Anarchy in the USA: The Idea of Punk Rock by Michael Grecco

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Photographer Michael Grecco sums up what the period meant to him at the end of his latest book Punk, Post Punk, New Wave, a collection of photographs he took in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Looking back forty years,”Looking back forty years,”you have to think, ‘Wow, what an amazing life.’ Of course, growing up with a repressive, old-fashioned Italian mother, I sometimes felt guilty. You slept with someone else every night, you took drugs all the time, you always drank too much. I wasn’t just having fun, I was having debauched fun – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”you have to think,’ Wow, what a wonderful life.’ Of course, I sometimes felt guilty growing up with a repressive, old-fashioned Italian mother. Every night you slept with someone else, you took drugs all the time, you always drank too much. I wasn’t just having fun, I was having debauched fun – sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll.

Drugs and sex and rock ‘n’ roll. We can disagree about what punk rock meant then, what it might still mean in the 21st century, more than four decades after the events mentioned in the book by Grecco. We should look back at her nihilism, her otherness, her politics, her attitude to pop culture in the year-zero, and how it burst out into the world.

But in a way, it was still just another story about having fun in the most chaotic way for young people. Grecco was one of them.

And so there is less discussion about politics and values and manifestos in the pages of Punk, Post Punk, New Wave, more pictures of Wendy O Williams, of the Plasmatics punk band, topless, and a more or less nude Lux Interior of the Cramps (both on stage and off). And page after page of guitar-posing guys and ladies.

The pictures of Grecco have bleak visions of chaos in front of the stage and backstage intimacies. They are often as raw and finished as the music that influenced them and the musicians. You might overstate it and say the book by Grecco is the visual equivalent of a single by Ramones, a noisy eruption of imagery that captures the moment’s passion, violence and confusion. “One, two, three, four …”

Grecco, who rose to become one of America’s leading commercial photographers, shooting for Time Magazine, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and GQ, was both a reporter and a pioneer of the punk movement that originated in the late 1970s in the United States.

Raised before moving to Boston in 1976, in a restrictive Italian-American family in New York, punk was something of a shock to him. He grew up a “music snob” and a lover of jazz. All of that was about to change. “When I walked into my first punk club in Boston at the age of 18,” he writes, “I suddenly found myself in a club where everyone belonged. I could finally be myself, or at least find out who I really was.”

Starting in 1978, Grecco spent several nights watching and photographing bands in sticky-floored Boston clubs (and often elsewhere) (for the local Boston Rock magazine), and often he had to dodge metal milk crates thrown by aspiring superstars. (An exasperated Billy Idol in this specific case: “The corner of it gets stuck in the drywall next to me. I got out of the way just in time.”)

For British musicians, Boston was a helpful port of call, hence the presence of Public Image Ltd, Elvis Costello, Lene Lovich and Joe Jackson. The Beat’s Dave Wakeling suggests in the book that Boston felt like a cross between London and Dublin, and was thus reassuringly familiar.

One might argue these days that punk has become something like a palimpsest. It’s an idea that’s been published so many times over and then over and then again that it’s difficult to see your way back to it now. The paintings of Grecco provide a window into the past that frames it as a rough, rowdy, uncouth rock version, a kind of back-to-basics that frees the music from the early ’70s excesses and the now-decadent giants of the’ 60s (“No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977,” as The Clash sang). If you can, a musical reboot.

Whether it was Malcolm McLaren’s situationist-driven shtick or The Clash’s often infantile, sometimes inspired political candor, this seems to leave out the more fascinating ideas that punk experimented with. They were major supporters of Rock Against Racism, after all. Which, incidentally, raises the question of how last year Boris Johnson might have called them his favorite band. A further case of Tory gaslighting? Or additional proof that the prime minister was never a man of detail?

What can be said about The Clash as well is that they were musically innovative, a band that embraced rock as well as reggae and rap. It was that,

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