I often wonder what it would’ve been like to see some of my favorite punk rock bands of the late 1970s in their prime. Since groups like the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash were all a little bit before my time, much of my experience watching these bands play in the cramped, grimy clubs where they first started out consists of viewing grainy old footage on YouTube.
Fortunately, there are photographers like Michael Grecco who shot many of the punk rock, post punk and new wave bands of the 70s and 80s that I can live vicariously through. Grecco’s iconic photos of this classic music era have just been released in a new book titled “Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1977-1991.” Today a successful commercial and celebrity portrait photographer, Grecco shot these never-before-seen photos while documenting the club scene in Boston and New York. Some of the bands he captured with his lens would go on to be huge stars including the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett, David Bowie and many others.
I recently caught up with Grecco to discuss the images, the stories behind them, and what it was like to capture this unforgettable era in music history both during live concerts and backstage after the show.
Q: How did you get the idea of putting out this book of your photographs covering the punk, post-punk and new wave music years from the late 70s to the early 90s?
Michael Grecco: Well, my longtime archivist Mykle Parker kept pulling images out of my files and saying, ‘dude, you have to do something with all these.’ After a while, it sunk in that the pictures were strong, and the time was right. I had never shown them in a portfolio or put them out for syndication, because when I moved to L.A. to do celebrity portraiture, I wanted to leave my more photojournalist past behind. So there the images sat, in my file cabinets for 40 years.
Q: You describe yourself in the introduction as growing up in an “old-world Italian household in suburban New York” where “tradition and rules” marked your childhood. Seeing some of these bands must’ve really blown your mind. Why did you decide to start photographing them and how did you gain access?
MG: I was a jazz listener as a kid growing up in New York. My mother, before she got married, was a jazz singer and I guess that influenced my taste. In high school, I also loved Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Roxy Music. But then I landed at the Rat in Kenmore Square to see the Boston Battle of the Bands and La Peste was playing. It totally blew my mind. The punk scene back then was a group of people that were self-expressed, and I wanted to learn how to be self-expressed. It takes a long time to recover from being Catholic, you know.
Q: Most of these photographs have never been seen before and, I imagine, you probably haven’t looked at some of them in a long while. What was the process like for choosing images that made the book? Did you feel like you were reliving some of these moments while making selections?
MG: I totally felt like I was, and still am, reliving those times. I am in awe of what I did, who I hung out with, the whole scene.
It was about a five-year process from the time I decided to make the book and create the project to the book coming out. My archivist started pulling images for the first round. Then I brought in a photo editor friend to pull more. That editor worked with my archivist to go through all the files and make sure they had looked at everything. Then, while finalizing the press proofs, we came across the Boston Rock magazines for which many of the images were shot. The mags had better images we wanted to include, and better images than some we picked. At the last minute, we were doing rush drum scans trying to make our printing deadline. It was kind of wild.
Q: Why did you choose to shoot black and white for most of these shots? What appeals to you about black and white?
MG: That’s a funny question for me. Most magazine and newspapers back in the day were only black and white. There was no reason to shoot anything else. If I was not working for a small picture agency called Picture Group, who wanted to do some magazine placement, I would probably have not shot the color at all, as color slide film was hard to use for photojournalistic purposes. I also had an unlimited supply of Tri-X, both at the Associated Press office where I worked, and at the Boston Herald office. The Associated Press would pay you $35 per assignment, and all the film you needed. It was kind of an interesting barter if you had other jobs and needed the film.
Q: Live punk rock creates a powerful and sometimes contentious energy between the musicians on stage and the audience. What was the craziest or most harrowing thing that ever happened to you while photographing these bands?
MG: I think the Dead Kennedys’ show was the wildest. The pictures at least make it so. I went to the side of the stage, because you can’t take pictures if you are wrestling with the crowd and the band, so I always had to find ways to avoid that. My training covering big news events for the Associated Press enabled me to get through it. I remember one photographer from back then describing it best – you have to be like water and find the crack tween the rocks.
