By Ben Myers.
The early/mid 80s was a time of rough transition. Politically, financially, sexually and musically. By the foreboding year famously fictionalized by George Orwell, the policies of Reagan and Thatcher had had enough time to be implemented and punk’s initial idealised promise of a more colourful, freer world had been diluted down into dozens of musical sub-genres, from the profitable queer pop of Boy George and co. to the equally as homoerotic postures of vein-bulging boys of the US hardcore scene. But it was all still music and fashion — nothing more.
Meanwhile the burger-greased wheels of the American propaganda machine kept rolling, ensuring the vision of ‘the dream’ was kept alive by a slurry of must-have items desirable to kids in all four corners of the world: this was the era of the Big Mac and Dr Pepper, the Sony Walkman and the BMX, Nikes, Michael’s Jackson and J. Fox, Madonna, shopping malls, the Brat Pack, Levis. It was commercialism as propaganda; a projection of an idea of a country where you can buy anything, do anything, be anything.
But the dream was a nightmare — a lie. It turned out mommy and daddy had to get three jobs and still max out their credit card to keep their kids in those Air Jordans. And mommy and daddy were pissed off because their Sixties dream of peace and love and endless inconsequential fucking had resulted in a brood of porky little brats that meant they had to get jobs to buy body-warmers for the spawn of their rubberless-rutting back in ’68. So: they all forgot about their true ambitions, got boring jobs, voted Reagan and moved to this new place, a cut-grass utopia ten miles out of the city: suburbia.
It is this physical and philosophical space that Penelope Spheeris movie of the same name occupies: a new-built wasteland of abandoned tract homes on the outskirts of one of the most corrupt and morally dubious cities of the late twentieth century, Los Angeles, California.
Made off the back of Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilisation, a totemic documentary that captured the nihilistic LA / West Coast punk scene of the day — Black Flag, Circle Jerks, X, The Germs — Suburbia (also known as both The Rebel Streets and Wild Side) went one further in examining the social causes of a new generation of disenfranchised young punks and skins who are the runaway children of hippies, cops and violent drunks. It follows them from their squatted suburban home through parties to run-ins with rednecks, the police, city planners and anyone in positions of authority. It is a film about survival in the capitalist era and about finding camaraderie in the chill of a distant Cold War, and as such it is punk movie that is — on a deeper level — about the failings of the generation before them.
Few of the those cast in Suburbia can act. They are largely real young punks (including a scene-stealing turn from Red Hot Chili Pepper Mike ‘The Flea’ Balzary as Razzle) who have been fed lines to recite, a tactic which lends the movie a stilted, awkward charm and captures the deadened draw of the West Coast’s wasted perfectly.
The live footage is impressive too as we step into gigs pumped up on hormones and pills and oozing a genuine menace, and also showing the danger of being a punk in a city where the drugs were strong and the cops notoriously intolerant and violent. Here you can see the likes of TSOL, The Vandals and DI joining the dots between the last gasps of punk and hardcore and the burgeoning subdivisions — goth punk, emotional hardcore etc — that would push the scene underground during the mid-80s.
The denouement of overdoses, beatings and sudden death may offer textbook youth rebellion movie conclusions yet nevertheless are still a jolt to the senses of anyone expecting anything good to come of it all. As a heartfelt indictment of those shafted by the 60s idealists and now falling through the cracks of uncaring capitalism, Suburbia is spot-on.
First posted: Saturday, September 5th, 2009.