10 times punk rockers stole the show on American TV in the ’70s and ’80s
Starring Sex Pistols, Iggy and the Stooges, New York Dolls, the Dickies, the Clash, Ramones, Public Image Ltd. and GBHFebruary 24, 2021
You would think television (the medium, as opposed to Television, the band) and punk rock were a match made in heaven. After all, the music and culture are sharp, edgy and visually arresting. This should have made punk flawless televisual fodder, right?
Truthfully, punk and TV collisions have more often resulted in mutual incomprehension and antagonism, with a heaping plateful of exploitation and hostile sarcasm on the latter’s part. This was especially true on this side of the Atlantic Ocean during the ’70s. Rare was England’s Revolver, a sympathetic, Top Of The Pops-styled punk showcase hosted by comic genius Peter Cook, bringing bands such as the Jam and Generation X into British living rooms.
You mostly got “Shock! Horror!” news reports showing kids jamming safety pins through their cheeks as the Sex Pistols self-destructed across America, with reporters looking queasy enunciating their name. Or avuncular late-night talk show host Tom Snyder of The Tomorrow Show seated across from Iggy Pop or the Clash, asking if it wouldn’t be more commercially beneficial for them to clean up their acts and play softer. Or “punk” episodes of cop shows like Quincy or CHiPs tut-tutting at the latest “societal ill,” featuring 30-something actors playing villainous “punk” goons involved in some sort of crime. It reeked of Blackboard Jungle’s linking of ’50s rock ’n’ roll and juvenile delinquency via its opening credit sequence of greasy hoodlums bopping and jiving to Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock.”
It’s hard to say TV ever got it right with punk. But once in a while, the titillation got dialed down. Maybe a good performance was aired or a talk show host was less condescending and got some good answers. Hence, here are the greatest U.S. punk TV moments of the ’70s and 80s.
Iggy and the Stooges on Midsummer Rock, 1970
June 13, 1970: The Cincinnati Pop Music Festival was held at Crosley Field, the Cincinnati Reds baseball team’s home base. Performing: a huge list of the day’s long-haired greats, including Mountain and Grand Funk Railroad. A 90-minute syndicated special emerged, hosted by Today and Honeymooners announcer Jack Lescoulie to reassure Middle America. Which was surely wrecked once the (Arguably) World’s First Punk Band, Iggy and the Stooges, appeared on screen. The vision of a shirtless, pie-eyed Iggy Pop aggressively snarling “She got a TV eye on me!” repeatedly surely filled a few colostomy bags. Then he dived into the crowd, walking across their hands into immortality, pausing for (so he claimed) a pre-Dead Boys Stiv Bators to hand him a jar of peanut butter. It ended up all over Iggy’s chest and the audience’s heads, as Lescoulie gasped incredulously.
New York Dolls on The Midnight Special, Sept. 13, 1973
The Midnight Special premiered on NBC in February 1973, presenting the day’s rock acts performing live after The Tonight Show’s Friday edition signed off. It was hosted by pioneering American rock ’n’ roll DJ Wolfman Jack. Six months into its run, prior to the closing credits, the (Arguably) World’s Second Punk Band New York Dolls shocked and awed the nation’s James Taylor fans with 120 dB of “Personality Crisis.” Johnny Thunders ignited the roaring guitar riff with a baby doll strapped to his back, all swagger, stacked heels and ultra-teased hair. David Johansen strutted like a Max Factor-ed Mick Jagger. Syl Sylvain and his Flying V guitar pirouetted in matching leopard trousers and oversized bow tie. The kids in the front row appear shell shocked, save for two girls bopping at the stage’s lip. “Looking fine on television,” indeed.
Iggy Pop and David Bowie on Dinah!, April 15, 1977
Dinah Shore was a popular big band vocalist in the ’40s who transitioned into a beloved television host the following decade. She remained an American TV staple into the ’70s when some daring booker engaged a now-solo Iggy Pop—whose band featured his producer David Bowie on keyboards—to promote his new album The Idiot on her syndicated afternoon talk show. He writhed aggressively as he snarled “Funtime” and “Sister Midnight.” Shore attempted composure as Pop explained that his music was inspired by his father’s electric shaver and “the industrialism of Detroit.” “I think I helped wipe out the ’60s,” he later grins on the sofa, as Bowie does a spit take.
NBC Weekend English punk report featuring the Damned, Sex Pistols and more, June 25, 1977
One Saturday per month, 1974-1979, NBC would replace Saturday Night Live with Weekend. A news magazine considerably “hipper” and more offbeat than CBS’ 60 Minutes, it devoted a lengthy segment entitled “The New Elizabethans” this hot summer evening to the angry roar coming out of the U.K. “It is the newest music from the country where Handel composed ‘The Messiah,’” anchor Lloyd Dobyns intoned, as images of Eddie And The Hot Rods seething through Bob Seger‘s “Get Out Of Denver” filled the screen. “This is punk rock,” he continued, “and its purpose, one observer says, is to promote violence, sex and destruction—in that order.” Visions of safety-pinned kids walking down the King’s Road and pogoers ripping down ceiling tiles and electrical wiring to the Damned followed. Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren pontificated in the back of a taxi: “We are, at the moment, in a country that is economically depressed. When you’ve got 60% of these kids out of work or sitting around or hanging out in the streets, without a music that they feel can capture their imagination and inspire them to go forth, you have a whole force that is basically with very little future.” A potted Pistols history to date is also presented, culminating in footage of Johnny Rotten cutting his “God Save The Queen” vocal.
