For fans of any genre or movement in rock and roll history, sometimes it all comes down to time and place. Wouldn't have been great to be in THE PLACE? For the hippies, it was the Village or Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. In grunge, it was Seattle in 1991. For hip-hop, the place had to be New York in the early '80s.
But for a generation of disillusioned English kids, there was no place quite like the pubs and clubs of London in the late 1970s. Any punk fan would love to have been there -- or at least claim to have been. (The fan writing this wasn't born yet, though.) But very few actually were.
Fortunately, for anyone wanting a slice of what that scene was like, German filmmaker Wolfgang Büld was there. And he captured a little bit of it on film.
However, every bit of it is real, and Büld captures it wonderfully in his trilogy of England's revolution rock. Punk in London tells of the wild early days of the movement in the capital in 1977. Punk in England chronicles the movement's growth and influence on other genres as the '80s approached. Finally, Reggae in Babylon chronicles the growth of British reggae out of the punk movement.
Punk in London is decidedly low budget. There are no explanations of who the artists are. Interviews seem to come from nowhere at times. The few narrations are in German. It is indeed hard to follow.
This phenomenon is explained in Büld's interview in the disk's special features. While in film school in Germany, the young director was required to make a documentary of a subject outside of Germany. The time was perfect, so he hopped a plain to London and did all his shooting in two weeks.
For all the film's shortcomings as a polished documentary, it feels perfect. Punk seemingly came from nowhere. It was emphatically unpolished, with some of its acolytes openly resisting professionalism.
Büld's treatment of the material represents this perfectly, whether or not he intended it to. The concert scenes are generally shot with only one camera, which often comes from within the crowd. The footage is often hard to hear and may not even present an entire song.
It's all so grimy and raw, you can almost smell the sweat and smoke and spilled beer of these wild clubs.
The performances themselves are wildly erratic, as the punk scene most certainly was. Performances range from bad to forgettable to excellent. One gets live tracks from forgotten groups like X-Ray Spex, the Lurkers, the Killjoys and the Adverts mixed in with those still talked about such as the Jam and the Boomtown Rats.
The real joy of the first film, though, is performance of the Clash in Munich. Büld saved this performance to finish up the video, and it's a good choice on his part. The original film contains performances of "Complete Control," "Hate and War," "Police and Thieves" and "Garageland."
The special features give a full seven tracks, though, adding several more classic cuts.
The real treat of the Clash footage, though, is seeing Joe Strummer in action. For those of us never lucky enough to see the band live, his influence and clever songwriting is undeniable. At the same time, though, he was a less than polished singer and guitarist.
On stage, though, Strummer is a madman. The set contains two songs with Mick Jones on vocals, but the camera rarely leaves Strummer, and rightly so. The Clash's classic lineup of Strummer, Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were all essential, but Strummer was the undeniable rock star. That shines through clearly.
While the first film's overall feel is one of anarchy and youthful rebellion, Punk in England deals with the next logical steps. Out of control and under-talented bands like the Sex Pistols had flamed out. For those left, it was time to grow up and refine the sound a bit.
The documentary opens with Bob Geldof (yes, the one who was to become Sir Bob Geldof) talking about the change of the punk scene and how bands had to grow up and, sometimes, compromise the original message.
From there, we rejoin the Clash, who had somehow avoided losing their message, even as their audience grew. In the performance, we find the same energy evident in the first film, but a refined sound as the band plays "London Calling," the song that defines their greatest era of creativity.
The maturing scene wasn't just about the Clash, though. We also see the Jam refining their sound to a more classic kind of rock and roll. Even more telling, though, is the change of punk into other movements, as the film explores ska, new wave, mod and rude boy music.
The film ends with a pair of rehearsal tracks from the Pretenders. They play their big hit "Brass in Pocket" and Kinks cover "Stop Your Sobbing." The music is resoundingly un-punk.
The message seems to be, right down to the film's more polished production, that the first wave of punk is long dead. The chaos of it all has died, but perhaps the ideals and energy it infused into English music can carry into the 1980s.
The trilogy ends with a return to its roots, of sorts. Reggae in Babylon documents the growth of reggae bands in London. The irony of it all is that, while early punk bands were inspired by the reggae of Jamaica, these West Indian immigrants are influenced by punk to start a new movement of reggae.
Much like the first video, some of the production value slips. Once again, though, it seems to fit. Büld seems to once again be at the ground floor of a new movement and he captures it perfectly.
My spin: Büld's revolution rock trilogy isn't for everyone. The films have their faults and the music can be grating on those who aren't fans of the genre.
However, for those interested in the English music scene in the late '70s, it is certainly illuminating at times. The scene may have be regarded a bit too highly by later punk fans. Büld gives it to us warts and all, though.
It's the right way to present what was an exciting yet truly flawed musical movement.
Büld's three documentaries can be purchased online at www.seeofsound.com, with each disc at a price of $19.95.