‘Kids Did Everything. It Was Beautiful’: Inside Iggy Pop’s New Punk Documentary
A new four-part documentary rounds up punk’s survivors to testify that a genre once thought to have the shelf life of milk has never lost its edgy relevance (thanks, kids!).
The one big thing that defines anything punk: Do-It-Yourself (DIY). “Punk is the challenge that our generation threw out saying, ‘We’re not going to have the status quo. We’re going to create something where we do things ourselves, which are accessible to the world.’”
So says Terry Chimes of the Clash, but that sentiment is repeated again and again in PUNK, the new four-part Epix docuseries produced by Iggy Pop—arguably the man who caught the spirit first and unified the NYC and London underground—and John Varvatos, the fashion designer whose boutique now occupies the space formerly filled by CBGB, the Lower East Side club and training ground for the earliest NYC punk bands. Each episode features the genre’s dignified solons discussing their relevance—from the comfort of velvet or leather chesterfield couches—in the disparate subculture united by one word: punk.
But time and again, they keep coming back to the DIY ethos that made everything possible. As Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) says, “It was doing it for yourself. I mean, the DIY thing, man. It was kids put on the shows. Kids played in the band. Kids made the album covers. Kids did everything. It was beautiful.”
Music is the most famous facet of punk, but concentrating strictly on the music not only does the culture a disservice—it misses the point of punk almost entirely. Because behind and all around the music, feeding it, supporting it, was an industry created by kids through an underground system of peer networking. Minors under the laws of both America and Great Britain, those kids weren’t even old enough to pay taxes, so most of their activities were of no considerable financial or criminal consequence. The network stayed off the radar until their dealings became too outrageous or lucrative to ignore.
The Epix docu-series covers a lot of territory, and the DIY theme often gets lost in the shuffle. So we’ll put the focus where it belongs:
In Detroit, Michigan in the early ’60s, the little kid who became Iggy Pop stayed up well past his bedtime with a giant Zenith radio under his covers while he waited “through the other 39 songs on the Top 40, which were all shitty. And, then suddenly, you hear this sound.”
Iggy’s talking about “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks. “And it was this ripping tearing sound of the guitar. And the vocal, it didn’t sound kosher or manly or anything.” Iggy imitates Ray Davies' pinched vocals. “It sounded like life in the industrial age.” The industrial age: a grinding time for a lot of people, but a time, too, of invention.
“To continue a self-investigation into how I turned into a punk... it had a lot to do, also, with the MC5.”
And so the possibility of DIY music was ignited by the Stooges who were heavily influenced by fellow Detroit band, the incendiary device called the MC5.
“You were free of the blues. You were free of Perry Como. You were free of Mom and Dad,” he says chuckling. “You were dangerous. You turn into a little monster.”
One revolution of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” on the turntable starts Keith Morris (Black Flag/Circle Jerks) mouthing the lyrics, “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!”
“That’s Detroit. People, we gotta rise up,” says Morris.
Cut to Henry Rollins (Black Flag/The Rollins Band) playing air drums. “It’s as good as rock and roll gets. It’s the promise of rock and roll. It liberates you,” he says.
Effusive Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) leans in really close looking like he's going to explode: “So then I got ‘Kick Out the Jams,’ and that just completely changed my life.”
And then there was Iggy himself.
At the time, “no one on Earth played that way,” says Iggy. “Only us. Nobody rocked as hard as us. Nobody.” And the inspiring music he started in America he also successfully exported to London. “All roads stop with Iggy Pop,” says Don Letts, an early Clash videographer and filmmaker. “He struck a chord with the U.K. punk movement like no other American band.”
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten: Sex Pistols/ PIL) remembers when music stopped him in his tracks. “I grew up with reggae just as well as I did with the Kinks just as well as I did with Irish folk dancing, and the traditional Irish singers. Everything. Everything and anything. And classical music, too. And, somehow Iggy Pop’s in there.” The needle drops on Iggy and the Stooges “Raw Power.” Lydon: “I love that growling voice. Oh my God, I’d never heard that in rock music. Just rippin’ it up.”
