Punk, an exciting four-part Epix docuseries exec-produced by John Varvatos and Iggy Pop, manages to cover the movement’s various bases: gestation in the late-60s; NYC’s CBGB scene; London’s two-fingered salute to the establishment; the rise of hardcore in DC, LA and beyond. Legendary contrarians like John Lydon attempt to resolve timeworn debates, like whether UK punks ripped off their NYC counterparts (that beef spilled out into a chaotic panel discussion with Henry Rollins and Marky Ramone). But it’s the decision to show those who made it all happen—including Lydon, Debbie Harry, and the Slits’ Viv Albertine, to name a few—listening to the sounds they created and talking about its reverberations that make Punk worth watching.
Punk Epix Trailer
The series kicks off with the man who’s widely considered the godfather of the movement talking about one of the seeds of rebellion planted in his young mind. Iggy Pop says The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” was a welcome reprieve from the “sh*tty” Top 40 of the day and he recalls huddling under the covers past bedtime waiting for it to come on the radio as a kid. Pop says it “sounded like life in the Industrial Age: You were free of the blues, you were free of Perry Como, you were free of mom and dad—you were dangerous. You turned into a monster.”
The Kinks—“You Really Got Me” (Live on Shindig,1965)
The story picks up with another formative influence on Iggy and future punks: his fellow Detroit natives the MC5. The band’s co-founder Wayne Kramer tells how the anti-war and civil rights protests inspired the MC5 to “Kick out the jams.” As the footage of the band kicking into high gear at the infamously riotous Chicago Democratic National Convention of ’68, we get reactions from those the song inspired: NY Dolls’ guitarist Sylvain Sylvain; Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra, who effusively says “this is what changed my life,” and Black Flag singer Henry Rollins, who says the song was “the promise of what rock and roll could be.”
Iggy later recalls witnessing a shambolic and unruly Doors show at the University of Michigan’s Homecoming dance in ’67 that inspired him to wonder: If these people with a Number 1 song can do that, what excuse do I have?
“I stopped singing about mice and rainbows and started singing about having nothing to do and no fun and … animal sex,” Iggy goes on to say. About his band The Stooges he says: “No one rocked as hard as we did at that time.” No argument here.
The Stooges—“I Wanna Be Your Dog” (1969 studio recording)
One of the keys to Punk’s success is that it not only features those who helped create the music but also those who acted as catalysts like Legs McNeil, who co-founded the zeitgeist magazine that gave the movement its name, and Zelig-like figure Danny Fields. Fields was the Doors publicist and signed The Stooges and MC5. In Punk, he reveals he was ready to sign the Ramones 15 seconds into seeing them perform at CBGB in 1975, but it took a trip to Florida and a check from his mom to meet the band’s one signing condition—a $3000 drum kit—in order to seal the deal.
Speaking of CBGB, Marky Ramone, Jayne County, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, and Chris Stein bear witness to the grit and the grime that was Hilly Kristal’s famous downtown NYC venue, recalling the dogsh*t on the floor and the inedible chili and hamburgers once served there.
“Episode 2” shifts to London and we hear from Lydon, who cites The Kinks and Iggy but also Irish folk songs as key ingredients to his formation. Still very much the contrarian at 63, the former Sex Pistol talks about his distaste for the very word “punk,” citing the so-called dictionary definition of “Mr. Big’s toyboy in an American prison system” to which he deadpans: “I’m afraid I don’t fit that, but somehow the term stuck.” But in classic Lydon fashion, he follows the snark with a moment of insight when he says: “What’s really important to me is what punk turned into: honesty, originality and a genuine feel for my fellow human beings.”
John Lydon and Marky Ramone at post-screening Epix panel “discussion”
Episodes “3” and “4” cover late-70s/ early-80s hardcore and bands like Cro Mags, Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, The Germs, Black Flag and second wavers Nirvana, L7 and Bad Religion. Along the way, Joan Jett, the Slits’ Viv Albertine, and Palmolive, L7’s Donita Sparks are among the women who remind us just how crucial a role they played and continue to play in its ever-expanding reach.
Minor Threat and Fugazi co-founder Ian Mackaye sums up what might just be the most revolutionary thing about punk when he explains why teens continue to respond to it like he did when he first heard it:
“It’s just a piece of plastic spinning in a circle. What’s there to be scared of? It must be the ideas.”
-Photo Credit: The Damned pose outside CBGB’s club on the Bowery in New York in April 1977 L-R Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian, Brian James, Captain Sensible (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images)