I don’t think I could ever properly recall the first time I ever heard punk music. Sure, I could probably remember hearing the more commercially-friendly breed of the genre that rose to fame throughout the Nineties and has since become representative of the style, but my first exposure to punk in its purest and most raw? That one remains a mystery to this day. But if I push my memory to its limits, early, albeit hazy recollections of hearing bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Adolescents as a precious eight-year-old come to mind. I was never exactly someone who at that young age was eager to broaden my musical horizons too much – I naïvely believed that radio did that for me. But at this young age, hearing music that was historically considered dangerous and rambunctious, it was – to borrow an overused cliché – something of a revelation.
Even at my young age, there was something liberating about this music. I wasn’t old enough to understand musical rules, conventions, or any of that sort of thing, but I could tell it was different. It was as if I’d been exposed to this world where things could be fun constantly, rather than occasionally. And for someone attending a Catholic primary school at the time, that was a pretty dazzling prospect.
As I grew up and slowly became more involved in seeing bands performing on the live stage, it dawned on me just how liberating punk music could be. I might have seen Steely Dan as one of my first major concerts as a 15-year-old, but seeing groups like Anti Flag mere months later showed me the other side of the coin, and I knew that was what I wanted in life. This growing interest in the genre led to the discovery of the various subcultures and sub-genres that come along with punk. Sure, groups like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, The Saints, and The Clash served as a primer on an introductory level, while bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, and Bad Brains helped continue this musical education as I found myself exposed to what was deemed “hardcore punk”.
When I look back on the time that I was first exposed to this particular era of the genre, I can only imagine I felt some sort of kinship with those who found themselves witnessing Repo Man for the first time.
For those with their finger on the pulse of relatively underground subcultures of the era, Repo Man would’ve been a double-edged sword. It might have helped to shine a light on the punk subculture, though its somewhat comical depictions might have been a bit on the nose for those who took themselves a bit too seriously. Meanwhile, those unaware of what goes on after dark or on dingy, poorly-lit stages would have been shocked to learn just what goes on in the apparently “seedy” underbelly of the world.
Keeping this in mind, to watch Repo Man is to effectively discover punk music in the same way that folks like myself did. Famously, Iggy Pop volunteered his talents as the composer of the theme tune following a viewing thanks to his manager. While it’s hard to say how this movie would’ve been marketed or received without his influence, the usage of the track across the opening credits sets the scene for what is to follow. In just a few short minutes, it exposes the viewer to this world that they might never have heard of, but the sheer energy and force of the track is a testament of what is to follow. (By the way, has there ever been such a disconnect between cultures than a film with a soundtrack like Repo Man, and an origin story that includes Michael Nesmith of The Monkees?)
Cuts from the likes of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, and more follow within mere minutes of the opening, turning the opening scenes into something of a kaleidoscopic snapshot of the era. Of course, while Otto’s character is supposed to serve as something of a caricature of the nihilistic punk rocker of the Reagan era, there’s no denying that filmmakers tend to never quite achieve that sense of realism in portraying a subculture like this that would’ve proved vital to helping completely get the depiction over the line. (After all, his chanting of the names of television programs would almost seem like a comical cutaway to those unaware of the content of Black Flag’s “TV Party”.)
Ultimately, Repo Man was a film ahead of its time in a way. It manages to capture the almost ‘chicken-and-the-egg’ portrayal of punk music at the time. To paraphrase Nick Hornby, “What came first? Punk music, or the miserable conditions of urban life?” It manages to get ahead of the curve in the way that it gets onboard with punk music, years before it became “hip” to do so. And most notably, it helped to – albeit with a comedic lean – show that this punk subculture wasn’t one devoid of interesting tales to be told.
Would modern punk music have evolved into what it is today without a film such as this? Perhaps. Would punk have been brought to the forefront of the public consciousness without this film? Potentially. Would Harry Dean Stanton have become such a screen icon in my eyes without it? Well, he already was. Would my personal love of punk music been the same without Repo Man? No way in hell.
It wasn’t my first exposure to punk and its associated culture, but there’s no denying that the soundtrack was not only an invaluable document in the world of film, but an educational tool that likely spawned countless bands the world over. What sort of world would we live in without a film and soundtrack such as this? Well, I wouldn’t want to know.
As an aside, I had a different way of beginning this story, that I felt didn’t quite capture the essence of the film. In April of 2019, I found myself witnessing a live set from Iggy Pop in Melbourne, Australia. The show took place on his 72nd birthday, and in the days leading up to it, I’d heard rumours of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins making his way around the country. Soon, I discovered that Rollins’ love of Australia and its record stores was complemented by his desire to follow Pop around the country.
Following the show, I’d heard that Rollins had been watching from the side of stage, witnessing the maniacal master of musical mayhem do his thing, like he had for more than 50 years. As I left the venue, preparing my own review of the show (spoiler alert: it was pretty great), I found myself drifting off a bit as I imagined the pair combining their powers. What if they made music together? What if they appeared on the same record? “Wait!” I urged myself furiously. “What about the Repo Man soundtrack?” That night, as I penned close to 1,500 words about what I had just witnessed, I put on the soundtrack, and blissed my way into this furious era in which music was looser, and film was more irreverent. Truly, it was musical liberation the way I’d always wanted.
Editor of Rolling Stone Australia/The Brag Media