A long time ago in a cultural galaxy far, far away, punk music actually meant something. In the musical anti-star wars of the late 1970s, rocknroll’s four-chord spikehair bastard offspring was the angry nihilistic self-mutilating scream of the disturbed and dispossessed and disenfranchised. It actually sparked a real frisson of fear and loathing on both sides of the Atlantic (especially in the UK, where the presence of sneering bands like the Sex Pistols was seen as the inevitable end of world after the end of the British Empire), and seemed for a brief pre-flameout period of time that it could be an evolutionary and revolutionary sonic force that would forge and force new mental and temperamental changes upon the western world.
Flashfastforward three decades to a bland conformist consumerist-con era when punk has been decoded and deformed and reformed into the codified sterile unchallenging fluff of pop-punk or tweemo. It’s now hard to imagine that this rebellious music could ever once have meant anything at all beyond being fashion for problem-free middle class angst-laden teenagers. Any ideas or ideals it may have held seem as naïve and utopian as the stuff of the hippies, whom the punks partly rebelled against, in a time way more black and bleak than that the pogobshites themselves even half-joyously and half-fearfully prophetically envisioned.
To get a vague sense of what the heyday of punk was like you have to go back to the pure untainted musical source it sprang snarling and screaming and spitting from. Which is exactly what “Louder Faster Shorter” does. A live music DVD, it comes to us courtesy of legendary San Francisco underground publishers RE/Search Publications whose founder, V Vale, was very involved in the late 70s SF punk scene. He edited a now-classic fanzine entitled ‘Search And Destroy” (whose collected issues can be bought in book form from www.researchpubs.com), and one of the zine’s members, a man named Mindaugis Bagdon, directed the material here.
The live footage on this DVD is of five bands – UXA, Dils, AVENGERS, SLEEPERS, and Mutants (I admit to having heard of none of these bands, which is why documents like this are so important historical-record-wise) – who, along with nine others, appeared at “Punks Against Black Lung,” which was a concert held over a couple of nights in March 1978 to benefit striking Kentucky coal miners. The shows raised $3,300 (even more impressive 30 years ago), which went to the miners and which demonstrates one of punk’s finer sides (maybe its only finer side), its humanitarian socialism. These sort of events still happen in the lower levels of the punk scene, for things like when punk scene denizens need medical bills paid, and this is a sentiment you can’t argue with. The bands in this film cared about the working man, they wanted to help out financially, they did so, end of story. Superb.
Remember Green Day doing that recently?
The 16mm filmmaking in “Louder Faster Shorter” is crisp and clear and the sound excellent; no muddy poorly-filmed tenth-(de)generation drownsound video bootleg (as I have seen far too many of over the years) here. The editing is slightly choppy, but this helps convey the base visceral lunkjump immediacy of what being at the shows must have been like. The music is as primal and tasteful and raw as you would expect esoteric music from that era to be, at least not sounding like some other instantly identifiable band as everything does these daze. Interesting to note that three of the five bands, unusually (at least for the UK, where I grew up), have female singers, and Mutants have a male, female and transvestite singer – guess they must have been hedging their bets equal-opportunities-wise!
Also amusing is the fact that three of the five bands have singers who wear woolen or mohair sweaters (were they big that year fashion-wise?), as I would have thought that would have had the frontmen-and-women dripping with sweat. Maybe if they got gobbed on they could wring out their sopping sweaters on the audience in eyestinger saltspray revenge! Or maybe it gets cold in SF during March; who knows. Bottom line: “Louder Faster Shorter” is a well-filmed treat for fans of obscure old school straight-from-the-source punk, as I am, and is definitely recommended as such. The music, of course, has been robbed of a lot of its power and shock and force and originality by three post-filming decades of four-chord irritating imitating, but if you bear this in mind when watching it you can’t really go wrong. Watch it, and remember, or see for the first time, and wonder if there will ever be another time when music will be as challenging and democratic and new and liberating and frightening as punk once was. But I think we all know the answer to that one.