Say Something Outrageous: Punks, Interviews, And Punk Interviews

The establishment has been goading and exploiting punks in the press for over 40 years.

The events of the new, amazing film Green Room are kicked off with a punk band being interviewed. Punks have a long history of being volatile and unpredictable with reporters, and though Green Room in due time gets about as volatile and unpredictable as possible, its opening Q&A is pretty tame stuff.

That’s probably because the punks of Green Room are being interviewed by a fellow punk who gives them a modicum of respect and courtesy. But it got us thinking about some of the more notorious of these exchanges, and how since 1976 it’s been a kind of tradition to interview punks sheerly for the outrage factor, juxtaposing them with the most square interviewer imaginable in the interest of laughs or outrage or both.

We’ve covered this one before, but you’re reading the site for free and there’s gonna be some overlap now and again, so deal with it. January 12, 1976. Sorta sloshed British chat show host Bill Grundy goads the Sex Pistols, flanked by a pair of groupies that include Siouxsie Sioux, into acting up on his TV show, transparently imploring them to "say something outrageous." Young, drunk, and nervous, they oblige him, letting loose with a tirade of headline-making profanity. This moment feels like the start of a phenomenon - trotting out punks for the express purpose of having them act out in front of the “normals.” It’s a gross precedent, but here at the start, at least, it’s all in relatively good fun.

Iggy Pop interviewed by Dinah Shore is certainly one of the more disparate pairings the “Interview A Punk” phenomenon ever yielded, but look how cordial it can be! It helps that Iggy, accompanied by pal David Bowie, is on his best behavior here, but it should also be noted that you’d be hard pressed to find any interview where The Godfather Of Punk didn’t have time for manners. Even when he’s kind of confrontational or just being a weird pain in the ass, he’s pretty charming about it. 

John Lydon, on the other hand, seemed to make a career out of getting his back up during interviews. Sometimes he’d be prodded, other times he’d do the prodding, but it always felt just a touch calculated, as if he and his interviewer both knew why he was there, and one way or another Lydon would do what was expected of him. It’s almost as if he’s figured out how to monetize this scandalous behavior and put it to work for him for five decades!

Punk rocker GG Allin believed his rhetoric fully, or at least a far sight better than John Lydon ever did. Anyone who's seen the documentary Hated knows Allin talked the talk, walked the walk, and shit the shit. Even his funeral was stubbornly anti-establishment, with family members begging his punk pals to stop desecrating his body for a minute so relatives could come in and pay their respects. But for all Allin’s realness, here he is being trotted out on a trashy daytime talk show like a cartoon monster, with an audience of normals at first gasping and laughing at him, then booing him like a wrestling heel. It’s a weird dichotomy - you’ve got Allin going all the way on his end (days before his fatal overdose), literally telling horrified housewives he’s coming for their children. The appropriately aghast interviewer takes her part to the next level in kind, and as a result both the sincerity and the disingenuousness feel cranked up to 11.

But for all the posturing and in-your-face confrontation of punks in interviews, for my money none of them ever really sold me on their rebellion the the way Oliver Reed did during this epic appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. Ostensibly there to promote a film called Castaway, Reed decides immediately he's not up for Letterman's ridicule and goading and hijacks nine minutes of network television. Here is a man saying "fuck you" to conformity, "fuck you" to establishment expectations, and "fuck you" to being paraded in front of the audience to be a certain flavor of sponsor-approved outrageous for their amusement. It’s kind of magnificent.