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Punk in England
Three years after an initial trip to England, Punk in London director Wolfgang Büld wanted to make a sequel. He had covered the growing number of female musicians in his seminal Women in Rock film, and now he needed a "where are they now" sort of follow-up to his original look at the movements main provocateurs. Sadly, he soon learned what a difference 1000+ days could make. X-Ray Spex were gone. The Clash were going commercial. The Jam were now England's biggest band, ushering in an entire Mod revival, and Ska was making more waves with young people than the original three chord thrash. Quickly seeing the shift, he opened up the effort to encompass the new sounds he was hearing. The result was Punk and Its Aftershocks, also known as British Rock - Ready for the 80s (and now retitled Punk in England by MVD Visual). Instead of focusing exclusively on the bands that built the prevailing UK wall of aural upheaval, Büld bought into the entire post-punk revolution. The results, while not as seminal, are surely worth remembering some 30 years later.
Starting off with Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof spouting off about the current state of punk in England', Büld brings us another performance filled trip through this pre-New Wave sonic universe. Again, we get interview clips with the artists, but at a mere 55 minutes, there is not a lot of time for depth. Instead, it's one amazing concert sequence after another, including the following bands and tracks:
The Clash - "London Calling", "Police and Thieves", "Complete Control"
Spizzenergi - "Virginia Plain", "Where's Captain Kirk?"
The Jam - "All Around the World", "Eton Rifles", "David Watts"
Secret Affair - "Time for Action"
The Specials - "Too Much Too Young", "Guns of Navarone", "Gangster"
The Selector - "Murder", "Too Much Pressure"
Madness - "One Step Beyond", "The Prince", "Swan Lake"
Ian Dury and the Blockheads - "Sweet Gene Vincent", "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick"
The Pretenders - "Brass in Pocket", "Stop Your Sobbing"
It's been said that you can't go home again, and in the ever-changing world of rock and roll, truer words are rarely spoken. In the three years since filmmaker Wolfgang Büld invaded the UK to record the growing punk movement, the genre was dying and a diverse number of competing sounds were scaling the charts. Avoiding the most obvious element out there - Sheffield's stellar synth-pop explosion - the German director decided to focus on the growing fads that were forming around the remaining 1977 bands. For The Jam, everything about the Mod scene, from the clothes to the creative conceits from two decades before, are debated and deconstructed. In the meantime, we get to see the amazing Paul Weller and the boys rip up a trio of terrific songs. For a threesome, they make one helluva racket. Similarly, The Specials are sent up as the guardians of the multicultural ska movement. Oddly enough, they don't get a chance to defend themselves. That's left up to members of The Selector (a fabulous if all but forgotten Two-Tone act) to describe the importance of the music and the faction.
At a certain point, however, Punk in England becomes less of a history lesson and more of a hits parade. When Ian Dury is introduced, we except the aged musical hall maniac with a passion for all genres of sound to show up these upstarts. Watching Mick Jones of the Clash play along to "Sweet Gene Vincent" is one of the film's significant highlights. It also argues about how much had changed since Büld first traveled across the continent. While he draws more blank stares that applause, Dury is clearly the future of British music, his combination of classic showmanship and a satiric two-fingered salute taking the Pistols bravura and tweaking it to the tastes of grandmums and dads. Truth be told, while the Clash are clanging through a rather sloppy set (including repeated offerings "Police and Thieves" and "Complete Control"), The Specials and Spizzenergi seem far more committed to their muse. Perhaps it's because of their relative newness in the entire business of show. After all, Joe Strummer cites his four years as part of the scene to reaffirm his old hat status.
By the end, The Pretenders propel us directly into the mainstream, choosing to feature two of the "poppier" tracks from their otherwise aggressive debut album. Sounding a little out of tune and looking very, very tired, we long for a moment when they indeed "stop all the sobbing" and break out a full blown take on "Precious", "The Wait", or "Tattooed Love Boys". There's also no interview with Chrissie Hynde or any other member of the band, and that's sad, considering how quickly the group would suffer the stereotypical rock/drug tragedies. It would have been nice to hear them fresh faced and naïve to the way approaching stardom could change their tight knit talent. Indeed, for anyone who knows the bands and the era, the lack of real context in Punk in England will be a bit off-putting. Sure, we can't expect Büld to have that crystal ball kind of clarity that some documentarians possess, but as with any overview of a scene, some manner of outside explanation is warranted. Having Geldof go off on everyone and everything that irritates him is one thing. What these seminal acts deserve is a proper place in history - outside of their own obvious talent, that is.
Shot on perhaps the poorest quality camera available at the time and overloaded with grain and lighting issues, Punk in England definitely mirrors its ragtag subject matter. There are certain shots that work and numerous sequences where we literally can't see anything (The Specials concert is especially dark). Büld does a good job of framing his performances, including an overhead focus on the Pretenders' rehearsal. 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.
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.
Clocking in at about 30 minutes, the sole bonus feature offered here is the aforementioned Women in Rock, and it's very intriguing. Focusing on three influential UK girl-ceentric groups - the fabulous Slits, the always enigmatic Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the metal-oriented Girls School - it's a fast half hour. Instead of only offering performance pieces, however, Büld balances the songs with some very telling interview segments. Siouxsie Sue is especially honest, arguing that she hates the whole "women in rock" tag. After all, she's better than anyone - female or male. While it would have been nice to hear Büld revisit these particular films in another current Q&A, the chance to see his unofficial 'trilogy' is more than worth it.
The odd fact remains that, without Punk in England, Punk in London would make little sense. Seeing Geldof rail against issues raised in the first film seems illogical without seeing what he was talking about in the first place. In addition, without the redefining coda provided by England, London would appear like the last word on the subject - and it definitely is not. If they had been packaged together, remastered and polished with complete subtitles and a wealth of added updates, this would be one of the definitive overviews of any musical genre. It would also earn the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Series tag. Unfortunately, MVD Visual is putting out both titles separately, requiring you to buy both to get the full impact. Like its companion piece, Punk in England definitely deserves a Highly Recommended rating. It's a journey back in time that gets your toes tapping while it stimulates your brain about what was...and sadly, what could have been.
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