Documentaries don’t get more intimate than David Markey’s 1991 : The Year Punk Broke which follows Sonic Youth on a two-week European tour with some band called Nirvana. One scene begins with a close-up shot of a shit in a toilet bowl. It belongs to Thurston Moore. “Another work of art” he proclaims, before pulling the chain, yanking up his trousers, and running on stage.
Previously such gems were only available on ages out of print VHS or by streaming French-subtitled bits online. But this week Sonic Youth announced that finally, after 20 years, 1991: The Year Punk Broke is to be released on DVD on 6 September with a raft of extra stuff that’ll send muso hearts a flutter.
Markey’s film was meant to be a playful portrait of Sonic Youth on tour, with cameos from pals Dinosour Jr, Babes in Toyland, Mudhoney et al and their new support act Nirvana. Instead it became an unintended snapshop of the build-up to Nirvana’s globe-shattering success and the grunge explosion. As Thurston Moore declares, taking the piss out of Motley Crue’s cover of ‘Anarchy In The UK’, 1991 was the year punk broke into the mainstream. Just a few months after filming, it really would be, and Nirvana would be the biggest band in the world.
As a post-'Goo' Sonic Youth roam the streets of Europe like a gang of feral kids, coming to terms with contradiction of their first major label success, Nirvana chuck their rider at each other, dazed at the prospect of their first proper tour. They’ve just recorded 'Nevermind' and unbeknown to them, it’s the same contradiction they’d face in a matter of months: how can you be the alternative when you’re now the mainstream?
But the genius in 1991: The Year Punk Broke is that it doesn’t force anything on you, there’s no BBC subtitled explanations of who’s who. It’s just a dizzy hand-held camera-d jaunt through Sonic Youth’s breakout commercial success and the burgeoning boom of their support act, jam-packed with awesome live footage to boot.
Most times they’re taking the piss: Kim Gordon and J Mascis act out scenes from Madonna’s Truth Or Dare, Thurston Moore, the precocious anti-hero MCs his way around Europe, bemusing unsuspecting tourists, bockwurst sellers and French kids like some sort of prototype Davina McCall. He’s antithesis of the distant and withdrawn Cobain, who passes out as Kim Gordon applies his mascara, and who will soon become, unwillingly, the voice of a generation.
It also contains the most kick-ass line in music documentary history. I give you Thurston Moore: “Who knows what it’s going to be like, the future. The future to us is a dare. So FUCK ‘EM.” Quite.