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By Flick Harrison | April 16, 2004

“Up til now nothing happened,” says Jordan, a punk-rocker chick with amazing spiky hair and red makeup all over her face. “The 70’s was shaping up to be the most boring decade ever.” A British tabloid headline screams “TV Fury at Rock-Cult Filth!” as the editor of punk-mag Zig Zag mumbles, “I was top gauge in that school as far as the bla bla went!” or something. This is how “PUNK: The Early Years” shapes up, a documentary made in 1978 about the emergence of punk as a national and international force for f****d-up behaviour and scary fashion. We hear from record executives, young fans, the rockers themselves, with live performances from the Adverts, X-Ray Spex, Generation X (including a young, hot and pre-lame Billy Idol), the Slits and others.
It’s also interesting, cinematically, to see an early punk-rock aesthetic applied to documentary: the ripped-letter-fonts, use of hand-coloured / ripped still photos, guerilla camera style etc hint that this aesthetic worked right out of the box and hasn’t really been improved upon in most punk docs I’ve seen. The pseudo-music-video by X-Ray Spex is not spectacular but fun, more like a replacement for unobtainable live footage or something. The continuum from live-stage performance to persona-posing in interviews never quite passes the superficial, and so the film feels more like first-pass anthropology than in-depth exposure. But D.I.Y. media was in its infancy, and this doc works better as front-line counter-propaganda anyway. Lech Kowalski’s “Is Dee Dee Home” has more behind-the-scenes “truth,” but it was made 25 years later, after all.
It’s the Slits who steal the show and give us the deepest insight into the phenomenon. They explain how the media run away with any clue or hint at what punk’s all about, whipping up a frenzy about nothing. One person spitting at a concert leads to a massive fad for spitting beer; and this film has footage of such spitting in the mosh pit, while the Slits pound through “Come on me.” It makes me question whether I have the stomach for real punk.
But punk proves its worth, if only by the negative reaction, shut-down shows, police harassment, and the strange phenomena: bobbies eye punks suspiciously as pompous idiots march on parade in nearby Buckingham Palace. The feathered hats, sparkly uniforms and gleaming swords, as against safety pins, ripped shirts and fright makeup, sell punk as the only sane response to the crazy class system in Britain at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s Royal jubilee, weakened admirably by the genre’s success. God save HRH Adrienne Clarkson.

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