On Video, Preserving Punk’s Past

Tapes 1Emily Armstrong Some of the tapes from the archive of around 200 punk and new wave performances that will soon be preserved by The Fales Collection at New York University. The collection’s director calls it “the very best.”

The Fales Collection at New York University will shortly begin the process of preserving and cataloging an extraordinary video archive of punk and new wave performances known as “Gonightclubbing, Ltd.,” mainly recorded in the nineteen seventies at East Village clubs like CBGB using reel-to-reel video.

The archive is the work of video artists Emily Armstrong and Pat Ivers, and until collected by a team from Fales last week it occupied significant cupboard space in Ms. Armstrong’s apartment. Although the material has been presented at museum and theater shows, it has never been commercially available. Almost 200 live shows by acts like the Dead Boys, the Heartbreakers, Iggy Pop and Suicide have remained largely unseen since the two young cable TV employees hauled their gear around downtown clubs more than 30 years ago.

Fales has been collecting documentation of the downtown art scene since 1994. Marvin Taylor, director of the archive, told The Local, “You can’t talk about the art scene without talking about the birth of punk rock.” He described the Armstrong-Ivers material as the “premiere collection” of live recordings from the period, with great sound quality because the makers were able to record directly from the soundboards at clubs. “It’s the very best. I have never seen anything like it,” he said.

Emily Armstrong has lived in the same building a few steps below East Houston since 1972. She met Pat Ivers – who since 1977 has lived in a neighboring apartment – while working at Manhattan Cable, an early public access television channel. Seeing Patti Smith and Television play Max’s Kansas City convinced Pat that the dynamic downtown music scene should be documented. She borrowed equipment from the studio and with help from members of a video collective set out to record the first punk festival at CBGB in August, 1975.

This was just the first of many recordings and after months of dragging bulky gear to late night gigs, the guys in the crew dropped out, leaving Pat and Emily to continue. Respite from constantly traveling with the equipment came when Hilly Krystal, the owner of CBGB, allowed the women to set up a small studio in the club. This is where most of the recordings were made, although they also taped at Max’s, The Mudd Club, Irving Plaza and other venues. In 1979, the recordings began to be shown as a cable television series called “Nightclubbing.” Since downtown Manhattan had no cable access, the series was shown to live audiences at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.

When the club Danceteria opened on West 37th Street in 1980, Emily and Pat were invited to create a video installation for the opening night. This became a permanent video lounge, showing video art and live performances from the music room on large-console, rented television sets the women heaved up flights of stairs every evening. The project came to an end when the State Liquor Authority raided and closed the club within a year, arresting everyone present. Emily and Pat spent the night in a cell on Pearl Street.

BoxedEmily Armstrong The tapes, which have been boxed in preparation for their move to the Fales Collection, include performances by such acts as the Dead Boys, the Heartbreakers, Iggy Pop and Suicide.

In an era when anyone at a concert can record the show with a flip camera, it’s difficult to imagine the labor involved in taping live bands in the heyday of punk. Bringing equipment to a club and then seeking a safe route to take it home through dark streets in the early hours was laborious and often nerve-wracking. Late-night taxis were sometimes a necessity, but the budget was tight. Emily and Pat told The Local that when CBGB gave them the artists’ rate for beers – 75 cents – they knew they “had it made.”

They have few regrets. Patti Smith refused to allow them to record her shows. The band Television agreed, then withdrew permission at the last moment. The Ramones were recorded exclusively by their manager’s husband. They did record R.E.M., but the tapes were stolen. The collection remains a treasure trove, and will be available to researchers once the lengthy and costly preservation process is complete. It includes not only film from live shows, but interviews with faces on the scene like Richard Hell, James Chance, Joey Arias and “Punk” magazine founder John Holstrom, as well as other video works by the artists, and ephemera from the period.

The tapes, some in fragile condition, will be captured as digital files. During the preservation process, Emily Armstrong will be viewing some of the material for the first time in years. She will be blogging about the experience for The Local, and presenting rare clips, beginning in the New Year.