"Punk's Not Dead"

Dennis Harvey September 18, 2007

“Punk’s Not Dead,” again

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the punkest of them all? Like anything in the history of coolness, youth, art and/or fashion, punk rock has always been a competitive sport — either you’re in or you’re out, and even if you’re in by one standard you’re probably out by another.

Every underground movement abhors the sunlight, so once punk got huge — a moment that hit with Nirvana, or Green Day, or whatever point you wanna pick — inevitably a chorus of “Sell out! Not punk anymore!” was heard from umpteen veteran scenesters, bands who wouldn’t/couldn’t achieve commercial success, and miscellaneous purists from age 8 to 80.

Punk has “died” almost as many times as someone said it did. Which is to say it never has, really. The freshing thing about Susan Dynner’s new documentary “Punk’s Not Dead” — beyond the fact that it’s not the 9,482nd recap of The Early Years (circa 1976-85) — is its unabashed if not uncritical acknowledgment that punk is here to stay. Even when it goes multiplatinum it’s still punk, in musical derivation at least if not in the nebulous realms of politics, ideology and “attitude.”

Dynner dashes through the first Brit and U.S. waves, plus the early ’80s hardcore scene, within her first 15 minutes. Those stories have been told so much on screen that if you don’t know them already, well…there are plenty of other documentaries available at a DVD rental shelf or queue near you. Instead, she focuses majority attention on what happened, and continues to happen, after all that formative stuff: The 80s “low ebb” that nonetheless produced such hugely influential bands as Operation Ivy and Nirvana, which latter finally got the major labels’ attention; third (I think, but who’s counting) acts like Green Day, The Offspring and Rancid, who bubbled up from indie labels to pave the way for today’s more instantaneous successes like Sum 41, Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance, and so forth.

Are these latter whores of MTV, corporate sponsorship et al. really “punk?” Some of them have been dissed so much on those grounds that they don’t even want to embrace the term. Others insist they’re “punk as hell” — and just because they enjoy reaching the largest audience possible doesn’t make them any less so than the band playing for beer in some skater house’s basement. OK, so their lyrics are more often gripes about “coaches and pimples” and mean ex-girlfriends than, say, smashing the corrupt capitalist state. But hey, political punk from the Dead Kennedys to Bad Religion to Anti-Flag has always been just part of the noisy pie. As a Rancid member puts it, “Who am I to say some 16-year-old kid isn’t punk?”

“Punk’s Not Dead” has fun with some of the early hysteria around its subject — vintage clips from “CHIPs,” “Quincy” and Phil Donahue episodes express hilarious horror at this nihilistic new threat to society itself — and it allows some crusty old diehards to grouse at length about the disillusionment of a world in which 8-year-olds with purple fauxhawks aren’t being rebellious, just Hot Topic fashionable.

But ultimately the message here is joyously upbeat. Deathless bands like the reformed Sham 69 or ones that simply never quit like UK Subs, Adics and Subhumans make it clear that punk is a state of mind you can maintain well into middle age. And a final montage of video clips Dynner solicited from bands and fans around the world — from Iceland to Israel to Indonesia to Uruguay, plus all points between — confirms punk is a universal language for people who don’t like speaking and absorbing the same cultural blah-blah-blah as everybody else.