Born and raised in Cleveland, photographer David Arnoff was dragged by his family to Los Angeles as a teenager. Luckily, he brought a darker “Rust Belt” sensibility to sunny SoCal and began taking shots of the local rock scene before, during and after the punk wave swept through. He may be best known for his shots of the Cramps, but his resume contains remarkable work with a who’s who of everyone cool: Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Gun Club, Dream Syndicate, The Damned, The Dead Boys, The Ramones, among others. Arnoff has lived in London for the past 35 years. PKM’s Eric Davidson recently caught up with him.
Unlike many of the photographers of the original punk era, David Arnoff was dragged kicking and screaming into his eventual punk milieu. Though I suppose kicking and screaming would be the way to go, ideally. Arnoff was a perfectly content Cleveland kid until his family moved, and Arnoff found himself in L.A. as the 1960s wound down and the ‘70s rock scene got bloated and boring.
Eventually, the scraggly action around The Roxy, Whisky a Go Go, the Masque, and elsewhere inspired Arnoff to take his nascent photography skills to another level. He’s one of a batch of excellent shutterbugs from that place and era (Ruby Ray, Jenny Lens, Ed Colver, Theresa Kereakes, to name a few) who captured that earnestly skeezy scene. Arnoff’s photographs – live and posed – are distinguished by severely ink-black depths and often solitary figures rising defiantly from backgrounds of abyss. The Cleveland kid in me can’t help but read his eye as rooted in the potholed alleys and smoggy skies of the industrial era Northcoast.
In 2015, Sympathetic Press (the book imprint of the great, long-running trash rock label, Sympathy for the Record Industry) released Arnoff’s gorgeous monograph, Shot in the Dark: The Collected Photography of David Arnoff, which focuses on that fevered era of his work. Thanks to his amazing pictures used for the Cramps debut LP, Songs the Lord Taught Us (I.R.S., 1980), and other Cramps shots that have surfaced over the years, Arnoff has become the unofficial official pix chronicler of arguably the most photogenic band of all time. But, as Shot in the Dark shows, Arnoff had loads of favorite bands and ways to bring out the sinister sides in them.
PKM: Where did you grow up in Cleveland, and how did you end up out west?
David Arnoff: I grew up in Mayfield Heights, an east side suburb of Cleveland, which was just fine with me. But my father, who was assistant District Attorney at one point, took his brother’s advice and dragged the family out to the West Coast fairly early on. I’ve resented that ever since.
PKM: You mentioned you were born the same year Alan Freed went on the air. Any memories at all about Cleveland radio?
David Arnoff: It was what I heard on the car radio, sitting in the back. The Everly Brothers, Coasters, all the girl groups, Sam Cooke… I loved all of that. Of course I missed out on the first rock’n’roll concert, the Moondog Ball, because I would have only been a year old. But I do remember seeing a very weird scene one night from the backseat — a spooky-looking man out on a flatbed truck in a carpark, and my mom explaining he was “the man from the radio.” I don’t know if it was Alan Freed or not, but it was a live Halloween broadcast, and it was easily the coolest thing I’d ever witnessed. It was rock music and spookiness combined, and it left a lasting impression.
X represent L.A. in music more than anyone else, as far as I’m concerned.
PKM: Anything else you gleaned from your early years in the Rust Belt that shaped you in some way?
David Arnoff: The other thing that stayed with me from Cleveland was seeing a fox run across the field where I was playing. Foxes are a huge thing in my life.
PKM: You mention in the book that when you first got out west, “L.A. and I did not take to each other.” Is there a story that might illuminate your initial shaky settling into L.A.?
David Arnoff: It wasn’t so much shaky as simply uncomfortable, like being stuck at a party full of people you can’t relate to. That plus the extreme heat, constant glaring sunshine, and the total lack of seasons – I really missed the autumn and the snow. The general emptiness of the place. People there were very “up” all the time, which seemed false and forced. It’s not an atmosphere in which you are allowed to be critical or melancholy, which is my general state of mind.
I don’t know if it was Alan Freed or not, but it was a live Halloween broadcast, and it was easily the coolest thing I’d ever witnessed. It was rock music and spookiness combined, and it left a lasting impression.
PKM: This is probably the Cleveland homer in me talking, but I see an even deeper darkness in your images that aren’t just the usual “raw punk rock” photos. And I will attach that to a belief maybe the smoggy skies of Cleveland had some kind of doomy effect on your view.
David Arnoff: The smog was in L.A., but Cleveland was sort of comfortably muted, cloudy, and cool. It was greyer, which is gentler than brightness. Someone might see it as doomy, but to me it was nice. Darker shades have more gravity and depth than garish tones.
PKM: But then of course there is a lot of fun in your posed shots especially, where you let these artists play their characters a bit.
David Arnoff: Sure, there was a bit of fun. Those shots were too quick to be called posed. Just spontaneous messing around. Although if it became too silly and unsuitable, I wouldn’t use the shot.
PKM: Would you say there is a different slant you take between posed and live shots, as far as what you’re trying to capture?
David Arnoff: The live stuff is as spontaneous as it gets and the furthest from my control. But onstage or off, I always tried to show the bands as they appeared to me, in my head, at their best, and as they really were inside.
PKM: Off the top of your head, are there some early L.A. shows that really stick out, and might’ve even influenced the way you shoot bands?
David Arnoff: They all inspired me to a certain extent, otherwise I would not have bothered. But off the top of my head I’d say the Damned at the Starwood and Patti Smith at the Roxy. But, really, I could just list everyone in my book. I was initially inspired, though, by the ‘60s bands. I’d seen the Doors, the Kinks, and all those great bands very early on, but wasn’t old enough to even think about shooting them.
PKM: Do you remember first meeting the Cramps; or just in general how the Cramps first came into your life, or you into theirs?
David Arnoff: I met them after their first Whisky gig, in the dressing room, which was where I met a lot of bands at the time. Ivy said I could go around to the Tropicana, and we could go out and take some photos. Again, that was often the scenario – backstage after a gig, followed by the Trop a day or two later.
PKM: Tell us about the photo shoot for the Songs the Lord Taught Us? And where/what was the building they were shot in?
David Arnoff: That was an empty office on Cherokee, which I think was also the name of the building. The entry to the Masque was down the alleyway right behind, so the club itself was in the basement, and I was working at Peaches Records on Hollywood, around the corner. There was nothing special about the place, but it worked as a blank canvas, and we could have a bit of privacy there. The cover is a shot that I didn’t like so much, but Lux pulled it out of the reject pile, which was good enough for me.
Darker shades have more gravity and depth than garish tones.
PKM: Was it alright dealing with I.R.S. and Miles Copeland?
David Arnoff: He was okay, I guess. He did right by the Lords of the New Church as well, and had his heart in the right place, for a businessman. Funnily, he tried to introduce me to the Cramps at one point after they said they wanted me to shoot the cover, not realizing we’d already met. Later on, someone at the label was very keen on another shoot they’d done which was a lot more slick, like a Pretenders album, and I thought I’d lost it. But they stuck with me, which was a huge relief and very flattering. I could have quite happily retired at that point.
PKM: Is there a particular Lux and Ivy memory you’d like to tell?
David Arnoff: Nothing in particular comes to mind, but they were just a really fun couple, and we all got on well. Although when I first met up with Ivy at the Trop, I found her really intimidating. She didn’t mean to be, she’s just quietly intense. I miss both of them.
PKM: They were also northeastern Ohioans for a spell. Do you feel there was something particularly “Rust Belt” about them?
David Arnoff: You could say that. Mainly they weren’t L.A. at all, even after they moved there. Ivy’s parents used to drive down from northern California sometimes and come to the previous record shop I worked at in the Valley, Moby Disc, to see if their little girl was in any of the British weeklies. They were really good company, a lot like Stiv Bators’ parents, come to think of it.
PKM: Tell us how your Shot in the Dark book came about?
David Arnoff: It came about initially when Long Gone John from Sympathy for the Record Industry asked me, totally out of the blue, “When are we gonna put a book out?” That was wonderful, especially as I’d all but given up on finding a publisher for what I had in mind, which was a broader book, not based on photos of one single band. John was really supportive, gave me a free hand and final say on all aspects of the project. Plus, he invested a hell of a lot of money in it.
When I first met up with Ivy at the Trop, I found her really intimidating. She didn’t mean to be, she’s just quietly intense. I miss both of them.
He put me in touch with the ideal designer to work with, Mark Cox in Chicago, who has very similar musical taste to mine, and we put our heads together day after day for nearly a year and a half until we were happy enough to send it off to the printers.
The other person who was no end of support is Lydia Lunch. She told me I deserved “a big fuck-off book” ages ago and followed through by conducting the conversations we had that make up the bulk of the text. John, Lydia, Mark – I could not have done it without them. And it is still available. For now.
PKM: Alright, I’m going to thumb through Shot In the Dark and pick out some bands – just tell me whatever you might remember about that particular show, shoot, or just working with that act in general:
David Arnoff: I’ve only met her twice, once very briefly in a lift in Pasadena at the time of Horses and the Roxy gig, and much later here in London when we had a lengthier chat, which is where the discreet dedication in the book was forged. When she played in L.A., it was the start of a fresher scene, when going to a gig no longer meant going to some damn arena to see the likes of Foghat or REO Speedwagon. So that applies to a lot of these bands.
David Arnoff: Willie Deville was a huge influence on another level, in that ever since seeing him at the Whisky I have always worn a waistcoat (vest, to you in the States). But he is also one of the very few people I’ve shot who I did not get on with. Not sure why. But a great band, especially the slightly later gigs at the Roxy.
David Arnoff: Those Starwood gigs kicked it all off, as I’m sure I’ve said before. Plus I’ve remained friends with some of them over the years, Rat Scabies especially.
Dead Boys and Pere Ubu
David Arnoff: There is some sort of connection, especially with Stiv, even though we didn’t know each other in Ohio. He was in Youngstown. But there is still some nebulous “thing” about being from Cleveland. It’s a curse, I tell ya!
David Arnoff: Just to segue, Joey was at Stiv’s final gig with the Lords, and helped talk him into singing “You Really Got Me” with them. “I can’t remember the words,” Joey said. But he did, all four of them. Really heartbreaking that all the Ramones are gone now.
David Arnoff: They played one of their earliest gigs at a shop run by my then-girlfriend and her friend, called 1313 Mockingbird Lane, in Pasadena. The Dream Syndicate were an absolute revelation, so different from everyone else at the time. But they were soon getting a lot of unwelcome comparisons to the Velvet Underground, which is why we went out to Topanga Canyon for the sessions, as far away from anything even vaguely New York as you could get. It wasn’t cool in any way to reference anything like Buffalo Springfield at the time. They’re still a great band, Steve and Dennis.
David Arnoff: Jeffrey was the heart and soul, of course, but very, very intense. I remember being stuck with him in my car parked near Club Lingerie and being forced to listen to “Sex Bomb” by Flipper over and over for what felt like hours. It was lucky that we happened to meet again years later by accident in Shepherds Bush soon after we both moved to London. I don’t hear from Patricia these days, but Kid is always on fine form, Terry’s still in touch, and Romi lives just down the road. She’s the one who instigated and organized my recent trip to Tokyo, which turned out to be two of the best weeks of my life. Arigato, Romi.
PKM: I notice there aren’t too many pix of DEVO in the book. I was surprised, as they’re quite photogenic, and from Ohio. Did you get to shoot them often?
David Arnoff: My photographic style, rough as it is, wouldn’t have suited their concept. But their gigs were great. The shot in my book was taken at some gallery downtown, just Booji Boy on his own in a crib. They did like the photo, though, and snuck me in to their oversold Starwood gig. Oddly, I met Leonard Cohen there, of all people.
PKM: I’ve always maintained that many of the best L.A. punk bands had members that came from other parts of the country. That even into the 1970s, L.A. was a place where people landed; and that much of that scene was appropriations of other punk scenes, mainly London’s. Can you debunk my shit theory with any bands of all-indigenous Angelenos that you really loved to see and shoot?
David Arnoff: I love a good debunking, so I’ll try! Yes, some of [the L.A. bands did appropriate]. It started in New York. Malcolm McClaren ripped off Richard Hell and Thunders, and then the U.S. bands latched on to the English repackaged version. That Rotten/Vicious stereotype – image, made-up names – was all nicked by Malcom. Steve Jones learned to sneer from Thunders. It was all New York originally. On the other hand, Blondie were into British Invasion bands, and highjacked their black suits from Dr. Feelgood later on.
But as far as L.A., not the likes of X for instance. Even though the various members may or may not be originally from L.A., they did definitely form there and were not transplanted from any scenes in other cities. X represent L.A. in music more than anyone else, as far as I’m concerned. They also had Ray Manzarek from the Doors producing, and were not afraid to cover “Soul Kitchen” – similar to what I was saying about the Dream Syndicate. So even if some of the members might come from other states originally, they are an L.A. band through-and-through.
