Kick your telly in: finding the punks on UK TV

This article was originally the basis of Alternative Strategies’ contribution to the Dusty Digest lockdown zine swap back in October 2020, reproduced here for your entertainment.

The first lockdown was spent on screens and streams. Between March and June 2020, like seemingly every other musical scene on earth, the punks and their well-wishers gave livestreams, virtual raves and DIY television networks a go as the gigs disappeared and our social calendars were indefinitely wiped. Venues scrambled to find out whether their basement stages could receive enough wi-fi to stream gigs on Twitch; passwords were shared on label accounts to beam short, usually acoustic sets to tens and hundreds of sheltering friends. It was exciting to see subcultures finally grapple with OBS and chroma keys, it was frustrating when the sound distorted or you realised that you’re not going to be able to mosh to a Zoom. And then the pubs opened again and we all largely gave up.

Six months on and I maintain that the most successful virtual gigs of the (first) lockdown era were those that embraced the fact that they were on a screen. As autumn came into view festivals such as Decolonise Fest and Tusk in the UK have been embracing a mixed schedule of workshops, talks, films and of course performances – which have come in the form of multi- cam practice room sessions, skilfully edited virtual groupings and performances that come across as the kind of music videos that stick with you at 3 in the morning. Bands and DJs who fashioned sets and homemade graphics and whose sets embraced the camera – thinking of Special Interest live from their practice room and Fatamorgana broadcasting from space here – are going to stick with us, promise, slotting in between those Top of the Pops performances and multi- cam hardcore sets filmed by those we’re now grateful they blocked our view with their fucking DSLRs.

One of my other gig substitutes, coupled with a job in broadcasting that technically makes all this research, has been delving into the forty years plus of punk television in the UK, whether it be a YouTube channel, public access or just what ended up on the telly when the New Wave was an apparent flash in the pan. I’m going to recommend a few episodes you can find online, hopefully giving you an afternoon of inspiration, diversion and some fine graphics. Much of the early years has been mined for performances and revisionist highlights, usually on Friday nights on arts channels like BBC4 or Sky Arts and usually presented by John Cooper Clarke, but there is joy in finding complete episodes and building up the context of where punk sits, whether in the late 70s into the present day. Let’s start at the beginning…

1976! Punk goes massive and the three television channels that Britain had at the time (BBC1 and 2 plus the commercial network called ITV) took a look with varying levels of condescension. Brass Tacks: Punk Rock is my favourite of the ‘moral panic’ hours, aired on BBC1 in August 1977 when the first wave was in full swing. A Manchester current affairs show, this had a studio full of priests, parents and city councillors condemning the music as evil and disruptive while the punks, including Pete Shelley and the young rockers featured in the accompanying documentary film (which serves as a brilliant snapshot into the northern scene and deftly covers the disillusionment that characterises the late 70s as you’d perhaps expect, and also The Vibrators) gathering support from the callers and execs alike. A quote from Shelley you may recognise from the programme: “people are saying that we’re violent and obscene, do I look violent and obscene?” Of course, the New Wave was popping up on Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test by then; it’s worth finding complete episodes (which are regularly repeated on BBC4, with many clips online) and basking in the full spectrum of pop from that time – sure, ‘Pretty Vacant’ was performed straight after Cilla Black but you’ll stay for Thin Lizzy playing straight in to Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, surely?

Over on ITV in 1976-77, with the benefit of hindsight it looks as though you have pockets of music nerds who know what’s up in their wings alongside episodes of Coronation Street. The London Weekend Show on the 28th November 1976 had Janet Street-Porter, a journalist who has had decades of influence on ‘yoof TV’ ever since, showing issues of PUNK magazine, describing it as ‘the new cult’ and interviewing The Clash, all a week before the Pistols went on Bill Grundy and made your dad kick his telly in. up in Manchester you had So It Goes on Granada TV, the first countercultural vehicle for Factory magnate and lovable tosser Tony Wilson. As much as the performances have long been recycled into compilation shows extolling its regional influence on the punk scene there – Sky’s Anarchy in Manchester from 2014 being an example – it misses out that the whole show had a kind of droll, piss taking vibe and showcased weirdo music of all genres. (There’s an episode with footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in the north of England in the 1950s, why hasn’t that been unearthed instead of another three minutes of The fucking Jam?) On YouTube you can find the infamous episode from August 1976 where the Sex Pistols’s first TV appearance was made – again, pre-filth and fury, it’s ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and you’ll have surely seen it by now – but stay for the review of the Ramones’ first LP, the prog-meets-Magma vibes of Gentlemen, the folk stylings of Brothers Band and the clips of Jerry Lee Lewis. And then the noise, described by Jordan in the studio as “the next Joni Mitchell!”

