Underground and Over the Top: Exploring the energy of an era with Michael Grecco
Written by Dale Youngman
When I first heard about Michael Greco‘s book, Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978–1991, I could not wait to get my hands on it. A photographic history of that legendary music scene in Boston and New York in the 1980s sounded like it could have been a snapshot of my college and post-college years. As I lived in Boston during that same time period, within spitting distance of clubs like Spit, The Rat, The Kenmore Clubs, and other fabled haunts of the edgy music crowd, I couldn’t wait to research not just the art, but also the artist behind the scene.
Although Michael is “an award-winning internationally -renowned director and photographer of celebrity portraits, advertising and editorial commissions, private collections and fine art,” (according to his professional bio,) this book shows him as something else – an inquisitive, edgy, and aspiring young man just finding his stride amidst a cadre of musicians in similar positions in their own lives. Trying to find the shot/ moment/right club or personality that would capture attention and raise his profile was pretty parallel to many of the then-unknown musicians struggling to find the fan/ promoter/ music executive/ear who would catapult their career into music history. The performance and backstage images captured by Grecco not only chronicle the rise of musicians at a time when their music was so left of center that it rarely saw radio time, they also portray a moment in history for many now-celebrities who got their start in those sticky-walled clubs, where pierced and tattooed college kids would slam into each other in a frenzy of youthful passion and wild abandon. It is a record of the days when everyone had growing pains, and we all cut our teeth on the ubiquitous black leather and pressed vinyl of the era.
Michael Greco was born in the Bronx, and moved “over the line” to Westchester when he was young. He subsequently spent as much time as possible in New York City, absorbing the art and music scenes as a youth. Loving the urban vibe, when it came time to choose a university to attend, he wanted it to be in a city, yet separated a bit from his family. Boston was a logical choice, at a little over a three-hour drive away.
“I lived all over Boston when I was there. It was almost a ridiculous number of apartments, Back Bay, Brookline, Allston, Dedham, Dorchester, and the list goes on. Most of the action happened when I had a little place on chi-chi Newbury Street. It was a back apartment so it was quiet, and I painted the walls dark blue so I could sleep all day. I started interning for the Associated Press in 1978, and never looked back. I have never had another job, other than the business aspect of my career in photography.”
Once in Boston, he was fascinated by the music scene that was bubbling up around him, and he endeavored to get close to the musicians that were pushing the envelope of the punk scene at that time.
“I kind of fell into shooting bands. I was working as a photojournalist during the day and seeing these bands at night. It was crazy, I was exhausted, actually. I don’t remember how it happened, but I started working for a little local music paper called Boston Rock, and that’s what gained me even more access to the music, more than just hanging out with the bands at clubs and bars.”
Greco took early photos of bands that played in my own then – hood, including the Cramps, Dead Kennedys, and Human Sexual Response. I was probably at some of the same gigs, as one member of Humans worked in the shipping department of Saks Fifth Avenue, where I was the Fashion Coordinator. I was kind-of a groupie. (Aimee Mann’s mon worked there too, so I always knew what was happening with ‘Til Tuesday, another noteworthy band covered in the book.) One of the seminal punk clubs of the day was a tiny basement bar called The Rat (actually, it was The Rathskeller) where the known and the wanna-be’s all played, including the Police, Ramones, and Talking Heads. It was a little rough and raw, even sometimes it felt a bit dangerous. I only went a couple times, and managed to avoid all the slam-dancing, but Michael was in the front row, with all-access passes that enabled him to get to a place on the stage “where you would be safer – not safe – just safer.”
“There is a great Billy Idol story in the book, but for the most part I was trained to deal with the crowds from my day job. Being part of a pushing group of reporters, camera people, and photographers in a press pack set me up pretty well to deal with the audience at these shows. We also had all access passes, which you no long get, and that enabled us to get on stage, with closer proximity to the band.”
The forward to the book, written by Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, follows the path of that original and ground-breaking new wave band from their early roots in Georgia. His story details not only their own rise to fame but is an insider’s peek into music at that time, and the bands, clubs and radio stations that were defining the era. Michael tells us that although it was work, it was also a party!
“Access then was different. If you were with the media, you got a pass, you could shoot as long as you wanted in the front, and often just walk backstage. We would always try to get backstage, whether we had a pass or not – and we often could. It was just easier then. We either had credentials or made friends with the bands. I can’t tell you how many after show parties we had where we were with Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks, and Tina from the Heads – among others – and just hanging out. Musicians were on the road and wanted some action. Then, when they were back in town, you often heard from them and hung out again.
“From a listening point of view, the MIT station, WTBS (now WMBR) was the bible on what was hot and newly out in the music world. We all listened to it religiously. All of their DJs had a unique perspective on the scene. Then the commercial station in Boston, WBCN, started playing punk and post punk. They began hiring me to cover shows and events, and that garnered me additional access. At that point, I was part of the scene. I guess I was keeping myself from being lonely, but the reality was that I was out at a club or show every night.
As a student and already a working professional covering the music beat for multiple media outlets at the time, Michael was busy by day, but busier by night. His education dd not just come from attending Boston University, however. He also credits the staff photographers at the Associated Press office in Boston, David Tennenbaum and Chip Maury, for teaching him how to take better pictures, how to be prepared for any circumstance, and how to use on-camera flash so it did not look like on-camera flash. These early lighting tips set the groundwork for exploring and honing lighting techniques that have now made him a renowned lighting master with a signature dramatic stye.
From cramped backrooms and sweaty college clubs, Michael has come a long way from Boston back to LA. Known for shooting iconic celebrity portraits including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Will Ferrell and Penelope Cruz, his ability to connect with his subjects infuses each photo with style, substance, intrigue and nuance. Hs body of work includes a documentary film and accompanying book Naked Ambition, with award-winning still images published in such publications as Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Wired, and Time. Michael is also in demand for shooting commercial work and advertising spreads, having worked for such illustrious brands as Apple, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Direct TV, Pfizer, NBC/Universal, GE, HBO, Kodak, ABC, IBM, Yahoo!, and ESPN.
When asked if there is or was anyone he wanted to shoot but hasn’t, the answer was
“Then, The Smiths, and more present day, Michelle Pfeiffer.” Today, they may need to get in line.