We all like cubbyholes. Even those of us who keep insisting that we don’t like compartmentalising things depend on these boxes (that includes the one with the tag ‘no category’). Taking advantage of this human condition comes three old rockumentaries on the Shemaroo DVD label (Rs 499 each). And when they land together on your lap, you can’t but help join the dots.
Director Don Letts’ 2005 documentary Punk Attitude is the best of the pack, getting behind the punk scene through footages as well as by interviewing the guys who know what they’re saying because, well, ‘they were there’. We hear Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch share their take on what essentially was less of one single musical style and more an attitude worn by gents and bands as varied as Jerry Lee Lewis, MC 5, Television, the Ramones, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Nirvana.
Some of the footage of the great ‘minor’ bands — the Dictators, Suicide (their music can be termed as the ‘old New Wave’), the Screamers, the Bad Brains (a curio for many for being a black punk band) elbows us into trawling the sonic past to give them a proper listen. The film itself works well because it’s not just a wikipediac list of bands that ‘defined’ punk. In fact the film makes it clear that punk can’t exactly be defined — although I did shake my head furiously when someone insisted that the hippies were also “in a way” infused with the punk spirit. Bollocks. The free spirit of the Summer of Love types were as herdlike in their ‘Make love, not war’ dope as Wall Street-wallas buying-selling scrips and getting high on blow.
For me, two quotes stand out in this seemingly seamless film about musicians fuelled by a focused passion. One, Hilly Kristal, the late owner of New York’s legendary punk music club CBGB remembering two bands: “Two Sundays later we put Television in and the Ramones.” There’s a long pause after which he continues: “They were worse than Television.” The other is Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks saying how he thought that the Sex Pistols were great after he realised that the British band did Stooges songs and when he read Johnny Rotten’s line, “We’re not into music, we’re into chaos.” Which is pretty much what Punk Attitude captures in an orderly, non-hagiographic, non-soppy or sappy fashion.
Which is what you can’t say about Dick Carruthers’ 2005 Heavy Metal: Louder Than Life Volumes 1 and 2. This film is the opposite of Letts’ movie — it’s a cut and paste job of all the bands in the heavy metal-hard rock genre. And running for 250-odd minutes across two discs, you get a fair idea why metal has such a bad reputation when it comes to having some shortage in the intelligence quotient category. Most of those gushing about ‘the passion, man!’ in front of the camera say pretty much that: “The passion, man!”
The whole business of metal coming out of the porridge-mix of bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest gets a bit weary, especially by the time we’re going through Scorpions and Skid Row. Since no one mentions anything at any point about what, in my reckoning, was the first heavy metal song, the Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’, I decide to move on to grunge.
Doug Pray’s 1996 rockumentary, Hype! has more noble intentions than the metal mania nonsense — it wants to bust the ‘myth’ of a ‘Seattle scene’ in the late-80s-early-90s or the Sub Pop-created genre of music called ‘ grunge’. The film starts to bore after a point, but it does one sterling service: it makes me remember to dig out all those songs by the Melvins, Mudhoney, T.A.D., Love Battery, 7 Year Bitch... In other words all the good sounds we left when we heard Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains...