TV’s Punk Rock Panic: 5 Classic ’80s Episodes to Flip Your Mohawk

When combat boots and safety pins slam-danced the boob tube.

The musical and cultural upheaval of punk rock initially exploded out of New York and London in the mid-1970s and, as always, Hollywood sniffed out a way to turn it into cheeseball entertainment.

With their freaky looks, furiously angry music, and violent slam dancing, punks tapped into the Eisenhower era’s terror over juvenile delinquents and rejected all aspects of 1960s flower power except for Altamont and the Manson murders.

It sure looked like these kids were not all right.

Numerous movies addressed punk rock, including documentaries (The Decline of Western Civilization), concert films (Urgh! A Music War), cult comedies (Repo Man), biopics (Sid and Nancy) and rock-’em sock-’em punxploitation (Suburbia).

Punk cinema is a mixed bag, and much it is rightly praised and beloved. The small screen, on the other cigarette-burned hand, almost never got punk right. Most punk TV shows, in fact, veered so off base as to be campy and hilarious—and, therefore, “punk” in their own right.

Here are five premiere example of primetime punk rock panic.

  1. Phil Donahue: “Punk Rockers” (1984)

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    Ever the convincingly sincere do-gooder, talk show host Phil Donahue had a cadre of dandified punk rockers on his self-titled chat-fest and, respectfully, did his part to give them a more-than-fair shake.

    Rock journalist Charles M. Young chimes in for the defense, as does a mom proud of her punk daughter and none other than Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, resplendent in a smartly belted pink blouse and Gene Loves Jezebel hairdo. When asked what kind of music he plays, Al responds, “I don’t know; you tell me!”

    Opposition comes from Serena Dank, founder of “Parents of Punkers,” and various Midwest housewives and workaday Chicagoans in the audience focus on the violence they perceive punk radiating—not unreasonably.

    Donahue returned to punk throughout his multi-decade run, most notably with a “New York Hardcore” episode in 1986, and a 1990 assessment of music censorship that featured the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, Suicidal Tendencies’ Mike Muir, and the Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams

    Two TV hosts whom Donahue begat also effectively dipped into the mid-’80s punk well. Sally Jesse Raphael chatted with Wendy O. Williams in 1984; two years later, Oprah Winfrey had on Jello Biafra for a searing segment during which he decimated the pro-censorship arguments of PMRC founder Tipper Gore.

  2. CPO Sharkey: “Punk Rock Sharkey” (1978)

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    NBC’s 1976-78 sitcom CPO Sharkey is as close as master insult comic Don Rickles got to a having a TV series to fit his brilliantly acerbic talents. The show was hit-and-miss, but it scored a major milestone in punk history by casting SoCal prank-rockers the Dickies in a March 1978 episode titled “Punk Rock Sharkey.”

    After punks beat up two naval recruits at a slam dance club called the Pits, Chief Petty Officer Sharkey (Rickles) makes the scene to investigate. When told that some of the girls there wear razor blades as earrings, Sharkey says, “No kidding! Hey, a guy could whisper in a broad’s ear and wind up with a nose job! Sounds wild!”

    The Dickies do a fine job pumping out “Hideous” and an instrumental take on “I’m OK, You’re OK.”

  3. CHiPs: “Battle of the Bands” (1982)

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    On the January 31, 1982 CHiPs episode “Battle of the Bands,” hunky L.A. motorcycle cops Ponch (Eric Estrada) and Jon (Larry Wilcox) contend with a dust-up between new waver Snow Pink and hardcore punk marauders Pain.

    Trasher, lead singer of the Pain, is portrayed by Mohawk-adorned William Forsythe, a great character actor now best known for his work in Rob Zombie movies. Susan Richardson of TV’s Eight Is Enough adorables it up as Snow Pink.

    The second greatest musical interlude of “Battle of the Bands” occurs when Trasher performs the Pain song titled “Pain” (presumably also from their album called Pain) on a roof of punky Hollywood biker hangout. Plunking a bass, Trasher wails: “I dig pain/the feeling in my brain…”

    The show’s absolute greatest musical moment happens after the clash of the title (which Snow Pink wins, by the way), when Ponch takes the stage in his disco duds and shows the posers how it’s done by wailing out his spicy Latin take on “Celebration” Kool and the Gang.

