By Paul Whitelaw
God save the Queen! I mean it, man. In this week of Jubilee ma’amageddon, during which every other programme seems to have a royal theme – Coronation Jubilee, 8 Out Of 10 Jubilees, Pointless Jubilee, The Hairy Jubilees etc – BBC 4 have chosen, rather cheekily I suppose, to present an alternative celebration marking the 35th anniversary of the outbreak of punk.
Friday, BBC 4, 9pm
WE WHO WAIT: TV SMITH & THE ADVERTS
Friday, BBC 4, 11pm
EVIDENTLY... JOHN COOPER CLARKE
Wednesday, BBC 4, 10pm
The press blurb for this season – which also includes programmes on BBC Radio 6 Music – describes punk as “the most genuinely transformative force in British popular music history”, and as hyperbolic as that sounds, it’s hard to disagree (if one discounts the initial emergence of rock ‘n’ roll itself, of course).
With a few honourable exceptions, most of the actual music forged in its first thrilling flush hasn’t stood the test of time, but as the three-part documentary, PUNK BRITANNIA, makes clear, punk was never just about music. It was a cultural blitzkrieg wrought from a bubbling stew of musical influences and socio-political factors, many of them contradictory. And it’s those very contradictions that chapter one of this series seeks to address, by devoting almost an entire hour to its knotty origins in the early ’70s. The Sex Pistols and The Clash are mere glimmers in the orbs of the main-players here; the bratty scion of the thuggish pub rockers who initially sprang up as a reaction against the prevailing musical orthodoxies of the time.
Now, as the narrator more or less states outright, an avalanche of nonsense has been spouted about punk over the years, and although this punchy programme doesn’t entirely dispense with the usual simplifications and generalisations, it does at least attempt to explain how punk was an explosion just waiting to happen. If anything, it confirms that there can never be a consensus on precisely what it meant and where it came from, and that any attempt to reach one is pointless.
Indeed, most of the talking heads here – crumpled middle-aged men sitting in rustic kitchens, mainly – blatantly disagree as to its fundamental triggers. Some of them bridled at the artifice of glam, others embraced it as a gateway to the future. And despite the Year Zero posturing of the class of ’77 - “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” crowed The Clash – many of them were huge fans of the rockers of the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s.
So, courtesy of wonderfully evocative footage of beer-brown pubs bathed in sweat and smoke, we’re plunged into the familiar narrative of clapped-out ’70s Britain, with rubbish piled up in the streets and bored youths slouched in horrid vinyl armchairs, where the likes of Dr Feelgood dragged music back to basics in rebellion against Rick Wakeman playing repulsive pseudo-classical squall on two synthesizers simultaneously. “Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t about The Hobbit,” sneers Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson in an archive interview, thus neatly summing up the underlying ethos. It was an entirely reactionary movement, in the best possible sense.
For scholars of popular music history, it’s tempting at times to yawn, “Blah blah blah, we know all this,” but that’s perhaps unfair to the scope and ambition of these superb Britannia programmes, which do a commendable job of covering their subjects in as much detail as possible. This one in particular captures the incredible rush of excitement of arguably the last major youth movement to have an impact on society on any meaningful and lasting level. As a dizzyingly subversive, establishment-baiting cultural game-changer, we’ll never see its likes again.
Old punks never die, they just plough on unbowed regardless of what fate drops in their way. That’s the heartening message behind two splendid tributes to tireless punk survivors this week. WE WHO WAIT: TV SMITH AND THE ADVERTS traces the rocky career path of the distinctly English singer-songwriter who took his short-lived band into the top 20 in 1977 with Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, and subsequently spent the next three decades struggling against waves of hostility and indifference, before reinventing himself as an in-demand DIY troubadour.
As a dignified portrait of an uncompromising artist, it’s beaten only by the hugely inspiring EVIDENTLY, in which awe-struck admirers such as Steve Coogan, Stewart Lee, Jarvis Cocker and Alex Turner queue up to lavish deserved praise on the iconoclastic Salford poet-cum-comedian John Cooper Clarke. The man himself – who today resembles Bob Dylan and all of the ageing Rolling Stones rolled into one magnificent streak of pith – sweetly undercuts the bouquets with his down-to-earth wit and warmth. You may find yourself slightly falling in love with him.
An astonishingly gifted wordsmith, Cooper Clarke is one of the few living artists who deserve the mantle of genius, and as Stewart Lee points out, if he was French he’d have received the highest honours in the land by now. But he’s not, so he’ll just have to contend with being part of the GCSE curriculum, which is a delightful honour in its own small way. Never mind Her Maj’, if anyone’s deserving of wall-to-wall national applause, it’s the man who wrote Daily Express (You Never See a Nipple In The).
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east