Tough times call for tough music. Like punk rock in the 1970s.
Two new documentaries show how the movement sprang up in two then-blighted cities — Boston and London.
As noted in Chris Parcellin’s rough and ready “Boys From Nowhere: The Story of Boston’s Garage Punk Uprising” (co-directed by Lenny Scolletta), Boston in the 1970s was not the gleaming, gentrified gem it is today. “It was a pretty hurtin’ town,” says one survivor of the era. “Only one quarter of Beacon Hill was nice. The rest was a dump.”
But the gritty, straitened city provided fertile ground for creative energy; its youthful desperation, discontent, and anarchy found expression in the punk movement. The grim streets, seedy bars, and tough neighborhoods spawned legendary local bands like DMZ, the Real Kids, the Nervous Eaters, the Neighborhoods, and others. Parcellin and Scolletta’s mostly black-and-white film revisits them, its artless, propulsive style like that of the music itself.
In archival footage and recent interviews with the musicians — now in their 60s and 70s, with some deceased — it relates the origins and outrageous anecdotes of those wild times. JJ Rassler of DMZ recalls how he had to abruptly leave Philadelphia for undisclosed reasons. “At the airport I asked, ‘Where will $23 get me?’ ” he says. “They said, ‘Boston, one-way.’ I said, ‘Perfect.’ ”
All the Boston punk bands seem to have experienced the same meteoric rise and fall. “I don’t know why they didn’t make it,” says Jim Harold, former owner of the late, lamented Kenmore Square club The Rathskeller, a.k.a. “The Rat.” “Well, I do,” he adds. “But I don’t want to get into that.”
Some of the musicians interviewed claim they don’t remember what happened because they were unconscious much of the time — which explains a lot. But it wasn’t just the booze and drugs that did them in — bad luck, greedy and obtuse producers, and a cultural shift from the needy ’70s to the greedy ’80s played a part as well.
Often appearing in the film, Willie “Loco” Alexander was a seminal, ubiquitous figure in the movement; he claims to have played with two or more groups — including his own Boom Boom Band — on the same night at the same venue. He was one of the first to establish Boston’s punk cred with his hit single “Kerouac” and its B side, “Mass Ave.”
Now 75, spectral and impish under a shock of white hair, Alexander putters around his rabbit warren-like home, cluttered with boxes and trunks full of memorabilia, the walls plastered with concert fliers, newspaper clippings, and holy pictures. But seen onstage in 2013 on his 70th birthday performing with former J. Geils Band vocalist Peter Wolf, he proves that the punk spirit is not dead but dormant, ready to burst through the staid, conventional, and oppressive.
In 1976, around the same time that the Boston scene was coming alive, the Clash, Generation X, and other punk rockers had already shocked an economically depressed and culturally stagnant London. But the title band in William Badgley’s documentary “Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits” differed from the rest: The members were all women, and they were as transgressive as the men. The British tabloid News of the World claimed that “they made the Sex Pistols look like choirboys” and confessed that “their name is so vulgar we are unable to print it in a family newspaper.”
Founded by singer Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt, drummer Palmolive, and guitarist Viv Albertine — who ranged in age from 14 to 22 – the Slits defied gender stereotypes with their appearance, behavior, and performances. Energy, novelty, and anarchy were their appeal, not musicianship. “Sometimes we were all playing different songs,” recalls Palmolive, “and couldn’t even tell.”
They headlined with the Clash on the latter’s 1977 “White Riot” tour. Their 1979 debut LP, “Cut,” with its notorious cover showing band members nearly naked and caked with mud, was a sensation. In 2004 it was voted number 58 on the London Observer’s list of the 100 greatest British albums.
So what happened to the Slits?
Badgley features archival footage of the band in its prime and interviews with members today in describing a career arc like that of the band’s Boston counterparts. The film revisits their early days of excess, provocation, and the exhilaration of rebelling against the status quo.
But in 1982, their second album, “Return of the Giant Slits,” more ambitious in its African and reggae influences, did not catch on. They broke up and went their separate ways.
Like Alexander in “Boys From Nowhere,” Pollitt is shown poring through her collection of clippings about the band. Also like Alexander, Pollitt never lost touch with the transgressive, bonding spirit of the music. So when Ari Up asked her in 2005 to join her in reforming the band, she enthusiastically agreed. Enlisting a younger generation of female musicians, they toured extensively and released an album, “Trapped Animal,” in 2009. The band’s run ended in 2010, when Ari Up died of cancer.
Looking back on her 40-year musical journey, Pollitt remembers being excited and committed from the time she was a teenager. “We had to break down all the barriers,” she says.
“Boys From Nowhere” screens Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Cape Ann Cinema in Gloucester. Go to squ.re/2L2Qadt. “Here to Be Heard” screens June 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Cotuit Center for the Arts in Cotuit, and June 9 at 7 p.m. at the Lilypad in Cambridge. A discussion with Palmolive and music journalists Rob Sheffield and Jenn Pelly follows. Go to www.slitsdoc.com.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.