I used to think the original British punks were terribly served by the movies. In the 1980s, it seemed like only three films depicting the scene were ever shown, and each was more depressing than the next. First, there was Don Letts’ The Punk Rock Movie (1978), a super-8 compilation of live performances at the Roxy that suffered from atrocious sound, complete lack of context, and some exploitative shock-horror audience footage. Then there was D.O.A.–A Rite of Passage (1980), which depicted the Sex Pistols’ disastrous final tour through the southern United States; it’s an absorbing if ugly document, a kind of punk Gimme Shelter that captures the last desperate moments when everything fell apart. Finally, there was Sid and Nancy (1986), a well-acted but willfully lurid biopic about British punk’s least inspiring figure. (John Lydon: “To me this movie is the lowest form of life.”)
Where, I kept wondering, was the political savvy, playfulness, and do-it-yourself experimentalism that I kept reading about? Where was the righteous energy that fairly leaped from the grooves of the first Clash album? For awhile, I was leery of punk because most of what I knew came from Letts’ movie: unintelligible songs, fans shooting amphetamine in grungy restrooms, some dazed idiot languidly slashing his torso with a razor, and Slaughter and the Dogs hacking at a pig’s head someone lobbed onto the stage.
How I wish I had seen Raw Energy, an hour-long documentary of mysterious origin that was issued on DVD as Punk–The Early Years. Shot in 1977-78, it’s a fascinating artifact with the grainy immediacy of a dispatch from the front. Together with Wolfgang Büld’s Punk in London (1977) and Punk in England (a.k.a. Punk and Its Aftershocks) (1980), which will be posted here in weeks to come, you get a much more vivid picture of first-wave punk and what it meant to the average kid than in any of the more celebrated films–and since they captured the scene as it was happening, there’s no revisionism or myth-making to wade through.
Raw Energy is by no means a complete picture. In keeping with the spirit of the music, director Piers Bedford made the best of whatever limited resources were available–which inevitably resulted in some cut corners and unfortunate choices. To wit: many of the top-tier bands are missing, yet there’s a generous helping of Eddie and the Hot Rods (fine, but it’s R&B, not punk). A synthetic Generation X performance was created by coupling the studio version of “Your Generation” with live footage of the band performing who-knows-what. And the Slits were still pretty godawful at this point, though their messy, feral stage presence is something to behold.
Devotees of the scene will still find this a valuable document of a pivotal moment in pop culture history. Highlights include interviews with crucial early figures like Jordan, Siouxsie Sioux, and Mark P.; record company execs sounding more intelligent than you’d expect; Billy Idol sounding more intelligent than you’d expect; Marc Bolan giving his elder-statesman nod of approval, in what would be his final interview; a sloppy but spirited performance from the Adverts; and the ever-adorable Poly Styrene, with and without X-Ray Spex.