What happens when you set out to disrupt the established order and and somewhere along the way discover that you've become the establishment? After a couple of years of playing the same music over and over again that's what was happening to punk bands in England by the end of the 1970's.
At least that's how Bob Geldof describes the situation in an interview near the beginning of Wolfgang Buld's Punk In England, the follow up to his 1978 documentary Punk In London, now available from MVD Entertainment. Geldof, who was lead singer of The Boomtown Rats at the time, claims that with the exception of The Clash, who were good enough to evolve without selling out and the Sex Pistols who imploded, punk bands by 1979 were at the end of the road. He says that by refusing to grow they allowed themselves to become the establishment which others wanted to overthrow because they had become boring.
While there is some truth to what Geldof says, there's also the fact that by 1979 major labels were catching on to the fact that there was money to be made from punk and began signing the more marketable bands to deals. After EMI's disaster with the Sex Pistols, labels weren't interested in real punk bands, they wanted bands like The Jam who could be marketed easily and looked nice. You only have to listen to the songs included on this disc by The Jam to hear how much different they are even from the supposedly evolved Clash.
For while the Clash may have made their music more complex and slowed the tempo down somewhat, watching the clips of them included in this movie shows they haven't become any more commercial than they were previously. There's not many who would be prepared to call their music nice and safe and ready for mainstream radio play in the United States or other big markets. Sure compared to footage of them playing only the year earlier there's a huge difference, but listen to them compared to the Jam who appear soon after them in the movie and you'll see an even bigger difference.
While Geldof is right in saying that punk bands ran into a wall due to their own lack of creativity and new bands with fresher ideas did come along to replace them, the reality is that on the whole those bands who did come along and replaced them were a lot more commercially viable and less liable to lead a revolution. Sure there were some other bands at the same time like Spiz Zenergi but judging by the samples of their work we see in the movie, not only weren't the commercially viable, their music just wasn't that good.
Band's like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, who are shown here singing their song "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" were more like the novelty bands of the sixties who had one or two songs that caught the public's attention before they vanished from the scene. "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" might have been sold quite a few copies and received air play on some FM radio stations, but it's wasn't enough to guarantee Dury and his mates eternal popularity.
The music movement that proved to have slightly more legs than punk did was ska, which really can't be considered punk so I'm not sure why it was included in this documentary. Maybe it was because bands like the The Specials and The Selector were political statements simply by virtue of their existence. Perhaps the fact that they were both inter-racial bands playing music which had obvious reggae influences was enough for Buld to include them as part of the punk movement. For, while them both having black and white musicians in their bands may not sound like such a big deal to us, in the racially charged England of the late 1970's it was huge.
In 1976 Rock Against Racism was started in response to Eric Clapton making racist, anti black statements during one of his concerts, including chanting "Keep Britain White" the slogan of the neo-nazi National Front Party. On top of this there was also substantial amounts of racial violence directed against both the black and the south-east Asian communities in England.
So integrated bands like The Specials, The Selector, and a little later on The English Beat, not only created wonderful music but sent a message of tolerance that was badly needed at a time when there wasn't much to be seen anywhere else. The film makes a point of noting that neither the Specials nor The Selector were signed to major labels and both released discs on the independent Two Tone label; an obvious reference to not only the composition of their membership, but their musical influences.
While ska of course had been around for a long time, and in fact predates reggae music, the type played by the bands in the late 1970's had a harder edge to it than any of the older ska I've heard. Listening and watching The Selector especially gives you a really good idea of how their music combined pop, rock, and reggae to make for a really upbeat, and high energy dance music.
As a special feature on this release, another, shorter documentary by Wolfgang Buld is included, Women In Rock. Unfortunately it's pretty much as patronizing and a waste of time as you'd think it would be from the title. The only women who are at all interesting of those he's chosen to talk with or show performing are Siouxie, of Siouxie & The Banshees and the incredibly odd Nina Hagen. The clips of Siouxie and The Banshees playing in this second documentary are actually one of the high points of the whole disc musically as far as I'm concerned as they are much more musically interesting than most of the other bands who appear in either documentary.
While the quality of the sound and visuals are surprisingly good considering their provenance, there's not much the film crew can do to improve upon the quality of the music. In fact, while this may not have been the point of the film when it was made back in 1979, Punk In England shows how music that had once been considered a threat by the establishment was co-opted and made safe for mass consumption with bands like The Jam. Aside from the brief spark of life provided by The Specials and The Selector half-way through the movie, after the opening couple of tunes by The Clash, the music becomes boring and pedestrian. No matter what the title of this DVD claims, judging by the music it presents, there's really not much punk left in England by 1979.
(Originally posted July 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.