So It Goes was cancelled after Iggy Pop shouted ‘fuck’ at a time when your parents would be having their tea. Wilson popped up on ITV all throughout the Factory era; the late 80s saw The Other Side of Midnight, by now a national programme, featured a cohort of associates (Brix-era Fall, A Guy Called Gerald) playing at warehouse raves and was aired at the time you’d stumble home from the club. When asked about his nepotistic ways (unheard of in the British media industry, of course), a typical response: “I should never do a full music show because I would simply play my own groups – just about every other music is complete crap. I’m very happy if people think, ‘Oh, Wilson’s putting his own stuff on.’ It makes me look a nasty person and I find that an amusing image to have.”

Once punk has stuck around for a couple of years we see the television execs try to extract as much as they can. Arena: Who Is Poly Styrene? (BBC, 1978) is an essential watch and offers a portrait of Marianne as she goes through the machinations of fame and putting on a public persona, all as the band create one of the GOAT LPs, ‘Germfree Adolescents’. There’s also The Record Business, (BBC, also 1978) where The Slits and The Desperate Bicycles chat to John Peel about independent labels and existing as an ‘alternative’ (alongside 1970s record professionals who generally seem like a parasitic lot) – with the Bicycles taking aim at bands who extoll anti- establishment lyrics only to sign to CBS and move to Los Angeles as the genre takes more acceptable forms. Elsewhere, the corporation’s former Community Programmes Unit came up with Something Else (BBC2, 1978-82), a programme for Young Adults by Young Adults which mixed music and interviews and documentary pieces. It basically had the best line-up of the lot: Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats, The Specials, Orange Juice, Alien Kulture, Dolly Mixture, all sorts. Notable too for being parodied as Nozin’ Aroun’ on The Young Ones, which is of course the most punk sitcom. “The voice of youth? They’re still wearing flared trousers!” The best of the lot is Open Door, which in October 1980 handed the reins to the editors of Guttersnipe: “We present a television version of our infamous fanzine in Telford, which has been described locally as ‘decadent’, ‘utter filth’ and ‘-ing marvellous’. And we’re not telling you any more.” Covering suburban life, skins and mods, cuts to youth services in the first year of Thatcher and the local scene, it’s an absolute joy.

Looking at the eighties and you have the punks splintering off into a myriad of rackets and scenes and you see its influence popping up here and there. While new pop and post punk went forth and made bangers, filling TOTP rundowns for the early part of the decade, TV offers nothing but a little derision for those who kept the mohawks: First Tuesday, an ITV Yorkshire documentary strand, aired Made in Huddersfield in 1987 and looks at the scene there, all Exploited and Chaos UK and Clay Records by now and looked upon the presenter as “members of what feels like an old-fashioned cult.” There’s performances and features on bands as you go on shows like TOTP and new stalwarts like The Tube, with new figures such as Magenta Divine (Aylebury’s only punk) and Jools Holland (of Jayne County’s ‘Fuck Off’) filling the airwaves.

There’s like four and a bit channels by now: Channel 4 turns up and through its new model of inviting independent producers to make TV for the first time, ends up a home for radical voices (for a bit), you have Janet Street-Porter editing weekdays on BBC2 and bringing over Snub TV (which meant you’d get Fugazi and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at 6pm on a Tuesday afternoon in 1989, lovely) and then in London in 1986-87 there was a pirate TV station hosted by arty types called Network 21. Airing at midnight on a Friday on unused bandwidth, it was a half hour rush of avant garde, video art and wonderful nonsense – featuring Derek Jarman, Otis Redding, Test Dept, Sonic Youth and Psychic TV and allegedly reaching 100,000 viewers and mainstream attention at its peak, again helped by the restricted choice in the pre-net age. The station was raided after a year in the classic pirate radio style and as of 2020 only brief glimpses on YouTube, a complete uploaded archive having 404’d in the 2000s.

I can see influence from Network 21 in the late 2000s when formerly trendy art collective Lucky PDF collaborated with indie veterans Upset! The Rhythm and Auto Italia to produce a live stream of Yes Way festival, broadcasting out of the car warehouse (now flats, of course) and rumoured to be broadcasting on the analogue airwaves. I hope so, I like the idea of someone stumbling across Trash Kit or The Shitty Limits while trying to retune their box. (This has been preserved – head to Vimeo for performances and VHS video art in the DVD era.) Most recently, the tradition of DIY art telly has come through with Transmissions, two series of curated lockdown broadcasts beginning in May 2020 and streaming a second series on Twitch at the time of writing, with a rich seam of new works and archive from Anne Duffau, Tai Shani and Hana Noorali, Juliet Jacques, BBZ and Mykki Blanco among the highlights. In before “why isn’t this on the real telly, huh?”, but that’s for another zine.

