Punk’s Not Dead – [DVD]

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Very few genres in the known pop diaspora are so dependent on sloganeering as a device to define itself than punk rock. ‘Say it with bricks,’ 'Anarchy Is The Key,' ‘Do It Yourself is the melody,’ and ‘Keep warm this winter – make trouble’ are all chestnuts that punk continues to use as defining points for itself (they all happen to appear on one of the T-shirts in my closet too) as important as the one Susan Dynner uses to introduce her documentary that digs into the most gloriously and proudly ragged and desperate genre in pop: Punk’s Not Dead.

The natural-born cynic in me wants to say, “If you have to defend it in such mortal terms, the best that punk could be doing is functioning on a combination of belief, warm memories and embalming fluid” but, in watching the film, it’s easy to see that the details punk rock's proposed untimely demise have indeed been greatly exaggerated; as long as people feel overlooked, glossed over or left behind by a society that assumes if they ignore that small faction of “dregs” long enough it’ll die off or evaporate, punk will never die. It may get relegated to being a battle cry of aggressive mediocrity and become creatively bankrupt eventually, but as long as people feel ignored and/or left behind – as long as the world is not ideally just – punk will never die; Not totally.

Punk’s Not Dead begins in the ideal spot to start telling the story of punk rock: At the beginning. Through interview footage of The Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Damned (mostly from talk shows of the time) viewers get a feel for how, when and why punk first appeared: the original wave of punks were penniless, working class stiffs that felt locked out of what they saw life offering others and so used what they knew (their upbringing and pop) to make their own outlet. It almost immediately caught on among younger demographics and young kids started paying attention which got their conservative forebears nervous. Through the media (footage of timely programs including Donahue, Quincy and CHIPs appears in the documentary to support this point), conservatives struck back and painted punks as either misguided unfortunates or mindless future criminals. They were, as Social Distortion front man Mike Ness says, “Public enemy number one.”

In spite (or maybe because) of the bad press, the punk movement expanded into Canada and South America, Europe and the Pacific rim while the original centers in the US and UK that started it all grew and younger kids developed hardcore as well as DIY ethics because they believed in the music  and wanted to see it survive even if no one else did.

With that stage set all within the first twenty minutes of the documentary, Punk’s Not Dead explodes the scope of what punk is, how it has expanded and the position in pop culture that it now occupies. Some of what the film implies is pretty thought provoking; early on, Punk’s Not Dead puts Green Day, Rancid, Nirvana and The Offspring as all feeding at the same creative trough which is something that, for the most part, has never been contended before. Grunge and punk are the same beast? Maybe, but either way it’s presented as an inconvenient truth in the film that, viewers will be wrestling to digest when it's first implied. What can’t be argued is that both punk (and especially the renaissance of it) and grunge came along at the perfect time in human history because even the global economic superpowers were suffering from a recession and everybody felt ignored and either misrepresented or abandoned. That’s the point at which, in this early going, Punk’s Not Dead gets across: punk broke on a global scale around 1991 or 1992 because it was no longer a small faction that felt disenfranchised, it was an enormous one.

On that point, Punk’s Not Dead takes a second to let everyone weigh in: members of Social D, Green Day, The Offspring and Pennywise all say that they felt that, like David and Goliath, they’d fought the powers that be and won, and in a lot of ways they did. If punk didn’t become a global institution, establishments like Hot Topic wouldn’t exist because there would be no lifestyle to blanche, mass produce and make a profit from; as Joey “Shithead” Keithley of DOA says in the film, “We did it for fun, and to challenge boundaries.”

And in the genre’s pressing against perceived limitations, the music set a new standard that is now regarded as normal and perfectly acceptable behavior.

Punk’s Not Dead goes through all of these out-growths (bands and labels that appeared literally everywhere – around the globe) and developments to chart the course of where the genre started versus where it’s been versus where it’s going (at this point Chris Morris, writer with Billboard, coins the ominous phrase ”punk inspired music” to explain the difference between the music appearing now and that which came before) in an uncertain marketplace. The perpetually angry Mike Ness says it best though when he says, “Twenty-five years later, and the mainstream sheep have opened their minds a little bit. Obviously they are; they’re letting their kids dye their hair now and wear punk rock T-shirts to school. These are parents that were throwing apples at the punk rockers from across the quad in high school but now it’s cute and it has crossed over.”

Some people are balking at this notion right now and they have every reason to. Where once the music was an anti-establishment statement of a counterculture, punk rock is now very much a mainstream fixture and the film addresses that fact from both sides as it interviews penniless punk kids at a show as well as the owners of Hot Topic to get both sides and addresses the Warped Tour phenomenon in the same breath. Wisely, the film steers clear of making any hard claims for one side or the other and instead presents the culture as it is rather than what one sub-group wishes it could be.

Equally wise is the fact that the proceedings don’t attempt to predict what’s going to happen next or mine the possibility that some band might break in the near future and instead focuses on the longevity of many of some of the bands that are still working. Bands like Bad Religion, Social Distortion, The Adicts, The Damned and GBH get special notice for having fathered the music in the late Seventies and continue to perform while Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and My Chemical Romance draw in new fans which, really when you think about it, is the measure of punk as an enduring form; bands come and bands go, but the sound and spirit remain. The same thing could be said of more accredited and revered genres like jazz and rock n’ roll. Because of that, it’s the height of simplicity to both insinuate and prove that “Punk’s not dead” because it isn’t; Miles Davis and Charlie Parker died but jazz remains, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix died but rock n’ roll remains and the same is true of punk rock in spite of its collection of iconic corpses as well. This film presents all of the things that punk has been in its thirty-three year existence and well as the lives it has changed and the lives it has taken as well as why the music will continue on: because as long as the human conditions continues, so will the same sequence of mistakes over and over. It sounds a little bleak, but it really isn’t; it’s an incredibly re-affirming statement.

More Info, including trailer:

Punk's Not Dead is out now on MVD. Buy it NOW on


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