In an interview with Dinah Shore, Iggy is asked, “Do you think you’ve influenced anybody?”
He answers, “I think I helped wipe out the '60s.”
One big problem for punk bands was always where to play. So much had to fall together for the scene to exist, and, remarkably, it did. It looks inevitable in hindsight, but back then, especially in the very early days, not so much. In 1973, Hilly Kristal was booking acts for a new club he’d started on New York’s Lower East Side, CBGB, which stood for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues. Kristal booked a band he thought was called Wayne Country. He heard wrong. Turns out Wayne County was a transgender punk rocker heavily influenced by Iggy and the MC5. Nobody heard any country, bluegrass or blues that night. And never would.
The coolest thing about places like CBGB was that they gave bands a stage and some visibility, but they were so removed from commercialized music that first-generation punk bands played for each other and covered each other’s songs without aspiration.
“Blondie was one of the shittiest bands at CBGB in the beginning,” says Legs McNeil, the journalist credited with giving punk its name. “What was great about Blondie was you got to see them become this fantastic band.”
Finding places to play remained a problem for nearly two decades, until punk bands became stadium rock in the ’90s. A lot of clubs were pretty transient and didn’t promote underground music for very long. There were, however, a few mainstays where punks carved their niche and left an indelible mark, like what happened at CBGB.
The all-ages club was born in Washington, D.C., at Club 930. All the district’s punk kids—Darryl Jenifer (Bad Brains), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi/ co-founder of Dischord Records), Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl (Scream/Nirvana/Foo Fighters) frequented Club 930, where most of the punk bands played, with Bad Brains drawing the largest, most enthusiastic crowds.
Ian MacKaye spearheaded efforts to see his favorite bands, because he was so young—too young to get into clubs that sold alcohol. So he improvised a work around, telling the club’s owner: “Listen, we want to see this music. We want to see these bands. We will wear big Xs on our hands. If you see anybody with this X on their hand drinking, let us know and we’ll get ’em out for you.”
The kids policed themselves and each other. To this day 930 continues to admit all ages. The X on their hands has remained a timeless symbol and point of pride in the hardcore straight-edge scene begun by MacKaye. His band, Minor Threat, pioneered a movement MacKaye considered a personal ideology—abstinence from drugs, alcohol, smoking, and a whole bunch of other vices, depending how deep into the movement one got. It could get pretty ridiculous, down to no caffeine, sex, or cursing—the straight-edge crowd is pretty much punk rock’s vice squad.
In high school I walked into my house wearing a Minor Threat T-shirt. My mom looked at me and said, “Well, at least it’s not a major threat.” She didn’t understand that “minor,” in that context, meant underage. But at least she could kid about that one. She was not on board at all with my Dead Kennedys T-shirt, being old enough to remember exactly where she was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated the way some remember where they were when they heard Darby Crash or Kurt Cobain died. “That’s just harr-ible,” she said.
Women carved out a place in punk, and sometimes it was a struggle but however hard it was for women to get in the door, it was never as hard as it was in commercial rock and roll. Nobody had to fuck for a record deal, because no music execs wanted to touch punk rock.
In 1976, Joan Jett (The Runaways/ the Black Hearts/ producer) attended a Clash show in England. “I went over dressed as kind of a glam kid. Came back dressed as a punk. Seeing the kids in the audiences—it was definitely life changing. Even if you don’t think Runaways music is punk, which I don’t, necessarily, the idea of girls playing rock and roll and doing it, that’s as punk as you get.”
Viv Albertine (The Slits) saw the Runaways, “but I didn’t feel like I could do that. It wasn’t until I saw the Sex Pistols—North London boys badly educated, not trying to be glamorous. They were just this bunch of ordinary failures and ragamuffins from the street. Even though they were boys, that made me think, ‘I’m going to pick up a guitar’… We started at ground zero and built it from there.”