(At this point I draw a few blanks when it comes to the nineties – music TV in my mind around this time concerns MTV (and programmes like Yo! MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball) and the shows I grew up watching (more pop shows CD:UK on ITV and then the rise of Later… with Jools Holland and its inherent safe haven for the record industry). Grunge is there, hip hop is there, the overnight music shows are all about Fantasia and Pete Waterman, and I want to find and write more about all of the above, so excuse the cop out. There’s a whole other zine to be written about rave tapes to go alongside your neon bound flyer collections, and I’m not the one to write about it!)

So instead I’ll skip towards the 2000s (ah, living memory) and I immediately think of the rise of the music channels and wondered how, if at all, they played a part in subcultures in that post- cable, pre-broadband era. I got broadband and Soulseek in 2007; my grandparents got hundreds of TV channels in 2000 and so they still played a part in expanding my landfill indie-addled brain. And they were popping up all over the place: alongside UK versions of MTV and VH-1 you had channels like Channel U, founded in 2003 and becoming the televisual focal point for grime in the fifteen years that it initially aired, undeniably because of its insistence on playing DIY music videos alongside established bangers. For the moshers you had Scuzz (a lot of Download festival highlights here), for indie lovers like myself you had MTV2 and 120 Minutes (where I first heard My Bloody Valentine, Black Flag and JME) and for the ska punks, there was P-rock, a channel opened using £2,500 by two blokes from south London and broadcasting nothing but underground ska, pop punk and hardcore from the era. (I’m talking about bands like Farce, King Prawn, [spunge], Capdown, Violent Delight and Jesse James here.) The channel lasted until 2003 and then vanished from the EPG, and there’s been nothing like it since.

In the past ten years, with internet video becoming a thing and the music selection on terrestrial television depending ever more on nostalgic visions, there’s been a fun double track for fans of the mosh. On the telly, the majority of music coverage will consist of performances from festivals and chat shows, an hour of archive performances and music journalists telling you that their generation had it best (there’s a Twitter bot that generates talking head ‘but then punk happened’ statements every Friday) or there’s an hour a month at midnight where carefully crafted documentaries and shows are aired to a tiny audience who flicked on by mistake. There was one moment in the early 2010s where Dazed and Confused produced a documentary for Channel 4 called Soak The Stamps, about aging 80s Chaos UK disciples, which talked about punk being dead despite having turned up to a gig at The Grosvenor in Brixton, filming Belgrado, The Lowest Form and SEMI, ignoring interviews made on the night and using the young punks as interstitial footage for older men’s anecdotes. Seeing mates on screen for a few frames is a thrill, but you do wonder why they bothered?

I can think of a few fun examples of contemporary music television from this era: a programme called All Shook Up appeared and disappeared with performances by Sauna Youth and Monotony around 2015 as an online BBC pilot; regional TV occasionally invites sick bands like Sacred Paws (on programmes like BBC Scotland’s The Quay Sections) every so often; Channel 4’s Four To The Floor airs at midnight on a Friday and combines video art, animation and performances that span multiple genres from techno to jazz to lover’s rock and is well worth checking out. But other countries seem to do it better – you wonder why Big Joanie and Decolonise Fest can have an engaging ten minute feature on French/ German arts programming (on ARTE’s Tracks), or how Fatamorgana and Irreal can broadcast space synth and hardcore to the sets of Barcelona (on city channel Betevé) but not on British television, or at the very least wonder how Adult Swim can fund Haram singles with their Pickle Rick millions. It’s not even that we need validation from the mainstream media but I’ve been through enough Idles proclamations, do you know what I mean?

There’s always online: I can think of Nozin’ Aroun’ (that name again!), a series of punk interviews and performance filmed during the mid-2010s heyday of Static Shock Weekend aftershows and the first years of DIY Space for London. There’s Crumb Cabin from Deptford, a former risograph studio which dabbled with capturing the underground of SE8 in the early 2010s with a setup that evoked MTV2’s Gonzo (green screen, sofa) and guests including Shopping, Feature and Slowcoaches. And there’s The Artsy Vice Show currently broadcasting autonomous indie and punk evidence from Glasgow, with Alice Smoth and Jimmy Gage covering the local scene with huge enthusiasm – go there for performances by Kaputt, Current Affairs, Constant Mongrel, Vital Idles and loads more. To toot my own horn here, go look for Another Subculture TV where lockdown video performances met 2000s indie DJ sets, illicit streams of Robot Wars and the greatest pub quiz picture rounds in town.

So there – an idea of my eighteen open tabs on this laptop if nothing else, but I still get excited about finding punk evidence on the TV past or present, seeing what people do with the medium or even just watching performances from bands I fucking love. I could have written pages more on what you can find delving through YouTube in those moments after a gig and four pints (fuck, I miss those nights!) and no doubt I will have missed great swathes while making this in an evening (for Dusty Digest’s autumn zine project, of which the deadline I am very grateful for…) so please get in touch if you’ve got any recommendations (e-mail’s on the front.) Make your own media, get that audio interface of your dreams, pirate Final Cut Pro and make something decent to watch.

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