    Come Halloween 1982, CHiPs took on heavy metal via the episode “Kill Devil Rock.” Donny Most (Ralph Malph from Happy Days) guest stars as Moloch, an Ozzy/Alice hybrid who repeatedly toys with the occult—until the occult seems to be toying back with him!

  4. Afterschool Special: “The Day My Kid Went Punk” (1987)

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    The ABC Afterschool Special debuted in 1972 as a monthly one-hour omnibus that took on serious issues affecting the lives of children and teenagers. By way of dramas, documentaries, cartoons, and other formats, the series addressed abuse, divorce, alcoholism, eating disorders, sexual assault, and other touchy topics, and almost always in a manner that didn’t talk down to kids or sugarcoat the truth.

    Occasionally, the Afterschool Special could get a little wonky, though. The funniest such example is “The Day My Kid Went Punk” from the series’ sixteenth season (it ultimately ran a total of 25 years).

    Jay Underwood (best known as “Bug” from Uncle Buck) stars as Terry, the kid of the title. He’s a classical violinist who gussies up his hair into a pink Mohawk and coats himself with Misfits-esque face paint. It automatically complicates his gig helping out disabled kids. Ultimately, Terry must decide if he’s going to commit to his newfound style or tone himself down to play with a big orchestra.

    Terry’s caring pop, played by Bernie Coppell (Doc from The Love Boat), is mostly just confused, but his psychiatrist mom (Christine Belford) actually lectures on “The Punk Syndrome: How Parents Can Avoid It.” She comes around, though, and some gentle lessons get learned.

    One extremely ’80s moment bears mentioning: after mom’s lecture, a well-to-do older gentleman approaches and shows a picture of a punk rocker he identifies as how his son looked three years ago. Then he shows the same young fella, spiffed up in business finery and behind a desk, and says, “He’s now 22 and he’s a banker. Well, some kids never change, but I just wanted to assure you that there’s always hope!”

    Yay! Another banker! There is always hope!

  5. Quincy, M.E.: “Next Stop, Nowhere” (1982)

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    Quincey – Next Stop Nowhere from John J Doe on Vimeo.

    Well, here it is. It’s not just the delirious peak of TV’s anti-punk hysteria, but one of the most uproariously campy depictions of “dangerous” youth subcultures ever mounted anywhere: the “Next Stop, Nowhere” episode of Quincy, M.E.

    Quincy stars Jack Klugman as a coroner who solves crimes by dissecting dead bodies and piecing together clues. However dated the show seems now, it very much spawned the entire post-mortem police procedural TV phenomenon later embodied by CSI, NCIS, SVU, and all those other letter cop shows.

    “Next Stop, Nowhere” opens at an L.A. punk called Ground Zero where the (fictitious) band Mayhem (clearly modeled on Fear) pummels colorful slam dancers with “Fly,” featuring lyrics on the order of : “Get a job working for the man/blow his brains out if you can/tell the judge you didn’t like his face/no garbage like the human race/Give up!/ You know you’re gonna die!/ Give up! /I don’t know why you even try! /Give up! /I wanna see you choke! /Choke! Choke!”

    One mosher gets fatally ice-picked in the pit and Novice punk chick Abby knows who did it. After the safety-pinned corpse lands on Quincy’s slab, our heroic M.E. explores the punk phenomenon himself by visiting Ground Zero. Many actors can frown; but no actor—before or since—can frown with the power of the great Jack Klugman.

    Quincy concludes that punk itself is in part to blame for the crime, stating: “The music I heard said that life was cheap, and that murder and suicide was okay!”

    The doctor even guests on a talk show telling Fly and other punks, “You know, not so many years ago, there was another generation of young people who were as mad as you are about the world—only they worked their tails off to change it!” Nobody’s buying.

    Ultimately, Quincy pleads his case on stage at Ground Zero, but he gets heckled off, with punks shouting, “You think we’re all zombie killers!” and “You’re the killers! Your whole sick society—that’s who’s guilty, man!” Ultimately, one curly-haired blonde dude in proto-corpse paint shuts down the doc by sneering, “Besides, man—who the hell cares?”

    That’s enough spoilers. “Next Stop, Nowhere” awaits. Click the video, feel the (Germs) burn, and understand how punk-rockers still insult one another’s credibility by way of the insult “Quincy Punks.”

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).