Smash it Up: Celebrating 40 Years of Punk Rock 1977-2017

It’s time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the year punk rock exploded around the world. Guest programmer Richard Kuipers offers some thoughts on punk and the Smash it Up program.

On 27 May 1977 the Sex Pistols released ‘God Save the Queen’. Their contribution to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee marked the high-point in the history of punk rock. In June 2017 SFF marks the 40th anniversary of this momentous cultural occasion with a collection of movies that take us into the music, art, politics and attitude of punk.

But let’s back-track for a moment. There’s no doubt 1977 was THE year of punk but when did punk rock really begin? There are many replies to that question but no definitive answer – and that’s exactly as it should be. We might like to consider punk taking shape in the pre-World War I Dadaist movement, whose members including Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and the great photomontage artist Hanna Höch gave a very punk two-fingered salute to conformity and rejected everything at the heart of capitalist society. Following World War II the Situationist International of the 1950s and ’60s carried on the Dada tradition and played a significant role in the May 1968 insurrection in Paris.

Musically, we might want to hail the first person who ever screamed an angry song about an unfair political system as being the original punk rocker. In the age of recorded music we can listen to everything from Little Richard belting out awop-bop-a-lu-bop-a-lop-bam-boom to American garage rock of the 1960s and Iggy Pop’s emergence in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s for just some of the sounds that shaped punk rock. It doesn’t really matter whether punk began with a pissed-off Mesopotamian in 7000 BC or with the release of The Saints’ ‘(I’m) Stranded’ single in September 1976, or the Damned’s ‘New Rose’ on 22 October 1976. The important thing is that punk rock reached a crescendo in 1977 that was musically, politically and culturally necessary. Or, as Johnny Rotten/John Lydon puts it so perfectly in The Filth and the Fury, ‘the Sex Pistols needed to happen, and did happen.’

No band personified punk rock more than the Sex Pistols so it’s entirely appropriate for Smash it Up to open and close with films that tell their story, but from very different perspectives. Released in 1980, long after Johnny Rotten quit the band and Sid Vicious had become punk’s most famous casualty, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle is a brilliantly conceived and executed “fictional documentary” about the short and stormy career of the Pistols, as seen through the eyes of their infamous manager (and Situationist) Malcolm McLaren.

Directed by Julien Temple – without question the most important filmmaker involved in punk (honourable mentions are due here to Don Letts, Amos Poe and Lech Kowalski) Swindle serves up a supreme mix of scripted drama (with guitarist Steve Jones playing a private eye, no less) and priceless footage of the band’s most famous moments (the party on the Thames, signing to A&M records outside Buckingham Palace, recording with train robber Ronnie Biggs in Rio, the list goes on…). With McLaren serving as narrator and spin-doctoring himself as orchestrator of an audacious musical smash-and-grab heist, Swindle is first and foremost a masterpiece of filmmaking technique. It’s become standard practice for documentaries to incorporate animation, fantasy and narrative drama, but Temple did it first, and best. If you want to know exactly what it was like in England in 1977 when the Pistols were at their frighteningly exciting peak, here it is.

There’s no better way to wrap up Smash it Up than with The Filth and the Fury. Two decades after uttering his immortal line ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated’ before quitting the Sex Pistols on 14 January 1978, John Rotten/Lydon reunited with Julien Temple to tell the Pistols story as he lived it. With fellow members Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock also giving brutally honest and sometimes hilarious accounts of what happened all those years ago, Temple’s reply to The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle is a lively, illuminating and blackly comic chronicle of how a bunch of likely lads became one of the most famous rock bands of all time. Rotten/Lydon is in superb form as he joyously draws parallels between the Pistols and the great tradition of British Music Hall entertainers. Johnny Rotten as successor to George Formby and Arthur Askey – yes, indeed! A never-before-seen interview with Sid Vicious brings tremendous pathos to this remarkable punk rock document.

Another remarkable piece of punk rock celluloid is Jubilee, directed by the great painter and experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman (Wittgenstein, Edward II). After making the Latin-language homoerotic Roman Empire drama Sebastiane (1976) Jarman, with co-writer Christopher Hobbs, dreamt up the perfect punk rock historical drama-comedy-musical-fantasy. The brilliant premise involves Queen Elizabeth I being transported to 1977 by the occultist John Dee (played by Richard O’Brien of The Rocky Horror Show fame). But wait, there’s more magic in the air. The monarch’s travelling companion is none other than Ariel, a spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And what does Queen Elizabeth I find in Queen Elizabeth II’s England? Anarchy, decay, unrest and marauding gangs of punks, of course!

