Video From Punk's Delivery Room
The New York punk scene of the 70s has attained such mythic status it's hard to separate history from hearsay. Aside from the classic recordings of that time, most of what we know about that dynamic moment comes to us from nostalgic testimonials in books like Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me. Evocative black-and-white photos also survive; while these capture the scene's mordant humor and visual style, however, they can't fully convey the intensity of the live shows upon which the legend was built--the deliberately unsettling awkwardness of the early Talking Heads or the nihilist frenzy of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. But it turns out there was someone getting it down on video.
Emily Armstrong and Pat Ivers met in 1975, when both were working at the fledgling Manhattan Cable Television. They began sneaking out video gear after hours to tape their favorite bands, and in 1977 they created a public-access show called Nightclubbing to share the footage they'd been amassing. The show ran through 1980, and then for most of the next two decades the tapes gathered dust in a closet--until 2000, when Ivers and Armstrong finally dug into their archives and assembled the five hour-long collections that are now making the rounds of alternative art spaces and galleries. This month four of the Nightclubbing episodes make their Chicago debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Not long after they met, Ivers took Armstrong to CBGB to see Patti Smith. "It was such a relief from Yes and Chicago and all of those awful bands," says Armstrong, 50. She'd once been a big music fan, catching concerts by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix as a teenager in the 60s, but had been turned off by the excesses of the 70s. Punk recaptured her attention. Videotaping shows gave Ivers and Armstrong a way into the tiny punk rock world, a community of no more than 500 in the early days, according to Armstrong. "We were little punk rock girls that wore microminiskirts and had crazy haircuts. [Videotaping] gave us something to do in the scene, without having to be just hangers-on. We realized right away that it also got us on everybody's guest list; we didn't have to pay to go to a club for the next eight years. We got to live our dreams and see like eight bands a night. That was a big part of why we did it."
Taping concerts was no easy task in the days before the compact digital video camera. "If we were taping we had to carry down four flights of stairs our video deck, our cameras in big metal cases, and our sound equipment, and we would drag [it all] to wherever we were going," says Armstrong. They'd arrive at clubs like CBGB, Max's Kansas City, and the Mudd Club early in the evening to set up, and they'd break down in the wee hours after everyone left. Their footage isn't the work of amateurs. They often got their sound direct from the board, and using two cameras afforded them a nice variety of perspectives, from tight close-ups to chaotic wide-angle shots. This was before MTV, and the performances--aimed at the live audience, not the cameras--exhibit a refreshing lack of self-consciousness.
The pair eagerly followed the music's development as it splintered into a number of subscenes, from new wave to no wave. But by 1980, Ivers and Armstrong had become disillusioned. "People started wearing spandex and Mohawks, and the whole style and cocaine thing hit really intensely," says Armstrong. That year the duo had become house video DJs at the illegal after-hours club Danceteria. The gig enhanced their reputations, and they unwittingly helped pioneer a new aspect of club culture, but they took some major lumps. First the club was robbed; the thieves made off with about a fifth of the pair's video collection, including early performances by Devo and R.E.M. A few weeks later the club was raided; police arrested the duo along with the other employees. "That was kind of a bummer for me and Pat, and plus the whole scene had become a bummer, so we stopped." The last concert they taped was a Public Image Limited show in 1981.
During that final year or so, Ivers and Armstrong assembled and presented a set of compilations from their collection (which includes 105 performances by 93 bands) around the U.S. and in England, but by the end of 1981 they'd left Nightclubbing behind altogether. Ivers went on to be a TV director (for Monday Night Football, among other shows), while Armstrong devoted her time to raising her two children.
In 1981 the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Television weren't legends yet. As New York punk's reputation grew, however, so did interest in the tapes. "In the early 80s we would get a couple of calls a year, and over time the calls kept accelerating," says Armstrong. On a few occasions they licensed some material to the BBC or ABC, but for the most part they sat on their collection until two years ago, when they began to plan their magnum opus--a full-length documentary about the scene--and assembled the anthologies as "a market research experiment." After the documentary's completion, Armstrong and Ivers may release full concerts from their library.
The series' first episode, "Nightclubbing: Live From CBGB's"--which features very early footage of Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Dead Boys--shows Friday, October 4, at 9 and Thursday, October 10, at 6:30 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. The other three episodes--which include footage of Iggy Pop, the Bad Brains, DNA, Sun Ra, Dead Kennedys, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and the Cramps, among others--will screen over the rest of October. Ivers and Armstrong will attend the screening Friday, October 25. Check the movie listings in Section Two for details.
On Friday night two of the world's greatest reedists perform in Chicago. The fleet Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papazov takes the stage at the University of Chicago's International House, which is celebrating its 70th birthday. Papazov's specialty is Bulgarian wedding-band music, a remarkably fast traditional form that draws from a broad array of dynamic Balkan styles; he'll be backed by the local group Orkestar Kolorit.
Also that night Chicago hard-bop institution Von Freeman plays Symphony Center, celebrating both his 80th birthday and his excellent new album, The Improvisor (Premonition), which features Freeman's working group--drummer Mike Raynor, guitarist Mike Allemana, and bassist Jack Zara, who play with him every Tuesday at the New Apartment Lounge. For this party Vonski will be joined by an all-star cast including pianists Muhal Richard Abrams, Mulgrew Miller, John Young, and Jason Moran (who plays on two tracks from the new disc), reedists Sam Rivers, Ron Blake, and Chico Freeman (Von's son), drummer Winard Harper, and Von's guitar-playing brother George, among others.
Fred Armisen, the poker-faced prankster and former Trenchmouth drummer who left Chicago to pursue a comedy career, has just signed on as a featured cast member of Saturday Night Live. (That's how regular cast members generally get their start on the show.) This past Monday he began working on the episode for Saturday, October 5, to be hosted by Matt Damon, but at press time it was undetermined whether he would appear in it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.