The golden age of the dispossessed
Clunky and cliched, British music films of the late 1970s - such as Babylon and Breaking Glass - had their flaws, but they were stunning documents of a nation in flux.
By Jon Savage
The Guardian, Friday October 24 2008
Jon Savage on British music films of the late 1970s | Film | The Guardian
It's inner-city London, but not as you'd know it today. Three black friends are walking down a residential street, which is empty of cars, people, and residences. Behind the wire-mesh fencing and the corrugated iron are piles of bricks where the Victorian houses used to be. A fire burns among the rubble: a beacon of despair. Suddenly their heads are turned by a visitation. Out of the murk emerges a rasta with waist-length locks, a cloak of red, gold and green, and an impressive staff, "walking flat out of Ethiopia". His regal bearing and peaceful demeanour represents an example of grace under pressure to the hard-scrabbling youth.
This scene comes from Franco Rosso's Babylon, newly released on DVD, which is just one of several films made in the late 1970s and early 80s that sought both to pick up on the energy of the British music scene and to capture the difficult lives of young people at the sharp end of recession and unemployment. Shot on location in Lewisham, the site of the violent August 1977 battle between the National Front and 10,000 protestors, Babylon is at once schematic - issues tackled include racism, black crime, corrupt and violent police, - and highly watchable, with its quick pacing and an understated, tender touch. Its story is simple, following the adventures of Blue (played by Brinsley Forde, Aswad's charismatic singer) and his friends as they build up to a sound system clash.
Babylon is a treat for reggae fans: the soundtrack captures dub at the moment when it went synthetic. The contrast between the spacey, psychedelic rhythms and the drear oppression of the world outside is telling. But, like the other music movies of the period - Jubilee, The Music Machine, Quadrophrenia, Rude Boy, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, Breaking Glass, and Take It or Leave It - Babylon was more than a simple exploitation movie. The deal was simple. At a time when the British cinema industry was in serious decline, these film-makers got to make state-of-the-nation movies. For their part, record companies could expand into visuals and sell soundtrack albums. This synergy prefigured the horizontal integration of the media industries - film, TV, advertising and publishing - that accelerated after the advent of MTV in 1981.
But what is fascinating about these films is how they all relate music to a period of social and political crisis. By the late 70s, deepening recession and spiralling unemployment had pitched Britain into uncharted waters. There was the threat of fascism, the rise of the new right, a pervasive mood of decay and riot. Youth bore the brunt of these conditions: the first to be sacked, the last to find jobs, exploited and/or victimised by adults and government. Music and pop culture was one of their only sources of hope and inspiration, and it was pursued with a fanatic determination. So within a three-year period, these films were able to explore punk, disco, the mod revival, reggae and dub, synth pop, and 2 Tone. At the same time, they were mostly shot on location, mapping a capital city of dark corners, queasy neons and blasted bombsites.
The relation between pop and the outside world had been explicitly heralded by punk, which - after its arty beginnings - took on a distinctly social-realist hue. The Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen made a perfect anti-story in summer 1977: the sound of things falling apart versus the false nostalgia of the silver jubilee. As you might expect from film people - not always totally attuned to the subtleties of pop culture - clunky punk cliches abound throughout the music films of the period: graffiti-strewn walls, corrugated iron, piles of rubbish, the very notion of "street credibility" (see the 1980 Hazel O'Connor vehicle, Breaking Glass). This feeling that everyone concerned has speed-read too many Clash articles is exemplified by the band's own "documentary". Rude Boy, made in 1980 by Jack Hazan and David Mingay, has great swathes of tedium, thanks to the drunken lead Ray Gange, while the Clash and their principally male entourage oscillate uneasily between bravado, empathy and staginess.
However, the social-realist cliches have their origins in empirical fact. London was in a dreadful state in that period. It was a concrete jungle, dangerous and derelict, not just for the black youth in Babylon but for all the other youth sub-cultures, sometimes fighting the police, sometimes each other. The sense of individual psychology interacting with exterior landscape is amplified by the cinematic images of a grey, damp and dour capital: railway viaducts (seen in Babylon and the Madness film, Take It Or Leave It), the inner-city street markets of Rude Boy and The Music Machine, underpasses, tube trains, tower blocks (passim).
All feature episodes of sudden violence, whether it be Teds in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, motorcyclists in The Music Machine, fascists in Breaking Glass, or sinister Orphée-style outriders in Jubilee. Even the genial Take It Or Leave It features a disturbingly realistic ruck with a gang of skinheads in the toilets of a west London gig venue. Apart from Breaking Glass and Jubilee, this is a male world of peer bonding and martial groups. Sex is taken on the run: a blow job in a toilet (Rude Boy) or a knee-trembler up an alleyway (Quadrophrenia). Only Babylon and The Music Machine have any nuance whatsoever concerning relationships and family.
Quadrophrenia is the apparent odd man out. It is set in the moment that the British penchant for tribal youth violence became national news: the mod-rocker disturbances of the spring of 1964. Even then, it's very much filtered through 1973 (the release of the original Who album) and 1978 (the start of the mod revival). The mod gang - actors such as Mark Wingett, Phil Davis, Garry Shail and Toyah, who appear right across the music films of the time - are more interested in mayhem than style. As Jimmy (Phil Daniels) is cast out by the group, he becomes more like a proper, original mod: psychotically dandyish with makeup and jerky, camp gestures. Within the terms of 1978/79, this is dangerously feminised, almost queer, and this is in sharp relief to many of the other films, which summon the spirit of the barracks. Within this, the use of Hazel O'Connor as the lead in Breaking Glass comes as a welcome change, reflecting as it does punk's shift in gender roles.
Almost buried under the barrage of blokes, there were many strong, dominatrix-style women in early punk: Jordan and Siouxsie to name but two. Both appear as members of a homicidal girl gang in Jubilee, one of the few films from this period to avoid strict social realism in favour of phantasmagoria. Derek Jarman's film posits a dystopian future where the break-up of British society has resulted in summary violence and fascism. Like Breaking Glass, it touches - none too subtly - on music industry exploitation, but the point is nevertheless well-taken: one the film's leads is the future early 1980s superstar, Adam Ant. The Sex Pistols' The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle also rejects literalism, partly because the group broke up during its production. It is chiefly memorable for the vivid opening sequence of the Gordon Riots: Malcolm McLaren's chaotic vision of 18th-century anarchy transposed to the late 70s.
However, it is the location footage that makes these music films such valuable historical documents. Shot in 1977, Jubilee remains one of the only visual records of London in that year of division. Rude Boy captures riveting footage of a National Front march in Birmingham, as well as a chilling 1978 Tory party conference. Most of all, they depict a curious freedom: a city untouched by wheel clamps, congestion charging, CCTV cameras or frequent knifings. The interzones might be dark and dangerous, but they also allow enough space to move, to breathe, to run wild, to make something out of nothing.
Youth is, as ever, hopeful about the future that suddenly bursts through in these films, like sunlight through cloud. Almost every storyline involves some kind of achievement through adversity: in an archetype going back to the The Wizard of Oz, a group of misfits pool their resources and win through - for a while at least.
Poised between the breakdown of the old studio system in the early 70s and the onset of public-funded, broadcast led funding in the mid 80s, these music films - whether true document or fascinating kitsch - are all highly recommended, particularly since their fashionability has been elided by time. Their enduring value lies in the fact that, for a brief moment, just before the heritage boom initiated by Chariots of Fire, producers and directors sought to engage with cutting-edge popular culture and to depict uncomfortable social realities. In retrospect, it looks like a golden age.
• Babylon is out now on DVD. Jon Savage is the writer of Joy Division, also out on DVD