- Punk In LondonPunk in EnglandReggae in a Babylon
Your humble reviewer gets to watch a lot of DVDs, and many of them are very good indeed, but rarely do I have the pleasure of watching anything that could be hailed as definitive. This trilogy of documentaries from 1978, directed by Wolfgang Buld and financed by the fine folks from German public television, finally comes to DVD, having been unavailable for almost two decades, and it absolutely earns the accolade.
Ever wondered what all the fuss was about punk? Punk In London encapsulates the time, the place, and the attitude better than any other documentary Ive ever seen. Interviews with not just some of the key bands but also club managers, roadies, and, in one dryly funny sequence, a budding singers parents, paint a vivid and accurate picture of the social conditions that gave birth to punk. English punk was, by and large, less art school and more working class, music born of boredom and frustration and a sense of hopelessness. I can vouch from personal experience that England was a pretty bleak place in the late 1970s, and its fascinating to hear these young musicians struggling to articulate this feeling both in the interviews and in their music. The live footage of The Clash, featuring two songs during the main documentary and more in a superb, unedited bonus feature, is absolutely stunning, their spartan light show allowing them to throw dramatic shadows onstage, leaving Joe Strummer bathed in white light, the veins in his temples bulging as he channels his fury into his performance. Equally riveting are the two performances by X Ray Spex, whose music still sounds, 30 years later, as if it was beamed down from an alien world. I doubt Ill watch a more fascinating, utterly essential DVD this year. Its full of treats for those who already know their Brit punk, and its a perfect entrance point for the curious.
Punk In England could easily be subtitled what punk did next, as it examines not only the second wave of punk bands (such as Spizz Oil, who changed their name and their sound every year to better reflect the changing times) but also the tribal offshoots like the ska and mod revivals that took inspiration from the original punk bands. Somewhat shorter than the previous film, Punk In England still manages to pack an awful lot of music into its 50-odd minutes. Terrific live footage of The Specials and Madness ably show why the ska revival became so popular, while a plodding live song and some eye-rollingly stupid observations from the widely derided Secret Affair show why the mod revival was thankfully less successful once original mod-punks The Jam moved on to crafting the best British pop since The Kinks. Theres some funny interview footage with Bob Geldof, five years before he became the worlds most famous charity organizer but nevertheless sporting the same massive ego even though his band is still playing fleapit dives, as well as an absolutely hysterical sequence where the future leader of 1980s stars Dexys Midnight Runners shows not one iota of promise (or any sort of vocal talent whatsoever) while fronting his first band, The Killjoys. More live Clash and a fantastic closing sequence with Ian Dury make this sequel arguably even better than the original. An added bonus is a 45 minute Women in Rock documentary that has two cracking performances by Siouxsie and the Banshees, but unfortunately, it spends way too much time interviewing white reggae outfit The Slits, whose main claim to fame is that Johnny Rotten married the lead singers mother.
_Reggae in Babylon _ is the slightest of the three, although its still terrific, openly asking how a music so firmly associated with Jamaica can survive and thrive for a different generation in the inhospitable and chilly climes of London. Fine live and in-rehearsal footage of some of Englands greatest reggae bands, such as the especially fiery Steel Pulse, and intelligent interviews make its 45 minutes fly by quickly.
If there is one criticism of these documentaries, its that these three features should be available together in a box set rather than as individual DVDs. The 45 minutes (with no extras) of _Reggae in Babylon _ is especially questionable in the bang for your buck department as a standalone, but to complain too loudly would be churlish. On the whole, these films are brilliant, _brilliant _ stuff, and at the very least, you owe it to yourself to grab the first two of these releases right now.