To many music lovers in North America the Cockney Rejects is a heavy metal band. The group’s 1982 album The Wild Ones was produced by UFO’s Pete Way and 1984’s Quiet Storm may have had more in common with Deep Purple, Free, and that lot than with the group’s punk origins. And what origins they were: The collective stormed out of London’s East End at the end of the ‘70s, inspiring the Oi! genre and bringing mayhem at virtually every turn.
East End Babylon is not just the story of how two brothers (Jeff “Jeff Turner” and Mick Geggus) and some friends went about breaking out of the East End through one of three avenues (boxing and football were the two others and both are heavily represented in the film). This is a film about the culture of the East End, a place that has been ravaged by war, poverty, and an inordinate number of disasters, a place that has produced tough people who are hell bent on survival.
Director Richard England provides more than ample context for the streets on which the brothers grew up and the influence they had on the Cockney Rejects’ music. For some, the amount of time spent on providing context and discussing the West Ham neighborhood might serve as a distraction from the music, which is not dealt with in the painstaking detail it is in some other documentaries that are ostensibly about bands. This is both a strength and a weakness. For the American audience the musical pay off comes pretty late in the film (learning that bands such as Rancid and Green Day owe more than a little debt to the Geggus brothers); doubtless those in Britain and Europe will revel in the rich history of place and acclimate more quickly to the strong Cockney accents.
The group’s short burst of commercial success came early on with tracks such as “The Greatest Cockney Rip Off”, “Flares & Slippers”, and “I’m Not a Fool”. There was an appearance on Top of the Pops and the chance to record “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, the anthem of the West Ham United football club. (Iron Maiden, another band with ties to the East End and a love of football initially wanted to record it.) But that was a personal victory for the band that ultimately resulted in disaster.
The group was banned from the BBC after a disastrous trip to Top of the Pops in support of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and violence and chaos followed the group on tour as fans of rival football clubs waited to derail gig after gig. The violence was so bad enough it became harder to book the band and weak management did little to help. By 1980 members of the right wing British Movement flocked around the Cockney Rejects, creating further problems and complicating the group’s image.
A shift toward a heavier rock style (see The Wild Ones and Quiet Storm) as well as disastrous attempts at breaking into the American market saw the group’s star fall, though the band has never broken up since its formation in 1978. The film limps toward its conclusion with broad strokes that don’t quite match the pointillist detail of its early chapters.
In the end it’s a worthwhile ride, especially for rock historians eager to learn more about life after the Sex Pistols and before the onslaught of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It’s also a good companion piece to Julien Temple’s take on Canvey Island’s Dr. Feelgood, Oil City Confidential.
Extras include a wealth of deleted scenes that further illuminate life in the East End, touring, the revolving door lineup, and a some beloved Cockney Rejects’ songs.