Michael Grecco picked the right time to be in Boston. As an undergrad at BU studying photojournalism, he began exploring the clubs of The Hub with his camera and was soon snapping on assignment from alternative and mainstream press venues. Now a successful commercial photographer, Grecco looks back with fondness at those early years—samples from which are contained in his book Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978-1991 (Abrams). Grecco spoke with PKM about those days.
Though less celebrated in the grand scheme of rock & roll history, Boston has never been a backwater. In the years 1978-1991, in fact, a particularly rich and varied music scene unfolded there every bit the equal to New York’s and L.A.’s—not just punk, but post punk and new wave.
Photographer Michael Grecco just happened to be in Boston then and had a front row seat to the musical mayhem most of the time. Working on assignment for everything from alternative weeklies and the Boston Herald to the Associated Press and radio stations, Grecco was on the run most of the time, snapping local bands that should’ve been bigger (Gang Green, Mission of Burma, Human Sexual Response), national acts (Talking Heads, Ramones, The Cramps, Dead Kennedys) that passed through the city and superstars like David Bowie and The Clash.
A habitue of such outposts of the underground as The Rat, Spit, Metro, Thayer Street Lofts, Jonathan Swift’s, Cantone’s and The Channel, venerable theaters like the Orpheum, the Paradise, the Opera House, the Bradford Ballroom (where he shot personal faves The Buzzcocks and the Specials) and even concrete sound killers like the Cape Cod Coliseum, Grecco was like Paladin: Have Lens Will Travel.
The visual evidence of his time in Boston is contained in Punk Post Punk New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978-1991 (Abrams), an impressive collection of the best of his black-and-white photographs. The book is augmented with his personal memories of the occasions captured on film, a foreword by Fred Schneider of the B-52s and a detailed and informative introduction by longtime Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan.
Grecco’s book sets the tone right out of the gate, with a cover shot of Wendy O. Williams taking a sledgehammer to a television set tuned to MTV, followed by an opening two-page spread of Poison Ivy of The Cramps psyching herself up backstage at The Channel.
“The shots of the Cramps were the most fun to take,” recalls Grecco, also citing a series of shots of Lux Interior writhing on the stage and losing his leather pants and, backstage, where he does something particularly nasty with a hotdog bun (this raunchy interlude included in the book). “The onstage and backstage shots of the Cramps were both at The Channel. The crowd was really going wild.”
The Channel, he writes in the book, was “a big, black, low-ceilinged 1,500-capacity place with ever sticky floors” located in South Boston, where “Southies were always looking for a fight.” Thus, the dance area at The Channel would allow for “legal” brawls. He took some of his best photographs here, at shows by the Cramps and Dead Kennedys.
As for the cover shot of Wendy O. Williams photographs, Grecco was there on assignment for a local rock magazine and a radio station.
“I didn’t have any interaction with Wendy,” said Grecco. “I didn’t hang out backstage or anything. It was a promotional shoot for Boston Rock magazine and publicity thing for WBCN, set up by Oedipus, the punk deejay. But later I shot the the Plasmatics’ show at The Channel. It was kind of scary. Wendy fired a shotgun near my head on stage and I couldn’t hear for a week after that.”
The Plasmatics – “Butcher Baby” (replete with chain saw):
How did a Bronx-born boy get in a position to capture the rock & roll scene of Boston? Simple. He had the good fortune to find himself in The Hub during his post high school years, a perfect time and place to take advantage of his agreeable personality and growing photographic skills. That he also found the perfect school, Boston University, to help him hone his photojournalism chops was only icing on the cake.
“I started in school in 1976 and by 1977, I was working for Herald as a stringer,” said Grecco, who now splits his time between New York and Los Angeles. “I was being taught by the best in the business during the day. This wasn’t just a thing where I was just a hanger on-er. I mean, I was in a way, but I was also a trained serious photojournalist.”
One of the things that Grecco had going for him was that Boston was often the first stop of any British or European band embarking on an American tour, giving him first dibs on shooting them.
“Boston was the start of every band’s tour of America, for two reasons,” said Grecco. “One, it was the closest flight from London. And two, it was the warmup for these bands. They’d do Boston, Providence, New Haven. And, by then, they’d gotten over their jet lag and were ready for New York. These were also the first tours for some bands, so it was easy to hang out with all of them backstage, if you wanted.”
Grecco describes a typical night out for him in those years in his book, accompanying a photograph of Cantone’s, an Italian restaurant near South Station, that showcased local bands at night: “If you were drinking heavily—and we were always drinking heavily—we would end up eating Chinese food at 4 a.m. because Chinatown was a few blocks away. Egg Foo Yung for 4 a.m. breakfast. You would then crash, stumble to work, take a ‘disco’ nap at 6 p.m. after work, and go out again at 10 or 11 p.m., every night.”
