"The Best Art In The World"
By CORI HUTCHINSON, June 2021
The ultra-descriptive title of Michael Grecco’s latest bound collection of photographs published by Abrams, Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978-1991, exists in subtle contrast to “Days of Punk,” the compact domain of its companion virtual experience. The former spans over a decade, traveling through comma across genre and venue, while the latter suggests a more indistinct and fleeting moment. In 162 photographs, mostly black and white, Grecco offers a snapshot of both a specific historical period and an enduring state of mind, rendering numerous the ways in which spectators and performers alike have shown up to the spirit of punk in Boston. Wendy O. Williams, for example, of Plasmatics eminence, is pictured on the frontispiece taking a sledgehammer to a television, gashing the screen. Stickers for WBCN, a local radio station, are affixed to the surrounding furniture. Title and contributor details appear similarly pasted to the cover in a Sex Pistols palette (yellow, white, and hot pink) in false collage, such as on a photocopied zine or album cover. Contemporaneous newspaper clippings wrap the endsheets and book block. Fred Schneider, of The B-52s, and Jim Sullivan (music journalist, not disappeared psych-folk musician) contribute candidly to the foreword and introduction with fond remembrances of the time documented.
Organized approximately by stage, each grouping of photographs is awash in a localized memory captioned further by Grecco in occasional text blocks detailing gritty and inviting gossip from the ground. Personal highlights include images of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Lene Lovich and, too, the general feeling of rolling in the vibrant wake of a crowd that emanates from much of the book. Below, Michael Grecco offers a backstage tour of the publication, as well as advice for aspiring documentarians, lighting tricks, and plans for future installations. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CORI HUTCHINSON: Can you briefly describe the Boston scene you capture in the book?
MICHAEL GRECCO: I think the Boston scene was like every other scene. Historically, it was an early scene. We had the first college radio punk show, the Late Risers’ Club, at the MIT college radio station. There’s a large number of higher learning institutes in Boston. I think the music caught on early and the punk radio shows caught on early. The scene itself was a bunch of kids frustrated and unhappy with commercial radio and with what record companies were putting out; they wanted something authentic and this is what everyone gravitated toward.
CH: Following that point, could you speak to the significance of the college radio station as a physical space beyond the airwaves?
MG: You have to remember that in the late 70s and early 80s, until we had MTV, radio was the way we listened to our music. Commercial radio was extremely formatted; no one took the risk. The college scene was this underground scene that broke all of this new music. There were people who hung out in the clubs and listened to that music and then heard it and picked up the EP from that new, local band, or went to The Rat and heard The Police play for the first time in the United States. I mean, I was at all of those shows, and the DJs from the college radio shows were part of the community. After hearing something that they liked, they would play it. It was a community. It was a culture unto itself. We all hung out.
CH: I read that MTV was playing on the television that Wendy Williams is smashing on the book cover. How did you select that cover?
MG: That picture was a publicity picture for one of the radio stations I worked with. It’s kind of funny that it’s become this iconic cover for the book. The idea that was discussed with Garrett McGrath, who was my editor at Abrams, was to show how empowering punk, new wave, and post punk were with women. You had the Plasmatics, and the Slits, and Chrissie Hynde, and you had all these great female artists in the space. It was liberating musically and liberating to anyone who wanted to start a band. There were some incredible female-led bands. It was a revolutionary time musically and women were included in that. We wanted to put that forth in the book.
CH: What sort of work are you hoping to feature at future gallery exhibitions?
MG: With the gallery shows, I’m trying to create an experience. I didn’t want to just put up the images on a wall, I wanted to immerse the audience artistically into the experience to get a taste and a feel, to be looking at those scenes and being a part of that environment. I commissioned two of the three members of the band Mission of Burma to do soundscapes. I worked with Roger and Peter very closely to create non-musical, very dissonant soundscapes, ambient sound tracks, with bits and pieces of that time, with little sound blurbs from the Ramones and other bands. On a couple of nights, I hung out with the Buzzcocks all day and then after their show. During their show, I was actually shooting with one of the first video cameras and I was onstage with the band. We’re looking at possibly having a first show at Photo London; the show would include the soundscapes, of course, but also the video somehow.
CH: How is your archive organized? What equipment were you using to render these photos?
MG: People ask me this because they’re kind of surprised at the quality of the photography. At the same time that I got into the club scene, I started an internship at the Associated Press. I was being trained as a news photographer/photojournalist during the day by some amazing, world-famous photographers. I was using always professional cameras, and making sure I used all the techniques I would learn during that day from my Associated Press mentors to create a studio-quality picture when these portraits were run-and-done, like stopping the B-52s as they were coming offstage, taping a piece of white seamless paper on the wall, and shooting four frames. I had a strobe in an umbrella and studio light to do it. I wanted it to look like they gave me access.
As far as my archive, I’ve just spent a lot of time and a lot of money keeping it organized and keeping the negatives in files. It took us about three or four years of going through images and editing. In retrospect, there’s two pictures that I wish that I had switched out, but when you’re looking at 655 images from a project and you’re getting it down to 160, what can I say? There’s a portrait of Aimee Mann that I wish I included, and there’s a picture of my friends in the band Human Sexual Response performing that I wish I included, but we were switching out and scanning images right until the very last minute.
CH: I wonder if you have any advice for people who aspire to document a local scene?
MG: David Fahey, the gallerist in Los Angeles who my work is available through, looked at my work and he goes, “You know, you really love photographing subcultures, don’t you?” The thing with this project is that I was a part of the culture. I was a club kid. It made it easier to document it. I think the thing to do would be to, if it’s not an assignment or you’re not planning on shooting, plan to bring a camera with you anyway that’s small and easy to have and shoot those pictures that are not what you’re intending to shoot.
CH: What is the function of nostalgia in your work, if any? Is that something you place value in or is it unrelated to the project?
MG: My wife is more than 20 years younger than I am and—it’s funny—she’s like, “Does everyone think that their musical period is the best musical period?” Her and her brothers listen to 90s rap and hip hop. There is some nostalgia to it, but I think this period in general was the period that forced change in the music industry. As much as this might be nostalgia, for me, this is an important period in music. This is the period that shook everything up. WM
Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn.view all articles from this author