on resources but brimming over with the need to communicate their righteous fury with whatever is close to hand. MC5’s Wayne Kramer reminds us that the form grew out of a period when there was “…a criminal in the White House with utter contempt for the rule of law”. And you don’t need someone to paint a picture of the parallels he’s drawing with our current political and social climate. Other interview subjects illustrate punk’s role in combatting racism, homophobia, misogyny and more; transgender woman Jayne County, who used to perform under the name Wayne County, holds forth on both the challenges she faced in the public eye in the early ’70s as someone who presented as gender fluid, and the acceptance she found in the New York scene that accreted around the legendary venue, CBGB’s. Viv Albertine of The Slits and Joan Jett of The Runaways discuss crashing through the gender barrier, while Darryl Jenifer of Bad Brains ruminates on how his all-African American band was instrumental in the birth of hardcore.
It’s exhilarating stuff, and for all the tales of booze, drugs and violence (Henry Rollins remembers that “Punching a man in the face became such a utilitarian task that I could do it without losing the lyric.”) what comes across is the sheer vibrant, screw you, creative energy that has always fuelled the scene. Punk is not a eulogy for a fading genre, but a celebration of a restless, furious, constantly changing and vibrant form – and that’s punk AF.
Punk airs on Saturday nights at 7:30pm on SBS VICELAND from October 3. Episodes are available at SBS On Demand after broadcast: