Budding punks who grew up in Middle American suburbs in the pre-MTV era had to rely on The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll and its ilk to explain the impact of bands like New York Dolls and Suicide. Even after the full-scale MTV invasion, the musicians that most shaped modern rock 'n' roll hardly ever appeared on TV, on cable or anywhere else. That's why the recent output of the Target Video collection and the archive-minded Music Video Distributors has been such a gift. For those who only read about the early punk-rock movement, the chance to see the artists in action is invaluable, even with tinny sound and bad lighting. In a way, the cruddy presentation best captures what the bands were really like.
Perhaps the most significant new MVD release is MC5: Kick Out The Jams, which takes silent performance footage of the Detroit pre-punks, mostly shot by Leni Sinclair at a late-'60s rock festival, and adds audio from elsewhere to approximate a concert film. It's a little clumsy, but it works, especially because the split sources elaborate the difference between MC5's savage primitivism and their youthful appearance. They don't look like legends—just excited teenagers not too different from the festival crowds dancing around the stage. As imperfect as Kick Out The Jams is, it's still essential so long as the "official" MC5 documentary MC5 * A True Testimonial remains tied up in litigation.
The recent wave of Target Video releases is equally welcome, even though its individual titles are more for devout fans of the bands in question. Target was founded in 1978 in San Francisco, springing from a local TV show that covered the city's punk scene. Its DVD releases include The Stranglers: Live '78, SF, a crude 20-minute, seven-song set showing the post-pub rockers at their rawest and hookiest, and Devo: Live 1980, a polished-looking, high-energy 75-minute concert that features the flowerpot-hatted techno-poppers at a creative peak.
As a bookend to the MC5 disc though, it's fascinating to watch fellow Detroit pre-punker Iggy Pop in Target's Iggy Pop!: Live San Fran 1981. Unlike the muscular, vigorous Pop of today, the Pop of 1981 looks old and wrung-out, with missing teeth and a tiny body writhing in an androgynous leather outfit. But from the moment he snakes onto the stage, screeching "Some Weird Sin" to a packed-in nightclub audience, he's stoned on his own heavy groove, hoping that music alone will make him feel better. Words alone don't do the scene justice.