A quick aside: Almost no one who sat before Punk’s cameras made an ass of themselves. One glaring exception: There’s nothing more condescending than Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) dying to be the male feminist he isn’t. The condescension in his rosy spew about “gender neutrality” in punk rock is where I start wishing our heroes wouldn’t talk so much. White men from Connecticut never fail to point out their inherent bias.
As Viv Albertine from the Slits said, “It wasn’t like there were an enlightened bunch of punk men who said, ‘We’ll let women in.’ No. Us girls, us Slits, we booted our way in. Our first gig, we went to a pub, and there were a bunch of boys playing there and we jumped up on stage. We pulled their leads out, plugged our guitar leads in, and we got through half a song before they pulled us offstage.” The first Slits gig was maybe a minute long.
So, no, Thurston Moore, it wasn’t women that were the most powerful players in punk rock. You’re just a fan of the three you rattled off: Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and Siouxsie Sioux. There is a difference. It’s also shortsighted in that the three women existed in one particular time, which excludes women standing in the long shadow of punk.
In the late ’70s aftershock of the Sex Pistols breakup, and after Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen and then OD’d, a pall fell upon what was seen as a dead trend—to the relief of grown-ups everywhere. Until then everyone had kind of lived up to how the bands and musicians were portrayed in the media—all fun and games even when Johnny Rotten could be executed under the traitor and treason act in Britain. But the combo of heroin and murder was a beat too far.
Things in Los Angeles were a little sunnier for a little longer. (Thank God there’s always a bumper crop of kids!) The West Coast version of punk was small but congenial: “The L.A. punk scene—you’d be on stage and when you got off stage, you were in front of the next band who had been in front of you when you were playing,” recalls Exene (X). “It was a very small scene, like a hundred people max. We didn’t have any internet, no cell phones. No mass media. No cable television. No real anything, except word of mouth and a sense of ‘where’s the excitement?’”
In L.A., it was just as common for women to be in bands as men, and it’s easy to point out the Latina/Latino inclusion with Alice Bag (The Bags) and Ron Reyes (Black Flag). “In Los Angeles, almost every band had women in them—women, people of color, queers, anybody who had been shut out in the past,” Alice Bag recalls. “All of a sudden, punk opened the doors. And, you weren’t relegated to the role that past music scenes had put you in. You were no longer just the groupie or the muse or the girlfriend that broke up the band. You’re in the band, so it’s beautiful.”
Women emerged again with L7 in the mid ’80s and, through sheer numbers, rose to a level of prominence in the ’90s: L7, The Gits, PJ Harvey, Babes in Toyland, Hole, Bikini Kill, Nashville Pussy, Lunachicks, the Breeders, Belly—and that’s not counting the women in the Lilith Fair rock space. Out of this female-rich environment came Riot Grrrl, which was a chip off the old punk block with its invigorating spirit of self-expression through music, art, and fanzines.
In the summer of 1979, The Damned was touring America. They had heard there was an all-black punk band in Washington, D.C., and that’s who they wanted on the bill. “The Damned were amazing—are you kidding? It was great! But, it was nothing you’d never heard before. The Bad Brains was like, you’d never heard that before,” says Henry Rollins.
“Aw shit. These guys,” Darryl Jenifer says as he sets his record on the turntable. “Bad Brains. Kick it.” He sits back and listens to “Pay to Cum” with a look of absolute satisfaction. “Holy cow. Who are those guys?” asks Jenifer, who was one of those guys. “What, they black? Nawww. They from D.C.? Get the fuck out of here.”
“Still, to this day, when anybody asks me the best live band I’ve ever seen, it’s the Bad Brains,” Dave Grohl says, matter of factly.
“The Bad Brains were one of the best live bands I ever saw in my life,” Flea says. “They had beautiful songs. Everything that you’d want.”
“The Bad Brains were super-fast. Super-frenetic. But also precise,” says Ian MacKaye. So, precise that the singer, H.R., could do a backflip and land on a beat to punctuate a song.
