“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?” as Rod Stewart would intone from the mic. There’s also the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words” and it holds true. Rocker, author, director and photographer Michael Grecco started out his career as a photographer in the gritty clubs of Boston and New York, supported by his work for the AP and The Boston Globe, documenting a wave of musical artists and cultural innovators that eventually shook the world. Michael’s book “Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978–1991” offers a vital and raw view of the early Punk and alternative music scene, drawn from a DIY point of view of that youth culture and its music in most dramatic black and white.
It’s not an understatement for me to say that Michael Grecco’s early Punk photographs are part of my psyche, my Punk ethos, and a part of my inner dialogue of what is and what Punk represents to me. It would also be accurate to say his photos defined and informed my early Punk Rock experiences as I perused East Coast publications like “New York Rocker,” seeking the real deal in Punk. I poured over those publications in the late ’70s and early ’80s which proved foundational to my view and experiences as a Punk Rocker. The energy and power that these performers delivered were caught in Grecco’s lens and defined a worldview different from the cultural elites’ of the time, delivering the urgency and honesty of the moment, and producing engaging visuals that have stood the test of time.
Fred Schneider’s forward and Jim Sullivan’s introduction prove illuminating views of the ethos and culture of that time, and then we experience it directly through Grecco’s lens. His narrative fleshes out the remainder of the book as he reflects on the images and their backstories. Each writer offers a view of a Punk scene that was a bit more fluid in nature and not as stratified or codified as we believe it to be now. They all write of a scene that was revelatory, celebratory and a little dangerous. Punk was dirty; it was personal and it was fundamentally upfront and in your face. Grecco’s “Punk, Post Punk, New Wave . . . ” brings that home on a number of levels. His photos prove how strange, wondrous, and evocative things were in the early years of Punk.
From my experience, the most quintessential image that comes to mind is that of Wendy O. Williams smashing a television set. I can’t tell you how many times I gazed at that photo, analyzing what it implied about culture and mass media. It symbolized the rejection of societal norms and cultural constructs. It represented looking at things in new, unconventional ways. There is no doubt that the music was key, but essentially, it was Michael’s photos that shot me and countless others into the underground to embrace a visually stimulating counter-culture with amazing abandon.
Perusing the pages of “Punk, Post Punk, New Wave . . . ,” I find moments where I think, “Oh, yeah, I remember this or that photo by Grecco.” But there is the added phenomenon of really tangible and visceral memories of live performances from bands I love. Grecco’s photos portray these seminal performances in all their anarchistic primitive glory, with all the crazed audience participation that defined the early Punk Rock experience.
These are a few things that come to mind as I drift through the pages: There’s Wendy O. Williams whaling away on a low stage as the jittering chainsaw drove through Michael Ray’s guitar, before she rose above a gang of adoring skins to squeeze milk from above the electrician tape into some skinhead’s mouth, in between her blistering vocals and crazed guitar riffing. There’s the time a friend and I watched Pete Shelley roll a spliff after he asked our permission to do so, as we chatted with him about his music after the gig. There’s the time I chatted up Annabella Lwin at the top of the staircase of the Adams Avenue Theater, after a highly energized Bow Wow Wow set. Then to see her a little bit later, forlornly looking out of a station wagon window, driven off into the night for their show in New Mexico the following day. There was the time that Lux Interior, mid-set, sprang across three rows of people at the Spirit Club to give me a big wet sloppy kiss that I’ll never forget.
These are my memories that Grecco’s book conjures up as I gaze at all of his iconic images. I’m sure any one of you will relive your own memories as you leaf through the 160 powerful photographs the book offers. Grecco’s shots include intimate backstage portraitures and lots of amazing performance shots of artist and bands like The Cramps, Dead Kennedys, Talking Heads, Human Sexual Response, Adam Ant, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett, Lene Lovich, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Blondie, Television, The Clash, Billy Idol and Siouxsie and the Banshees. They’re the kind of photographs you can dwell on and savor. There’s no pretense or performance in them; he strips away the sense of valuation and the notions of marketing or public relations. These shots are as close as you can be and real as they can get.
“Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978–1991” is a treasure trove of rarely seen images from the early days of Punk and the musical genres that sprang from it, washing over America in the ’80 and ’90s. It’s an essential tome to add to your collection of music and culture.