A film that wears its iconoclastic heart on its sleeve, Jubilee takes us inside the anger and boredom that drew so many of Britain’s disaffected youths toward punk. While celebrating the spirit of rebellion and rejection of authority, Jarman also questions what punks intend to do to change things. His film sends a clear message that it’s simply not good enough to say ‘I’m bored and there’s no future.’ Jarman’s probing beyond the surface of safety pins, pogoing and pink hair gives Jubilee real political heft and ensures its permanent place in the punk rock movie pantheon. Jubilee also boasts an amazing cast and a killer soundtrack. On-screen there’s Jordan, famous protégé of Malcolm McLaren, Toyah Willcox, Adam Ant (before McLaren turned him into a Top 40 hitmaker), transgender punk icon Wayne (later Jayne) County, Siouxie Sioux and Australia’s very own Little Nell (another Rocky Horror connection). Musically there’s Chelsea, Siouxie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants, Brian Eno and the glorious Suzi Pinns performing Rule Brittania as it should be performed for evermore. Following the screening of Jubilee at Event Cinemas on Monday 12 June, head on down to the SFF Hub at Town Hall for a night of live punk music with Nancy Vandal and prime punk vinyl 45s from the vaults of yours truly.

From the UK we turn our attention to the USA with The Decline of Western Civilization. The first installment in Penelope Spheeris’ trilogy is a priceless record of the nascent punk scene in Los Angeles. In the late ’70s Spheeris was making music videos for some particularly hideous West Coast rock bands but thankfully her own musical interests lay in other directions. Armed with a budget she rustled up from two businessmen who wanted to be involved in the film industry, Spheeris pointed her camera at bands including Germs, X, Circle Jerks and a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag. Capturing these acts at their best and conducting amazingly candid interviews with band members, Spheeris created a vital snapshot of L.A. punk as it was evolving from the first wave of melodic-sounding bands like The Flesh Eaters and The Weirdos to the full-scale attack of hardcore that drew its audience primarily from young and aggressive suburban males and gave American punk its distinctive sound. For some the emergence of hardcore and the angry white male mosh pit violence that accompanied it spelled the death of true American punk. For others it was just the beginning. Come and see The Decline of Western Civilization and judge for yourself.

Finally we come to Desperate Living - because nothing could possibly follow it. There’s something (or everything) about this John Waters film that says it could only have been unleashed in the punk rock year of 1977. In a moment of magnificent punk rock synchronicity Desperate Living held its world premiere in Baltimore, Maryland on exactly the same day as ‘God Save the Queen’ was released in the UK. Yes, the very same day. When the Sex Pistols screamed ‘I didn’t ask for sunshine and I got World War III’ (Holidays in the Sun) and San Francisco punkers The Dils yelled out ‘In New York and LA City Halls are falling down, There’s no escape, When a class war comes to town’ (Class War), they could have been giving directions to Mortville, the fairy-tale punk kingdom-from-hell where Desperate Living unfolds.

You know you’re watching something very special when the first image on screen is a nicely cooked rat on a very expensive dinner plate. That’s how Waters kicks things off, and he never looks back. At first we’re in Doulas Sirk-goes-berserk territory with middle-class housewife Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole, in her greatest role) screaming at local kids to ‘tell your mother I hate her. Tell your mother I hate you.’ Punk aesthetics and attitude ooze from every frame once Peggy and her 400-pound maid Griselda (played by super-sized superstar Jean Hill) are forced to flee to Mortville and live alongside rejects, perverts, misfits, miscreants and other assorted fringe-dwellers. If the USA had royalty and a centuries-old queen was transported, Jubilee-like, to punk America in 1977, Mortville is surely the place she would have visited.

But wait, America does have royalty, John Waters-style, and just wait ‘til you get a load of the finest Fairy Punkmother ever to grace the big screen. Edith Massey, the best non-actor actor in the history of motion pictures, also plays the role of her life as Queen Carlotta. You’ve never met a funnier fascist than this wicked Witchy Poo who greets her subjects with ‘hi stupid, hi ugly’ and tells one of her hunky leather-clad bodyguards to ‘whip it out and flash it hard.’ And if that’s not enough, Desperate Living also features bombshell Liz Renay, the legendary stripper, girlfriend of gangster Mickey Cohen and star of Ray Dennis Steckler’s indie sickie The Thrill Killers (1964).

It’s a great honour and a huge thrill to present a programme that I hope will serve as not just an exciting blast from the past but also, most importantly, as a springboard for audiences to discover so much more about the beautiful filth and life-changing fury of punk rock. 

Richard Kuipers, Guest Programmer

The Decline of Western Civilization

A legendary documentary which dives headlong into the pulsating energy and chaos of the LA punk rock scene, circa 1980, and features Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks and Germs.

Desperate Living

In the sacred year of 1977 the ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters served up this deliriously demented punk rock fairytale set in the garbage dump kingdom of Mortville.

The Filth and the Fury

The Sex Pistols tell their own story in Julien Temple's inspired reply to his own film, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, made 20 years previously.

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle

Julien Temple's classic 1980 fictional documentary presents the spectacular rise and disintegration of the Sex Pistols as an elaborate swindle orchestrated by manager Malcolm McLaren.

Jubilee

Derek Jarman (Edward II; Wittgenstein, SFF 1993) directed this stunning satirical fantasy about England on the brink of punk-fuelled destruction.