In 1975 New York was bankrupt. President Gerald Ford famously told the city to “drop dead” when asked for federal financial assistance. But as the rest of the country predicted the Big Apple’s demise, a fervent musical revolution was taking place in the city’s squalid downtown nightclubs, studios and galleries. Artists and musicians were producing raw work that exhibited their anger and frustration, and the results came to define the “New York Scene” of the 1970s and early ’80s.
That scene is the topic of Looking at Music: Side 2, an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art through November 30th that closely documents this period and the music that emerged with it — punk, DIY, new wave and noise rock. One of the first pieces on display is a recording of Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory” (1974), a rebellious poem-like rap about escaping the drudgery of small town life and factory work that sets the tone for the rest of the ride: “I am nobody’s million dollar baby. I am nobody’s patsy,” she spits. “I’m gonna get on that train and go to New York City. I’m gonna be somebody. I’m gonna be so big and I’m never gonna return to that piss factory. Watch me.”
Original LPs of some of the most important albums and singles of the time also make the cut: Television’s Marquee Moon (1977), Blondie’s Parallel Lines (1978), Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex (1983), the Talking Heads’ Take Me to the River (1978), Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation (1977), and the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia (1977).
The Voidoids’ Blank Generation became an anthem for the times, proclaiming restlessness and freedom, and on the audio component of the tour viewers can listen to Hell reminisce about the times in an interview conducted by the exhibit’s curator. Asked whether New York was a great place for artists in the ’70s he replies, “It did encourage interesting work just because you did feel completely apart and neglected and you had nothing to protect — you didn’t have any vested interest so you were free to be completely honest and you didnâ€™t have to follow any conventions. In fact you were driven to talk about the way things felt to you because the way they were being described by the media and the conventional channels seemed dishonest and wrong and untrue.”
The music videos of the period on display are reckless and raw. Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69” is an intense series of montages depicting anger and violence set to their delirious rock. Laurie Anderson’s video for “O Superman” is an intimate meditative encounter with the artist as she sings, mimes, and mouths the electronic minimalist piece in a dark black room.
Public access television was another venue for downtown artists to stage dowdy festive talk shows and performances, and Looking at Music: Side 2 features a 1979 episode of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party that closed with Blondie singer Debbie Harry and her bandmate Chris Stein puffing a joint as they took calls from viewers. On display are also several “Artist’s books,” self-made miniature books containing an author’s photos or poetry. Patti Smith has a book on display, as do Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine of Television, who collaborated on one.
The last wall of the exhibit demonstrates what all the grit, anger, frustration and wild expression led to: immense cultural impact. Before visitors exit, they’re confronted with posters, photos, magazine covers, newspaper articles, paparazzi shots, interviews, advertisements and idolatry featuring the artists in the exhibit, which serves as a strong reminder that the work of a small few had staggering effects far beyond the ’70s and the city that birthed it.