When the Ramones first performed “Blitzkrieg Bop” at CBGB some 44 years ago, no one could have imagined the song would be heard in virtually every stadium and in multiple TV spots for mainstream products like Coppertone, GoPro, Peloton, AT&T and Taco Bell.
And punk rock, the genre of music that the Ramones and so many others ushered in, seemed destined for an equally short shelf life. Yet despite its built-to-self-destruct ethos, punk rock has not only endured, it continues to attract fans both old and young — anyone who’s read this far has probably already heard about the dust-up between Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (aka Rotten) and former Ramones drummer Marc Bell at an onstage Q&A last week to promote the film, which is at turns hilarious, pathetic and ridiculous, and often all three at once.
Two current documentaries illustrate the genre’s remarkable durability and continued relevance: Premiering tonight is Epix’s new four-part docuseries, “Punk,” which was executive produced by punk godfather Iggy Pop and fashion icon John Varvatos (and directed by veteran filmmaker Jesse James Miller); and Showtime’s “The Godfathers of Hardcore,” a look at ‘80s New York band Agnostic Front and how different their lives are now.
“Punk” examines the conditions that created the genre and its enduring influence on music, fashion and culture. As Spheeris says early in the doc, “Punk has lived this whole time, and it will live forever. Anyone who says, ‘Punk is dead…’ That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” That sentiment is echoed by longtime music writer (“Please Kill Me”) and Punk magazine co-founder Legs McNeil, who insists the genre will continue to thrive as long as there are angry kids screaming at their parents.
“How can it be dead?” asks Lydon, with typical half-joking self-regard. “I’m still here.”
Pop picks up the narrative from his days as a kid growing up in a Detroit trailer park bashing on the drums, with his parents’ blessing, listening to The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” on his Zenith radio, “with the covers pulled up over my head because it was my bedtime. It sounded like life in the industrial age: You were free of mom and dad, you were dangerous, and you turned into a little monster… a punk.” From there, he decided to “bring the blues to suburban juvenile delinquency” with his bandmates, the Stooges, influenced equally by their friends and fellow punk progenitors the MC5, as well as the Doors’ Jim Morrison.
The genre took root in dirty old 1970s New York City, as the glam-rock snarl of the equally influential New York Dolls spawned the legendary CBGB scene of the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith and Blondie. There’s also a glimpse into the origins of Punk magazine and how the term was largely dismissed by the bands first described that way. Many luminaries of the scene weigh in, including Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke, MC5’s Wayne Kramer (on playing “Kick Out the Jams” at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago), the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris, the Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain, Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, Flea, Joan Jett, Bob Gruen, Suicide’s Marty Rev and the Avengers’ Penelope Houston, among others.
“That’s the great part of this movement,” insists McNeil. “It liberated people into being who the f— they wanted to be.”
The Agnostic Front doc, “The Godfathers of Hardcore” (currently available on Showtime On Demand) recalls another film, 2011’s “The Other F Word,” which examines the contrast between aging punk-rock icons’ onstage and home lives — such as Pennywise vocalist Jim Lindberg, who goes from shouting “F— Authority!” to rabid crowds to to raising his suburban family. Here, we see Agnostic Front lead singer Roger Miret, who also navigates the path between anarchy and domesticity.
Agnostic Front was one of the acknowledged leaders of the New York City post-punk hardcore movement of the early ‘80s that centered around the East Village, along with contemporaries like Cro-Mags, Murphy’s Law, Reagan Youth, Ludichrist and Sick of it All. The scene’s major alum turned out to be the Beastie Boys (albeit after a drastic stylistic change from hardcore to hip-hop). Like the skinhead movement in the U.K. and straight-edge in Washington, DC, hard-core eschewed sex and drugs for three-chord rants of personal and political liberation, introducing such aggro male pursuits as slam-dancing, mosh pits and full body tattoos to popular culture.
Miret and mohawked guitarist Vinnie Stigma remain the heart and soul of the band some 40 years later, and the two longtime bandmates couldn’t be more different. Miret is married with two young kids and a heart condition which has his family concerned his grueling tour schedule will leave them without a husband and father, while Stigma is a Mohawk-wearing gregarious single guy who lives a “peaceful existence” in the Little Italy apartment building he grew up in, though now surrounded by a gentrified neighborhood which makes him feel like an outsider on his own turf.
“Godfathers” follows the two as they go about their business, with several scenes juxtaposing their youth to their current status as grizzled vets, their longtime punk outsider status morphed into as normal a middle-class existence as possible when you’re covered in ink from head to toe. “I’m a regular guy, just like you,” says Miret at one point, and the juxtaposition between his vein-popping, rabble-rousing stage act and parenthood is never more apparent than when he’s reading his kids to sleep or worrying about his heart condition with his wife.
That Agnostic Front has lasted this long — making a living on touring and the occasional album — is a tribute to its semi-famous cult status. They may be a blip on the mainstream radar, but they have outlasted many of better-known contemporaries.
Still, the more sobering aspect of seeing both docs turn out to be the ravages wrought on the human body by a lifetime of drug abuse and rocking out against the aging process. On one hand, the survival of an Agnostic Front or an Iggy Pop is a something to celebrate — but on the other it’s a bittersweet reminder of the old show business mythology, that the road will eventually prove us all mortal in the end.