“When I said, ‘I’m going to make a punk song,” Jenifer says, “I said, ‘I’m going to make it faster than the Ramones—that ain’t shit.’ And I said, ‘I’m going to put some wild riffs and breaks and shit in it.’ And it going to go Bam! Bam! Like a boxer. These are the heavy right blows. And then you got the flurries—badadddadada [real fast with the tongue] Boom! Bam-bam! And then, Bang. Next time, we’re going to go bangita-bangita… You know, it’s a lotta... it’s a lotta shit,” he says with a grin. All that comes before he explains his process using Highlights Magazine’s connect-the-dots drawings as his jumping off point to understanding a fretboard. So, you’ll have to watch that.
“When you were a punk kid or a kid of the scene, like Ian and Henry. When you’re one of us and one of them, you’re not Black Darryl and white Henry,” says Jenifer. “It was a youth thing. The Bad Brains was created to show the youth of that day. That you don’t have to be pigeonholed.”
Until the Bad Brains came along, American punk was almost all white. Even the English punks had a little reggae and ska in their mix. Filmmaker Don Letts points out that “one of the most interesting thing about the U.K. punk scene is their love of Jamaican music. That gave the English thing a slightly different angle to what was going on, which was straight up caucasian shit stateside.” The Bad Brains put an end to that.
HARDCORE AND VIOLENCE
Out of the visual arts component in fanzines and band logos and flyers came a documentary, Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization. She was filming the Los Angeles punk scene in real time, as it happened. “The music I like was when it was very aggressive and expressed anger and did it in a way that the Germs and Black Flag and the Circle Jerks did. That’s why I made The Decline of Western Civilization, to kinda let people understand what was happening back then, because they were really too afraid to go to shows and figure it out for themselves.”
Flea, an early L.A. punk enthusiast, remains a fan of those early L.A. days and the Circle Jerks in particular. “I love the Circle Jerks. I think Group Sex is an absolutely perfect album. It’s like song after song after song that is, like, fast and noisy and ferocious, but you can sing along with every one. All the words are memorable. All the weird little melodies are memorable. All the riffs are memorable. It’s a masterpiece—Group Sex.”
Unfortunately, the documentary didn’t depict the kinetic Hermosa Beach and Hollywood youth sensibility. Instead it reinforced the dwindling reputation of a scene growing more violent. The gratuitous depiction of some of the more extreme kids interviewed did a lot of damage to the essence of punk rock in Los Angeles at the time. Only in retrospect does John Doe (X) see the direction that punk was heading: “At the time The Decline of Western Civilization came out, I think everyone was kind of pissed off at Penelope, because she showed a scene that was very nihilistic and dark. And we had just come out of a period that was very optimistic. And her movie was not. But, in retrospect, it was actually a really good time capsule, because that’s really where it was going.”
“Hardcore was born out of that punk rock movement. And it is very different music. It’s very, very different. You know, not so artsy-fartsy and very uncompromising. And it’s very male-oriented, too, isn’t it?” Spheeris asks.
What neither Spheeris nor anyone else in the Epix documentary addresses is how much her movie acted as an advertisement for that idea, drawing headbangers and skinheads into a scene that previously was wild but not especially violent. Certainly the mainstream media of the time never wasted an opportunity to portray punk as a nihilistic sink of depravity. No surprise then, when kids seeking that darkness began showing up in the audience.
“I went to see a Black Flag show and I was really appreciating the band, but every five seconds, like someone was being beaten, you know, having their face kicked in for not having the right haircut. I was like, these motherfuckers are stupid, fuck this.” Flea says.
“I eventually walked off the stage,” says Ron Reyes, who was Black Flag’s singer at the time. “I felt like we could have been singing about polka-dotted elephants, and you know, it wouldn’t have mattered. I walked off saying I don’t want to be the background to this violence.”
THE TOUR MAP
At the beginning of the ’80s, when punk rock was beginning to expand across North America, nobody was better at navigating the road—blazing the trail, really—than the hardcore bands that toured constantly.
“In a lot of major cities,” Henry Rollins explains, “punk rock scenes were starting to sprout up. And it was either around a fanzine, or two or three bands, or a small record label where that was the thing that all the moisture molecules gravitated to, and all of a sudden it’s raining.”
