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'Right Time, Wrong Place'
Documentary Project Unearths the Origins of New Orleans Punk Rock
Though it was never the headliner of the New Orleans music community, punk rock has been a player since the beginning of the music form in the late 1970s. Ryan Sparks catches up with a local documentary maker who's attempting to assemble the pieces of the local scene's raucous - and uniquely New Orleans - provenance.
In 1978 the Neville Brothers debuted nationwide on their first self-titled album, Albert King sung about his bad luck on New Orleans Heat, and Dr. John released City Lights. Far removed from mainstream funkiness and mature R&B, another New Orleans original released a 45 single, Almost Ready.
Until recently, it was the lone document of the city’s first successful punk rock band The Normals, who spearheaded the movement with a driving sound influenced by early rock 'n roll. The cutting-edge sound and rebellious, DIY ethos sent kids across the area head-popping and pogo-dancing. While no local band from punk’s original heyday ever established themselves as a true nationwide phenomenon on par with MC5, the Stooges, or the Ramones, a scene managed to coalesce in this trumpet-and-sax town that was filled with enthusiastic kids.
As with any punk scene, there are survivors, stories, and souvenirs galore. But those elements have dissipated over the years, and sometimes the memories are a litty fuzzy. Al Champagne, a young director who was born around the same time the NOLA new wave was rolling hard and high, has committed himself to documenting the tales of the era straight from the participants themselves. He is currently about three-quarters of the way through interviews for a documentary on this little-studied piece of New Orleans music history. The doc will take its name from the Normals song: Almost Ready: The History of New Orleans Punk Rock.
Champagne found a CD collection of the Normals' singles and demos called Your Punk Heritage in the late nineties and has been listening to it ever since.
“I describe the Normals as the Ramones if the Ramones were better able to play their instruments," he said. "When I told that to [singer/guitarist] David Brewton, he seemed to not like the fact that I was telling him that I thought he was better…it was like telling Pope Benedict he’s better than Jesus Christ. The Normals did have that sound where everything came in together, they sang in harmonies, they played their instruments, they just were in the right time, wrong place.”
Getting the Bands Back Together
Champagne studied in Delgado’s Television and Video program, and has long wanted to make films, but knew that on a spare budget he’d have little chance of making even an indie feature. In fact, he has yet to find any financial backing and doesn’t own any equipment of his own but told NoDef, “I decided I’m going to try to do this regardless of having all of these handicaps.”
The idea to explore the late 70’s and early 80’s punk scene in New Orleans years before, and as he approached his 30th birthday he decided it was time to undertake his own documentary project. In the summer of 2011 he started contacting members of bands with requests for filmed interviews. After a handful of sessions he met up with Jimmy Anselmo, longtime owner of Jimmy’s nightclub on Willow Street (the Frat House now occupies the site) who became enthusiastic about the project. Anselmo not only had a wealth of stories but something even more valuable to Champagne: contacts.
Last year Anselmo and Champagne set up a Facebook group and watched as the member list slowly started to rise to the hundreds. Made up of old musicians, zine-sters and well-known fans, the group has been posting photos, gig posters, and old T-P articles (one concerning the arrest of members of the Misfits trespassing in St. Louis Cemetery #2 is a favorite artifact) as well as catching up on each other’s interim history.
“What’ll happen is you got all these people re-connecting after 30 years and reliving their glory days," Champagne said. "I didn’t expect anything like that to happen.”
Following the success of the group, Anselmo organized a reunion at the Southport Hall in Jefferson. He and his two-man film crew, Pablo Romero-Estevez and Andrew Mayeaux, set up at the party and got a lot of interviews. Another event is scheduled for this December in the same venue, this time with performances by reunited bands like the Backstabbers, the Models, Sexdog, the Limit, and Stephie and the White Sox.
Tolerance for the Weird
The high points for many of the bands Champagne interviewed seem to be when they almost cut a record deal or when they opened up for the Clash or U2 or when they got a chance—like Dee Slut from the Sluts—to audition for a role in a more established band like Black Flag. Only the Red Rockers—featuring John Thomas Griffith, now of Cowboy Mouth—found their way onto MTV with their minor hit “China.” Many eventually made other cities their home, like so many musicians of that period, punk or otherwise, who felt the need to escape the stigma of New Orleans as a jazz/honky tonk/funk town. A few have become successful session musicians. Champagne says he has interviewed everyone from “laborers to lawyers,” but their memories all seem to be positive.
