Jesse James Miller - Punk [Miniseries] (Cover Artwork)

Jesse James Miller

Punk [Miniseries] (2019)


When I saw that there was going to be a new series about Punk on the TV channel Epix, I rolled my eyes and thought “here we go again”. How many punk documentaries have we seen over the past 10 years, all of them featuring the same faces saying the same things, highlighting the same bands with the same clips. There has been a glut, with most of them being musically and socially bland and obvious. But this one listed Iggy Pop as an Executive Producer which was fairly interesting. The other Executive Producer is a John Varvatos who I didn’t know, so I looked him up. Hmmm. He’s a men’s fashion designer. Weird. Not a lot of street cred there. But I guess that description also fits Malcolm McLaren, right? But this got even more interesting when they aired that introductory panel “discussion” featuring some of the interviwees, answering questions and talking about what punk means to them. And that is the debacle where Johnny Rotten got into it with Marky Ramone, so now my interest was piqued. If you haven’t seen that 20-minute bundle of nonsense, it’s certainly worth a look. But being a pro-wrestling fan, I always question if anything is real or staged, and that had the look of a staged pre-fight press conference to me. But I digress…

So anyway, after that I was interested in watching the series but not having Epix I just assumed I wouldn’t get a chance. But then somebody posted a clip of episode 3 on Facebook and I have to admit I was hooked immediately. Ep3 is all about the American scene in the early 80s: the birth of hardcore. And it was really, really well done. I looked for the full episode on YouTube and was able to find it. I was blown away! But I don’t have Epix, and I don’t want to sign up for yet another pay TV service, so what does a punk do? Easy! Sign up for the free 1-week trial, watch the series and then cancel! So that’s what I did. I watched all 4 one-hour episodes a couple of times over the course of a weekend, and what I witnessed was a really uneven series. Two parts were just great: well-made and well-researched mini documentaries. But the other two parts were lazy, obvious, and felt thrown together with little research or depth. So, let’s break this shit down…


The first episode deals with the beginnings of punk in America, starting in the late 60s, and focusing on two young Detroit bands: Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5. They go into a great deal of depth on both bands, with Iggy sharing amusing stories about meeting the other members of the Stooges, and Wayne Kramer detailing what made the MC5 tick and their raison d’etre. The scenes that intercut the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago with footage of the MC5 playing live was particularly well done. The episode did a great job of putting you in a time and a place, and showing how ahead of their time in the foundation of “rebel rock” both bands were.

After Detroit the scene shifts to New York, and they cover the birth of the New York Dolls in 1972. We have sit-down commentary from such luminaries as Sylvain Sylvain, John Holmstrom (Punk Magazine), Legs McNeil (Punk Magazine), Debbie Harry, and even Wayne/Jayne County! So, they aren’t short of people who were there at the time. We see footage of how bleak NY was in the early 70s, and they even talk about how Syl first met Johnny Thunders in high school and why he asked him to be in his band in the first place (Johnny always had a lot of girls…). It’s fascinating stuff, revealing details which I never knew despite reading about that stuff for decades. (For instance, do you know why Wayne County picked that name?) Syl even discusses shopping for clothes in London, and meeting Malcolm McLaren there for the first time. And that’s how Malcolm got involved with the band, eventually becoming their manager and dressing them all in red patent leather. From the Dolls we move to the early CBGBs scene and the growth of Punk Magazine. We get lots of footage from CBGBs in the early years, along with people like Clem Burke and Marky Ramone talking about how it was almost like a practice space where you could learn your craft onstage. There is some really early footage of Blondie which I’d never seen before. And of course, plenty of Ramones. And plenty of funny stories from those wags at Punk Magazine, John and Legs. It ends with the Ramones going to England in July 1976 because punk wasn’t taking off in the USA and the band needed some exposure. Look, I’ve been listening to this stuff since 1976, so it’s tough to teach me things I didn’t already know about those early years, but the wide variety of interviews on this episode and the depth of research was top notch. This was an outstanding first episode and got the series off to a great start. 9/10