Q: Many of my favorite bands of all time are included in this book. Can you share an interesting story about photographing these three: the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones
MG: The Ramones I just shot live, so I really had no interaction with them, but the Clash and Johnny Lydon’s second band, Public Image Limited, I spent a fair amount of time with. Johnny Lydon/Rotten is a provocateur, so photographing him was always interesting. One time he asked me for a fag otherwise he was not going to get off the couch to let me photograph him. I had to ask his publicist what that was (a cigarette). Another time, he wanted some kit (cocaine). The three sessions with the Clash were both onstage and backstage. The first time I met them, I was with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and the famous Boston DJ and Program Director Oedipus, so I was always accepted – beyond just having a press pass and being there to shoot for some magazine. I wound up doing lines with Topper after the last show at Bonds in New York City. They fired him the next day for his drug use. I always felt bad about that.
Q: What was the most challenging musician or band to photograph and why?
MG: It was always the lighting. There were many venues like the Rat where the stage lights were so bad you could not photograph under them. You had to know when to use flash or when to use ambient light. If the ceiling was black, you really could not bounce the flash into the ceiling, and most venues had black ceilings. Backstage, I would always try to bounce my Vivtar 283 flash into a wall or a ceiling. For the B-52s portrait, I actually brought a small piece of seamless paper and an umbrella to put my strobe in. I took that image of them as they were leaving the hectic and crazy stage area to go to their dressing rooms. I had three or four frames and had to wait an eternity for that same flash to recycle. It seemed like a lifetime.
Q: Can you give us three tips on how to capture musicians on stage during a concert?
MG: Engender a relationship with the band to get as much access as possible. You do not want to just shoot the five songs they usually only let you shoot these days. You want to be able to pose them and go backstage and possibly tour with them.
Chronicle the event like a professional photojournalist. You need to have a camera with long lenses to cover the show, and also have a camera with a 35mm or 28mm lens and a flash to capture anything else. It might just be for an impromptu portrait of the band as they leave the stage or backstage, and you need to be prepared.
Always be polite, but also be chill, like the genre of music you are shooting.
Q: Many of the images in the book are portraits of the musicians taken backstage. Can you also give us three tips on how to photograph bands in these types of settings?
MG: Most backstage areas had white walls. I would have a flash on camera (Vivitar 283) with a remote auto sensor. This would enable me to take the flash off camera and bounce it around the room. If you bounce it on the ceiling, you get racoon eyes, so I would have a little piece of translucent white plastic velcroid to the top of the flash. Then, if I bounced the light into the ceiling, I could use that to fill the eyes with light. A side wall or back wall is always best, though, for bouncing. I got to the point where I would flash the light and could see how it would fall on the subject in that split second.
Q: These days you’re a successful commercial, fine art and celebrity portrait photographer. How do you think your experience photographing these bands informs your work today?
MG: I was trained by the best photographers at the Associated Press office in Boston. That experience makes it so you can handle anything and can always problem-solve. Photography in part is all about problem solving. I learned to think on my feet, and then later used that skill in the studio when shooting celebrities.
Q: Was there an artist or band that you really wanted to photograph but were never able to?
MG: Oh, hell yeah. I wished I had the assignments for U2 (their first show in the U.S.), The Smiths, and the Psychedelic Furs. I just enjoyed the shows but definably wished I could have added them to the book.
Q: Are you still shooting any live concert photography? Which musicians most interest you photographically these days and why?
MG: I am really not. I would always accept the assignment, but I left the sex, drugs, and rock and roll behind when I moved from the east coast to Los Angeles. I started a family, and a different kind of photography business. Music photography really means hanging out with the bands and getting close. They are on a whole different schedule, late night, etc. I did not want that as my primary lifestyle.
As far as shooting a band, I love the bands Phantogram and Sleigh Bells. I think they both have unique sounds and visual styes. It would be amazing to work with both of them.
Q: What’s next for you?
MG: I think I am going to do a book on the seen/unseen celebrity work that came after the Punk series. But that is only an idea in its infancy, we will see.
To see more of Michael Grecco’s work, visit his website. To learn more about his book, visit the Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1977-1991 website.