thoughts whilst watching Julien Temples The Clash New Years Day 1977 at the Roxy documentary
Julien Temples annual dose of punkstalgia was another short, sharp shock of when we still believed guitars could change the world. The Clash were full of fury and song and the grainy footage of a young band weeks into their existence scratching out their songs in the piss stained Roxy club sounded thrilling to anyone who is eternally in love with the corrugated iron scratchiness of classic rock n roll.
This was historical stuff- like one layer further down in a celluloid archaeological dig- the proto Clash with the recently departed Keith Levene’s ghost still in the air and the band’s paint spattered, art school take on punk before all the bondage and the boots.
The Clash, of course, looked and sounded amazing. It may have been grinding and thrillingly out of tune but even that was perfect (of course!). It was like it was so urgent that it had to be said at that very moment and damn the technicalities- five minutes later would have been too late.
Strummer was still settling into his new role of the punk rock father figure but on stage he was mesmerising, Mick was in his element- alive to the moment with all his pop culture genius firing on full and Paul was sublimely and paint spattered cool and the Clash were being born right in front of our eyes- Julian Temple’s trick is being there- surely the key thing for any film maker- he was right at the front, in the pit, the war photographer in the middle of the high decibel war.
The audience looked so damn young, a hundred fresh faces and a thousand stories waiting to be told, Shane MacGowan was a skinny speed rat and Sid goofily gurned for the camera whilst other familiar faces lurched out of the gloom as a firebrand youth culture was born right in front of Julian Temple’s camera. It was still too early for it to be trapped by cliches and then crushed by careers. This is when bands really matter- when the audience is right in front of them, everyone feels the same and there is delicious combat to be had and the soundtrack is stunning with the razor blade guitars on full and the boom boom boom of Don Letts’ dub death disco sounding as urgent as the punk rock.
The gig, on New Year’s Eve just before the two sevens clashed, was a powerful and thrilling piece of rock n roll brimful of attitude and danger and expectancy. The guitars may have have been out of kilter but all great rock n roll is out of tune – it’s about the moment, the message and the electricity and this film was brimful of the moment.
In the middle of all that grainy footage it seemed like another world. It’s now like looking at documentaries from World War Two with mohair jumpers and cut and paste haircuts. The footage that Julien Temple splices in-between the band’s rudimentary yet still fantastic grind seemed to have been shipped from Victorian England. Long lost red brick cities and battered half closed markets and the murk of the endless British weather, a nation on the blink with bankruptcy around the corner and out of control bankers and dim starched collar economists clueless without an empire to pillage, Britain looked battered and people looked tired. The punks were dancing on the corpse and their revolution of the everyday was snapped into a fierce focus. They were the demonic dandies on the streets with felt tipped and xeroxed manifestos dancing as their world turned dayglo.
The biggest tragedy was that the fears of the non punk public in the film clipped from documentaries were the same as now, the feeling that there must be more and that they were being fleeced, cheated and lied to and that the UK was collapsing all around them. Their answers were not always good but their sullen fear was palpable. Punk reacted to that in the best way that it could by dressing up and sneering back and pogoing on the empire bones.
In 2015 it still feels the same- the city centres have been rebuilt but who for? the surrounding areas are still broken hearted and the insidious right wing are getting a grip, music has been neutered and the fragile and brilliant talent that still exists in the new generation has been marginalised and pushed aside as the Britschool showbiz and Cowell pop bunnies and the suburban nice indie janglers get all the media. In multi media UK surely there is room for everybody…
People still call for an electric revolution and god knows we need one. When the Clash have been co opted by the likes of Boris Johnson and colonised by his chums on the new right it makes you wonder just what rock n roll roll can do- and in these times of fractured pop culture can anyone reach out across the cracks? and if we want a revolution- what revolution do we want? or do we just like the word? is it a buzz word, a sexy come on for best sellers? punk was the last great folk music and if modern folk music is Mumford and the Sons we are in deep trouble. Will the revolution be televised, be digitised or even played out on guitars. Will it be MP3 or vinyl or viral. Will it be even be musical? will it even happen?
These glimpses into a not so recent past are always strange to watch, they thrill you and then depress you, they make you feel old and young at the same time. Pop culture used to be about the now and is now a vibrant yet dusty museum. What really works though is the music and if the rest of the UK looked so tired and ancient in the film it was the young punks who were freeze framed into the future that have oddly never dated. A young John Lydon leered at the camera and looked like he was from about five years from now and it was the timelessness of the moment that was the most powerful thing about the film.
Can we ever have this revolution? was punk even a revolution at the time? or was it series of question marks that part of a generation have been trying to answer ever since? a situationist prank that went out of control as the rest of our peers morphed into Jeremy Clarkson?
The biggest danger of no future is actually the future- the past is a prison and the future is up for grabs. The establishment that people railed against was far more filthy and perverted and downright strange and ugly than anyone could ever have imagined and they still run the show.
Punk rock was thrilling and dangerous and oddly naive and innocent, it has taken all this time for music this noisy to be allowed into the mainstream TV- at the time they had no chance and it’s great to hear the class of 76 no and then on the radio and TV but a young band now with the same intent and beautiful noise would have no chance of radio play.
Its the same old same old.
There is still no future in England’s dreaming.