Billy Idol was one of the rock performers with whom Grecco developed more than a brief, professional relationship. They were what he calls “hangout buds.” “He was always staying at the Howard Johnson’s in Kenmore Square. Whenever he came to town, his road manager Ace Penna would call me. We would do blow and be up all night, usually at his hotel room.”
Idol was, by Grecco’s accounts, a blast to be around, funny, smart, wild. Although, Idol did, in a fit of pique, throw a metal milk crate at Grecco’s head backstage one time (details are in the book!).
Grecco did run into Billy Idol a couple of years ago.
“I asked him if he remembered me, and he said ‘Sure!’ but it was one of those ‘sures’ where I could tell he didn’t.”
On another memorable occasion, Grecco had a magazine assignment to drive to New York to see the Clash at Bond’s Casino in New York City, on 6th Avenue, a Midtown “discotheque” just after the release of their 3-record masterpiece Sandinista! was bubbling up.
“They oversold tickets and they were supposed to be there for two nights but they sold so many tickets that they extended it to a two-week run,” he said. “The magazine gave me the assignment and they wanted me to go backstage and get an interview with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.”
Grecco’s companion on this assignment was none other than former Sex Pistol Steve Jones.
“I assumed they hired Jonesy to facilitate this,” recalls Grecco. “I had met him before and this woman, Ann Marie, knew him, so the three of us drive from Boston to NYC, crash on a floor, and wake up in time to go to lunch. I couldn’t believe that I was sleeping on a floor next to Steve Jones.”
None of this unlikely trio had tickets, or any sort of access for photography, but Jones managed to get them into the show, and backstage on multiple nights.
“Charlie Don’t Surf” – The Clash, Bond Casino in New York, short film by Don Letts:
After the Bond Casino shows, Grecco followed the Clash to Cape Cod, where they played in the same place that staged pro wrestling: the “cement mixer” known as the Cape Cod Coliseum After the show, Grecco stayed up all night hanging out with Topper Headon, the Clash’s drummer.
“I was doing lines with Topper Headon after the last show he played with the Clash before they fired him,” Grecco says, with a sigh. “Wow, did I do that?”
As for the conversations with Strummer, Mick Jones and Steve Jones, Grecco says, “Who the fuck knows what we talked about. Those days were just alcohol and drugs, whatever people talk about when they’re part of the mix. In a way, that’s kind of the sad part of it. Once I moved from Boston and away from this world to go on and do this sort of celebrity career of commercial photography, I sort of lost my connections. I have no idea how to get in touch with Billy or any of these people now. I didn’t keep up with it. It’s a shame. And I was in situations that were amazing, especially because I was a real lover of the music.”
The Cape Cod Coliseum was the site of another less pleasant encounter involving Joan Jett. He and Oedipus drove down from Boston to see Joan Jett play there and got permission from her manager, Kenny Laguna, to do a casual backstage shoot with Jett in color, with the privoso that Laguna got final approval of any of the images.
“He didn’t like the way her face looked, so he took a pen and punched a hole through every single one of the color slides I sent him,” said Grecco. “Such a nasty guy.”
Among the many musical artists whose photographs are included in Punk Post Punk New Wave are PKM favorites like the Ramones, John Lydon and PiL, the Slits, David Bowie and David Johansen. Taken as a whole, the book is like a rock solid time capsule, transporting viewers back to an era when bands packed small and medium-sized clubs, and everybody had a great time together.
Eventually, the lifestyle wore Grecco down. He couldn’t stay up all night after that because he had to be at work the next morning. And even though he went on to work shooting celebrities for People magazine, which led to a long career in commercial photography, he still retains a love of the music that drove him out into the night with his camera.
“Ever since I was a kid, I was listening to more jazz than rock & roll,” he recalls. “When you listen to jazz all the time, popular rock & roll at the time, in the 1970s, like metal bands, hair bands, bands like Rush and Kansas, all of that, left me cold. I was still into the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Patti Smith, Bowie. I thought they were authentic.”
However, going to college in Boston opened his ears and eyes to the purifying sounds of punk rock.
Years later, he had an option to work on the Punk documentary that was broadcast on Epix cable network in 2019.
“They let the option expire, and John Varvatos came in,” said Grecco, who was unimpressed with the results of the four-part series. “I thought they spent too much time talking about fighting in L.A. clubs. What does that have to do with the music? And I’m really not a fan of documentaries that are mostly talking heads, interspersed with archive footage. That show would not have taken the direction it took if it had been up to me.”