In the summer of 1975, Pat Ivers filmed a legendary festival of unsigned rock bands at CBGB, which included Talking Heads, Blondie and Ramones. Ivers had unauthorized but easy access to equipment, thanks to her day job in the Public Access Department at Manhattan Cable TV, and other members of her video collective, Metropolis Video, helped out.
“I was the only girl,” Ivers said in a recent interview. “And all the guys said, ‘You’re crazy. We’re not making money at this.’ They wouldn’t do it anymore, so for about a year, I sulked at the end of the bar at CBGB. Then I met Emily.”
Emily Armstrong was a sociology major at the City University of New York who’d also taken a job in Public Access at Manhattan Cable, and shared with Ivers determination and a love of punk rock. The pair shot dozens of concerts, and hosted a weekly cable show, “Nightclubbing,” that showed their videos. The hulking Ikegami camera they used was “like a Buick on my shoulder,” Ivers said. They’d shoot bands until nearly sunrise, hurry back to Manhattan Cable’s offices and return the equipment before anyone noticed it was gone.
Sean Corcoran, a curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, graduated from college in 1996 and was in kindergarten when Ivers and Armstrong were amassing their archive. But he’s fascinated with the flowering of new music that took place in New York starting in the late ’70s. When a colleague proposed an exhibition timed to the 40th anniversary of MTV’s August 1, 1981 arrival, Corcoran pounced on the opportunity to build a showcase for the music that emerged in the wake of New York City’s 1975 near-bankruptcy, subsequent economic distress and AIDS and crack epidemics.
When Corcoran began curating “New York, New Music: 1980-1986,” which opens Friday, he knew most of the photographers who’d documented the era, including Janette Beckman, Laura Levine and Blondie’s zealous guitarist, Chris Stein. While searching the copious Downtown Collection of NYU’s Fales Library, he saw a listing of Ivers and Armstrong’s archive, which the library acquired in 2010, and was thrilled. Material from that duo, plus footage from Merrill Aldighieri, and the team of Charles Libin and Paul Cameron, provided Corcoran with a vast but rarely seen video catalog.
“New York, New Music” chronicles a variety of genres, including rap, jazz, salsa and dance music, but the videos in the exhibition emphasize post-punk, the gnarled, joyously uncommercial cousin of new wave that happens to be having a moment. (An inescapable Apple ad campaign uses the Delta 5’s spiky 1979 song “Mind Your Own Business,” which was considered so uncommercial it wasn’t even released as a single in the United States.) The sound of this era, Corcoran said, “never gets the attention that disco and punk get.”
Thanks to the advent of portable (if Buick-size) video cameras, these five dogged videographers documented this fertile music, which was politically progressive and inclusive of races and genders. All were DIY self-starters, flush with moxie, who made the best of borrowed equipment and Gothic lighting. Aldighieri even shot with videotapes she’d scavenged from dumpsters outside the Time & Life Building. This grimy, seat-of-their-pants aesthetic was the dominant language of music video until MTV spread throughout the country and turned videos into gleaming advertisements for stardom.
Like Ivers and Armstrong, Libin and Cameron plunged themselves into the scene. The pair met as SUNY Purchase film students who bonded over their love of Wim Wenders and Martin Scorsese. In 1979, they drove down to the 62nd Street nightclub Hurrah in Manhattan, and shot a 16 mm film of a colorful new band from Georgia, the B-52’s, playing a jittery surf-rock song called “Rock Lobster.” They edited it using university equipment, then showed it at Hurrah by projecting it onto a white bedsheet. Music videos were still a novel idea, and “people went ballistic,” Cameron said.
The head of their film department went ballistic for different reasons, and expelled the duo for using equipment without permission. Free of academic distractions, they moved to New York, bartended at Hurrah and shot dozens of the era’s best bands; they contributed videos of the jagged funk bands Defunkt and James White and the Blacks to the museum show. After a few years, their video work led to flourishing careers as cinematographers, leaving no more time for late nights in the clubs.
Filming this scene was stressful and sometimes risky. While working at Danceteria, an unlicensed club near Penn Station, Ivers and Armstrong were arrested along with other employees; they also had a significant portion of their archive stolen. “It made us bitter,” Ivers said. In April 1980, after shooting Public Image Ltd., they ended “Nightclubbing.”
“The scene we loved was over. A new scene was coming. I didn’t like Duran Duran,” Armstrong added. More than a dozen of their videos, including footage of the punk bands the Dead Boys and the Cramps, and the louche, chaotic jazz-rock of the Lounge Lizards, are displayed at the Museum of the City of New York show.
Aldighieri, an intrepid Massachusetts College of Art and Design grad who’d worked as a news camerawoman and an animator, was hired by Hurrah to play videos between sets, and used the house camera to shoot bands. She filmed more than 100 different bands there, some more than once: “I was there five to seven days a week,” she said. But in May 1981, Hurrah closed, and a subsequent late-night mugging scared her into nightclub retirement. Aldighieri created a short-lived series of VHS video compilations for Sony Home Video, worked in production and postproduction, then moved to France. From her archive, the curator Corcoran used four clips, including the jazz avant-gardist Sun Ra and the South Bronx sister group ESG, which played minimalist funk.
The footage from the five filmmakers forms “the core of the video content” in “New York, New Music: 1980-1986,” Corcoran said. It’s just a happy coincidence that the show is arriving at a time when post-punk music is finally in the limelight.
The acerbic British band Gang of Four released a boxed set in March; Beth B’s documentary of the No Wave warrior Lydia Lunch opens in New York this month; and Delta 5, heard constantly in that Apple commercial, has been cited as an influence by emerging groups from the United Kingdom (Shopping), Boston (Guerilla Toss) and Los Angeles (Automatic).
“Always surprised that there’s still resonance after 40 years,” Ros Allen, who played bass in Delta 5 and is now an animator and senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland in England, said in an email. “‘Mind Your Own Business’ has got a catchy beat and bass lines and a cracking guitar break, and then there’s the ‘go [expletive] yourself’ lyrics.”
The Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham, who is now an assistant professor of experiential learning at Endicott College in Massachusetts, said in an email, “There was so much interesting and lasting music made during that post-punk/pre-New Romantic time.” He added, “And maybe our own kids will be generous enough of spirit to click ‘like’ and allow us relevance, once again.”
In the course of the 1980s, Corcoran noted, New York changed from an unregulated city hospitable to artists to a tightly policed city hospitable to stockbrokers, which brought the era to a close. Much of the footage he chose has rarely been seen, and other important video documents of the era are frustratingly difficult or impossible to find.
Chris Strouth, a composer and filmmaker, spent years searching for the videotapes of M-80, a groundbreaking 1979 two-day music marathon staged in Minneapolis. After he finally located it, he spent “four or five years,” he said, turning it into a feature length documentary. At the last minute, the singer of an obscure local band he declined to name pulled permission to use its footage, which Strouth described as “heartbreaking.”
Some filmmakers didn’t get signed releases from the bands, which limits their commercial use. Some got releases that have gone missing or didn’t anticipate the rise of digital media. In lieu of a contract, videos can’t be licensed without facing a gantlet of opportunistic lawyers and moody band members. “It’s hell,” Strouth said with a bruised chuckle. “Music licensing is hell.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Ivers was able to film nearly every act from the late ’70s, except Patti Smith and Television, who declined permission. Thanks to Ivers and others, an obscure era of music was thoroughly memorialized. “The shows we saw — my God,” she said. “It was lightning in a bottle. It was only going to happen once.”