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|Nightclubbing Greatest Hits|
by Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong
at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
SERIES title: Nightclubbing, New York Punk and New Wave, 1975-1980, Fridays, Sept 15, 22 and 29, 8PM. $6/3 Members, students, seniors Nightclubbing Greatest Hits, San Francisco, Fri, Sept 15, 2000. Yerba Buena Presentations, curated by Joel Shepard.
The saddest thing about the Yerba Buena evening screening series is the room: it only holds 96 people, yet theres an enormous cavern of useless lobby outside, mute testimony to some architects egoistic "form over function" imperative. In fact, form over function (and content) seems to be the dominant aesthetic guideline these dayswitness San Franciscos new MOMA, new main library building, and Bilbao. Probably dozens of people were turned away from the screening we attendeda needless tragedy. It seems necessary to make reservations or buy tickets in advance for rare events such as Nightclubbing Greatest Hits.
According to the introduction by Joel Shepard, Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong were still teenagers when they borrowed video equipment and began filming early "punk and new wave" bands playing at CBGBs, the Mudd Club, Maxs Kansas City, Bostons Rat Club and Danceteria. [note from Emily Armstrong "Pat and I were not 'teenagers' when we made our tapes, more like in our twenties."] To quote the program, "These raw and rare videotapes, shot in the era before MTV, captured the apex of New York punk, new wave, no wave and hardcore music scenes. Each program runs approximately one hour." Apparently the videotapes had languished in storage for twenty years before being exhumed and re-edited into programs, where one song immediately follows another with no break. The Sept 15 program had just played the I.C.A. in London a week before.
The major criticism of the sequencing of the excerpts (and it is a minor one) is the fact that the chronology is completely scrambled. As the punk aesthetic was developing and extending, the bands added more and more noise, atonality, Art Ensemble of Chicago-style sax improvisation, and quirky arranging to their presentations. The early punk bands featured players ranging from rank beginners to Led Zeppelinish lead guitarists, but technically accomplished virtuosos found themselves derided for the very abilities they had woodshedded to achieve. Usually the chords and structures were simplistic; the lyrical content was the point. At the beginning, few were introducing quirky, eccentric inventions or arrangements. Punks musical aesthetic was generally minimalist and darkby turns brooding and savage, and its rare tender moments were laced with acridity. In sum, it might be been more illuminating to illustrate the progression from the basic "rock nroll" format to more noisy, unconventional, almost free-jazz and "industrial" structures and textures.
The band clips are unified beginning, end and title, by Iggy Pops performance of the David Bowie/Iggy Pop "Nightclubbing" song. Iggys most powerful performance is a 1979 rendition of "New Values," with the backup band no longer the Sales Brothers. At one point Iggy does a sudden rollover dive into the stage floor, apparently bending the microphone stand; later, with his fingers he does an inexplicable mime of a lizard crawling on each armwhat was that about?but it works. Probably for their "star" value, Blondies performance of the Velvet Underground classic, "Femme Fatale," is next. We see a sincere yet unexciting vocalization by Deborah Harry, at this point a brunette with a few blond highlights; obviously, she was still developing her charisma "chops." Next David Byrnes weird microphone test-tone vaults us into Talking Heads territory; his "Psycho Killer," with its lyrics in French and puzzling "Qu-est-ce que ce?" refrain, eccentric structure and schizoid vocalizations, betrays an art school background yearning to be "street-punk." Is he calculatedly "crazy" and "weird," or is he truly weird? At least his performing persona is.
The loudest bands: Iggy Pop, the Dead Boys, and the Heartbreakers, have the least understandable vocalsno surprise there. The 1976 (?) performance of the Heartbreakers features as lead vocalist Richard Hell, later seen in a 1979 performance with his Voidoids band, featuring the cult guitarist Robert Quinn. The Heartbreakers always sang about the big love in their lifeheroinand Johnny Thunders characteristically shoves other musicians onstage in his mock-provocation stylewhich sometimes turned "real," hence the instability of the bands lineup. The footage of the Dead Boys showed drummer Johnny Blitz in a poofster-early mullet hairstyle, reminding us that punks stylistic influence was gradual, and that for years most of the audience still looked post-hippie; even Johnny Thunders sported shoulder-length hair in the Hell-Thunders version of "Chinese Rocks." Few bands sported the black-leather-jacket, t-shirt, jeans uniform more universally adopted by 80s punkers.
In fact, "Nightclubbing" blatantly reminds us how varied the early punk scene was, and how many womennone of them stereotypicalwere involved as performers. The Stilettos, featuring Tish and Snooky (from the Manic Panic store, as I recollect) were captured in their post-Deborah Harry incarnation, backed by a young bar band of "good" musicians and singing a kind of girl-group-revue arrangement. The ultra-thin singer on the rightdont know her name--was the most charismatic, the cameras close-ups capturing her strangely angular cheekbones. Equally lingering close-ups were lavished on the strange cheekbones of the vocalist of 1980 band Bush Tetras, an early girl-punk-led quartet, featuring the compelling, blonde-butch Pat Place on guitar.
