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Don Lett's Punk Rock Movie - 30 years on
on 15 November 2008
Until about a year ago I hadn't watched this film since about 1983. It seemed an artifact then. Now, nearly 25 years later and 30 years on since much of it was shot by Don Letts on Super 8, it really is from another era. However the film holds up surprisingly well and it's worth seeking out a copy if you're interested in not only the music but also the whole impact on life for many people of the 1977 punk explosion.
Don "The Screaming Target" Letts and Peter Clifton, the film's Australian producer, shot the bulk of the footage in 1977. Subsequently Letts was a founder member of the trail blazing but little heard Basement 5 in 1978 and the way more commercially successful Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones, formerly of the Clash, in 1984. He's since made a great many promo videos and a number of films, including the excellent 2005 documentary "Punk:Attitude" which does use some material originally featured in "Punk Rock Movie".
The story behind the film is that in 1976 Letts was managing the clothing shop "Acme Attractions", a King's Road rival to McClaren and Westwood's "Sex". The shop's accountant, Andy Czechowski, decided to open a punk music venue as much of the usual regular touring circuit was banning punk bands at the time after the fury stirred up by the Sex Pistols appearance on the Bill Grundy tv show in December 1976. Czechowski asked Don to djay at the club, the Roxy. Hardly any punk music was yet available on vinyl so Letts played some older releases by the likes of the New York Dolls, Stooges and MC5 plus his favourite reggae records. The result was that many punks were turned onto reggae (the mix CD released in 2001 "Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown" replicates a typical Letts set at the Roxy circa 1977).
Around this time Letts was given a basic Super 8 camera by Caroline Baker, the then editor of Vogue magazine. For these reasons much of the footage was filmed at the short lived Roxy in the spring of that year, together with some amusing scenes of police raids on "Boy" (a Kings Road successor to "Acme Attractions") when complaints were received about them supposedly having body parts in their window display.
Initially Letts was just filming the bands he saw live for fun and to watch at home. At the time Letts said "with Super-8 film you only get three minute cassettes but the punk bands seem to cram everything into about 2.5 minutes which is really fortunate for me. Even when I speak to them they seem to run out of things to say in about three minutes." But then someone wrote in NME "Don Letts is making a movie" and he thought maybe that wasn't actually such a bad idea.......
From that press snippet the embryo of what became "The Punk Rock Movie" formed. Editing took place, using sellotape for splicing, at Jeannette Lee's kitchen table, his co-manager from "Acme Attraction" and also his girlfriend. An early 60 minute version of the film was first shown at the ICA in London in late summer 1977. Later versions, including footage of John Lydon's post Pistols trip with Letts to Jamaica in 1978, surfaced in the late 70s and 1980s on vhs and at occasional cinema screenings.
The footage of the Sex Pistols from April 1977 and the Clash from the "White Riot" tour in May will be what attracts many people initially but the film includes much, much more including the only appearance I know of the Banshees with Pete Fenton on guitar, playing the unreleased song "Bad Shape". It later includes his replacement, John McKay, at a gig filmed when the Banshees supported the Heartbreakers on tour in October playing the classic "Carcass". The difference in playing standards of the two band line ups is marked and emphasizes how rapidly many of the bands, especially the Banshees, evolved from one chord wonders to highly original bands.
The live recordings in The Punk Rock Movie capture some very exciting moments in the development of some of the artists, especially the Slits and X Ray Spex. Seeing footage of these bands, plus the Heartbreakers, ATV, Eater, Subway Sect, Generation X, Slaughter and the Dogs and Wayne County is what make the film especially interesting.
Backstage and tour bus antics all add to the film, including Ari Up and the rest of the Slits having to prepare for a gig at Ari's Holland Park Comprehensive school by clearing away the chairs from the school's assembly hall. Shane McGowan can be seen pogoing at the Roxy in his Union Jack jacket in the opening scenes. There is also a darker side to the film, with some graphic shots of people (ok, it's Keith Levene) shooting up in toilet cubicles and one guy slashing his chest and stomach with a razor blade - not for the squeamish. Neither is Eater pulverising a pig's head on stage with a hammer. However most of the film is live, loud, music featuring some great 1977 footage of energetic up and coming bands plus their audiences.
The film got a dvd re-issue at last in June 2008. Complaints have been made by many people about the over dubbing of studio versions of some songs onto much of the live footage and apparently the picture quality has been digitized and has lost some of its original feel. However I think people forget how rough and ready the original was and should accept it for what it is - a unique warts and all records of gigs at the Roxy, Vortex etc in 1977. The German version of dvd I have features as an extra a commentary from the Australian producer Peter Clifton plus an interview he shot in Sydney with John Lydon in 1985.