Punk on Tape
Reno resident Joe Rees documented some of the greatest performances by some of the greatest bands of the punk era
A punk rock show in a mental hospital? On June 13, 1978, punk-rockabilly band The Cramps played a free show for the patients in the California State Mental Hospital in Napa, Calif. Near the beginning of the set, Lux Interior, the band’s lean, lanky and strange vocalist, said, “We’re The Cramps, and we’re from New York City, and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people.”
“Fuck you!” yelled someone in the crowd.
“And somebody told me you people are crazy,” continued Interior, “but I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be all right to me”—and with the next breath he went right into “The Way I Walk,” the next song.
The Cramps’ sound was a sort of primitive caveman stomp, topped with gnarly garage guitars and Interior’s exaggerated rockabilly histrionics. He is to Elvis Presley what Godzilla is to Tyrannosaurus Rex: on the one hand, a cartoonish parody, but, unlike his prehistoric predecessor, he’s able to bellow atomic fire.
The Cramps play with unhinged energy, and the crowd at the hospital was equally unhinged and very enthusiastic—and they showed this enthusiasm in a variety of ways. A patient who looked like Micky Dolenz wore a suit and bounced up and down, lip synching into a phantom microphone, aping along to songs he’d never heard before. Some patients danced, others wandered aimlessly. Somebody kept running up and down the steps leading to the stage. Somebody else stood in the middle of the crowd reading a newspaper.
Throughout the set, different patients would somehow get ahold of the mic and scream into it. One patient in particular, a woman who seemed to think of herself as Napa’s own Randle McMurphy, was particularly enthusiastic about grabbing the mic and contributing new vocal ideas to whatever song was already in progress—mostly unintelligible grunts, hoots and hollers.
The song “Love Me,” ended with Interior sitting at the front of the stage, plaintively singing, “Love me … love me … love me.”
A petite blonde sat down next to him in what appeared to be a gesture of sympathy.
“How do you like The Cramps so far?” asked Interior.
“Aaaaaarrggghh!” she screamed, the only response she was able to get out before the McMurphy woman grabbed the mic out of her hand and exclaimed, “I’ve got cramps! What am I gonna do about it?”
“I don’t know—that’s your problem, honey,” replied Interior. “I’ve got them myself, and I can’t do anything with them, either.”Stay on target
We know these things happened because somebody videotaped the whole concert. That somebody is Reno resident Joe Rees.
“Watching that much enthusiasm,” says Rees, “I was not only a cameraman, but a lucky bastard.”
His video production company, Target Video, has released the video in a variety of formats, including DVD. It’s grainy, black and white and only about 20 minutes long. The sound quality is muddy. But it has sold consistently for the last 25 years and is now considered a cult classic among rock ’n’ roll aficionados, because, as Rees says, when you document an event as unique and powerful as The Cramps Live at the Napa State Mental Hospital, “It doesn’t matter what kind of equipment you use.”
Not only is the video a document of a great band at the height of its power, it also captures an unlikely but joyous connection between performers and audience. It might sound exploitative to stage a concert in a mental institute, but, watching the video, it quickly becomes apparent that the patients are having a hell of a good time, and the band acts as crazy as anybody else.
What’s really striking about the video isn’t its uniqueness, but its universality. It’s not that different from what regularly happens at a thousand punk shows every week—or anywhere that people are able to really cut loose and lose themselves in music.
“Everyone was really responsible and had real honorable intentions for the whole event, so it was a beautiful thing,” says Rees. “No one knew what the response was going to be. No one really realized the magic that was going to occur from the interactive part between the entertainers and the patients. When I watched from the camera, I saw something happen … and that was a pure innocence, a pure, magical kind of interactive spirit. And I felt more like I was a doorman or a butler, because I got to capture that event.”
But how did an event like that even come about?
“This is how that worked,” says Rees. “We—basically on a lark—called the mental institute and said, ‘We’d like to put on a live music performance for the patients—a free live music performance.’ And they said, ‘OK.’ … People were starved for entertainment; we didn’t have a lot of clearance issues. Now everybody’s afraid of getting sued.”Performanceanxiety
Rees grew up on a farm in central Iowa. “I had a typical boring time growing up in the Midwest,” he says.
After a stint in the Navy, he attended the California College of the Arts in Oakland, where he eventually completed an MFA with a focus in sculpture. This was in the early 1970s, when performance art was really taking off, so Rees also took some television production courses because he was interested in documenting art performances.
