The Punk Syndrome

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

28 May

Wendy O Williams born, 1949

On this day in 1949, one of punk rock’s most colourful performers came into the world. Named Wendy Orlean Williams when she was born in Webster, New York, Williams was a music student, playing clarinet at high school before dropping out at 16 and hitchhiking to Colorado. Over the next few years she sold string bikinis, worked as a cook in London, as a dancer with a gypsy troupe in Europe before arriving back in New York in 1976 and, after answering an ad in a paper, became a member of Rod Swenson’s experimental theatre troupe Captain Kink’s Theatre. Two years later, with Swenson’s help, she launched the Plasmatics, a performance-art shock-rock band with a penchant for chainsaws. Over the next few years she would repeatedly get into trouble with the law for simulating sex on stage and for being underdressed (insulation tape to cover her nipples not being thought clothing enough in some states), made a version of Stand By Your Man with Lemmy of Motorhead, appeared in the porn film Candy Goes to Hollywood, made an album with the members of Kiss as her backing band, and appeared in a number of underground movies, as well as producing several albums with the Plasmatics and as a solo artist. In 1991 she retired, moved to rural Connecticut and, like Brigitte Bardot, another notorious blonde, devoted her life to animal welfare. Life out of the limelight didn’t suit her and she attempted suicide in 1993 by hammering a knife into her breastbone. Her second suicide attempt in 1997 was by drug overdose. In 1998 her third attempt, by gun, succeeded.

The Punk Syndrome (2012, dir: Jukka Kärkkäinen, Jani-Petteri Passi)

Meet Pertti, Toni, Sami and Kari, four mentally disabled Finnish guys who have formed their own punk band, Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (Pertti Kurikan’s Name Day), and who have, maybe surprisingly, found a degree of success with it. They’re a funny bunch, each a bit off in his own way – guitarist Pertti is obsessed with the seams in clothes for instance, lead singer Kari asks at one moment, a propos of nothing at all, “why do pedicurists exist?”. But they understand the basic rule of songwriting: lyrics have to be honest.

Their big hit is “Decision-makers Are Cheaters”, a ditty about the indignity of living in an institution and not being considered sound of mind enough to make your own life choices. Another is “I Don’t Want to Live in a Group Home.” Fair enough.

The fanbase is an odd mix too, of slightly aged punks, the pierced, the bewildered, the drunk and the occasional aging hipster who collects musical oddities to prove his hipster credentials, possibly. This documentary about the band, their lives back at the home, touring on the road, musical and personal arguments, isn’t that dissimilar from any film about any rock band. It’s done without commentary track, in verité style, backstage and onstage, features interviews with the fans, the entourage and the band themselves, and so on. Except this lot are frighteningly honest – “you can’t go on stage with shit in your pants” says one to the other just before they leap into action. At another point one of them says to Pertti, “You did a good job, Perrti” just after they’ve come off stage. “I know,” replies Pertti without any false modesty, “But I was nervous before going on stage.”

This band are the ultimate outsiders and it would be easy to exploit them, see them as a freak show. It is to the directors’/writers’ credits that they don’t do this, instead they focus on the joy that music-making brings, though there is the lingering suspicion that some of the audience are there for the wrong reasons. But the purity and directness of what they do, lyrics such as “You’re not normal – no, no, no” saying it all, make a good case for the bands’ right to exist, perform and succeed. Rock and roll without the bullshit.

Why Watch?

  • An unusual documentary
  • A rock’n’roll life inside an institution
  • The arguments and the touching friendship
  • The band’s unvarnished honesty

The Punk Syndrome – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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