A star is born, but instead of emerging into the world beaming for the cameras, he spits and snarls and announces his intention to destroy the establishment via the medium of rock records. But who is it? Is it Bob Geldof or John Lydon?
Citizens of Boomtown: The Story of the Boomtown Rats — another in the ongoing trend of the BBC screening films that are fundamentally ads for a band’s new album — made the case for Geldof, suggesting he and his bandmates singlehandedly dragged Ireland into the modern age (the Daily Telegraph’s chief rock critic popped up to say they were the first roar of the Celtic Tiger). The Public Image is Rotten, which was shown in a few cinemas in 2018 but is now streaming on Vimeo, traced Lydon’s path from the Pistols through Public Image Ltd.
Both films suffered some of the same shortcomings. Who really needs to have the story of punk summarised for them yet again? Do brief clips of starry talking heads really add anything (though I was disconcerted, as I took notes during the Boomtown Rats film, to hear what sounded like a minor aristocrat and to discover that it was Sting, the 14th Earl of Wallsend)? And, both films being made with the full co-operation (and financial involvement) of their subjects, they rather glossed over the fact that the two bands had made a lot of music that wasn’t awfully good (the Lydon one was a little more upfront about this but not much). In the Rats film, for instance, Paul Gambaccini suggested that the brevity of their golden period was pure historical inevitability, the result of the continual forward motion of pop, which might come as a surprise to one of the film’s talking heads, Bono, who could have pointed out that he’s managed more than three years at the top.
Both Lydon and Geldof were evidently difficult men (to be polite), but their contrariness (again, to be polite) enabled them to do significant things after their first flush of fame. In Geldof’s case, that was Band Aid or Live Aid, whose legacies will long outlast the Boomtown Rats. Without them, there is almost no chance that anyone at the BBC would have had the slightest desire to screen a film about a band whose last hit single was in 1982 and who — rightly or wrongly — have come to be regarded with a certain disdain. With Lydon, it was the emergence of Public Image Ltd, whose first couple of albums — the second, Metal Box, especially — still sound like nothing else, howls of horror from a shallow grave.
Being in PiL from 1978 to 1982 appears to have been akin to an extended bout of psychological warfare. As one former member notes: ‘It just became a drip, drip, drip of shit.’ The three principals of those early years — Lydon, bassist Jah Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene — were all as bad as each other. Wobble at one point pinched a load of PiL master tapes and used them for his own solo album. Then Levene did the same with a different set of tapes and released them as an unofficial PiL album of his own accord. Yet the three of them created something remarkable: Wobble’s basslines were dark wells of sound, drawn from dub reggae; Levene’s guitar was an unearthly sound, like nothing before in rock music. If you don’t know it, listen to ‘Poptones’, from Metal Box, a song so harrowing and strange it defies you to breathe while it plays. It was dysfunctional music made by dysfunctional people.
In both films, though, there is a long, long, long slog through the years when not a lot of interest was happening, before the inevitable conclusion showing both bands playing in the present day to big crowds. But these crowds hadn’t turned up specifically for Geldof or Lydon and looked as tough as they always are at festivals.
The outer reaches of Amazon Prime offer A Band Called Death, an oddly sweet film about three African-American brothers in Detroit who formed a band — you can guess what it was called — in 1971, and started playing a kind of music that was astonishingly close to what would later be punk rock. Of course, there wasn’t much call for black men playing proto-punk in Detroit in the mid-1970s. But decades later, the one single they made — a private pressing of only 500 copies —became a cratedigger cause célèbre. Like most cratedigger causes célèbre, the idea of Death is rather better than the reality, but only the cruellest would not feel pleasure at the delight and astonishment of the surviving brothers on discovering that, at last, people were listening. It’s an imperfect film, but it is charming.