That Rotten/Vicious stereotype – image, made-up names – was all nicked by Malcom. Steve Jones learned to sneer from Thunders.
PKM: How soon did you get approached by record labels to shoot promo pix and such?
David Arnoff: That never happened. These things were always arranged between the bands and myself, maybe sometimes with an agreeable manager. I never really spoke to labels because they were just office people. I worked with the bands, and if they liked the shots, they would put them to further use, albeit sometimes without checking with me. Sometimes I’d be surprised to see one of my shots on a record cover in a shop.
PKM: You lived in England for a bit, no? Any good stories of going over there to shoot an assignment?
David Arnoff: I’ve lived most of my life here now, 35 years. I’ve never had assignments as such. I’d go to gigs, shoot the bands if I liked them, and hopefully meet up afterwards and set up something else. That’s what happened with Flesh for Lulu and the Scientists in 1984. I’d never even heard of them when Stiv put me on to them, and they’ve stayed mates ever since. Plus, I met my wife at the same gig, in Camden. So, not work, not an assignment – something better.
I like bands that look good, to put it simply, bands that have character and style.
PKM: Your style seems to particularly suit the more gothic end of punk – I mean no slight to the others, but I think it’s fair to say that the Birthday Party, Lydia Lunch, and Cramps pix are some of your best. Would you agree?
David Arnoff: Sort of, now that you mention it. Not that I’d consider any of them goth, but nor are they punk as such. I like bands that look good, to put it simply, bands that have character and style. The punk stereotype has neither. But some of my favorite shots are those of the Scientists and Thee Hypnotics, for instance, bands that don’t slot into those categories.
PKM: In her blurb on the back, Lydia Lunch calls your book a “travelogue.” Do you feel you are a sort of train-hopper of sorts? A “wherever I lay my hat…” kind of guy?
David Arnoff: Not at all. I like being in my own house in my own neighborhood best. Not that I didn’t really enjoy Tokyo, for instance. I think Lydia was referring more to the various locales that turn up in the book. Buenos Aires, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Wales – they’re all in there for one reason or another.
PKM: Whereas in his blurb, Nick Cave calls you an “arsehole.”
David Arnoff: To be fair, he also says “…but he’s a good photographer,” which is more to the point. I wouldn’t ruin it by overexplaining. Let’s just say that we have never had a cross word, and I wouldn’t have used the quote if I didn’t appreciate it. He was speaking to Mick Harvey at the time, by the way, at a party in Brixton. If that helps.
PKM: As the mid-80s kicked in, did you feel music was kind of moving away from what you were interested in; and you wanted to explore other things to shoot?
David Arnoff: There was certainly a lot of utter shite around, but still some great stuff as well, some of which is in the book. It’s just that the more interesting bands get overlooked. Which I suppose is why I spend more time shooting tombstones and foxes.
PKM: Did you ever shoot any music videos?
David Arnoff: Nope. Although I did get roped into switching lights on and off for Nick Cave’s “In the Ghetto” video. Also my fox, Gwendolyn, is in a video by Jim Jones and the Righteous Mind. I know even less about cinematography than I do about photography.
PKM: What have you been shooting lately?
David Arnoff: The breeze. Also, see above.
PKM: I will end with yet more dark. How was shooting Nico, and can you tell me about the show depicted in your book? How many times did you get to see her perform?
It’s just that the more interesting bands get overlooked. Which I suppose is why I spend more time shooting tombstones and foxes.
David Arnoff: I saw her first at the Whisky, her and her harmonium, and years later at the Town & Country in London, with the Faction. But it was at the Whisky where we met and, like the Cramps, etc., we arranged to meet at the Trop. But when I turned up, she was in tears, really dramatically upset about her manager being gone and being broke. She was a very large woman, and with her deep, mournful voice it was quite intense. She said she couldn’t do the shoot, which was obviously the case, and apologized. So we instead set off to smooth out the situation. She folded herself into my little ‘65 Volvo P1800 – a tiny car – and I got some orange and vodka from the liquor store near Barney’s Beanery, which we knocked back right there in the carpark. Then we went to the nearby apartment of a German friend of hers. She was really happy to be able to speak German, grateful for the drink, and cheered right up. So it was a delightful evening in the end, even though the bloody session was cancelled.
Funny how things turn out.
All photos courtesy Shot in the Dark, Sympathetic Press