But after that greatness we come to Episode 2… It picks off where Ep 1 left off: with the Ramones visiting England in July ’76, where they were treated like royalty. Anybody that was anybody in the burgeoning British punk scene was in the audience at that Roundhouse gig, and from there I was hoping we would get interviews with the folks we don’t get to see in shows like this: people like TV Smith from the Adverts or Tony James from Generation X. Instead we default to the same old folks telling the same old stories we have seen a billion times. That mainly being Johnny Rotten. Or is it John Lydon these days again? I can’t keep up. I guess it depends on who is interviewing him and how much they are paying him. So anyway, we get to see Johnny-boy pontificating on everything from how the Ramones didn’t inspire them, to what punk REALLY is and is not. He even talks about how the term “punk” wasn’t used until Caroline Coon gave him that label in the Melody Maker in 76. Gloriously ignoring the fact that Punk Magazine had already existed in the States for 2 years. But don’t let facts get in the way of your stories John! Any road up, apart from John we also get a few snippets of Dave Vanian talking about those early days, and we get plenty of Don Letts (of course). We only get a tiny bit of Clash, and that’s from Terry Chimes, the original drummer., so does that really count? And no Buzzcocks, no Adverts, no X-Ray Spex, no Generation X, no Stranglers, No Banshees. No mention of the rise of independent record labels or fanzines.

Watching this you would think that the British punk movement solely consisted of the Sex Pistols and the Damned. Oh no! I forgot one: they keep going on and on and on about the Slits! Now, a word from a person that was there: NOBODY cared about the Slits! Nobody. They were and have always been absolute crap. Dogshit at playing punk, dogshit at playing reggae. But for some reason they keep getting dragged out as some kind of pioneering band that changed the rules. But they are band that is seen as important because certain people tell us that they are, not because they actually are! I think it’s also because Viv Albertine LOVES seeing herself on camera and will tell anybody that will listen how important they were and she is. Seriously, to hear her talk you would think that no woman had ever picked up a guitar before her. And of course, she never mentions Gaye Advert or Joan Jett or the thousands of female musicians before her. Nope, she just goes on and on about how amazing her band was, even though she wasn’t even a founding member! Johnny goes on about them too, but we have to remember that he is married to Ari Up’s mom, so he’s hardly unbiased! So anyway, apparently the British punk movement consisted of the Pistols, the Damned and the Slits. And according to Johnny it was over as soon as the Pistols swore on the Bill Grundy show. I hate that overplayed and ridiculous claim. It’s so blinkered, arrogant and ignorant. Maybe his little punk rock clique was, but by then punk had become something so much bigger and more important than he could even have envisioned.

Towards the end of the episode we do get some nice footage of the Pistols tour of the USA, and an extended bit on the San Francisco show that was to be their last. But the most interesting comments come from Bob Gruen (the tour photographer) and Penelope Houston from The Avengers who played on the bill. So we move back to the States for ep3. Overall this episode was a huge miss. Instead of reaching out to musicians that we don’t normally see and who could provide us with real insight, it’s dominated by Rotten and his narrow view of what punk is and was. This episode gets a very disappointing 3/10.


After the huge disappointment of ep2 we move on to what is maybe the best episode, ep3. Episode 3 deals with the American scene from 1980 through 1985ish and deals the growth of hardcore. Just like in ep1 they throw the net far and wide when it comes to interviews, bringing in obvious faces like Rollins and McKaye, but also interviewing folks like Joey Shithead, Daryl from Bad Brains, Jello Biafra, Ron Reyes, Vinnie Stigma and Harley Flanagan. Harley is a revelation and talks extensively about his history, from his first visits to CBGBs in 1974 when he was just 7 years old, to playing the drums at age 12 with his band the Stimulators: a hugely influential band on the early NY hardcore scene.

The focus then shifts to DC and we see plenty of Ian MacKaye and Henry talking about the early scene there, and Henry telling us about following Black Flag all over the east coast, and how he got up on stage with them for the first time. We also get plenty of early Bad Brains footage, some of which shows them in their pre-punk, jazz fusion days.

