Michael Grecco (Punk, Post Pink, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face 1977 - 1989 available on Harry N Abrams Publishing) (by Joe Burcaw)
I must be completely up front and honest, going into this interview my knees were quaking and palms sweating from nervousness. A rare and unlikely scenario for a chap like myself who feels more than at home interviewing musician types, ‘cos at the end of the day we speak the same language. Photography, well that’s a whole other untamed beast I wasn’t 100% sure I could tackle. Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep admiration for photo legends such as Annie Leibovitz, who can ever forget that iconic photo of John Lennon lying nude curled up to Yoko hours before this death, or Mick Rock’s illustrious Ziggy Stardust stage portraits? Without a doubt, I understand the creative process that goes into the art but can I hang without knowing the proper vernacular? Answer, yes, and thank the heavens above for sending me the tools to successfully navigate super talented heavy-hitter filmmaker Michael Grecco. His latest book: Punk, Post Punk, New Wave takes us on a journey through time dating back to 1977 running right up to 1989. These are never before seen shots documenting the Boston, Mass and NYC club circuit featuring Wendy O. Williams on the front cover smashing a television with a sledge hammer. Grecco has been sitting on these magical motifs for decades, and decided now is the right time for the public to witness behind the scene antics meant for adults only. These pictures are stunning, especially the black and white lighting techniques used to cast shadows on the subject and their rock and roll silhouettes. My favorite shots out of the bunch are Phil Oakey of The Human League (back cover photo) and bassist Dee Dee Ramone of The Ramones (page 179). Crystal-clear, emotionally charged time capsules caught in a forever moment. Michael Grecco is a fantastic storyteller who in his own right has many a tale to tell from firsthand experience behind the lens, and beyond. If only the walls could talk. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and highly recommend purchasing his book, you will not be disappointed.
Michael Grecco (MG): Hello there, and how are you doing?
Joe Burcaw (JB): I am well, thank you for asking, and thanks for speaking with me. Congratulations on the new book, the photos are gorgeous!
MG: Ahh, you’re very kind thank you for saying that.
JB: Let’s get down to business, how long have you been sitting on this archival footage, and what took you so long to release it?
MG: I moved to Boston and got a job at the Boston Herald as a photojournalist. Then I accepted an offer from People Magazine and moved out to Los Angeles working for them regularly holding a sort of pseudo-staff position but really wanting to move from photojournalism over to celebrity portrait photography. So, I considered this work, but didn't even realize how much of it I had and the importance of it. I was encouraged by my archivist, a woman named Michael Parker, to edit the body of work and show it around. That's what we did, I really like the direction Abrams pushed for and how it turned out. They did a great job by making it personal and we think it worked all the way around.
JB: You attended Boston University, correct?
MG: That is correct.
JB: Did you have any inkling as to what would happen once you graduated? Did the experience of filming and hanging out with these punk rock new wavers fall onto your lap?
MG: You know, I always had this dual life, but always knew I wanted to be a photographer. There was not a doubt in my mind that I was going to become one. I went into communications thinking that I knew everything possible about photography, which of course you know is the hubris of a teenager. I went to BU (Boston University) for communications and taking photo- journalism of course. I enjoyed doing photojournalism with the day job, and was always into music too, and getting to see and do a lot of interesting things. So slowly I started getting assignments from Boston Rock shooting for WBCN and the KROQ station in LA, and it just evolved. During the day I would photograph governor Dukakis at a press conference and say ‘Hello Mike’, then at night I would put on my boots, leather coat, and tight jeans to go out with my camera into the Punk scene.
JB: You’re like Clark Kent aka Super Man
MG: Laughs and chuckles, I definitely led a dual life!
JB: Taking a look at the front cover of your book with Wendy O. Williams smashing a television set with the sledge hammer, was that at the WBCN studio or elsewhere?
MG: No, that was at someone’s apartment.
JB: Why use that as the front cover as opposed to all of the other pictures you had to choose from?
MG: I think the publisher picked it and in retrospect looking back at these pictures it was a time in music when it was all about musical freedom, right? In that period, we didn't realize how many women were true Rockers like The Slits, Pretenders, and Wendy O….and it was a time for women's musical freedom too. So, I think that they wanted it to be women empowering and I think it worked, that cover symbolizes everything.
JB: When you shot The Plasmatics were you impressed with their live production?
MG: Ohh, it was ridiculous, it was just off the charts. I couldn't hear for two weeks because she fired off that shot gun right next to my ear. I had to go and get sonic reducers after that so I wouldn’t lose my hearing shooting a show, but it was ridiculous with flowerpots knocking over the drums and whipped cream.....
JB: Don’t forget the bare breasts flying around.
MG: Chuckles, and bare breasts, yes!
JB: So, Michael, why don’t we discuss your proudest photography achievements. Are there one or two that you can pick that you were like, yeah this is the money shot and I'm so thankful I captured this moment in time?
MG: You know the interesting thing is, and I talked about this with another photographer who shoots a lot of music, you wish you would take pictures when you had both of Adam Ants drummers in your house doing cocaine and listening to albums all night. You know what I mean? You wish you had taken images of those moments together, but for me and like I said the portrait work is important like the Adam Ant portrait, Billy Idol portrait, the Bow Wow Wow group shot, I love those pictures, and then just because the stage acts were so ridiculous in the book. Then Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedy’s and The Cramps losing clothes and being naked on the stage.
