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Hey, Punk: Jubilee and Rock 'n' Roll High School

  Arguably the punk rock movement started in the United States with bands like The MC5, The Stooges or The New York Dolls, but it took The United Kingdom to take the ideas it spawned to its bosom, largely thanks to Malcolm McLaren, who managed The New York Dolls at one point, transporting them to nineteen-seventies Britain and allowed them to breathe. It was able to do this because the youth of the day were as tired of authority as the youth of the sixties had been, yet as that previous revolution had soured it seemed a new nihilism was in the air. McLaren's new band was The Sex Pistols, and they single-handedly (or eight-handedly) manufactured an interest in the so what, no future concepts that the hippies had never contemplated.

Out of this came an incredible array of creativity, from The Clash to The Buzzcocks to The Slits to Joy Division... and many more who didn't make quite the same impact, but are fondly recalled by some of those who were there at the time (some remember The Not-Sensibles' I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher with a grin, you can be sure of that). But what of the effect on the wider culture? For the mainstream, once they had got over the shock of the Pistols disrupting the Today programme and placing a temporary halt on its host Bill Grundy's career, the movement was reduced to a punchline: you can bet Dick Emery dressed up like a punk, they were the butt of jokes on Not the Nine O'Clock News, and Kenny Everett had his Gizzard Puke character making with the quips.

All with a finger up one nostril. As for film, there was a brief flurry of activity before it was decided punk had been a fad and electronic music was the way forward, and much of that was in the documentary format: Don Letts' The Punk Rock Movie, or Lech Kowalski's D.O.A., for instance, but for many the ultimate get up the noses of the establishment film was Derek Jarman's Jubilee, made the year Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed her Silver Jubilee in 1977. It didn't feature any Sex Pistols (though oddly Johnny-come-lately Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains did), but many of the key players in the British punk scene were present in what amounted to almost two hours of confrontation in the manner The Pistols had guided.

Jarman was a past master at annoying that establishment: one of his first jobs on film had been designing the sets for Ken Russell's controversial The Devils, and his openly gay lifestyle seemed as much followed to piss off those conservatives who were keen to be offended as he was to satisfy himself romantically and sexually. Knowing that you can discern a definite queer sensibility to Jubilee even if you hadn't taken note of the gay couple who feature as part of what could loosely be termed the storyline, and the abundance of male nudity was another indication: fair enough, it seemed half the cast of actors in the Western world were taking their clothes off on camera in the seventies, but Jarman lingered longlingly over the male figure.

What plot there was had the first Queen Elizabeth (Jenny Runacre) travelling to modern day (for the seventies) Britain to see how much had changed, and it came across as if Jarman was not so interested in the music scene and more interested in his conceits, be they historical or social. In fact, there was more music in the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and the Clash movie Rude Boy, the former bearing a curious similarity to Jubilee in concerns and arrangement, though given how incestuous the scene was made it difficult to work out what had been lifted from whom and what originated where. What was accurate was Jarman got his thoughts on celluloid first, and his anarchy on the screen was undeniably potent and consciously aggravating.

Jubilee was intended to be intimidating, though its attempts at shocking were both very 1977 (mentions of Myra Hindley and Adolf Hitler? Check and check) and trying a little too hard, where it was on stronger ground when it allowed itself to run out of control, though you had little doubt Jarman knew what he was doing. The aggressively dingy and nasty atmosphere was matched with imagery ranging from a policeman being disembowelled to one of the central gang's sexual conquests murdered once she had no more use of him, yet there was always a sense the director was aiming high while settling for low, with extremely flowery dialogue, and pretensions to commentary on politics and the music industry; it had no faith in either.

That was punk in Britain, anarchy in the U.K. if you liked, but back in the United States massive corporations were still seeking to cash in on the latest youth phenomenon, and somehow B-movie mogul Roger Corman got his hands on the rights to Allan Arkush and Joe Dante's script for Rock 'n' Roll High School. It had been passed around other bands since the middle of the decade but from Todd Rundgren onwards it was rejected until, quite by chance, The Ramones were brought up as a possible candidate. Arkush loved the group, and so an American punk rock movie was crafted on one of Corman's typically barely-there budgets; however, as Jubilee had illustrated, a low budget can motivate the filmmakers to new heights of ingenuity.

While the British effort had deliberately set out not to make any friends, The Ramones' vehicle was weirdly endearing, obviously inspired by that point by National Lampoon's Animal House, only less National Lampoon and more Mad Magazine. Where Jubilee had secured an American release on the arthouse circuit, that was after Rock 'n' Roll High School had proved lucrative, and they were focused on different markets, the 1979 work more populist and inclusive as long as you could prove you liked, even loved, rock music. The Ramones had been one of the main bands to inspire the British punks with their three-minute (if that) bursts of sonic energy and back to basics ethic, but their movie was a comedy - any humour in Jubilee was of the sneering variety.

P.J. Soles was long out of high school as she was pushing thirty, but had found recent fame as one of Michael Myers' victims in breakout horror Halloween the previous year, and her infectious, upbeat delivery was precisely what was needed to play the world's biggest Ramones fan. She writes songs for the boys (well, one song, the title track), evangelises about them to her friends who likewise fall for their rough and ready charms, and most importantly secures her peers all the tickets to see them in concert that they could ever want. Such was the exuberant nature of Soles' Riff Randell that she proved a useful focus when the musicians themselves were so blatantly amateurish when it came to delivering their lines, but that was a big part of the amusement too.

Certainly Rock 'n' Roll High School was a lot keener on the music than Jubilee ever was, the British item offering up a cacophonous cod reggae version of Rule Britannia as the new entry for The Eurovision Song Contest, one of the gags that actually lands. Of course, lurking in the cast, among future pop stars Adam Ant and Toyah Willcox, were The Slits, the ultimate punk girl group, who were merely used as glorified background extras here, but the question of a Ramones-style movie vehicle for them is one of the great, if little-considered, "what if?" questions of the era. At least we had the genuine Ramones to watch in a film where their tunes blew up mice, and they got to indulge in proto-MTV rock videos as well as surprisingly impressive and authentic concert footage. They say Britain and America are two countries divided by the same language: if that language was punk, the movies that resulted would agree.

[The BFI have released a 40th Anniversary edition of Jubilee, looking and sounding sharper than ever on Blu-ray, and with, as extra features, an introduction by Jarman, interviews with Toyah, Jordan and Lee Drysdale (loads of great anecdotes from all three, as you can imagine), and a stills gallery.]
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018