His mixed media and neon sculptures began attracting critical attention, and eventually he accepted a position in the sculpture department at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
At the same time, Rees’ sculpture studio, a warehouse in Oakland, became a venue for staging events featuring performance artists, dancers, poets, rock bands—whoever happened to be around. It was a venue for outlandish performances that no traditional gallery would be interested in.
“There was a lack of satisfaction,” says Rees. “There were no museums, no gallery spaces that wanted to host this kind of stuff, so we made our own art world. … It was an opportunity for frustrated young people to make their own art, make their own clothes, make their own music.”
Some of the performances were aggressive, others were outlandish.
“Here’s a real goofy thing that I did,” says Rees. “I had this character, Colonel Sanders, where I’d wear a neon bowtie and walk with a neon cane and dress all in white, so I looked like, you know, [Kentucky Fried Chicken figurehead] Colonel Sanders. And I had this bucket of chicken, and I’d take the chicken out, and start sewing it back together, so eventually I had a whole little chicken. But it looked like Frankenstein! And then I walked it around like that for three or four minutes, dressed up as this pop icon. We did a lot of goofy stuff like that.”
Rees’ position at the Academy of Art granted him access to their videography equipment—including an early, black-and-white, half-inch tape Sony handheld camera that Rees began using to document the performances taking place at his studio in Oakland. (It’s also the camera he used to document The Cramps performance.)
“Nobody wanted to use it,” says Rees. “Film, to film people, was a sacred media. But I was not really making films—I was more or less documenting things.”
And for the pragmatic documentarian, film had its limitations: You had to rely on film houses to process it, which meant that a major production element was outside the control of the filmmakers. It also took a lot of time to process and, worst yet, it was expensive. The image quality might not have been as good on film, but it was quick, easy and cheap.
“You could shoot an event and then, the next hour, be able to watch it,” says Rees. “We’d never had that before.”Pretty in punk
“In ’77, I started Target Video—officially,” he says.
That year—the year of the so-called “punk explosion,” when in the wake of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, punk bands were forming all across the United States and the United Kingdom—Rees moved from his Oakland studio to a three-story warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District. At the time, it was primarily a Hispanic neighborhood.
“So there was a lot of great food, and the cops left us alone,” says Rees. “And the walls were a foot thick. … Nobody ever knew.”
Rees’ warehouse, dubbed Target Studios, became a popular destination for local and touring punk bands—especially bands looking to be captured on tape. The bars and clubs at the time, according to Rees, “were more interested in J. Geils and Huey Lewis.”
The name Target Video comes from the “target,” the center of the camera lens.
“It’s as simple as that,” says Rees. “People sometimes think we’re associated with Target stores, which we’re not.”
Rees drafted student volunteers from his day job to work as crews for the video shoots, and he and his compatriots, including co-producer Jackie Sharp and photographer Jill Hoffman Powal, got to meet and work with bands from all over; they hosted Black Flag, and partied with the Clash.
“We all shared the same frustration and the same ideals,” says Rees.
In addition to The Cramps concert at the mental health hospital, they staged other unique events. Taking a page from the book of Johnny Cash, the aptly-named band Crime performed at San Quentin State Prison. San Francisco band The Mutants played a free concert at a school for the deaf near Target Studios—and at such a volume that the audience could “hear” the music by feeling the vibrations.
“Who else would stage a concert at a school for the deaf?” says Rees. “Nobody else does that kind of stuff!”
“These videos were certainly pre-MTV,” says KK Barrett, drummer for the defunct band The Screamers. “Except for cable access shows or showing them in clubs before live performances, there was no real outlet for these videos, so it was pretty forward-thinking of [Rees] to document all this stuff.”
Barrett is now a production designer, having worked on films like Being John Malkovich, Lost in Translation and the forthcoming Where the Wild Things Are.
The Screamers were one of the first punk bands to use keyboards in lieu of guitars. The band’s lead singer, Tomata du Plenty, had a theatrical style that was an inspiration to other arty punk vocalists, like the Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra.
Target Video was closely associated with the Dead Kennedys. In addition to taping 12 DK shows, Target Studios hosted the reception for Biafra’s 1981 wedding, and was the headquarters for his 1979 run for mayor. His campaign platform, rumored to have been written on a cocktail napkin, was provocative, to say the least.
