the punk documentaries you need to see
Visit the graffitied squats of 80s North London, watch polyester-suited local politicians denounce the moral evils of Sex Pistols fans, and meet the child star of California’s first-wave surf punk scene in this ultimate YouTube playlist of punk...
1. The eight-year-old queen of So Cal's surf punk scene
This 1981 documentary, made for Dutch television station VPRO, captures the angst and boredom that drove a generation of San Diego and southern LA teens out of their suburban garages and into the mosh pits of Suicidal Tendencies gigs. Once you get past the Dutch narrator's introduction, the interviews — with the original lineup of Suicidal Tendencies and The Germs among others — are all in English. The best part: the opening scene of velvet-clad Venus DeBraun, the eight-year-old lead singer of surf punk band Unit 3 and Venus (other members: her parents), screaming "I don't like beeeeer" into a microphone like a demonic punk Little Lord Fauntleroy.
2. Playing with pet rats in the squats of 80s London
"The face of the modern punk, an ugly face to some, but what an eloquent and creative group of individuals they are!" begins the Australian voiceover of this 1983 TV documentary about Islington's punk squatters. The camera follows a crew of mohawked, leather-clad kids down London's King's Road as they hassle tourists to pose with them for photos in exchange for money. Back home, in the condemned house where they live, the gang discuss their parents, love, sex, and pets, while wearing insanely amazing eye makeup. Things that are also amazing: the kids' names (Bumbox, Scumbag, Animal), how sweet they actually seem, and this line from the narrator: "It's hard to know who stands a greater chance of catching an infectious disease, the punks or the rats."
3. Don Letts' definitive history of punk
Released in 2005, Don Letts' Punk: Attitude gives an impressively thorough account of punk's origins and evolution, from the mid 70s to the present day. Spliced with rare concert footage of The Stooges, The Ramones, and The Clash, the film charts the punk revolution from 60s garage to psychedelia to glam rock and its influence on contemporary music. The film really stands out for its line-up of talking heads, which includes Siouxsie Sioux, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Jim Jarmusch, and Thurston Moore.
4. Captain Zip's late-70s punk home movies
Some of the most iconic footage of London's late-70s punk scene was captured — on lively, atmospheric Super-8 — by "Captain Zip," known to his colleagues at the ad agency where he worked by day as Phil Munnoch. After a quick wardrobe change, Munnoch spent his after-work hours as a fully immersed punk documentarian, creating an unparalleled visual record of the kids he hung out with in Chelsea — in all their PVC coated, dog collared, pin adorned glory. Nothing comes close to Captain Zip's footage in terms of authentic period details, and raw, unfiltered energy.
5. Punks and politicians face off at the BBC
In 1977, the BBC's roundtable documentary programme Brass Tacks broadcast an entire hour-long episode addressing the social threat of "punk rock," which, according to anchor Brian Trueman, had become "almost a battle cry in British society." "For many people it's a bigger threat to our way of life than Russian communism or hyperinflation," he says soberly into the camera. Not only does the episode illustrate punk's real social and political impact on 70s Britain — and the resulting moral panic about "freaks" and "troublemakers" and "social decline" — but it also contains amazing footage of interviews with concertgoers at Manchester's Electric Circus ("People are saying I look vile and obscene! Do I look vile and obscene?" complains one offended teenager). Highlights: a panel of punks earnestly explaining themselves to a panel of bespectacled British politicians, and a clergyman describing his efforts to spread the gospel to young punks through the singing of hymns.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Still from Brass Tacks via YouTube