Michael Grecco, US punk and post punk photographer – interview
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Michael Grecco, US punk and post punk photographer – interviewPhotographer and filmmaker Michael Grecco was in London recently, exhibiting at Photo London in support of his book Punk Post Punk New Wave published last year, which documents the music and club scene in ’70s and ’80s Boston, including previously unseen iconic photos of artists like The Clash, Adam Ant, Johnny Rotten, The Buzzcocks, Talking Heads, Human Sexual Response, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett and The Ramones.

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At this year’s Photo London 88 photo galleries exhibited images to around 35,000 visitors over the space of 5 days, showing prints by a wide range of photographers, including music-related photos by David Bailey, Kevin Cummins, Bob Gruen, Mick Rock and Daniel Kramer.  Michael Grecco’s space in a room in the basement of Somerset House was immediately striking, with huge prints of the book’s best images beautifully showcased on the walls. The images all appear in his book Punk Post Punk New Wave, published last October mid-pandemic.  With a new Collectors’ Edition due out in the next few weeks, it seemed a good opportunity to grab some time with Michael to chat about his experiences at the forefront of the punk/post punk/new wave music scene that exploded in Boston in the ’70s and ’80s.

LTW: In the book you talk about growing up in an Italian family in New York, where life was pretty restrictive and stifling. What influence did music have on you and how did you end up in Boston?

MG: I grew up in New York at a time when radio in general was really bad. I was one of the executive producers on a documentary film we did here on the FX Network called Punk – in researching that I discovered that record companies realised that selling records was more profitable than sporting event tickets, theatre tickets and live theatre – all of entertainment combined in ticket sales didn’t add up to what selling LPs got. So, they went into high gear after the ‘60s and started producing things that were sellable and that became music that I didn’t want to listen to, and I don’t know anyone else who wanted to listen to it – and that’s how you got all these bands like Styx, Journey and Kansas, with built-in hooks and polished musicianship.

I was turned off by it, as a kid I was living in New York and was a music snob. I was heavily into Velvet Underground, loved Bowie, hadn’t really spent a lot of time listening to Iggy Pop yet – I got more exposed to him when I moved to Boston – but liked Roxy Music for the Eno production and its cleverness. So, I had a couple of rock bands that I loved but I was mainly a jazz listener. I would go to clubs and listen to Keith Jarrett, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke and I judged music that way, on its creativity. If you were a boring improviser and you went in circles, I didn’t value what you had to say as a musician.

So, in that group and looking at music that way I also listened to Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, and Hendrix of course, because they were clever, interesting and they had something to say as an improviser. I’d listen to all of this based on musicianship because my frame of reference was jazz.

Before I left for college, I was at my buddy Adam’s house and he put on The Ramones album, and we were saying “What the hell is this, who would put out an album that says Beat On The Brat? This stuff is cool.” That was my first exposure to what was out there, but I had never seen it live, never seen it performed.

The Slits
The Slits

I left New York in 1976 to go to college in Boston, it was a college town with a lot of clubs and bars. It took me a couple of years [to get into the scene]. I don’t know if it was ‘77 or ‘78, I lived right up the street from the Rat and I wandered down and it was the Boston Battle Of The Bands. I was blown away by bands like La Peste and Mission Of Burma. It was a scene, of people dressing the way they wanted to, of slam dancing and expressing themselves, and it was a scene that appealed to me – the scene was musical freedom, cultural freedom, self-expressed people, and I went on from there. We had the first college regular six-days-a-week punk radio show in the world. John Peel would play some of it but we had a dedicated 9am to 12pm show on the MIT radio station WTVS. It was called the Late Risers Club and all they played was new punk and new wave music.

The famous US DJ, Oedipus, a close friend of mine, came from there, and Eddie moved from the weekday show to doing his show Nocturnal Emissions on the weekends. He would tell the story that he was interviewing The Ramones on college radio and getting a Nielson rating on college radio show, so the large WBCN commercial station brought him in as music director – those were his terms, he wanted to be a music director. Boston was the first punk college radio show and the first commercial radio station to break punk – it was groundbreaking in a lot of ways. New York’s known for CBGBs, and for those bands like Blondie, Talking Heads and Television actually playing there and getting their start there, which is true, but Boston released this underground cultural influence and appreciation because of all the college radio stations, because of that college crowd.