“He wanted to require all the businessmen to wear clown noses!” says Rees, with a laugh. “He’s an amazing guy. But an odd cat.”
He finished third, with nearly 4 percent of the vote.
Rees recalls that Biafra once showed up at Target Studios with his mother, “a librarian, an intellectual type, very quiet and reserved,” who was visiting from her home in Colorado. Biafra insisted that Rees screen all 12 DK performances for his mother.
“Now, that would be a chore for anybody,” says Rees. The DK sound is a version of hardcore that sounds like surf rock on mescaline and amphetamines. Biafra’s voice is a sarcastic, high-pitched warble, and his lyrics consist primarily of obscenity-laced political satire.
In short bursts, it’s invigorating, but watching 12 straight concert performances in one sitting is an experience that would grate on the ears of even the most seasoned punk aficionado, let alone a hapless librarian mother forced to watch her son wag his finger and antagonize the audience.
So what was her reaction?
“Oh, she didn’t even bat an eye,” says Rees.
It must be pretty hard to shock somebody whose son grew up and renamed himself after a dessert made with horse hooves.
Rees butted heads on more than one occasion with legendary San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham. Graham tried to block Rees from videotaping the Sex Pistols’ 1978 performance at the Winterland Ballroom, what ended up being their final show. (Well … their final show before their first reunion, in 1996.) Rees taped the show anyway.
“We had a great run for about 10 years,” says Rees, “And then that horrible earthquake in ’89 brought it all down.” Dust and water loosened by the earthquake ruined what Rees approximates was $85,000 worth of equipment. The Target Studios building itself was condemned. Rees was just relieved that the video archive survived intact.
In the early 1990s, he went through a divorce, and then, the way these things happen, he ended up in Reno as a single father raising two sons, working as Information Technician at TMCC, and producing educational videos. Target Video got put on the back burner.Moving target
Now, tucked away in a basement in central Reno is an expansive archive of unique, original footage of some of the best bands of the punk and New Wave era. If you’re a music nerd with any interest in rock ’n’ roll from the late ’70s and early ’80s, it’s simply mind-blowing: The Ramones, Black Flag, Devo, Public Image Limited, the Stranglers, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, Iggy Pop, The Damned, Bauhaus, The Clash and on and on.
Rees likes to point out some of the gems: “Here’s The Go-Go’s first ever gig. … This is an early Talking Heads free concert outdoors at a park in Berkeley.”
Many of the videos feature legendary bands now long defunct, some even feature performers long since passed: Jeffrey Lee Pierce of Gun Club, Will Shatter of Flipper, Darby Crash of The Germs. (Rees was approached by the producers of the recent Germs biopic What We Do is Secret about using some of his footage, but he turned them down.) The archive also features a number of important visual and performing artists, like Joseph Beuys and Mark Pauline of Survival Research Labs.
Though Rees’ videos are now historical documents, he didn’t originally set out to make the videos with posterity in mind. He was compelled not out of foresight but an in-the-moment enthusiasm: “It was exciting!” he says. “And I was totally turned on by the music, and the art, the clothes. … It wasn’t foresight, it was passion. I grew up interested in being a visual artist, and I was always drawing, and that led to painting, and that led to sculpture—but I was always totally hooked on rock ’n’ roll. … I felt a total connection—especially to the crazy stuff, the front line stuff.”
In the last year, Rees has exhibited Target videos at six international venues, including the Getty and the Museum of Contemporary Art, both in Los Angeles. He’s currently in the process of transferring his archive to digital video and remastering some of the audio. Once the archive has been fully digitized, Rees plans to make it available as video on demand through his website. And he plans to donate the original videos to the University of California Los Angeles film and video library. Target Video will also continue to release concert DVDs, including an upcoming release by the seminal Los Angeles band X.
The archive is an important document of one of the most exciting eras of popular music—back before everybody and their mother had a video camera that would fit in their pocket, back before YouTube, back before home video, and before MTV. It was a time when capturing images with an electronic device was a novel way of documenting an event. Of course, documenting themselves electronically is the primary focus of today’s artists and musicians—the self-portrait by digital camera is probably the current most popular artform in the country.
“Hey, what’s on TV?” asked Interior at the beginning of “TV Set,” the final song from their Napa performance. “Anybody know what’s on TV? You are!”