My favorite female performer/vocalist, Vanessa Ellison, sang for Pylon (1979). Clad in a country-simple cotton sleeveless dress, she began singing with an almost-rockabilly echo treatment, and progressively became more manic as she wildly shook her headher hair a blur of motionand her left strap fell completely off her shoulder. Their music introduced an "industrial" sound ambience of eeriness and angst. The sknny bass player displayed exceptionally long, thin fingers as he finger-plucked dual strings of his Rickenbacker bass. In fact, many of the band members in this documentary appeared exceptionally tall, stringbean-like and spiderymute testimony to their youth (and not to drug use, one hopes). And speaking of rockabilly, Levi and the Rockats gave an authentically hiccupy-vocal performance of an original song (with drug references, of course). And marvel at those huge blonde pompadours! The bass player was instantly notable for his tattoos as he lowered (and raised) his doghouse bass to the floor without missing a beat. The drummer for Levi and the Rockats (at the time) was Jerry Nolan (practically a drug reference in himself). The sound quality was excellent on this performance.
Another drug reference song was sung by veteran punk predecessors John Cale, former Velvet Underground cellist and a redoubtable pianist and guitarist in his own right. Clad in the black aviator shades so popular in the Soldier-of-Fortune-era Seventies, Cale at the time was rumored to be highly interested in mercenary warfare around the globe. Deerfrance, blonde in black leather jeans, contributed distinctively stylized back-up vocals.
The "noise" wing of the punk uprising was well represented. Arto Lindsay, who pioneered his own choppy, abrasive, atonal guitar style, played in both the Lounge Lizards sequence (1979; amazing close-ups of John Luries neck bulging as he blows free-jazz sax), and his own DNA (1980) where we see close-ups of Japan transplant Ikue Mori stoically pounding the drums, keeping chaos unified. In this incarnation, Robin Crutchfield played minimalist keyboards, and bassist Tim Wright is nowhere to be seen. Besides the aforementioned Pylon, San Franciscos own OFFS were represented with two tracks, the second of which featured an astoundingly wild atonal sax improvisation by a retro-coffed guest saxophonist who draws the amazed glance of the bands founding saxophonist Bob Roberts. Their ska-influenced song initially titled "Blacks Are Bigots," but later changed to "Everyones a Bigot," showcased vocalist Don Vinil, one of the few gay vocalists in the S.F. Seventies punk scene (Richie Detrick of the Nuns was another).
The more "New Wave" wing of punk which arrived around late 1978 was sartorially characterized by 60s thriftstore suits with thin lapels and skinny ties. The Lounge Lizards featured this style, as well as the Suburbs, whose lead vocalist sported a large round earring in his right ear. His eccentric, spastic facial expressions, matched by the equally spasmodic facial tics of the handsome blonde guitarist next to him, helped distinguish the visuals of a band who at first glance appeared boringly normal. The largest band in this program, consisting of possibly a dozen or more members, was the multi-culti Strange Party. Their most striking performer was a pony-tailed female vocalist dressed in a normal, girl-next-door dress, but who had shaved her forehead back to her ears. Another somewhat conventional-appearing band, the Revelons, featured a handsome vocalist in a muscle-sleeve T-shirt who looked good but seemingly lacked any ability whatsoever to project his vocals. However, the guitarist finished their song with a blistering, flailing guitar solo that drew the crowds applause.
In the punk stalwarts category, the Dead Kennedys performed a typically excellent version of "California Uber Alles" (Biafra in a tight black-and-white striped long-sleeved shirt; Ray in a flowery Sixties Syd Barrett-style shirt; Klaus Fluoride in a New Wave skinny tie and 60s suit). The Cramps did one of their early standards "TV Eye." Both bands were up to their usual professional standards. Bryan Gregory, with his Bride-of-Frankenstein striped hairdo, unleashed a startlingly abrasive bottleneck guitar solo in the midst of the thunderous rockabilly context. The fact that the Cramps had no bassist undoubtedly helped make Lux Interiors vocals decipherable. At this point, the mysterious Nick Knox was still in the bandalways wearing dark shades.
The documentary ended with probably my favorite performance, by Ballistic Kisses (1980), featuring Dead End Kid-style, curly-haired vocalist Michael Parker with no front teethshocking in this age of readily available cosmetic dentistrysinging the anthemic "Tough Shit, you aint white/Tough Shit, you aint rich!" The song elicited a cheer at one point from the audience. This vocalist seemed like the "real deal," the voice of an underprivileged, lower-class kid finally empowered to express all his bottled-up range and anger at the society that excludes him. Which is the conceit that punk supposedly enabled all along: giving voice to the oppressed, the underclass, the untutored, the unvirtuosicall rebels and artists who refused the conventional paths to success. In this case, it seems the empowermenthowever briefwas actually crossing class lines, actually doing what punk was sposed to do.
This documentary captured that rarest of contemporary attributes: authenticity. In todays hyper-mediated age of corporate cultural inundation, the era of mass Narcissism where everyone is a wannabe television talk show guest, actor and director of commercials, we would do well to celebrate these mementoes from an era when it seemed truly possible to change the world, when the word "political" lacked any tinge of irony, and when creativity was not inextricably harnessed to marketing . . .
By V. Vale
PS: In the spirit of Nightclubbings final credits, we thank Chris Culwell for honoring our press pass.
Right: V. Vale with Don Vinil, early punk days. Photo by James Stark from Punk77
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