Early New Orleans punk and new wave bands fed a lot on direct influence from the Clash, Ramones, and Sex Pistols, and none of them really attempted to break the mold, but the scene had its differences from other cities’ incarnations. For one, there was very little infighting amongst bands or their adherents. The closest thing to a rivalry Champagne can point to is the division between the Normals, who rocked mainly uptown and the Dukes, a band that held onto a little more of the Stones-type swagger and represented Fat City at a time when Fat City was a thriving disco boomtown. For the most part, the same type of people could be found at any of the shows at now-defunct clubs, clued in by John G., a DJ who curated a punk and new wave show for WTUL on Tuesday nights. In the era before MySpace, Facebook, and even the widespread sharing of bootleg cassettes, this little slice of time on the radio was important to kids across the city who were buying into the developing movement.
“Here in New Orleans, I guess ‘cause it’s a smaller city and a lot of these bands played together, it wasn’t uncommon to have a power pop band playing with a more hardcore band. There was a lot of heckling, but not fights. “
Champagne cites New Orleans long-standing tolerance of the weird for harboring the early scene, but it seems to this correspondent that it may have helped keep the scene a little tamer than in other cities since being a punk here wasn’t necessarily synonymous with being tough. Listening to N.O. Experience Necessary, a 1980 compilation of various punk bands from southeast Louisiana (and inspiration for the name of Champagne’s film), it seems that in this region punk stayed only one step removed from rock for a longer period and maintained more of a party vibe than a running social commentary.
For instance, Chris Luckette, the drummer for the Normals, returned home after the band unsuccessfully tried to make their way in New York City and transitioned from straightforward 70’s punk to power pop with the remarkably popular band The Cold. The band played quick offbeat/upbeat songs written by bassist Vance Degeneres. They happened to be clean cut enough to play CYO dances yet hot enough to fill clubs on Bourbon Street. Another band, RZA, formed out of NOCCA behind the capable crooning of Lenny Zenith.
“Lenny Zenith was a transgender at a time when it wasn’t really acceptable,” Champagne said. “The scene here was very accepting of him, but when he tried to make his way to the major labels they weren’t as receptive of him as they were at home. So I guess Boy George was one thing to the major labels, but he was another […]but as a songwriter, this guy, by all accounts, would have been a staple of college radio by the end of the 1980’s.”
Project is Ongoing
After more than 20 interviews, Champagne is feeling a lot of momentum going his way. His partner Pablo Romero-Estevez is leaving soon to spend some time in California gathering footage from NOLA-expats there. Collecting the stories has been the easy part; his main challenges now are editing the hours and hours of footage he has into a movie that will further compel the audience’s interest in this varied corner of NOLA’s rock history. To spotlight some of the more compelling lore, he envisions that he will also compile mini-featurettes to give wider exposure to particularly characters like A.G. Parr who wrote songs for the Dukes and fronted Famous Monsters.
Champagne is currently considering Kickstarter or another crowd-sourcing utility to raise funds necessary to finish his project. He is getting a lot of support and images to use in his film from fans and the bands themselves. For now, it seems interest in vintage southern punk continues to grow. The Normals have had some studio tracks from 1979 recently released on Last Laugh records, the Cold are releasing a DVD, Live at Jimmy’s, that captures them in at their bounciest and best, and Jimmy Anselmo himself has garnered a tribute corner at this year’s Voodoo Music Experience featuring bands like Dash Rip Rock and the Models.
Stay tuned for more information on this one-of-a-kind film. And in the meantime, here's a clip in which punks describe their age-old nemesis, the HeyBra:
Dead Huey Long, Emma Boyce, Ian Hoch, Sarah Esenwein, Will Dilella, Chris Rinaldi, Lianna Patch, Phil Yiannopoulos, Cate Czarnecki, Jonas Griffin, Jennifer Abbot, Mary Kilpatrick, Elaina Patton, Mike Horst, Devin Bambrick, Katherine McGuire, Norris Ortolano, Joe Shriner
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