JB: Speaking of Bow Wow Wow, I heard through the grapevine Annabella and company were feral as a live act, do you share the same sentiment?
MG: Malcolm McLaren put bands together that had a concept, right? You listen to the lyrics and big tribal sound of Bow Wow Wow and have your socks knocked off. They were great. It took me looking at the photographs to see what I had been through and was a part of.
JB: Were there any shows that got away because you didn’t happen to have the 35mm with you?
MG: That’s what we talk about having those regretful moments. I have bands I loved like The Psychedelic Furs, The Smiths, or U2 at The Paradise playing their first show in America where I saw them and hung out with them because someone knew them and you forget to bring the camera going, aww I wish I had it with me! All of those bands were incredibly interesting, it was a time of musical freedom. The Psych Furs first album, Simple Minds who everyone thought was this commercial entity but the sound of Reel to Reel Cacophony (1979) was off the chart for me.
JB: I agree, they all were ahead of their time for sure. Can you tell us the story of Billy Idol in absolute rage throwing a metal crate at your head?
MG: Now it has become an infamous story. Every time he would come to town he would call up, or his road manager would call up and we’d go out after seeing the show hanging at the hotel afterwards doing drugs, women coming over…. sex, drugs and rock and roll right? So, he says I'm playing Portsmouth New Hampshire, come up and see me and we’ll hang out afterwards. So, I drive up to Portsmouth and we’re backstage and he comes running up to me screaming at me, ‘I’m your mate, you gotta stop asking me to take fucking pictures all the God dammed fucking time!’ He picks up a metal milk crate and throws it at my head, I duck and it sticks into the drywall making a huge fucking hole.
JB: Was he hopped up on coke?
MG: We were all hopped up on coke...... I’m like, ‘Billy, what the fuck?’ Then he says ‘your girlfriend keeps asking me to take pictures and these are private times with my friends’. Then I say ‘Billy, I have no girlfriend’. He then proceeds to say, ‘oh shit’. He apologizes, and then walks away. His manager Bill Aucoin comes out with a gallon bag filled with blow like your grandmother is leaving you with brisket after a holiday. My heart is already pounding out of my chest and then Bill says, ‘do you want a line ‘cos Billy feels really bad about what happened’. I have to decline and say, ‘no Bill, I’m really good now’.
JB: Is it true you bumped into Billy years later and he didn’t recognize you?
MG: Yeah, I saw him a couple of years ago because I was one of the executive producers on that show PUNK and we were trying to get him involved. John Varvatos got involved so it went into a different direction. It was more about Iggy Pop and the American movement, but I did bump into him. There's another story there about me and the girl I was dating that I left with Billy one night because I had my job at the Boston Herald and I didn't want to be up all night doing blow, and I wasn't really into her. If I told him all the stories, I think he would be like, ‘Oh my god, how are you?’. We were at an opening and it was like, ‘hey how are you doing?’ and I say, ‘do you remember me?’ and he goes, ‘ohh yeah, of course I do’, and I just knew he didn’t remember me, we shared a lot of fucking crazy experiences together let me tell you.
JB: Ohh, to be a fly on the wall...... Do you have any regrets with any if the pictures you have taken in your career?
MG: No, the regrets are not having the camera and not having the assignment and not taking pictures, those are the only regrets. Taking a picture now you can always leave it in your file, not taking the picture is really the regret. If I took a bad picture or something I don't want people to see or whatever that's not a problem that’s always easy to deal with. It’s that moment of, ‘God I wish I shot that’, you know?
JB: I'm thinking about the Boston scene and how impactful it was, especially a lot of the DJs at the time who were risk takers, like Oedipus.
MG: Boston was a college radio town, and we had the first Punk college radio station and radio shows at MIT. So, there was a show every morning from 9-12, and the lineup was ridiculous, they all came toW BCN after that. It was a show called The Late Risers Club, and Oedipus was on that show and everyone had a different slot. So, 9-12 it was Oedipus, then it was maybe Greg Reedman, then Carla Nolan and Albert O, Tami Heidi, and then it was Thom Lane and Tony V. Oedipus had his weekend show called The Demi- Monde because WBCN hired him and he brought all of his DJ friends over with him. Tony V. and Thom Lane went up to WFNX, but everyone else went to ‘BCN. This was Oedipus’ vision.
JB: I know he was spinning import singles and Indie records and kind of got musicians like Elvis Costello, Ramones, and Talking Heads on the map.
MG: We would go to Newbury Comix, walk in say to Greg Reedman the DJ worked there ‘hey, Greg what's cool?’, and he says, ‘I’ve got this import from this new band called the U2’. Buying imports back then was a commitment, they were 20 or 30 bucks. Another instance, here is this new band The Cure and then of course you would go see them at The Underground like two weeks later.
JB: This has been a real pleasure being able to pick your brain and thank you so much for your time. Before we sign off please tell the people what the future holds for you the remainder of this year, and what kind of projects do you have brewing?
MG: You’re a very good interviewer by the way, and thank you so much. Well, we’re working on getting the images out to galleries and having photography shows worldwide.
JB: Thank you! I will try to make it to your Boston show.
MG: Please do.. you are on the guest list.
JB: That sounds like a plan, have a great evening.
MG: You too, and thank you again.
Listen and buy the photography book, Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face 1977 - 1989 by Michael Grecco from AMAZON
For more info, check out the Michael Grecco website