Britpunk was born out of a movement. However, England no more invented punk rock in 1976 than McDonald’s invented the hamburger. Punk was an idea airborne worldwide across 1975. Local freaks who’d bought Stooges and New York Dolls records formed bands in their image, unaware anyone else shared their disgust with the day’s dominant culture.
The Ramones in NYC, DMZ in Boston, the Sex Pistols in London, Radio Birdman and the Saints on opposite ends of the Australian continent and the Dead Boys (under their original name of Frankenstein) in Cleveland all played their first gigs roughly in the same moment. Come 1976, someone noticed all these similarly minded delinquents, dubbing them “punk rock” after a phrase used in the liner notes of Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation of ’60s American garage bands, also common to these people’s record collections.
But it took England to capture the public’s attention, then define the music and look in the collective mind. Sure, American precedents inspired it. (The Ramones introduced Britain to speed and black leather jackets.) But the U.K. essentially perfected punk’s sound and style and cemented its popular definition. Here we present audiovisual documentation of early Britpunk in all its snarling, spitting, pogoing, tattered glory. Beginning with the only TV news show to get it right…
1. London Weekend Show Punk Report, Nov. 28, 1976
“Don’t accept the old order,” Johnny Rotten drones monotonously as he clips his nails for ITV’s cameras. “Get rid of it.” Host Janet Street-Porter was the rare mainstream journalist sympathetic to early punk, documenting the original vibrancy as record company contracts were first offered to the new order Rotten represented. Refreshingly, the reportage eschews all of the later sensationalism, presenting an organically grown culture as it was germinating. The original Glen Matlock-era Sex Pistols detonate “Pretty Vacant” in front of a pogoing audience—demonstrating what a powerful band they were—before fielding questions in their Denmark Street rehearsal room, Steve Jones rising from bed to pull on his trousers. The Clash vibrate chemically through their first televised interview, bassist Paul Simonon rocking and chewing his lip. Early punk fans known as “The Bromley Contingent” meet in a cafe, with future Siouxsie And The Banshees bassist Steve Severin lamenting, “We’ve been there for five years or more, just waiting for this to happen!” 100 Club booker Ron Watts insists that the punk scene “was the only thing that could happen. It…didn’t come from the industry.”
2. Sex Pistols – “Number One”
Pre-Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth And The Fury film student Julien Temple aimed a lens at a TV screen and edited together TV’s initial attempts at making sense of the Sex Pistols as they scandalized the nation and rallied the youth. So we see Sex shop frontworker Jordan inform Manchester’s televiewers, “The Sex Pistols are, if possible, even better than the lovely Joni Mitchell,” before they unleash “Anarchy In The UK” for the first time on future Factory Records boss Tony Wilson’s So It Goes program. We also get Welsh Christians attempting to ward off the evil Anarchy tour with Christmas carols; the infamous “fucking rotter” Bill Grundy interview that made the band notorious overnight and “God Save The Queen” cut to stock footage of Elizabeth II and all manner of royal pomp and circumstance, ending on street sweepers scooping up horseshit in the wake of a parade.
3. Sex Pistols Jubilee boat trip
June 7, 1977: Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Silver Jubilee. The Sex Pistols are banned hither and yon, topping the charts as a blank with the anti-royalist anthem “God Save The Queen.” Virgin Records and manager Malcolm McLaren have a brilliant promotional idea: Rent a small boat called the Queen Elizabeth to sail down the Thames with an invited batch of punks and journalists, the band playing as they pass Parliament. Dub reggae blasting in the distance, Johnny Rotten seethes: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been trapped?” Electric performance footage displays the band exploding in a claustrophobic space, with new bassist Sid Vicious proving more competence than his reputation dictates. Inner circle-ites Jordan and the Slits observe. The police invade, as Virgin boss Richard Branson insists, “You’d have no interest if this wasn’t the Sex Pistols!” McLaren’s arrested as BBC DJ Tony Blackburn counts down the Top 10. Rotten smirks as Blackburn announces he’s forbidden from playing the “Number One” record.
4. The Clash on So It Goes, Nov. 15, 1977
Caught live before a frothing pogo pit at Belle Vue funfair in England’s second great punk city Manchester, we see every reason in action of why the Clash were later dubbed “the only band that matters.” Spit and sweat fly everywhere as Joe Strummer rams the band’s message down their throats. Mick Jones resembles a meth-addled Keith Richards, Paul Simonon a bootboy Italian film star. The closing moment of Strummer collapsing before Topper Headon’s drum kit as he pounds the intro to “Garageland” before springing like a jack-in-the-box and lunging at the pogoers feels like the greatest rock celluloid ever lensed.
5. The Damned – “Fan Club,” ’78
Footage of this classic lineup of British punk’s holy trinity (alongside the Pistols and the Clash) featuring guitarist Brian James is rarer than a truthful statement from Donald Trump. Then-bassist Capt. Sensible says it’s early manager Jake Riviera’s fault: It seems the Stiff Records co-founder told every aspiring filmmaker who approached, “Oh, wonderful! Sign this release, and can you give the lads 500 quid?” Which makes this mislabeled 2:48 a true gem: Drummer Rat Scabies indicates this is actually from the Roxy, London’s equivalent to CBGB only operating within 1977’s first three months, explaining the lack of 1978 co-guitarist Lu Edmonds. This highlight from their first LP is given a definitive bashing as singer Dave Vanian’s hissing vampire persona pushes back an apeshit audience full of delightful homemade punk fashions and cheap sunglasses.
6. Generation X interview and live performance, 1977
“The reason we formed groups,” sweaty bassist/lyricist Tony James says backstage at the Marquee, “is that two years ago, there were just no exciting groups about—the vision we had of the Stones, the Who, Mott The Hoople and the New York Dolls.” Then punk’s most rockin’ pinups demonstrate the blank generation’s glam roots over their subversion of Pete Townshend’s “My Generation” as future ’80s superstar Billy Idol practices his Elvis sneer. Billie Joe Armstrong certainly took notes.
7. X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” live at the Hope & Anchor, 1978
“Chain-store, chainsmoke, I consume you all,” teenage Poly Styrene shrieks. “Chain-gang, chainmail, I don’t think at all!” Punk destroyed gender: Distaff outfits such as the Slits rocked as hard as the Clash and frequently had more interesting things to say. Styrene was mixed race, hardly svelte and wore braces. Songs like this were the most vicious power chord consumerist critiques ever penned. Truly one of Britpunk’s most special and unique bands.
8. “B’Dum B’Dum,” 1978 Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary
Tony Wilson’s forward-thinking So It Goes TV series produced this snapshot of Manchester’s premiere punk outfit Buzzcocks as they divided into the late Pete Shelley‘s perfect-pop version of the band and co-leader Howard Devoto’s art-school spinoff, Magazine. Both talk about early Manchester punk history and their divergent aims before a live gig provides blistering footage of Buzzcocks’ greatest moment, “Ever Fallen In Love.” Devoto rejoins them for a taste of the Spiral Scratch lineup, destroying the Troggs’ “I Can’t Control Myself” as amps and drums topple during the credits.