I was always a photographer, at 13 I learned the dark room, I took photography in my art classes in High School and took college level photography classes at a senior level. I was always involved; I was always into photography – I went to school thinking I knew it all and took a photojournalism class and realised how little I actually knew. Photojournalism has its own rules, who, what where why and when, it’s storytelling, not just taking pictures. At the end of ‘77 my teacher at the time said I think you would be good to intern at Associated Press.

So it was the blizzard of ’78 in January, we were snowed in, and I took all the ski gear I had, and poles and cameras and goggles, and I trudged through eight feet of snow – it literally was eight feet of snow, we had two four-foot snow dumps, and once they ploughed the streets for the first one they had no place to put the next snow dump, they were in a row – so I went to the Associated Press office in January two weeks before my internship started and I started photographing professionally. I would cover the Statehouse, would cover Michael Dukakis, I was a news photographer. So it was very natural for me to take assignments from Boston Rock and publicity shoots from WBCN, and it was very natural for me to use the camera as a point of entry and to give me a purpose, but also to document something I really loved.

The Buzzcocks
The Buzzcocks

How did the concept for the book come about?

It took my archivist – I have a part time archivist here at the studio – to say you have to do something with this stuff, you have 100s and 100s of pictures that are amazing, and you have to do something with it. I never used it in my portfolio to get work, I never showed it as a project before, it just sort of sat there like a good wine, getting better with age.

I had a deal with another publisher in the UK which fell through at the last minute. A photographer friend of mine connected me with me Michael Sand and Garrett McGrath at Abrams Image, who appreciated my work as the kind of book that Abrams does, and they did a great job. Garrett pushed me to write personal stories – we had to organise the work some way and we organised it by venue, which I think in the end was a great idea, and then tying that in with the venue, I grouped some of my stories together based on that venue.

You have a couple of interesting contributors who give their own accounts of the time, Jim Sullivan and Fred Schnieder (B52s). Why did you choose them?

Back in the day, I was in the trenches with the Boston Globe associate music critic – there was a staff guy, Steve Morrison, but Jim Sullivan eventually became the staff guy eventually. He was given all the stuff Steve Morrison didn’t want to do, he was given all of those gigs they wrote about, like The Cramps, but Steve Morris didn’t care about The Cramps, so Jim was there. Jim and I were friends, we dated the same woman who was a writer at the Globe, we ran in the same circles. He didn’t work for Boston Rock, so he approached it more as a professional gig with an arm’s length relationship to the band, to the people, and things like that. I didn’t – I didn’t have that journalistic standard that he did, I was a club kid who slept with some of the musicians, the women, partied with them, did drugs and was friends with them, and went on the road with them. I didn’t have that arm’s length relationship as someone working for the Boston Globe, I was embedded.

With Fred Schnieder, we were looking for the appropriate contributor, Jim knew him, and Jim thought Fred would craft a great piece.

It’s interesting to see B52s included and to read Fred Schneider’s perception of them as a punk band – by the time they reached the UK they’d become more pop, with Loveshack etc, so most people would think of them that way here, I think.

Here’s the thing about punk, Jim told me that Sting said this to him: if it wasn’t for punk the Police wouldn’t exist because they wouldn’t have gotten played on the radio. If it wasn’t for punk the B52s wouldn’t exist because they wouldn’t have been played on the radio. There wouldn’t exist the places to play them, because you only get airplay and commercial radio before that, and you couldn’t have built fans and appreciation for bands like the B52s without punk. So, they’re not necessarily punk, that’s why the book is called Punk Post Punk New Wave, but they definitely were once – Roam was more of a pop song but Rock Lobster was pretty angry.

Bow Wow Wow
Bow Wow Wow

What was your relationship with the bands – obviously you found it very easy to get access?

