A Film By Don Letts
Martin Percival digests Don Lett’s Punk extravaganza, & below that Guy Debored fires a few questions in the general direction of The Don:
Where did the Punk movement come from & where did it go to?
Sometimes it does feel like punk never happened -but peel back the surface in a great many areas, especially in much literature and many films, and talk to some people in their teens and 20s and the true influences are still certainly there, albeit maybe a little beneath the surface.
If the question "where did the Punk movement come from & where did it go to?" has ever run through your brain then Don Lett's film "Punk Attitude", together with Jon Savage's book "England’s Dreaming", are the best places (so far) to start looking to answer this. They also both help explore the ways the movement influenced many peoples lives, and not only the musicians involved, especially in regards to getting them involved - to be players and not just spectators, also clearly demonstrating that it's still relevant to the FUTURE.
"Punk: Attitude" makes it very clear that punk didn't all start with the Ramones in the US and the Sex Pistols & Clash in the UK and that punk = an attitude, not a hair cut or a style of clothing - just in case people might think otherwise! Although all three bands were hugely influential when they formed in the mid 70s, and still are very much so now nearly 30 years later, they didn't come from out of nowhere and had their own host of influences back to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and on through the British Invasion groups like the Who, Kinks and Small Faces. These groups in turn influenced the Standells, Sonics and Count Five and then on through the Velvet Underground, Doors, Stooges, MC5 plus the New York Dolls. Letts explores this cross -pollination and influencing process very well in "Punk Attitude", without turning it into a boring navel gazing university thesis style analysis that would have been totally inappropriate for such subject matter.
So, what makes him qualified to do this? Don Letts is one of the very best placed people to make a documentary of this type. A very early player on the UK Punk scene, and prior to this even as a rag trade rival to Malcolm McLaren and Viv Westwood, he went on to DJ at London's Roxy Club in 1977 and manage the Slits. At the time he was not a musician, Punks impact upon him was to make him realise he could be a film maker. He subsequently filmed many of the key bands of the era on Super 8 for what became "Don Lett's Punk Rock Movie" featuring the Banshees, Clash, Heartbreakers, Sex Pistols, X Ray Spex and the Slits. Some of this material, plus much previously unreleased live footage and recently shot interviews, surfaces in
Letts covers the UK 76/77 era scene very well in the film (he was THERE after all!) as well as the New York scene. LA possibly gets a little unfairly overlooked, with no mention of X being a surprising omission. John Lydon is also intriguingly omitted, especially as Letts and he were and are good friends, but it's not as if Mr Lydon hasn't had his say previously. Syl Sylvain, Arthur Kane and David Johansen from the New York Dolls also help paint the pre 1976 New York picture, with Johansen mentioning how terrible he thought the Ramones were when he first saw them!
Letts also uses interviews with people who were part of the various scenes but who were not musicians, most notably fellow film maker Jim Jarmusch whose contribution adds a great deal to conjuring up the sights, sounds and smells of the late 70s, early 80s New York scene as Punk evolved into No Wave and later Hard Core.
Of the musicians, the Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto interviews help highlight very effectively that Punk wasn't just a London and New York phenomenom, as does Chrissie Hynde, Wayne Kramer covering Detroit and Henry Rollins enthusiastically covering the early 80s musical evolution of Black Flag on through to Nirvana and the birth of grunge in the early 90s. So who's not included who arguably could/should have been? Patti Smith and Iggy Pop were both touring and unavailable when Letts was filming and Lou Reed.........well he was Lou Reed!
Look out for the UK limited edition 2 x DVD version with a host of excellent extra features including a very entertaining interview with Dave Goodman, the Sex Pistols live sound engineer and first studio producer, who sadly died in February 2005 thus making this one of his last interviews. The limited edition DVD also includes a facsimile of 2 copies of the early UK fanzine, "Sniffin’ Glue".
All in all this is VERY highly recommended viewing!
Where could it have been better? Probably only if Letts had explored the UK 1977 reggae/punk crossover in more depth......but maybe he's holding that back for another day. If you want only the music then don't buy this - it's a documentary on the whole scene. One day maybe Lett's "Punk Rock Movie" will make it to DVD and THEN you can get the music too!
Martin Percival – tMx 22 – 11/05
Guy Debored Chats To The Don:
trakMARX - How did "Punk Attitude" take - from conception to completion?
The Don – “JUST OVER A YEAR.”
trakMARX - Could it be seen as a mainstream/overground expanded vershun of The Punk Rock Movie?
The Don – “DEFINITELY NOT!”
trakMARX - Will "The Punk Rock Movie" ever see an official release?
The Don – “IF I CAN GET AROUND VARIOUS RECORD COMPANY RIGHTS ISSUES.”
trakMARX - Did you have trouble getting clearance for anything you used in "Punk Attitude"?
The Don – “LOADS, ARCHIVE'S AN EXPENSIVE PAIN IN THE ARSE. COURTNEY LOVE REFUSED USE OF ANY NIRVANA STUFF!”
trakMARX - The Dave Goodman interviews, in particular, are very interesting - was there any of him left in the can?
The Don – “THERE'S MORE OF HIM AND OTHERS - NOT ONLY STILL IN THE CAN - BUT ALSO ON THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR!”
trakMARX - What was your criteria for choosing interviewees? For example, Captain but no Rat or Brian, Simmo & Jonsey, but no Topper?
The Don – “YOU START WITH A HIT LIST, THEN IT'S DOWN TO AVAILABILITY, WILLINGNESS, ETC.”
trakMARX - With the 30th Anniversary of Ye Olde Punke Rocke fast approaching in 2006, are we all gonna OD on Old School Punk Memorabilia?
The Don – “WE HAVEN'T ALREADY?”
trakMARX - As amazing as the longevity of Punk Rock is, are there any dangers in continually looking backwards?
The Don – “MY FILM AIN'T SUPPOSED TO BE A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE. IT'S A REMINDER OF HOW TO MOVE FORWARD. PUNK AIN'T SOMETHING TO LOOK BACK ON, IT'S SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO (IF YOUR BRAVE ENOUGH AND GOT A GOOD IDEA).”
trakMARX - Why do you think there has been no significant cultural follow up to Punk Rock?
The Don - “THERE IS - YOU JUST GOT TO LOOK IN DIFFERENT PLACES (I.E NOT MTV OR THE TOP 40).”
trakMARX - After three Punk Movies (TPRM, WTTW, PA) will you be making a reggae movie next?
The Don – “I'LL CONTINUE TO PRODUCE FILMS THAT HAVE AN AGENDA OTHER THAN EGO AND MAKE-UP.”
“Punk Attitude” is available on DVD right here, right now.
Guy Debored tMx 22 11/05