Sex Pistols on NBC’s Today Show, Jan. 6, 1978
The morning after their U.S. live debut, veteran NBC journalist Jack Perkins reported from Atlanta as Sid Vicious and Paul Cook stomped off, refusing to be interviewed unless he coughed up $10. Perkins noted the dregs of a beer and cigarette breakfast and two boxes of Clearasil. At the evening’s gig, powerhouse excerpts of “God Save The Queen,” “Seventeen” and “Anarchy In The U.K.” soundtracked and illustrated his assertions that Pistols and their music were “ugly.” He ended observing both Elvis and the Beatles’ shocking beginnings, as their talent enabled career longevity. His predicting the Pistols’ impermanence proved true days later when they broke up in San Francisco. Back at Rockefeller Center, co-host Tom Brokaw delved into the sociology behind the Pistols and punk. Someone had to—colleague Jane Pauley could only mock Atlantans paying $3.50 to watch Rotten “blow his nose.”
CPO Sharkey “punk rock” episode, featuring the Dickies and several L.A. punk scenesters, March 24, 1978
A short-lived sitcom starring insult comic Don Rickles as an acerbic Navy Chief Petty Officer stationed in San Diego, in charge of Company 144. In the 17th episode of its second season, the seamen check out a local punk club called The Pits: “It’s the new thing in music,” one recruit reports. “Ever hear of the Fingers, the Veins or the Skulls?” “Whadda they do?” Rickles shoots back. “Play background music during a heart transplant?” At 4:16, the Dickies play “Hideous” on a mock punk club set, as a rogue’s gallery of Masque denizens pogo away: Alice Bag and Terry Graham from the Bags, the Germs’ Pat Smear and Trudie from the Plungers.
Ramones on Sha Na Na, May 9, 1979
The syndicated comedy-and-music half-hour hosted by ’50s revivalists Sha Na Na presented the American punk kings in a skit parodying Family Feud. Supposedly, Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy were duped into appearing on a game show called “Greaser’s Feud,” pitting the “Sha Na Na family” (complete with the band’s hairiest members in drag) against the “Ramone family.” “Hey, you guys got it wrong,” Joey decried. “We’re not even related to each other!” “I’m afraid it’s a greaser’s fraud!” Johnny snarled. But all is forgiven as the Ramones bash out a pre-recorded “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” with a live Joey vocal.
The Clash on Fridays, April 25, 1980
London Calling and Train In Vain:
Guns Of Brixton and Clampdown:
Come 1980, the other two of America’s Big Three Networks were scrambling to duplicate the success of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Only ABC’s Fridays had a good run, accurately duplicating SNL’s edgy sketch comedy and live music mix. For the third episode, the show presented the Clash in their American TV debut. Taking a break from recording Sandinista! to promote the hit London Calling, Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon showed off fresh No. 2 skinhead crops. Guitarist Mick Jones sweated up a purple crushed velvet zoot suit. Taut and wired, “London Calling,” “Train In Vain” and “The Guns Of Brixton” assaulted ABC’s Burbank Studios. By the time of “Clampdown,” Strummer and drummer Topper Headon swapped shirts. They exited that stage stars.
Public Image Ltd. on American Bandstand, May 17, 1980 and on NBC’s Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder, June 27, 1980
Spaced 30 days apart while promoting Second Edition, the U.S. version of second LP Metal Box, John “I used to be Rotten” Lydon’s post-Pistols PiL put in two TV appearances, which likely netted the bookers their walking papers. They completely disrupted Dick Clark’s long-running pop music showcase, as Lydon refused to lip-sync either “Poptones” or “Careering.” Running around the studio, pulling clean-cut teenagers from the bleachers to dance and refusing to be interviewed were more fun. One month later, Lydon and guitarist Keith Levene spent nearly 12 minutes antagonizing Tomorrow’s Tom Snyder. The singer snarled that “rock ’n’ roll is dead,” that the Sex Pistols were meant to be “the last rock band” and that PiL were “not a band but a corporation with many interests.” As Snyder attempted to glean more info, Lydon bummed cigarettes and insulted the host. “I’m sorry the world is so out of step with you,” Snyder finally shrugged.
MTV Punks And Poseurs special, 1985
Four years into its existence as “radio for the eyes,” rock journalist Charles M. Young (who’d written the 1977 Rolling Stone Sex Pistols cover story, “Rock Is Sick And Living In London”) came to the network with an idea for a latter-day punkumentary. Presented as part of its “Saturday Night Concert” series, Punks And Poseurs centered on Los Angeles’ still-thriving scene. Interspersed with live footage from a Goldenvoice bill at the Olympic Auditorium starring U.K. thrashers GBH and Van Nuys pogoing wiseacres the Dickies, we’re treated to slices of punk life filmed at notorious local crashpad Disgraceland, featuring scensters/poets Iris Berry and Pleasant Gehman and her raucous cowpunk outfit the Screaming Sirens. There’s also fun stuff lensed at still-extant Melrose boutique Poseur and a segment featuring a 14-year-old explaining to an LAPD officer how to make liberty spikes.