“Punk Can Take It”: Julien Temple’s 1979 promo film featured London’s punk survivors U.K. Subs

By on June 13, 2017

Punk Can Take It, the title of Julien Temple’s tongue-in-cheek 1979 promo film for U.K. Subs, parodies a short 1940 government propaganda film, London Can Take It!, and celebrates the achievements of the punk survivors who were “heroes by night” of the British punk movement in the face of “the apathy of a stagnant England.” Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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In this long-format, mockumentary-style promotional punk music video, filmmaker Julien Temple — who also gave us The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, (1979) and, years later, The Filth and The Fury (2000), and The Sex Pistols: There’ll Always Be England (2008) — collaborated with the seminal British punk band U.K. Subs, who were among the earliest in the first wave of British punkers.

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At the time, they were already seen as punk rock survivors by some, while others considered at least their lead singer, then 35-year old Charlie Harper, to be an “old” rock ‘n’ roller who probably came too late to punk to be an authentic punk rocker.

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They’d been playing shows since November 1976, after Harper had heard the Damned and decided that the band he was in at the time — an R&B-flavored pub rock combo called the Marauders — weren’t the right band to be in anymore.

Thus, the Subs — the band’s original full-length name had been the Subversives — were launched, finding that they had much to prove to punk fans, right from the start.

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Early on, Harper had envisioned the Subs as a band bridging the gap between the still-thriving British blues-influenced pub rock scene and the newer safety pinned-punk scene, which many bands and clubgoers were still resistant to embrace in the club scene, at least early on.

For this clever promo film, Temple draws upon a vivid visual connection between the aftereffects of the London Blitz of 1941, and the effects of the city’s crumbling post-war economy in the mid-’70s, taking its cues (as well as its title) from short British propaganda film from 1940, which shows the effects of eighteen hours of the German blitz on the city of London and its frightened population.

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Punk Can Take It was completed by Temple shortly after he’d finished Swindle, which had also featured eccentric Tenpole Tudor frontman Edward “Eddie” Tudor-Pole, who appears here, along with some leftover footage that Temple had shot for Swindle, mixed in with live footage of U.K. Subs, who are seen performing at both the Lyceum and the Cambridge May Ball while on their UK tour to promote a then new single, “Stranglehold.”

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The inclusion of BBC wartime commentator John Snagge — who had delivered Britain’s national news reports in Pathé newsreels, even describing the D-Day landings in 1944 — was a smart choice too, his familiar voice leading the film viewer through a re-enactment of the Blitz superimposed upon great live footage of a U.K. Subs in concert.

Rather than seeking shelter from the air raid, as Brits had been instructed to do during WWII, the punk audience here act as if they intend to go on ignoring the fact that the country is in peril; at the time, the establishment of England were telling the public that the country was going through a kind of “identity crisis” and the punk menace was putting everyone in danger.

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John Snagge

While England’s civic leaders were attempting crush the punk spirit under their bootheels, we see that the true punk rock audience — who barely comport themselves in front of Temple’s cameras in this punk newsreel — were not going to yield to the perceived threats they were facing.

In fact, were likely to keep fighting against the media, big business and even sell-out punk bands that had been co-opted by the music industry itself.

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At the time, U.K. Subs were seen as one of the few bands resisting the tide of corruption, and Temple, in particular, may have been trying to show the Subs as punk’s last hope after the Sex Pistols had failed to remain intact.

As former band member Nicky Garratt once admitted about the video:

“There was a side of me that thought it was pretty corny, because it was just things that people had said over and over again, but it was a political statement and I think it was good because the World War II theme seemed to make sense.”

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Snagge’s narration — which seems to designed to provoke fear from the audience, the same way his voice likely created fear for the viewers watching wartime footage in newsreels of the 1940s — is supposed to make the comparison between a real threat, like the Nazis invading the country or raining bombs down from above, and the faked-up threat that punk represented to London at the time.

Snagge — who was lured out of retirement for his work on Temple’s film — was a good sport, and liked to send himself up now and then, as he did in the cult 1950s radio comedy “The Goon Show,” and his narration, spoken here with faux gravitas, really gives this punchy punk rock promo film a clever and distinguished feel to the proceedings.

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One of our favorite scenes is when Snagge declares that punk was facing extermination, this, while the camera pans over to a statue of Johnny Rotten clad in Roman robes and sitting on the banks of the Thames, directly opposite from the Houses of Parliament. The statue bears an epitaph: “Johnny Rotten, 1956-1977.”

Snagge’s stentorian narration sets the very serious and very funny tone for what we’re seeing:

“Careless talk costs lives. The enemy is always listening: autograph-hunters and rumour-mongerers with their slack minds and silly blathering mouths, through their interviews, caused stars to be born. Punk has had its share of traitors: ordinary kids, even idiots, elevated to the rank of idols, but each time a collaborator is exposed, a hundred punks spring up to take his place, adamant in their belief that the musicians are no different and no more talented than their audience.”

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Before the Subs were lensed by Temple in 1979, singer Charlie Harper (born David Jud Casper on May 25, 1944) had worked at a hairdressing salon in south London, which may be one reason he sports a nearly perfect perm in the film while still managing to do all kinds of acrobatic stage moves.

He and the rest of the original lineup of the band — guitarist and occasional lead singer Nicky Garratt, bassist Paul Slack (lead vocals on “She’s Not There”) and drummer Pete Davis (one of several drummers, although he was the most stable, who sang the lead vocals on the band’s “Space Patrol”) — even rehearsed in Harper’s hair salon the first few years after forming, right there amid the stacks of hair products and beauty supplies.

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The Subs built up a following around their South London hometown, earning exposure through British music press like Melody Maker and New Music Express while also making numerous appearances on “Top of the Pops.”

They opened for bands like the Ramones and the Police, and had cut several John Peel Sessions at BBC Radio One in 1977 and ’78 by the time they eventually scored a record contract with the GEM label, who also happened to run the GTO Films company.

Due to this connection to the theatrical distribution world, GEM had all the necessary contacts to be able to get the short film played as an opener for longer feature films like Scum, and, later, Quadrophenia.

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U.K. Subs have released over twenty studio albums since their 1979 debut album Another Kind of Blues, and between 1979 and ’81, they were hailed as one of the last true punk bands to see mainstream success, with their 1980 album Crash Course rocketing into the Top Ten (#8).

The Subs went on to record seven consecutive Top Thirty hits in England from 1979 to 1981, including “Stranglehold” and “Tomorrow’s Girls.”

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Punk Can Take It captures U.K. Subs at the peak of their powers, though, shortly before the original lineup lost their entire rhythm section when, in late 1980, after an appearance on a Dutch TV show, Paul Slack and Pete Davies left the Subs to form a band of their own called the Allies.

From what we can tell, 73-year old Grandpa Punk Charlie Harper is still rockin’ in the year 2017, and leading the latest version of U.K. Subs (check out the band’s website for current gigs), proving that — as far as age goes — this punk truly can “take it.”

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Watch Punk Can Take It and other punk music documentaries and concert films over at Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.