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Punk - Attitude-A Film by Don Letts

  by John Clarkson

published: 9 / 1 / 2006

Punk - Attitude-A Film by Don Letts


John Clarkson examines Don Letts' powerful new DVD film 'Punk : Attitude' which puts a fresh light and focus on the already often told history of the rise of punk

Most punk documentaries in recent years have largely concentrated on the period between the Summer of Love in 1967 when bands such as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and MC5 began to emerge out of the American suburbs, and early 1979 when Sid Vicious took his final, fatal overdose. Don Letts’ remarkable new DVD film ‘Punk : Attitude’ has this to, and also all the parts in between-the rise out of the underground CGBG’s club in New York in 1974 of acts such as Television, the Ramones, Suicide and Patti Smith ; Malcolm McLaren’s brief tenure in 1975 as the manager of the terminally ill the New York Dolls ; his injection of American punk fashion and ideas into ‘Sex’, his and Vivienne Westwood’s clothes shop in King’s Road in London ; the formation of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned ; John Lydon and Steve Jones causing a public outcry in December 1976 by swearing on Bill Grundy’s teatime ‘Today’ programme, and the Pistols’ collapse just over a year later at the San Francisco Winterland in January 1978 on the last date of their ill-fated first American tour. Yet, taking early on in the film as a blueprint a remark made by Black Flag’s Henry Rollins that a punk could be defined as being anyone who ever said “Fuck This” at authority, Letts also looks further. ‘Punk : Attitude’ stretches back to the 50’s. It examines then icons and figures of rebellion such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’, and looks as well at the hippy era and its opposition to the Vietnam War. It doesn’t just stop either with Vicious pushing that last needle into his arm and tells also of the early 80’s LA and Washington-based hardcore movement ; Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and grunge, and the point in the mid to the late 90’s when counter culture at last became culture and bands such as Blink 182 and Green Day shot into the mainstream.. Letts has better credentials than most for making a film about punk. An underground film maker since the 1970’s, he was also the DJ at the Roxy, the infamous Covent Garden punk club, and the owner of Acme Attractions, one of the rival boutiques to ‘Sex’ in the King’s Road. A lot of ‘Punk : Attitude’ consists of often obscure and little seen film shot by himself and other underground film makers of the period ; much of the rest features modern day interview footage. Perhaps it is the fact that he is already well known to many of the punks and ex-punks whom appear, but Letts has drawn often some often candid and surprising as well as occasionally comical material from his interviews Siouxsie Sioux waspishly describes Nancy Spungen at one point as “that horrible girl”. Hilly Kristal, the owner of CGBG’s, forlornly admits that he thought the seminal Television were lousy when he first put them on, and that the Ramones, who first played there a few days after them, were even worse. Wayne Kramer, the guitarist with MC5, talking about the band’s 1969 debut album ‘Kick Out the Jams’ and its then controversial brief use of the word ‘Motherfucker’, points out, not unreasonably, that it is hard to think of any self-respecting hip hop or rap act nowadays that doesn’t use that phrase. A despairing Steve Jones, now a radio DJ in California, meanwhile bemoans the “manufactured anger” of so many of today’s modern punk bands. John Lydon, always elusive, is conspicuous by his absence, but some of the many others in the large cast who have talked to Letts include Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from the Clash ; the Damned’s Captain Sensible ; X Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene ; the Pretenders Chrissie Hynde ; David Johansen, Sylvian Sylvian and the late Arthur Kane from the New York Dolls ; ‘Punk fanzine creators John Holmstrom and ‘Legs’ McNeill ; photographer Bob Gruen ; Roger Miret from the Agnostic Front, Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys and Glen Matlock. By concentrating on punk stance and agenda, and extending on its history beyond the usual boundaries and perimeters, Letts’ powerful film puts fresh light and focus on an already oft told story. As well as its 90 minute main feature, ‘Punk : Attitude’ is padded out with an extra disc and two and a quarter hours of featurettes, comprising largely of additional interview and documentary footage that includes short films on fanzines, fashion and women in punk. Laden with information, it is the most definitive and detailed guide on film to the punk movement yet.

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