This is what the Philly punk scene looked like in the 1980s

By
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Photo by Pier Nicola D’Amico | damicostudios.com

Yesterday afternoon, a random tweet from King Britt led me to a stunning online gallery of work by Philadelphia-based photographer Pier Nicola D’Amico. “Check some of the Philly punk scene with homie @pndamico,” King wrote, followed by a link to the new collection Between Glam Rock and New Wave: The Lost Archive. How am I going to say no to something like that, right?

The work that I saw upon clicking through was even better than I anticipated. D’Amico’s collection showcased faces and friends. Personalities, not celebrities, the community that you discover when you dig a little bit deeper than the music at its surface. In fact, of the 32 images in the collection, only one explicitly depicts music – a great shot of an old school DJ rig at a loft party. Folks are wearing berets, the wheels of steel are the fliptop models that look like they were borrowed from somebody’s living room, the DJ seems pensive as he scans the room for a read on the crowd.

It plays a background role in other images – speakers on the shelves of a silhouetted young woman’s apartment, magazine cutouts of pop stars taped to the wall of another friend’s bedroom wall, a vintage WKDU magnet on the fridge of a denim-vested, bleach-haired lad in a kitchen. In the rest, it’s more implicit. You know these people listen to music, and you know that music is probably a major force that draws them together in friendships. But you also get to see what their lives are like beyond it.

D’Amico writes that these images were shot when he was a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s. He was attending art school in Cooper Union in New York, his girlfriend lived in Philly and he bounced back and forth between the two metropolises shooting photos of his circle of friends “kissing, embracing, and staring into space.” The images project an intimacy and comfort level you only get when the photographer either knows the subject personally, or has spent a decent amount of time making them at ease with the camera. Of the era these were shot in, they most easily recall the images of Nan Goldin; back further into photo history, perhaps Robert Frank or Diane Arbus; or from today, Zoe Strauss. It takes us inside the art studios and one-bedroom apartments of his peers; it takes us behind the veil. The furniture is torn up, the floors are dirty, and yet the people were smiling (if not nodding off in a beer-induced haze).

There’s a motorcycle and a big red door. There are a couple dogs. There was a wedding.

“We also were committed to being punks, which means that we rejected everything,” D’Amico writes:

All We had was the music, the bar and what set us apart.

We drank and did drugs to kill the isolation of no future and numb the scornful looks that people gave us on the street. In turn, we scorned commercialism, big music, the hippie generation’s utopian fantasies, and the cultural paradigm around us.

“Never sell out” was the common refrain.

The punk movement feels too far away from me now, perhaps because the world has changed so much since then. Today it’s associated with a fashion style which really misses the context that spawned its relevancy.

That’s not to say there’s no degree of fashion in these photos; the girl with the American flag vest and pink tuft of hair, puffing on a Marlboro red with heavy eyeliner: obviously style-conscious. Another with ornate hoop green earrings and the matching green tank-top, arms inked up with tatts: also style-conscious. The guy with the jet-black locks and stickered-up skateboard: well, you get the drift.

Thing is, and to D’Amico’s point, these kids were the progenitors, the generation that punk-as-a-look and punk-as-a-commodity is modeled after. They weren’t dressing this way because they shopped at the mall, or because the celebs they saw on TV did. Their look was a reflection of themselves, their friends and their values. Their look was simply because. Continues D’Amico:

I’ve named this body of work The Lost Archive because for me, punk was so quickly eclipsed by the emergence of New Wave and hip hop.  Lost, because I too was lost. I struggled to understand my generation’s worldview and my own inner view, my search for artistic meaning and a platform to express it. As I grew older a sense of unfulfilled spirituality emerged in my life and led me to embrace Buddhism. My friends call me a Buddhist punk now. I think that fits.

Take a look at all of D’Amico’s images form The Lost Archive here.

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Photo by Pier Nicola D’Amico | damicostudios.com
  • Pier Nicola D’Amico

    Thanks John for expanding on that perspective. That’s Philly native Kim Montenegro in the flag suit that she designed, made and is wearing. She still lives and works as a fashion designer of her own label here in Philadelphia and makes rocking denim for metal bands and old punks.

