Words by Paul Clements
You know what it’s like. You walk out of the arcade with your girlfriend on your arm, laughing and joking, you turn into a nearby alley and before you can turn back they emerge from behind bins and doorways. They swing chains and pull out flick knives, they have crazy sunglasses and studded denim jackets, they have face paint and nose chains and long crazy tongues sticking out, they giggle and growl and say crazy things as they grab your girl and surround you…
THE 80s MOVIE STREET PUNKS ARE HERE!!!
That’s it now , your fucked, unless you recently fell into some toxic waste or got bitten by a radioactive stick insect or something… or have a hidden exoskeleton…
Gang culture since its earliest roots in tribes has always had its strange markings and weird fashions. As western society progressed and the cities and urban areas grew, working class kids began to incorporate denims and hand me down work boots , old WWII patches and fashions stealing everything from Nazi to native american symbolism, then mixing it all together to kit out the local town bike clubs.
Motorcycle clubs got a lot of negative press and this of course made the style look very popular in the movies and the ‘biker gang’ look grew as non biker inner city gangs used the back patches, top and bottom rockers and tough guy look to establish things like what rank you were and which crew you were a member of.
Real Life Street Gangs in New York
During the 70’s and early 80’s the biker clubs (riding from town to town) became more organised and uniformed and grew a more ingrained set of style rules, whereas the inner city street gangs (in constant sight of one another and closer competition) became more wild and colorful.
Movies like The Warriors, Bronx Warriors, The Wanderers (just to name a few) are classic orgy’s of street gang violence, with awesome gangs all sporting different styles and representing their different blocks with flare, but what made it good was that, unbelievably, they were fairly accurate to what was happening in the Bronx at the time.
It was more reality than fantasy, so when you got Mad max (1979) with its larger than life punk bikers and mad max 2 (1981) with its all out post apocalyptic psycho gangs , you got the seeds planted in the minds of movie execs and the public.
By 1980, if you wanted to make your inner city street gang stand out, to get the edge on your competitors, to look scarier and more outrageous and basically look less like you gave a fuck – you had to go all out with your look.
Like an evolving bird these gangs grew bigger and bigger feathers to ruffle and intimidate each other with. So that’s it, you have your city, (New York, Los Angeles Chicago, etc), you’ve got your gangs stabbing people in alleys wearing crazy outfits and shooting at each other over kilos of drugs and control of city blocks , everything’s grim. everything’s real.
Some get it right, some get it totally wrong, but a new creature is born. An estrange creature …. An 80’s movie street punk.
In the 80’s everything had to be bigger than real life. The cocaine was strong, and movie producers and directors depicting street gangs seemed to just go completely over board, and often to an incredible effect.
Exploitation films, genre films, and mainstream films in the 80’s just seemed to love depicting cartoonish street gangs and street punks. It didn’t matter if it was set in the future or if it was a drama or thriller or action film or love story…The industry just loved throwing a crazy street gang into the mix!
If you think about it, they are a very cheap effect. You don’t need expensive actors because all you have to do is overact or snarl. They don’t need expensive costumes, just some neon shades, a ripped up jacket and some hair dye. You can hide stunt men under a load of crazy face paint. You can give them cheap weapons. And, if your hero/ heroine beats them up or kills them nobody will care. They make great cannon fodder they add color and interest to your dark grimey ass film – they are almost a must have.
Growing up in the 80’s I knew what English punks were, Iknew what skinheads were, and what gangs in rough areas ‘should’ look like. So when I began to watch action movies and horror movies from a young age I could tell that something wasn’t quite adding up. I didn’t believe people were as crazy as zed from police academy, and that people would follow someone like that or dress like Bebop and Rocksteady, or a baddie from from double dragon. It seemed ridiculous to me, but at the same time i found it awesome as fuck.
I remember seeing Maurice in 1989s Little Monsters and I realized that I wanted a mohawk and a sick jacket. I wanted to walk around with those slit shades on, screaming like Zed at my gang while we threw broken bottles at my teachers. These movie street punks and gangs were a fantasy. They stole the fashion ideas from the real american street gangs, the real biker clubs and real punks.
They stole the manic mannerisms of drug addicts. They stole the real life horror of gang violence and they put it all into this weird Hollywood stereotype that I grew to love and actually aspired to be like. They took punk and gang culture, and re-imagined into a cartoon version. They treated it over and over as if it was a real thing in so many films and TV shows you would be forgiven for thinking that around every corner a karate skilled legion of chain swinging guys with crazy hair and mad shades awaited.
With the movies, the idea spread across the world – infecting countless cultures from manga and anime, to video games and martial arts films and Bollywood, further cementing it in world culture. But in reality you would be far more likely to be mugged or bullied, or beaten up by people who dressed less conspicuously. I always found the bullies in the Simpsons completely inaccurate, the little punk kids in some american high school would be the bullied ones in reality. In so many films these guys are treated as punching bags. Grunts for the hero to beat down one by one, or torture information out of by ripping out the nose ring or throwing in a dumpster. Growing up I got a feeling Hollywood and video games didn’t really like punks very much.
Nowadays you will still find this cliche in weird Disney channel made-for-TV movies, or bad Sci-Fi films, and some aspects of it can be found in the more modern Chiraqi gangsters with some crazy styles and people like riff-raff and stitches looking one studded denim jacket and chain away from being cretins
Or is the new Harley Quinn a street punk throwback?
The real deal cheesy movie punks have died out. Next time you watch a retro film though, or some random kids film or some old late night Sci-Fi, you keep an eye for them and when they appear carrying butterfly knifes with crazy voices, baseball bats and face paint, you can raise your dirty cheap can of booze to salute them. They aren’t real gangsters, they aren’t real punks, they are from the imaginations of writers and movie directors. They are mythological and fantastic. They allow the viewer and the creators to act out their weird criminal fantasies and anarchistic madness.
They make colorful bad guys to punch and put in headlocks as you button bash your way through another level. They are the dominatrix girls with whips and a shaved side of the head. They are the Robocop whores that will beat you down and stamp on your head with high heels for another dose of nuke… Fucking aye.
As I got older I was disappointed to find out that the homeless people in my town, as well as the muggers and local gangs, all just dressed plainly. You would get the odd tattoo, or a crusty with a dog collar, or a drunk guy with his shirt off and a mohawk, but all in all they all just seemed a depressing lot getting punched by some older kid in the street with a kappa jacket on and Spliffy jeans. It wasn’t what i wanted. It wasn’t in the movies it wasn’t like Streets Of Rage or Double Dragon – it just sucked. So nowadays I try to throw a little of that crazy, cartoonish street punk style into my own get up. I cut my sleeves off and wear zebra print shorts and studded denim waistcoats with skull patches. I carry knives in my pockets and wear biker boots or mad high tops. I cycle along on my electric bike and swig cans of beer and spit on the ground. I try to be, and aspire to be my own one man gang. My very own 80’s street punk gang.
(The dogs lead counts as a chain right?)
Words by Paul Clements
Insta – @paul.u.clements
Look out for some genuin 80’s throwback street Punks in Troma and Lloyd Kaufmans upcoming ‘Retrun to Nuke-em High Vol.II’ more info over at http://www.troma.com