PUNK BRITANNIA – BBC Four

Rock Britannia is yet another documentary series about the “filth and fury” of punk rock in the UK but this one at least has the virtue of putting the subject into a wider context.

There is still something ironic about the fact that this kind of sociological study is being conducted by the very institution that banned the first two Sex Pistols singles from the airwaves.  When ageing punk rockers look back and recall an oppressive climate of ultra conservatism in the 70s, let’s not forget that the BBC were ,and are, at the heart of the establishment that lend credence to such values. It’s only because three decades have passed that they can be sure that any revolutionary threat to the status quo has been quelled.

Part one (1972-76) focused mainly on the vibrant pub rock scene with bands like Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe and Dr Feelgood.  The third and final part (1978 -1981) looked at the “refuseniks and malcontents” of ‘post punk’ which also got burdened with the more insipid label of  ‘New Wave’. This was worth watching alone for Gareth Sager of The Pop Group‘s assessment of that band’s sound as “avant-garde jazz meets King Tubby at the roots of hell”.

Among the numerous, and mostly legitimate, testimonies, Adam Ant featured prominently looking and sounding a bit of a prat. I’m at a loss to explain why he should be considered such an authority on the subject. I’m suspicious of a guy who so rapidly set aside any fledging anarchic tendencies to become a dandy pop highwayman.

The documentary is flawed too in that it gives the impression that you had to be a regular at  the Roxy Club to have your finger on the pulse. London was the place to be at the start but word spread like wildfire throughout the UK. I was living in Birmingham at the time and can vouch for the fact that the scene was not confined to the capital.

Another weakness of the programmes is that deeper analysis is sacrificed in favour of rash generalisations and sweeping hyperbole. We hear how Punk “had torn down the walls of the establishment and imploded” and I lost count of how many tunes were “soundtracks to a new Britain”.

If you took the information at face value, you would be forgiven for thinking that punk had single-handedly transformed a grey and boring nation into a country that was more dynamic and self-critical.

Johnny Rotten /John Lydon offers a more realistic and articulate assessment and is right to be sceptical about these more outlandish claims. He wonders out loud if there is such a concept as “inverted subversiveness” and, if so, reflects that this would be a more accurate description of the so-called punk ‘revolution’.

In truth, the UK is not so different a place as it was in 1976. The recent royal wedding and celebrations to mark the Queen’s 60 years on the throne show that Brits are still in thrall to the monarchy while the ‘Breadline Britain’ articles in The Guardian illustrate that serious social problems persist.

So the moral is : a punk attitude is as necessary now as it was then.

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