The cartoon punk street gangs of 1980s Hollywood and the ultra-obscure record that mocked it all.
Whatever we might think about the various talents of Michael Winner, I doubt that anyone would suggest that he had his finger on the pulse of 1980s youth. I wouldn’t want to swear to this, but I think that his 1982 film Death Wish 2 (still, arguably, the most notorious major studio film ever made thanks to the gratuitous rape scenes) is the first example of a phenomenon that ran through the decade – the ludicrously cartoonish punk rock street gang that bore absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to any sort of real gang.
In the real world, gangs tend to be fairly homogenous groups from rather specific areas – hence the whole turf war thing. The gangs in Death Wish 2 and 3, alongside numerous other films and TV shows of the 1980s, however, are an impressively diverse collection that seem only connected by a devotion to mohawks, studded leather jackets and T-shirts for bands that only a clueless production designer could imagine hardened street criminals listening to. It’s not just the idea that street gangs were all punk rockers – it’s the sheer lack of understanding of what a punk rocker might be. In these films, they are all desperately tough while looking as though they would break down crying if someone gave them a quick slap. A particularly classic example of cartoon punks being pushed as a threat to civilisation is the Quincy, M.E. ‘killed by punk’ episode Next Stop, Nowhere, which everyone should seek out in order to marvel at the sheer wrong-headed hilarity of it all (we might well come back to this at a later point). Frankly, I blame this whole thing on The Warriors, which seemed to set a particularly wussy gang template for filmmakers like Winner and others to riff from.
Of course, we can forgive the filmmakers to a certain degree – they were, after all, based in Los Angeles, where the punk scene was always a cartoonish copy of the real thing, populated by bands and fans alike who bought their whole ‘punk’ look off the peg at trendy outlets and clung to the idea of being edgy and nihilistic almost as fiercely as they held on to daddy’s credit card. They were less street thugs and more spoiled middle-class brats who were playing a role – to be abandoned as soon as the fashion changed or record deals were dangled in front of them.
The sheer ubiquity of the ‘punk rock creep’ stereotype – and Charles Bronson’s remarkable capacity for playing characters who find themselves up against gangs of said creeps in various movies that play on his Death Wish persona – led to the release of Punk Rock Creeps, a remarkably obscure record by someone calling themselves Bronson. This is the very height of mystery – who was behind it, when it came out, where it was sold and who bought it are all questions without answers. As ever, I rely on you, dear reader, to fill in the missing pieces (which is this case is more or less all of them). All I can say is that the Bronson impersonation is passable but perhaps wears a little thin after eight minutes of crunching riffery and complaining. Listen for yourself.
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