As I wrote in this definitive list of the best punk documentaries of all time for Paste magazine a few years ago, the most successful punk rock chronicles convey the mindset behind the art — the emotion, the power and message that spoke to disenfranchised youth and created a movement. This is best achieved when the talking heads sharing are the people who created the music. The new Epix series Punk definitely has all the usual and necessary suspects as authorities sharing their perspectives. It also showcases the sonic belligerence and brilliance of the music in terms of volume, tempo and lyrics, and it’s a fun ride. But fans of punk culture will not be surprised nor illuminated too much because this ground has been covered, several times.
From punk’s garage-rock beginnings with Iggy Pop and MC5 to its modern, pop-friendly Warped Tour transition (see Punk’s Not Dead) to the CBGB/Ramones era (see End of the Century) to the British anarchist period and the Sex Pistols' spit-soaked reign (see The Filth & the Fury) to the D.C. hardcore scene with pioneers like Bad Brains and Ian MacKaye's bands Teen Idles and Minor Threat (see American Hardcore) to the L.A. underground repped by X and The Germs (see Decline of the Western Civilization), the footage here has been seen and (most of) the tempestuous tales have been told.
The four-part series airs every Monday (I was able to view it in its entirety via review screeners) and though the timeline presented may be familiar, I will give props for this updated look at the culture featuring the contributions of women, LGBTQ people and people of color in a more prevalent way than in previous surveys. Part 1, which aired last week, covered Detroit and the raw power of The Stooges, then moved into the diverse expression of the New York art music scene in the '70s, typified by the New York Dolls and the Ramones. It also celebrates the androgyny of the scene, repped not only by the Dolls but also Jayne County, who has the best quote in the episode. Speaking about Iggy, the transgender punk pioneer says, “He went against the grain and won!”
“The Ramones visit London in 1976 to discover a vibrant U.K. punk scene who reciprocate with a second British invasion of America, culminating in the Sex Pistols' disastrous U.S. tour and flameout in 1978,” reads Epix's synopsis of Part 2, which airs Monday, March 18. The debate over who really made “punk” a phenomenon clearly rages on. Johnny Rotten, aka John Lydon, as unfiltered and curmudgeonly as ever, obviously takes issue with those who suggest the Pistols were influenced by the Ramones, and in Punk, he blames this egregious assertion on us — the media.
“The major lie about the Ramones helping form us is we were already a band,” Lydon says in the doc, proceeding to blame “journalism” for the misinterpretation that the leather-jacketed New Yorkers came first. He also blames the press for perpetuating that spitting on the band was a positive thing (he hated it).
Lydon hates a lot of things and he's happy to share, which, like him or not, makes him the ultimate unapologetic embodiment of the genre. On the flip side, if this episode of Punk brings anything new to the table, it's the realization that as Rotten he was never not miserable even as his fame rose, thanks to a variety of factors including his asshole manager and junkie bassist. Some might charge that Lydon is a character, and everything he does is posturing, but in Part 2, we get glimpses of sincerity beyond the shit talk, and it becomes clear that he always felt misunderstood as an artist, or as he famously said when he called it quits, “cheated” as an artist.
Part 2 may be the most pivotal period covered in Punk and even if we all know how this one ends, it's worth a watch. It definitely made for some heated conversation at the L.A. screening and premiere of the series, which featured a panel including Lydon, Marky Ramone, Henry Rollins and Donita Sparks. Watch the video below and enjoy it as much as the series itself.
Epix, by the way, will be running punky programming all afternoon leading up to the premiere of Part 2, including Suburbia, Sid and Nancy, Wayne's World 2 and Rock n' Roll High School. Punk airs at 7 and 8 p.m. PST.
Here are the summaries and airdates for the next two episodes of the show:
Punk, Part 3: March 25
The Germs, Bad Brains, Black Flag, DOA and others dump gas on smoldering rage and alienation in America’s suburbs, igniting a blazing form of punk so extreme they call it hardcore, which, in turn, inspires a DIY culture and network that spans cities and bands across the continent and comes to define the genre.
Punk, Part 4: April 1
Despite itself, punk breaks big, highlighting the talents of Nirvana, Bad Religion and Green Day, while women roar onto the scene in defining bands such as Bikini Kill and L7, establishing punk as an enduring force, its spirit living on in the broader culture as we know it today.
More info here.