Jim had the access to Fred Schnieder. In ‘83 I went from Associated Press and became a staff photographer at the Boston Herald and sort of lost touch – I wasn’t going out anymore and I wasn’t doing drugs all night any more, I had what I considered this dream job. Getting a staff job was difficult and it meant you had made it on a certain level as a news photographer photojournalist. I’m very goal-oriented and wanted that sort of status to happen. But after three years I had covered two assignments, the Maria Schriver wedding and the Caroline Kennedy wedding, and outshot both of People Magazine’s photographers, they had to pick up pictures from me (meaning they had to licence images from me of the events). I had an invitation that if I ever left the Herald, they would make me the equivalent of staff at People Magazine.

So, in ‘86 I left the Herald and drove out to Los Angeles, and by ‘87 I was working for People Magazine on a regular basis. I left that life and those contacts and left hanging out with Billy Idol and didn’t have my phone number anymore. I broke those connections and wasn’t hanging out with the bands anymore. I’m still friends with my friends in Human Sexual Response, but it wasn’t until this project that I’ve started coming back into contact with people.

Were there any specific bands you were attached to?

I went on the road with Till Tuesday, and I was their official photographer for a while. I was also Human Sexual Response’s official photographer, I travelled with them to the UK in 1980 when they were on the old Grey Whistle Test, I’d go to NY with them, and I hung out with them all the time. Those were really the two bands. I was also Billy Idol’s bud. There’s another story we didn’t put in the book – the last time I was with him I was sort of bored with this woman I was dating, and I had to go to work with the Herald in the morning. We were in a taxi back to his hotel and I said, “look I can’t do blow all night, why don’t you guys go and have fun”. He said, “With your girlfriend mate?” and I said “Yeah, you guys go and have fun”. She said really, I can go, and I said go have fun.

You gave him your girlfriend?

I did! I bumped into him once and I asked if he remembered me, and he said, “oh yeah yeah yeah”, but I realised he didn’t remember me, he would have given me a hug. Now, it would be fucking amazing to be able to get hold of Billy and hang out and talk about old times, 40 years later.

It was actually really lovely because we held a reception for the Photo London show and Dave Barbarossa of Bow Wow Wow came by and we hung out, and Steve Diggle came by, Nick Lowe came by – I have a picture of Nick hanging out backstage with Elliott Easton, it was lovely he came by. Diggle and Barbie I hung out with, and I was showing them pictures backstage of them before the show with the band. It was just great to talk to Diggle about the time I spent the day with them and the evening with them. Pete Shelley kept passing me his telephone number and address and told me he wanted me to come to England with him. It took me till years later to realise he was hitting on me. I was able to share that story with Diggle. He talked about the schoolboy cap in the Pete Shelley picture and said, “we hated that cap, it kind of looked good in the picture I get it now, but he lost that cap after three or four days into our first US tour and we were all so happy he lost that cap!”. But the cap brought back all the memories, it was the point of remembrance that sent him back to “Oh my god that cap!”.

Which photos in the book are your favourites, are you most proud of.

That Billy Idol portrait – Billy and I had a connection and I love the connection in the photograph. My other favourite would be the Poison Ivy picture, the horizontal one with her hands up to her eyes. The primary purpose of the book is a coffee table book, so you hate to put labels all over it, but we’re hopefully about to hit our next print run and we’re going to redo the index when we get to that point.

The Cramps
Poison Ivy of The Cramps

There’s a great Lou Reed photo in the book – has that really never been seen before.

No. It was taken at the Paradise Club; I saw them a hell of a lot. He was in the realm of the three or four rock bands that I loved best; I had seen him play at the Palladium in New York. I’d seen the New York Dolls play, and Lou Reed. Velvet Underground had broken up.

Do you still shoot live shows, what are you up to now?

I moved out here to LA working for People Magazine, I did that documentary work and that photojournalism still. In the 1990s I didn’t want to do that anymore, I moved out here to be more of a portrait photographer which is what I’ve always been interested in – I’m a big fan of Annie Liebowitz and so I moved out here to do that. In the early ‘90s I transitioned from photojournalism to portrait photography, and I’ve been a celebrity portrait photographer and commercial photographer ever since.

