A ton of punk trends have come and gone in the 20 years since New York City band Sonic Youth declared 1991 as the “year punk broke.” Some things have changed drastically within punk rock’s youth subculture, but some elements have remained the same.
When Sonic Youth welcomed indie filmmaker Dave Markey and his 8mm camera during a European tour in 1991, the resulting document was a snarky rockumentary titled 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Released in 1992, it marked a turning point in rock, when some veteran East Coast indie-punkers and a new breed of West Coast grunge-rockers crossed into mainstream America.
Markey tagged along with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon (bass), Thurston Moore (guitar), Lee Ranaldo (guitar), and Steve Shelley (drums) as they hit a string of summer festivals in the UK and Europe. Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., and Babes in Toyland were among the opening acts. As a fanzine publisher (he put out We Got Power! in the early ’80s) and drummer for L.A. punk bands Sin 34 and Painted Willie, Markey was already well acquainted with with most of the musicians on the tour.
Despite the raw, low-budget quality of the footage and the shaky camera work, the film’s appropriately sarcastic commentary came across as cool and confident upon its initial release. It was more of an amusingly choppy tour documentary than a film with a heavy-handed message.
Marking the 20th anniversary of the tour, Sonic Youth and the UMe label are planning to re-release The Year Punk Broke on DVD on Sept. 13. All of the footage has been restored, although much of it still looks mighty VHS-grainy. The new disc also includes previously unreleased bonus material, mostly extra concert footage of Nirvana (filmed a month prior to the release of Nevermind) and Sonic Youth.
Armed with a cheap microphone and recorder, frontman Moore turned out to be the main character of the film. He’s a freestylin’ spazz, a smartass with a cutesy manner of mouthing off. He’s a philosopher with a bad haircut, a slacker social critic who genuinely can’t stand the encroachment of commercial media into the indie underground.
Most of The Year Punk Broke shows Moore and his mates on stage rockin’ out on fan favorites like “Teen Age Riot” or “Kool Thing” — sometimes hilariously out of tune. It’s great, raw stuff, aimed mostly at dedicated fans, But it’s hard for viewers unfamiliar with Sonic Youth and their pals to miss the point that these are very anti-rock-star rockers.
There’s plenty of goofy camaraderie, too. Gordon mocks Madonna’s tour documentary Truth or Dare. Viewers catch the casual, lighter side of Nirvana, too. Kurt Cobain dances like a tipsy kid with Moore and Gordon in the opening scene, and Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic clown around backstage, spraying wine and tossing brie and grapes at each other. Dinosaur Jr. drummer Murph dryly out-sasses Moore during an impromptu interview.
The most memorable and amusing scenes are away from the stages — in the dressing rooms, behind the festival tents, and along the various European city streets. Moore tends to interview (and bother) young fans and clueless passers-by with questions about the music world. “Do you see rock ‘n’ roll as youth culture?” he asks a smiling Dutch fan in an early scene. “When youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do?” The fan shrugs. “I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that’s destroying youth culture by mass-marketing and commercial paranoia behavior control,” Moore continues. “The first step is to destroy the record companies. Do you not agree?” The fan shrugs.
While they never smashed the system, Sonic Youth and most of their ’91 entourage didn’t stick with the major labels for very long after the tour.
Despite its uneven presentation, The Year Punk Broke conveys the bands’ mistrust of the superficial rock world and displays their DIY ethics. It’s worth a look, especially for those who’d like a glimpse into the loud, noisy, dry-witted heart of Sonic Youth during their heyday.
For more on filmmaker Dave Markey, visit wegotpowerfilms.com.