Suddenly, punk was getting more organized, through a true DIY effort with a free exchange of information.
“The two bands that were really crisscrossing North America and playing all the time were Black Flag and D.O.A.” says Joey Shithead (D.O.A.). “So, we would exchange information.” Promoters to avoid and ones to seek: “This guy will give you fifty bucks and somewhere to stay.” The circuit was building for the next wave of bands.
“When the Chili Peppers started touring in 1983 and all through the ’80s, you know, just playing anywhere, everywhere,” Flea recalls, “so many bands we played with—they’re all playing this club circuit that was kind of forged by, like, Black Flag and those early punk bands.”
BEFORE NIRVANA/AFTER NIRVANA
The mainstream music industry had no clue how to understand Nirvana.
“If you were an A&R guy, Nirvana came out of the blue,” says Kim Thayil (Soundgarden). “Record company guys were still looking for the new Beatles, the new Aerosmith, or whatever. They seemed to miss that another demographic had established itself behind the scene, away from them, by collecting fanzines, exchanging cassettes, and going to each other’s shows. It was all off the radar. It wasn’t Record Industry Association of America approved, you know. Or acknowledged. There were small labels that were accounting for millions and millions of dollars in record sales, so it was all waiting to happen. That market was there. It was just being ignored.”
Hardcore bands on a continuous touring loop were able to make money before Nirvana changed everything. T-shirt sales accounted for a lot of income, and it was all cash. There were punk bands rebranded as “alternative” playing increasingly larger venues. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Sonic Youth had enough draw to afford a decent lifestyle (Flea drove around Los Angeles in a Mercedes with all the panels painted different colors), but they just hadn’t exploded. It took Nirvana to take the sound most closely associated with punk to platinum status.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” pierced the heart and gut the first time you heard it, and the second it ended you wanted to hear it again. The drums were huge, the guitar was bright, it wasn’t sludgy, muddy grunge, but it didn’t feel like the pop song it became. Nirvana took everything good that happened in punk and put it on a record.
From there, punk accelerated. Almost overnight, bands that had been playing clubs began playing in stadiums. The genre was mainstream enough that Green Day could be accused of selling out. Now it’s come full circle. The people in bands that blew up in the ’90s are now into their fifties, so the baton had to be passed to the kids. And those kids are still doing it for themselves, albeit in very different ways.
With mass communication and internet, indie artists are better able to market their music. And audiences participate by posting live videos to Instagram and Snap. The underground continues to simmer in small clubs, and it’s easier for kids to make and distribute a demo. Crowdsourcing is just a word for what’s always been true: kids decide what’s cool.
“People like to say that punk rock’s dead. But, you know what? You’re just not going to the right places,” says Fat Mike (NOFX).
“When people say, ‘Music sucks now,’ I wouldn’t say, ‘No, you suck now,’ says Rollins. “I would just say, ‘No, you’re looking over there. Look over here.’’
Hank Wood and The Hammerheads, Shit, Exit Order, Powerviolets, Xylitol, Triage are all bands playing live right now to small audiences in underground clubs. You just don’t care, because you’re paying taxes.
The Epix docu-series is getting panned here and there, with the naysayers claiming that none of it’s new, the same characters turn up in almost all documentaries about punk, etc. That’s dumb, because the series does what is intended: it offers a brief overview of the three most influential decades of punk in course format taught sequentially 101, 102, 103 & 104. By the time you’re a senior, you can talk about it at a dinner party. And for those who feared it, ignored it, or decided the music was derivative, Punk is there to change attitudes. These kids had no idea what they were doing, and weren’t thinking they’d have such long careers on the documentary circuit. But punk changed a lot of lives for the better. So, shut the fuck up and watch and listen. The dead Ramones aren’t coming back. Neither are Joe Strummer, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Lorna Doom, David Bowie, or Kristen Pfaff. Iggy’s gotta speak for the Stooges. If you can do better, then DIY, motherfuckers!