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Punk in London

Other // Unrated // June 23, 2009
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 12, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
It was 1977 and punk ruled England. As part of a film school project, wannabe director Wolfgang Büld decided to travel to the UK and document up and coming bands who were redefining the entire nature of rock and roll. With access to numerous name acts including The Clash, The Jam, X-Ray Spex, The Boomtown Rats, and of the moment musicians like The Killjoys, The Lurkers, and Subway Sect, he crafted a telling take at a major cultural movement. Interspersing interviews with live and staged performances, Büld built a portrait of a power struggle, a tug of war between disenfranchised youth with undeniable talent and tenacity, and a society who saw them as anarchists and revolutionaries. Over three decades later, it all seems so silly, but when viewed within the context created by Punk in London, you soon see why Britain was so wary - and why '70s America destroyed the genre before it could ever get off the ground.

The Plot:
Though it tries to follow a single narrative, offering a chance for period punkers to make their case for such radical cultural annihilation, Punk in London is really more interesting as a collection of Q&As and a series of sensational concerts. Büld does not always offer the full song, and there are some who complain that he has used "prerecorded" version of specific numbers instead of the actual live tracks, but that still doesn't dissuade us from the raw energy and drive of what's offered here. For those who want to know the individual bands and the tunes featured, here is a complete rundown:

The Adverts - "Gary Gilmore's Eyes", "One Chord Wonders"
Chelsea - "Right to Work"
X-Ray Spex - "Oh! Bondage! Up Yours!", "Identity"
The Killjoys - "It Could Be Me", "At Night"
Subway Sect - "Ambition", "Out of Touch"
The Jam - "Carnaby Street", "In the City "
The Boomtown Rats - "Do the Rat"
The Clash - "Complete Control", "Hate and War", "Police and Thieves", Garageland"

For those who are wondering about acts not included in the live material, The Lurkers exist as an interview subject only, and there are segments on Miles Copeland, The Rough Trade Record Shop, Sounds Magazine, and the Teddy Boys revival.

The DVD:
There are three gobsmacking surprises included in the 107 minute running time of Punk in London, sequences that will stick with you long after the rest of the documentary as faded into memory. The first is the sight of future Dexy's Midnight Runners frontman Kevin Rowland in full 'never mind the bollocks' mode as a leader of the Killjoys. While he doesn't go in for any of the genre's fashion trappings, he truly wants to wake up the mainstream and make the kind of music that defies easy description. While it would take him yet another band change and a couple of categorical leaps - from horn-driven R&B to Celtic folk soul - to realize his aims, he was already Top of the Pops in '77. So was the amazing Subway Sect. Though few remember them today, their two performances here remind the viewer that not all punk was thrashing guitars and shouting. "Ambition" is an amazing number, as is "Out of Touch". Vic Godard was a genius who, for his own reasons, undermined his own career opportunities just as they were blossoming.

But the true high point of Punk in London is the ten minutes or so we spend with the amazing X-Ray Spex. A sadly forgotten forbearer of the whole 'grrrrl power' pop motif within the genre, Poly Styrene and the boys tear it up in such an amazing way that you literally wonder out loud why they didn't become as famous as the Clash, or as notorious as the Sex Pistols. Of course, the real story is not discussed here (as with many bands ahead of their time, they imploded before they could really redefine the movement). But watching them work their seminal singles "Oh! Bondage! Up Yours!" and "Identity" is worth the price of admission here. As attack-oriented as Rotten and politically charged as Strummer or Weller, Styrene will steal your heart as she stomps all over said organ with her magnificent sing/screech style. Even her interview segment, stoked in the kind of thick British twang that will have many scrambling for the subtitles (sorry - none are available), is wonderful in its clear eyed call to arms. If you don't walk away from this segment a confirmed fan of this fabulous band, you're a certified poseur.

Speaking of subtitles, if there is one flaw in this entire presentation, something that will definitely irk anyone hoping to experience the "full" Punk in London presentation, it's a lack of same. For some reason, at least on the DVD that this critic reviewed, MVD Visual decided not to provide a translation for the predominantly German narration that links the sequences together. While there isn't a lot of talk, it's frustrating to not hear what should have been some interesting cultural insights of the day. After all, Büld specifically came to England to document a growing wave of youth unrest and DIY invention. We need to understand his point of view. Purists will also balk at the obvious exclusions here. While we are dealing with 1977, there are still some bands that warranted discussion which, for some reason, didn't make it into the final cut. Of course, Malcolm McLaren's Sex Pistols are missing, as are the brilliant Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, Sham 69, The Damned, and Generation X. While novices who think Green Day invented the three chord slam dance will probably not care, those who revere these particular pioneers will wonder why they weren't included. Luckily, their MIA status doesn't destroy Punk in London. This is still a fascinating snapshot of a time and place in music that's long since de-evolved into crass commerciality.

The Video:
Shot on perhaps the poorest quality camera available at the time and overloaded with grain and lighting issues, Punk in London definitely mirrors its ragtag subject matter. There are certain shots that work and numerous sequences where we literally can't see anything. Büld does a good job of framing his performances, including a memorable look at the Boomtown Rats from the stage itself. But for the most part, this is a 1.33:1 full screen image that screams "three decades ago". At least it's on film, which means the transfer avoids all those horrible flaring and ghosting issues of '70s analog video. While some will complain about the lack of a pristine picture, the grittiness actually works for the film. It adds a definite air of authenticity.

The Audio:
Sound-wise, there are also issues. Recorded in Mono, many of the concert scenes are thin and tinny. Even the staged performances lack a dynamic range. Again, this really doesn't distract from the overall feel of the film, but it would be nice to hear the interview subjects without all the annoying ambient noise in the background.

The Extras:
Aside from a look at the entire Clash concert (recorded in Munich) from which their segment is taken, the best added feature is an interview with Wolfgang Büld himself. Looking spry and ready to dish dirt, we get a great behind the scenes look at the production and the personalities involved. As a fan, the filmmaker has his clear favorites and it's interesting to see how he views said artists all these years later. While his memory is a little cloudy, this is still a great complement to the film itself.

Final Thoughts:
As a dyed in the wool old school punk/poseur from way back (yes, this critic wore the bad clothes and the equally atrocious hair of the time) Punk in London was like the love letter from the musical movement that he never got a true copy of. The ability to see the groups that made up a major part of his formative cultural conversion, including wrongly dismissed geniuses like Poly Styrene, merits a consideration for DVD Talk's highest accolade - that rare Collector's Series tag. Sadly, the lack of subtitles and a rather unexceptional image crank the score down to a very enthusiastic Highly Recommended rating. And all you aggravating Emo kids, take heed. This is what true social and personal alienation and idealism looked like. There was no fey Goth gimmickry or sad sack posturing. Real punks wanted to change the world, to tackle a beleaguered Britain with the only weapon they had - their voices. While it may seem quaint now, it was quite powerful then - and Punk in London proves why.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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