Shellshock Rock: a humanistic record of the ’78/79 Belfast punk scene

Shellshock Rock is a punk rock documentary with an interesting history and provenance. Shot between 1978 and 1979, it’s a surprisingly affectionate record of the Belfast punk scene of the time. Now, it’s tricky for me to talk about this era with any degree of authenticity as I wasn’t born until ’82, but everything I’ve read or watched about the period suggests to me that punk rock was not taken seriously or treated with much respect by anyone who could be considered part of the British establishment of the time. This, of course, included people working in TV. Ian Glasper’s Burning Britain memorably features one early 80s UK punk band talking about a TV crew coming to do a piece on them. The crew asked the band to pose for a few shots and look as dangerous as possible, tried to provoke them into saying outrageous things and talking about their glue habits, and didn’t attempt to ask what the band or its members actually thought or cared about. Essentially, punk rock was regarded as a zoo to be approached with a sort of derisive fear.

So when Shellshock Rock director John T. Davis secured Arts Council funding to shoot a documentary of punk rock in Belfast, it is little surprise to learn that he was initially regarded with some suspicion. Fortunately he had already made some connections with the punk scene through previous work as a photographer and demonstrating his knowledge of music and his interest in 60s garage rock and proto-punk. In time he was accepted by the local scene and shot footage at a variety of Belfast shows and venues.

The production values of Shellshock Rock are low – I want to clarify this early on. Arts Council funding does not equate to large sums of money and surviving copies of this 50-minute documentary appear lower quality than, say, Another State of Mind (the ’84 tour documentary following Youth Brigade and Social Distortion on tour in their shitty yellow school bus). The budget was not great and the crew was, I imagine, John T. Davis plus whichever friendly sorts wanted to help him.

These limitations aside it’s a very interesting film. Two things leap out of it: firstly, its somewhat disconnected approach. Davies remains firmly behind the camera, letting his subjects speak for themselves, but his direction and editing also shifts back and forth, capturing not just Belfast’s punk rockers but also snapshots of Belfast itself at the time. This context helps ground the attitudes of the Belfast kids in something comprehensible. The second interesting aspect of the film is that it is deeply honest, focusing on the ordinary aspects of the Belfast scene rather than the extraordinary. This puts the film in direct contrast to documentaries like American Hardcore, which lionises obvious arseholes simply because they are ‘larger than life’ (I am looking at you, pre-clean up Jack Grisham) and spends an excessive amount of time focusing on the violence of the scene, or the miserable personality cult bullshit of The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle (the sort of total crap that leads today to John Lydon appearing in butter commercials yet still believing himself to be some kind of anti-establishment figure).

There is, in short, no pretence here, no belief that punk rockers are somehow ‘better’ than other people. Punks, astonishingly, are just people. Like most people, they band together out of common need and interests. Shellshock Rock is a very humanistic film. This is best exhibited by a series of clips where Davies shoots a few teenage punks interviewing members of the public to gain their thoughts on punk rockers. There are a couple of the usual horrified or dismissive sorts but the best of them is an older bloke who says something along the lines of (sorry – low video quality, ambient noise and a 70s Belfast accent prevent me from transcribing him accurately) never standing in the way of the young enjoying themselves: “it’s all part of the life, part of the game isn’t it, every way and any way.”

The film is also packed with video footage of assorted Belfast punk bands playing in practice rooms, bars and anywhere they can. This includes some of the popular bands of the time who would go on to become giants, such as Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones (it seems hard to imagine today that there was a time before Feargal Sharky became a total music industry prick), but also lesser-known bands such as the Outcasts and the Idiots alongside bands I’d never come across before such as Rudi, Protex and Rhesus Negative. The songs are a mixed bag, with some holding up well today thanks to strong character, energy and songwriting talent, whereas others are frankly kind of crappy. But that’s part of what you get when you go looking at old punk rock: some of these bands have members who haven’t even reached 16, most of them as using cheap and rubbish equipment, few have been taught how to play anything… they’re making it up as they go along. That’s punk rock. Even if you might cringe at the end result that sort of idealistic dedication deserves respect.

The sectarian conflict that riddled Belfast life of the time is discussed with a characteristically light touch. The punks who speak on film have a generally anti-establishment attitude that extends to a rejection of the divisions in Northern Irish society. One young man asks what 2,000 deaths have achieved, and why anyone wants a united Irelands or to be a part of the UK anyway. Generally speaking, the picture that emerges from Shellshock Rock is one of a scene which young people turn to out of disgust or disillusionment with whatever else surrounds their lives. A unity emerges from the shared experience of punk rock, and it doesn’t matter if your family are Catholic or Protestant.

I don’t want to draw too definitive a conclusion on Shellshock Rock because the documentary is deliberately broad and ambiguous enough to defy them. This makes for both an impressive and interesting piece of filmmaking as well as a unique historical record of the early days of Belfast punk rock.

[Sources: Shellshock Rock OST [unreleased], trakMARX: Brian Young on the film and his history with Davis and the 70s Belfast scene, Artists Space, Punk Music in Northern Ireland by Martin McLoone, Shellshock Rock: When Punk was Polite.]

The embedded film follows. A torrent is also available here though there aren’t many seeders. I do have an AVI of the film though at 600mb it’s too large for me to upload to Mediafire. Leave a comment if you want to get a hold of a copy via me: there may be other upload sites.

2 Responses to “Shellshock Rock: a humanistic record of the ’78/79 Belfast punk scene”
  1. Lauren says:

    How can i get hold of this to watch Shellshock Rock? It seems to be private?



  2. Shaun CG says:

    Hey Lauren, sorry to see that the videos have been made private. The best I can suggest is looking around to see if you can find a torrent of it anywhere! Let me know if this doesn’t work out as I may be able to upload an AVI to a filesharing site.