‘Punk’ Docuseries Attempts to Answer All of Your Punk Questions
Is it punk to create a documentary series about punk? Or is that the antithesis of the spirit itself?
While watching the new docu-series Punk on the Epix network, I found myself asking these questions. Was I no longer a happy nonconformist if I actually liked this series? Does punk endure, or are some of us just nostalgic about a moment in time? Is nostalgia itself an anti-punk concept?
I realized I had a lot of questions. And, I was also having a bit of an existential crisis.
I remembered a story about the time a starstruck Joe Strummer of the Clash went backstage to meet Joey Ramone after a Ramones gig in London. Strummer said that he was in a band but they really couldn’t play their instruments, so he said they were going to wait until they were better before getting gigs. Joey Ramone laughed and said, “If we waited until we could play, the Ramones would never have gotten started.”
So, maybe I was overthinking this whole thing.
Punk is a four-part docuseries which features interviews with both US and UK musicians and punk pioneers who discuss what the movement means to them. They reminisce and dissect the history, music, art, fashion and subculture of the entire scene.
One of the most appealing aspects of the series was that “Godfather of Punk” Iggy Pop was on board. Aside from being interviewed in the first episode, he also served as an co-executive producer alongside fashion designer John Varvatos (whose store occupies the old CBGB). They managed to wrangle interviews with many of the people who are core to the punk movement including Jayne County, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Wayne Kramer, Don Letts, John Lydon, Marky Ramone, Henry Rollins, Chris Stein and Penelope Spheeris.
The series begins with the proto-punks of the 1960s Detroit scene, including the MC5 and the Stooges, then taking the viewer into the early 1970s New York music scene that spawned the New York Dolls and the Ramones. From there, Punk jumps across the pond to 1976, when the Ramones invaded England. At the time, the UK punk scene, which was more politically motivated than the US, was thriving, and the success of the Ramones tour added momentum. This cross-pollination of US and UK bands was exciting for the fans, even though it led to a disastrous American tour for the Sex Pistols, which the series describes in detail.
As many in the documentary stated, the pre-punk music scene was a bleak time for misfits and outcasts. In the series, Iggy Pop tells a story about the time that he saw The Doors perform at a school homecoming dance in the 1960s. He describes Jim Morrison as an absolute wreck, barely able to stand up. Iggy got inspired. “I stopped singing about mice and rainbows,” said Iggy, “and started singing about having nothing to do, and no fun, and animal sex, and whatever.”
To some teenagers, 1970s mainstream radio felt like a wasteland, and the average rock concert was a bloated affair which often included ten-minute drum solos, followed by fifteen-minute guitar solos. Rebellion against stadium rock and “easy listening” was bound to happen sooner than later.
In a previous life, I was a teen punk musician in the mid-late 1970s and was lucky enough to see many groundbreaking bands at a very exciting time in New York City. On most nights at clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, it felt like we were witnessing something fresh and raw, and it felt like everything changed after that. The Punk docuseries captures that feeling of excitement when everything was brand new, but it also delves into the way that punk’s influence endures.
In the 1980s, I worked at a piano bar to help support myself during college. I would sometimes get bored and play Muzak versions of punk songs. My favorites were extremely slow versions of “Anarchy in the UK” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Only the bartender recognized what I was playing and would often hum along. In hindsight, playing cheesy lounge versions of once-rebellious songs was a very punk rock thing to do.
As with any music genre that spawns a rabid following, one will find fans – and even performers – who sometimes claim ownership of who started the scene, who made the most impact, and who sold out. At a recent panel discussion which promoted the Punk series, John Lydon, who is always good at courting controversy, got into a heated argument with Marky Ramone. Lydon threw the first verbal blow by saying that Ramone was “not even an original Ramone.”
Ramone countered with, “But I did the Blank Generation album with Richard Hell, and you took his image. All you guys took Richard Hell’s image. That’s all you did.” (Marky Ramone was referring to the fact that Malcolm McLaren, who managed the Sex Pistols at the time, saw Richard Hell perform and stole his style for the Sex Pistols. Hell held his torn T-shirts together with safety pins. McLaren brought that idea to the UK, and it became a massive fashion trend.)
As the argument escalated, Marky Ramone added, “And, Sid Vicious was the star.”
Lydon shot back with, “That’s right. He was the star for asshole fake idiots like you. Enjoy your drugs and fucking have a happy death.”
One thing that everyone agreed on, was that the argument between John Lydon and Marky Ramone was the most punk thing that anyone had seen in a long time. (Although, some speculate that the fight might have been staged. Lydon is nothing if not a showman who loves to play to the cameras.)
While watching the docuseries and hearing the various discussions analyzing what punk “is,” I wondered if it was a response to a particular type of political time and not just a reaction to the soporific music of the period? If so, where is the musical response to the politics and divisions we have today? Soon after the 2016 election, musician Amanda Palmer said that the political climate was going to bring punk rock back, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.
It makes one long for the days of tunes like “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” which was a Ramones song about Ronald Reagan, who was criticized by Americans during his visit to a German WWII cemetery where he laid a wreath where 49 Nazi soldiers were buried. The song was initially released only in the UK and eventually became popular via US college radio, where DJs played the song as an import record. Due to popular demand, “Bonzo” was finally available in this country but The Ramones had to change the name to “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg).” (“Bonzo,” by the way, was the name of a chimpanzee in a comedy which Ronald Reagan starred in before becoming president.)
So, if punk hasn’t had a resurgence in this current political era, does that beg the question: “Is punk dead?”
This is asked in the docuseries as well. All of the people interviewed balk at the idea. They talk about how punk is an attitude, a state of mind, an ongoing way to stand up for yourself.
And once again, John Lydon gets the last word:
“How can it be dead? I’m still here.”
Episodes 1 and 2 of Punk are available on Epix now. Episode 3 airs on Epix tonight.