This month sees the DVD release of old Night Flight favorite, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS (1981). A young Diane Lane leads the fledgling and titular punk band, which includes a mop-haired Laura Dern on bass. Alas, they can’t really play or sing; yet in their “Shagg-y” way they’re still more interesting than the Looters, the British punk band led by Ray Winstone who is their co-touring band. I was pretty bored by Ray’s rote sneering here until I realized he’s the same Ray from SEXY BEAST and NIL BY MOUTH. He’s a good actor, but can only do so much with a role that doesn’t range beyond three speeds of petulant. Yet his relationship with Lane’s Stain is given prominence overall. Though sexism and commodification are its big thematic swords, the movie trips and falls on them them instantly – with Lane’s band forced to steal Winstone’s songs and dance moves since her band has had no time to practice, and then Winstone managing to singlehandedly turn their fans against them with a rip of the famous “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated” Sex Pistols rant. The idea that girls’ success depends on boys to carry their equipment and teach them chords is something the film ostensibly fights, so it’s weird when it turns it around and has Ray “teach the girls a lesson.”
For everything it gets wrong though, STAINS gets many things right: dreary Canadian landscape passing brilliantly for the rural wastelands of Pennsylvania, all dripping with mud and fog and depressingly vast parking lots, through which sputters the dingy but earthy and kind of cozy tour bus run by Jamaican rebel Barry Ford. Having been on dreary low rent rock tours myself, I can vouch for the authenticity of these early scenes, the despair at driving all night and then setting up in some empty-looking little hole in the wall that’s still reeking of beer and cigarettes from the night before and having nothing to do except stay relatively sober and try to find some place to disappear until you go onstage in 12 hours…the constant bickering, scrounging, one-upping and complaining. Hell, it’s a great film just because this busload of kids don’t sing “Tiny Dancer” ala the unbearable ALMOST FAMOUS.
But once the Stains start to become popular it gets ridiculous fast. If they’d have gone from no-names to headliners it would be one thing, but within a few minutes the Stains are selling out stadiums to vast seas of girls who all dress like them and sport “Skunk” style hair while unironically trumpeting their individuality. Freedom hasn’t turned to fascism this fast since
Barry Ford is an interesting presence as the tour manager, a Rastafarian named Lawnboy. In the early 1980s, reggae music was relatively unknown in the US outside of punk record shops… and punk record shops actually existed! Whoa! While the link between the ever-sneering Looters and reggae music isn’t overt, you can bet Paul Simenon of the Clash was hangin’ tight with htat. Reggae be a huge influence on the Clash (The Clash is to Bob Marley the way the Stones are to Muddy Waters), the Slits, the Pretenders, etc. Nowadays reggae’s edgy political stance been co-opted–at least in the US– by frat boys and has thus lost a lot of its political edge, but the STAINS is a good reminder that it was not always so, and that a Bob Marley or Peter Tosh song was once as frightening to the normals as the Dickies, the DKs, or the Damned. The songs in STAINS are mediocre punk, however, even with Clash and Sex Pistols members in the band, and the Looters seem to forget punk’s golden rule – make the songs short! By the fifteenth chorus of “The Professionals” you want to pull the plug or throw a beer bottle yourself. If you’re into seeing/hearing some “real” punk from the period, check out RUDE BOY and/or REPO MAN.
For all my minor criticisms, it’s great to have the film on DVD, and to remember a time when the lines between 1980s new wave, punk, reggae, and Goth were undrawn and MTV hadn’t yet streamlined the commercialization of rebellion to such an extent that there wasn’t at least a few minutes to notice and fight back before tuning out again. (Though you wouldn’t know it from the tacked on Faux-Gos ending). But that’s nothing new to music or even all art, anyhow. What makes this film still so vital is its status as one of the roots of the riot grrl alt-rock feminism of the future, screaming in artistic solidarity to the disaffected and sexually harassed, even as it’s being crunched into the very thing it’s screaming against.
For more STAINS writing, read Gary Morris’ excellent historical background of, and personal take on, the film here.