And then the emphasis switches coasts and changes to LA. We get lots of Black Flag, with interviews with Ron Reyes, Keith Morris and Henry. We also get some words from John Doe and Exene, and we get a healthy dose of The Germs and what they meant to the burgeoning LA punk scene. There are a lot of clips from “The Decline of Western Civilization”, and Penelope Spheeris who produced and directed that documentary has a lot to say on how it was made, and what is and isn’t “punk”. Of particular interest is the early LA punk hangout “the Church” where Ron Reyes famously lived in what looks like a storage closet for $16 a month! There’s a lot of early footage of the Circle Jerks, and we also get to see the Dead Kennedys, and that means plenty of words from Jello which is always a good thing! They also have incredible footage of them recording “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” live in the studio. It’s insane how tight they are and how powerful that song still sounds.

Now what I found particularly impressive was when they talked about those early punk bands touring the country, not using traditional “record company” methods, but by booking halls themselves, and using word of mouth for places to stay. There was a punk “address book” of contacts that got passed from band to band, and they give Canadian rippers DOA a lot of credit for spearheading that whole DIY ethos. It’s great to see a band like DOA get mentioned, and even better to see them get the credit they deserve at last. Duff McKagan (Guns N Roses) also has some interesting things to say about the early west coast scene, and if you wonder why he’s in there, he was in the Seattle hardcore band The Fartz.

Part 3 ends with all the contributors talking about how the scene started getting more and more violent as suburban jock kids started getting into it. Henry has some funny comments about how he used to be able to punch people and keep on singing without missing a beat at Black Flag gigs. It ends with Kathleen Hanna talking about the macho violence at hardcore punk shows and how women were invisible in that scene and how they decided to start their own bands and that they wanted to be included in punk too. Which sets the scene for what should be a very interesting part 4! Overall, I found Ep3 an excellent overview of how punk turned into hardcore in the USA. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it does make a valiant effort to show more than Black Flag and the Circle Jerks which is laudable. This deserves a very strong 8/10.


So, after the fabulous 3rd episode, hopes were high for the 4th episode. But those hopes quickly crashed to earth. It could have gone in lots of different directions because punk became so many different things. But instead of focusing on anarcho punk or Oi! in England, or Riot Grrrl in the states, we get lazy storytelling that focuses on 2 things: grunge and the “punk explosion” of the late 90s (Green Day, Offspring and the like). Kathleen Hanna and L7 get about 3 minutes of coverage, England doesn’t get one second. Instead we got a lot of Billie Joe Armstrong, Fat Mike (in a dress), Noodles from the Offspring and Jim from Pennywise. And they are all going on and on about how they got popular but never sold out: they were just “bringing punk to the masses”. But a note to those folks, the more you plead that you didn’t “sell out,” the more obvious it is that you actually did, lock stock and 2 smoking barrels! Especially when they are playing “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” in the background…

We get a lot of Bret from Epitaph too, telling us how great these bands are, and how skate and surf videos helped to bring this music to a whole new audience which is probably very true. We also get some words with Kevin Lynam, the founder of Warped Tour, and he tells us how putting these bands in a parking lot in the middle of summer in every shit town in America helped to make punk palatable for “everybody else”. He spouted a lot of bullshit, but I did like one thing he said. He claimed that Tony Alva (OG skateboard legend) came up to him and headbutted him for selling out punk rock. I always respected Tony for skate reasons, but now I love him even more! Well done Tony!

The sad thing is that none of the folks interviewed here had ANYTHING to say of any social or historical importance. It was all about record sales and numbers. To follow some of the trailblazers they had on earlier episodes with these empty vessels was an embarrassment. Why didn’t Kathleen Hanna get more time? And like I said before, where was the Steve Ignorant interview? Or even some mentions of the youth crew bands like Youth of Today or Gorilla Biscuits? This was a terrible episode that emphasized corporate employees and had virtually nothing to do with punk rock outside of fast music. I’d give this one a 2/10.

So overall this was a very confused and confusing series on punk rock. There were two great episodes and two lazy, terribly annoying episodes. Annoying because they could have sone so much more with them. In closing, my advice is to get Epix free for a week and immediately watch episodes 1 and 3. Then cancel the channel. If you are a Johnny Rotten fan you could watch ep2 as well. But there is no reason for anybody to watch the nonsense in ep 4.