Julien Temple's Punk Revival
Before his screening at the Foyle Film Festival, director Julien Temple recalls Derry, Detroit and The Undertones
Director Julien Temple first swapped the cosmopolitan sprawl of London for the turbid skies of Northern Ireland in 1980. With the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle already in the can, he arrived in Derry~Londonderry laden with tripods, cables and cameras.
He was there to shoot a video for the Undertones single ‘My Perfect Cousin’, filming the band playing Subbuteo in the pokey back room of lead guitarist Damian O’Neill’s house. It should have been lights, camera, action, but when the clapperboard snapped the room was plunged into darkness – nobody had thought to top up the electricity meter.
After a run to Crossan’s shop for a fistful of 50 pence pieces the shoot was completed, but all these years later Temple remembers the lecky being the least of his Derry~Londonderry troubles. ‘There were a lot of problems,’ he recalls. 'It did seem to be dangerous to me.
‘I didn’t necessarily realize everything about Northern Ireland at the time. I was aware that there was a war going on. I was shown a kind of IRA trophy room in the back of one of the houses. Later, we were held up by 16-year-old skinheads with machine guns saying, “What the f*ck are you filming them for?” I had a gun in my face, actually.
‘And the army didn’t like us having the power to the lights,’ he remembers. ‘They gave us a really hard time for running cables across the pavement. They were just really angry that we were spending the time and attention to do a thing for these Catholic kids, I guess.’
Despite such difficulties, the song became the Undertones’ only top ten hit when it reached number nine in the UK charts. Temple’s video increased the band’s visibility and showed the wider world that in Derry~Londonderry there was something different happening amidst headlines telling only of bombs and bigotry.
The Undertones later became tastemaker DJ John Peel’s favourite punk band – the famous moment when he played the song ‘Teenage Kicks’ twice in succession rendered beautifully in Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s recent Good Vibrations biopic. Temple, however, says the Radio 1 figurehead needed a bit of knuckling before warming to punk at all.
‘I remember that being a huge thing for John Peel, yeah,’ he says. ‘But it was a bit funny because he’d been an old hippy and absolutely refused to play the Sex Pistols. The Pistols had to beat him up. They beat him up in Wardour Street for not playing their record. He tried to run away but he didn’t get far. So it was kind of funny when he became the punk messiah.’
As punk motored along defiantly, Temple became one of the most sought-after music directors of the 1980s, creating clips for The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran.
Working on full-length features, his documentaries broadened from music and individuals to places and people, culminating most recently in 2009’s Requiem for Detroit and 2012’s acclaimed archival collage London: The Modern Babylon. While his scope has widened the stem remains punk, interpreted as the spark that makes people want to stand up and do things for themselves.
‘I think of punk as undead, in the zombie meaning of the word. It’s still there, as something to be reanimated in a totally different way. Punk was the expression of something at a particular time, but I think the meaning goes back thousands of years. People want a sense of controlling their own destiny. They want feelings to be heard and they want to be creative.’
Minister for Culture, Arts & Leisure Caral Ni Chuilin this week described Derry~Londonderry as ‘a city transformed’, outlining a £2million three-year plan to ensure that the North West benefits from its year in the cultural spotlight.
Temple is skeptical when it comes to the value of grand events. London: The Modern Babylon is often considered alongside Danny Boyle’s Olympics Opening Ceremony spectacular as evidence of a London renewed, but the director is frank when asked what the Olympic legacy now amounts to. ‘I think West Ham got a stadium out of it. That’s about it.
‘I think it can work very well for a city,’ he says. ‘Like Barcelona, that’s the famous example. Barcelona was really transformed by the Olympics. I don’t mean to knock the spirit of the Olympics in London, I think it made the city feel good for a while and it was a very well organized.
'Everyone was waiting for it to be a disaster on some levels and it definitely wasn’t. But as for the positive benefits for the east end of London and Britain in general? I don’t think it’s done much to help us get through this depression or recession or whatever it is we’re living through.
‘But the thing you learn if you make a film about London is how incredibly resilient it is. Whatever’s thrown at it, it seems to get up and walk again. Change in a city is a very complex thing. Some of it is awful and some of it is good.’
The nature of changing cities became obvious nowhere so much as in Detroit, left destitute when the wheels fell off motor city’s manufacturing industry. As with Derry~Londonderry, Temple’s first visit was a culture shock. ‘I was astonished and completely freaked out. It was worse than I could ever have dreamt. That scary thing of looking at the ruins of a civilization and seeing that it’s the ruins of your own civilization.
‘The airport is just like any other horrible American airport. You’ve got these strange ejaculating fountains which are very bizarre… then you start driving in and you think: "That’s odd, that lamppost is being strangled by a big vine". Then there’s a burnt-out house. And then there’s another. And then there’s a hundred of them.’
But again, change is a complex thing. Since Requiem for Detroit, the city has become storied with tales of invention like The Heidelberg Project, covering houses and streets in the McDougall-Hall neighborhood in polka dots, or the $67,000 crowd-funded effort to raise a bronze statue of Robocop as a symbol of Detroit’s rebirth. After seeing the resilience Temple concludes that Detroit is on its way to becoming the first ‘post-American’ city.
‘One way of looking at Detroit is as a tragedy on an immense scale,’ he says. ‘The suffering is the overriding thing, but it’s more that the rules didn’t work. The rules of a community and city plagued by corruption and greed. So on another level the fact that the rules are no longer there mean you can have new rules.'
So does he believe that Derry~Londonderry – formerly a city of factories, now bereft of those old manufacturing staples – can follow suit? ‘When I came back to Derry many years later, it seemed a much happier, calmer place,' Temple muses. 'I’m sure there are still a lot of problems but it didn’t seem quite as insane as when I was first there. I love the place. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and it’s got a fantastic spirit.
‘So I’m sure good things came from the disaster of the seventies, and I think that’s always the case. Something can look like a total catastrophe but it doesn’t mean there aren’t sparks and new ways of thinking about how to live. But Derry has always been quite compelling for a guy like me. I liked it even then. It definitely had an edge!’
Julien Temple presents London: The Modern Babylon as part of the Foyle Film Festival at the Brunswick Movie Bowl, Derry~Londonderry on Sunday, November 24. Visit the Foyle Film Festival website for full event listings.