SHELLSHOCK ROCK - DO YOU REALLY CARE?
Sadly most films that were actually shot back in the halcyon days of punk veered from the laughably pretentious artfag slop like Jubilee to the shameless showboating and self mythologizing that characterised such celluloid dreck as the Great Rock N Roll Swindle and Rude Boy. Apart from Don Letts thrilling Punk Rock Movie most every other documentary styled work fell neatly into the category of tediously predictable ‘Shock! Horror!’ exposes or quickie idiotic fast buck cash-ins like Suburbia. But for my money the best punk film ever made and one of the very few that not only still stands up today, but actually improves with the passing years, is ‘Shellshock Rock’, John T Davis’ affectionate snapshot of Northern Ireland’s burgeoning punk scene in 78/79.
I first became aware of John late in ’77 when, working part time as a freelance photographer, he’d been sent out with some gormless local hack to take pics of Belfast’s earliest punk combos for a piece in the Belfast Telegraph. RUDI were the first Belfast punk band and back then by far the most popular. We practiced in a hall just off the Albertbridge Road and while the journalist who ‘interviewed’ us (I use that term loosely as he ignored everything we said…) simply wanted to leave as soon as possible, the photographer, who looked looked like Keef Richard’s skinny half brother chatted away to us, impressing us with his knowledge of the 60s garage punk covers we were practicing. This cowboy booted individual turned out to be none other than John T Davis in the flesh - and though we’d pegged him as some hippy throwback at first, we soon figgered that anyone who recognised the godlike genius of ’96 Tears’ was OK by us!
Several months later and Ulster punk was making it’s presence felt on the bigger stage as hot local combos unleashed a string of killer 45s. Though oft derided by the Belfast punk cognoscenti as ex heavy metal bandwagon jumpers, Stiff Little Fingers were first outta the traps with ‘Suspect Device’ with RUDI’s ‘Big Time’, the first release on Belfast’s Good Vibrations label and the Outcasts ‘Frustration’ EP on Portadown’s IT records snapping hard on their heels. Good Vibes kept up the pace with Victim’s ‘Strange Thing By Night’ and the Outcasts ‘Teenage Rebel’, finally hitting paydirt with the Undertones ‘Teenage Kicks’.
Though more used to churning out industrial information films and evangelical shorts John realized this was too good an opportunity to miss and after snagging a tiny grant from the local Arts Council he set out to capture what was happening round him on celluloid. He was in the right place at the right time and filming started in late summer 1978 finishing at the end of January 1979.
Sure, folks were suspicious at first but when it became patently obvious that John wasn’t gonna make some lame pisstaking shockumentary or heavy handed political diatribe he was quickly accepted. Unlike most everyone else the wrong side of 30 he treated us nasty punk rockers with courtesy and respect and besides we all wanted to get our ugly mugs on film! It mighta helped too that it was strongly rumoured that John was the first ever registered drug addict in N Ireland!
Though short on budget, Shellshock Rock is long on imagination and the aerial shots alone are breathtaking. Texturally it’s mighta impressive too and John helms each scene skilfully, keeping it tight and focussed and avoiding the tiresome bomb and bullet chic beloved of so many lesser filmmakers. Sure, there are shots of soldiers and armoured cars but John was careful not to take sides, simply documenting everyday life here impartially and honestly.
Shellshock Rock not only looks good but sounds it too - and musically it punches way above it’s weight. Stars to be, SLF and The Undertones are captured live and raw, before the record company marketing men got their hands on ‘em, and both never looked better. Local heavy hitters RUDI are immortalised travelling by bus to practice in an Orange Hall and live at the notorious Glenmachan and their regular sparring partners The Outcasts are seen recording in Belfast’s Wizard Studios - where many a great band and song were ruined by Davy Shannon’s pathetic production technique.
A pre Polydor Protex are still feisty and refreshing at the Glenmachan and Rhesus Negative and Victim are filmed down and dirty at the legendary Harp Bar. Barely into their teens the Parasites tear it up at a local youth club and local cults The Idiots stopped fighting amongst themselves long enough to shamelessly rework Dion’s ‘Teenager In Love’ as the title track ‘Shellshock Rock (Do you really care?)’
Sure the bands were rough and ready but they more than made up for what they lacked in technique and er.. professionalism - with spunk, pizzazz and reckless teenage abandon a sharp contrast to the studied, cynical posturing of so called punk bands elsewhere. This was our 5 minutes of fame and boy were we gonna make the most of it (Sadly a planned soundtrack album on Good Vibrations fell through)!
But where Shellshock Rock scored highest was recognizing that there was so much more to Ulster punk than simply some great music and it’s the scenes where enthusiastic local punters reflect on what punk means to them and how it impacted and changed their lives that carry the most weight. While punk mighta proved to be little more than a sharp marketing ploy elsewhere, here it drew people together, cutting across divisions of class and religion, creating a very real sense of local pride and inspiring folks to think for themselves and go out and do their own thing and unlike any other punk film I can think of ‘Shellshock Rock’ carries a refreshingly positive message.
Better still, it’s damn funny too and I defy even the most po faced critic not to crack a smile at the scenes where some local punks wander through Belfast city centre at Xmas much to the amusement of visiting shoppers and encountering such diverse delights as a Salvation Army brass band and Mickey Marley’s Roundabout.
Shellshock Rock was set to debut at the Cork Film Festival in 1979 but bewilderingly it was banned at the last minute! Thankfully this attracted more attention than if it had been shown and over 1000 locals packed into UCC Kampus later that evening to watch the film, accompanied by sets from RUDI and the Outcasts.
RUDI played with the film too at its Belfast debut in a sardine packed Harp Bar shortly after where it played to riotous acclaim. We shared a stage with the film many many times in the months that followed at clubs and pubs throughout Ireland as John eschewed traditional distribution methods, preferring instead to turn up guerrilla style armed with a screen, a projector and his film. Those were the days!
Sadly, Shellshock Rock never received the wider exposure it so richly deserved, although in recent years it has garnered plaudits when it has turned up amongst several cinematic punk retrospectives. Tragically, the possibility of any such future shows looks bleak as John’s house and film archive were destroyed by fire some years back.
Though never officially released on video or DVD, bootleg copies have turned up over the years - though avoid copies taken from the one Channel 4 TV showing of the film as the Undertones had insisted their appearance was removed and it was replaced by footage of the somewhat less impressive X Posers.
But, watch this film and see what you missed…
(For the full low down on Ulster punk check out the book ‘It Makes You Want To Spit’ (Reekus Publications) by Sean O’Neill and Guy Trelford - crammed with exclusive photos, reminiscences, comprehensive band histories and discographies it just has to be the best book on punk ever!)
Brian Young tMx 16 08/04