If you could go back and do it over, what would you do differently?

I’d bring my camera every time. Because I saw the Smiths, I saw the Psychedelic Furs, I saw Simple Minds – and all very early on. People here think of them the same way you think of the B52s there – what they remember is their popular songs. But Simple Minds Real To Real Cacophony was a cacophony, it was interesting. The first Human League album was sonically interesting, and then they put out the next one – Don’t You Want My Baby, is what we call it. But you don’t have perspective on it until you pull back 40 years and look at what you were a part of and realise the historical significance of those being the first US shows and the launch in the US of those bands, and how close you were, what access you had, what you were a part of, what you did, hanging out.

One of the things that strikes me about your photos is how really stuck in you got, you were really in with the crowd, close to the stage in those very intimate shows.

I was part of the scene.

Dead Kennedys
Dead Kennedys

What was the competition, were other people doing the same?

Yeah, I have a buddy who I’m still friends with, Phil In Phlash, he covered a lot of this stuff, he would also get assignments from Boston Rocks, and there were a couple of other photographers. The nice advantage I had is that I was being trained during the day by Chip Maury, who was five-time Military Photographer of the Year and now a staffer at the Associated Press in Boston. So understanding how to light for every situation, what lights to use, how to cover something – understanding that gave me a very well-rounded perspective on how to do a quick backstage portrait and bounce the flash off the walls and the ceiling; and then how to cover a show and not be right in front because the microphone’s in their face; go to the side of the stage and look for the off moment, when the light’s good enough use a long lens and high speed pushed film, and if the light’s not good enough you’ll have to mix it with strobe. It gave me that skillset that I wouldn’t have had without having worked for the Associated Press.

Comparing the scenes in Boston v New York, were you drawn more to one than the other?

I had never been to CBGBs so I don’t know, but I can only imagine it was just like the Rat, that that scene was very similar – grungy bars. Remember disco was happening at the same time so there were a lot of clubs like Danceteria and the Mud Club that would cross over – they’d be playing and spinning disco but then they’d bring in Spizzenergi. The thing in the New York scene that there wasn’t in the Boston scene is there were after hours clubs that opened at 4am and closed at noon.

The UK influence was quite strong. There’s been some debate over the years, where do you feel punk started, in the UK or the US?

Well, the Sex Pistols weren’t around when the Ramones put out their first album. I’ve heard the debate that it was before the Ramones and started with the MC5 and Iggy in the States, if you want to go back to that point.

How do you see the relationship between the US and UK punk?

I think that both sides fed off each other, that the relationship was close – people like Chrissie Hynde was from the US and moved to the UK for the scene. I don’t think that you could pull it apart. I think that the thing to keep in mind is that it was a rebellion. If you think about it, punk and rap started at the same time – it grew out of a frustration over the airwaves in both places and what music you could play, and if you could express yourself or not. People didn’t want to be oppressed and wanted to break out and say what they had to say. In the UK it turned into a political movement – I remember this, there was terrible inflation, terrible unemployment. And it became a political moment because of the Sex Pistols and their lyrics and what they wrote. In the US it became a musical revolution – it was a fuck you to the record companies and a fuck you to the radio stations. In the US, the only way you could get airplay – we didn’t have the BBC, we had commercial radio stations -was to pay off the DJ, either cocaine or cash, to add a particular record into their repertoire. You couldn’t get a record deal unless you had this incredible musicianship. And it was like, screw all this. It was basically a screw you on both sides, but it just took different forms – in the UK it was extremely political, and in the US, it was all about revolutionising the music industry, both on the radio side and on the record company side.

Finally, who are your heroes – if you could choose 5 people dead or alive to sit down with in any social situation, what’s the situation and who would they be?

Einstein, Bryan Ferry, Joe Strummer, Laurence Fishburne, Martin Scorsese. I’m a partner in a restaurant called Fia in Santa Monica, I’d take them out to dinner.

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Interviewed by Naomi Dryden-Smith – Louder Than War | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | portfolio

All photos © Michael Grecco


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