Volume 75, Number 45 | March 29 -April 04 2006

Front row seats to punk’s early years

By Mike Didovic

In meeting with Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong, one thing is glaringly apparent: they love old punk rock music. Loved it then, and still love it now. The two women, now in their 50s, spent half of their 20s filming live performances of the mainstays of the New York music scene from 1975 to 1980, and have condensed the best scenes of their old cable show, “Nightclubbing” into a 85-minute video of greatest clips. Shot from the enviable vantage point of being right in the thick of things, they captured spine-tingling performances by the Dead Boys (their favorite band, it seems), early Blondie, Iggy Pop and many others in the underground punk scene. Showing on March 31st as part of NYU’s “Downtown Show” exhibit, the free screening is a glimpse into New York’s storied music past.

As an intern at Manhattan Cable in 1974, Pat Ivers explained how few people in the city had access to cable TV back then, since it wasn’t available below 57th Street. At a show featuring Patti Smith and Television, she had the inspired idea of shooting concerts from this emerging music scene, which she would later turn into a cable show that she screened at Anthology Archives for the Downtown folk. She teamed up with her friend Emily Armstrong for the first episode, the Punk Rock Music Festival at CBGB’s in 1975, where owner Hilly Kristal gave them this piece of sage advice: keep an eye on Debbie Harry, she’s going places. Which is the perfect place for their video to begin, with Blondie covering Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” (“That was when they were mainly doing VU covers,” says Ivers). From there, it weaves across the punk fabric, which includes numerous non-punk acts as well, including the Talking Heads (doing a great version of “Psycho Killer”), Levi and the Rockats (a pre-Stray Cats rockabilly act from Britain), Strange Party (a great “theatrical band” from the Club 57 scene), and the Go-Go’s performing at Danceteria. In New York at the time, punk meant anything that was original, hence the hodge-podge of music styles that all fell under its umbrella.

Ivers and Armstrong have hundreds of hours of these concerts in their archives, a priceless collection of music footage that they have so far licensed little of. Part of what makes it unique is that it contains the true vocals recorded along with the video, and not just synched up afterward on a mixer. It’s one of the reasons why their video montage conveys the feeling of actually being there, much more so than other music documentaries I have seen.

“Nightclubbing” also stands out simply because Ivers and Armstrong documented some great scenes. My personal favorites from their reel were Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, wrestling with a woman from the audience on stage (and getting his ass kicked!) while singing “Holiday in Cambodia,” and the Dead Boys playing a benefit concert for their drummer who had been stabbed in a fight, on stage with Divine and a host of strippers, singing a fantastic version of “Looking for a Kiss.” Ivers and Armstrong also document the heroin scene that accompanied the era with a set of videos by the Cramps, Heartbreakers, John Cale and the Off’s, before finally climaxing with an incredible spoken word poem by Max Blagg that, oddly enough, is the highlight of their video. Blagg’s reading captures the intensity of the era as he lets the audience know, in no uncertain terms, that heroin is for losers.

Following the screening will be a Q&A session with the two producers, who are also working on a documentary of the origins of the punk scene in New York. They’ve already amassed dozens of interviews with the players from that era, and if my talk with them last week was any indication, their Q&A session should provide a colorful backstory to “Nighclubbing.” CBGB’s is hosting an after-party, too, where Max Blagg will be reading. Whether you were there back then, or you want to see what the punk scene was really like, this evening should fill you in.

Ivers and Armstrong will present “Nightclubbing: Greatest Hits 1975-1980” this Friday, March 31, at 6 pm (doors open at 5:45) at the Cantor Film Center, 36 East Eighth Street, Room 200.

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