    • John Vettese

      Awesome. Thanks for sharing, Pier. Are these photos on physical display anywhere, or just online?

  • Guy Debord

    check out Spokanarchy.com !!

  • Greg

    The folks in these pictures are too pretty. Very nice
    photography but not representative of the REAL punk scene back then. These are
    glam shots.

    • John Vettese

      Hi, Greg. You looked at the entire gallery on Pier’s website and you think these photos are “glam”?

    • Joel Zavalla

      When it comes to any kind of publicized material regarding the 80′s punk scene, it surprises me that I always see comments like this. Maybe I have a broader definition of what “punk” was. Now I find that, like most “scenes” from each generation, perception and memory play key roles in how we define them in post. To me that’s what punk was, not following or sharing others perceptions but rather creating the freedom to kick off the pre determined concepts and make your own. In that definition, no two recollections will be the same, nor the definitions of what it was. Your “punk scene” was different. It doesn’t make the photographer’s experience any less “real”. But then, that’s just how I remember it.

      • lechatelierite

        A-fuckin’-men. Punk was never about being ugly, just as it wasn’t about being poor: it was about rejecting the idea that made one person less or more than another because of how they looked or how much money they had.

    • Greg

      My qualifications:

      * I have attended hundreds of “punk” shows and concert in NYC and Philly (Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Buzzcocks, etc, etc. in Philly and NYC).

      * I ran a punk-centric record store from 1977 to 1982 (think “High Fidelity”)

      * I roomed with a bunch of punks in West Philly for several years.

      The only time I saw this many good looking people at a punk rock event was when I sat in front of Andy Warhol at a Boomtown Rats concert. Warhol’s posse looked like the kind folks in these photos.

      If one were teleported into the scene that was part of my punk reality, the people in that scene never looked like the folks in the photos. Maybe there’s a bias by the photographer towards the glamorous, but my punk reality was never this pretty.

      Greg

      • Dick Hangslow

        And these people aren’t all that good looking, either… Philly people must be seriously ugly.

        • Greg

          Oh we are my friend, we are

      • Crowsong

        Punk started in England in the late 70′s, so it had time to absorb a bit of the 80′s glam/over-the-top style by the time it ended up in the US.

        Also, good-looking people were punks too. There was no criteria, if you were you were.

  • Kelly Dianne Reynolds

    Love the “Buddhist Punk” I am on too! I was there! I remember a lot of these faces from back in the day. Thanks for making me smile. This was a era of my life that I loved!!

    • John Vettese

      You’re welcome, Kelly! Pier’s Buddhist punk quote is one of my favorites too.

  • teese

    Cool. A bunch of vapid, beautiful young people who’s parents funded their exploits. Timeless, really.

    • Pokahauntess

      actually,I worked from age 14 on. My friends and I were punk rock not only because we loved the music but because we had to pay for our own clothes. my mom could only afford a few things for me and I couldn’t clothes at a store, so I thrift shopped. Back then, that meant shopping at Goodwill and Salvation Army, where no one else wanted to be caught dead shopping. I could get a cool vintage dress for $3-$5. There were no cool window displays and the like then-just racks of old, unwanted things that we used creatively.

    • Matt Bevilacqua

      Cool. A vapid, pissy Internet commenter who doesn’t know the difference between “whose” and “who’s.” Timeless, really.

    • Count Screwloose

      Nailed it, my friend.

    • Stuff

      You’re confusing Philly with New York.

  • Madeline

    This is great. All you ever hear about is the LA/NYC punk scenes in the ’70s and ’80s, glad to learn about somewhere different for a change.

    • Dick Hangslow

      Yeah, it’s not like you ever hear about DC and Bad Brains and Minor Threat and Dischord Records or anything….

  • Count Screwloose

    “All We had was the music, the bar and what set us apart. We drank and did drugs to kill the isolation of no future and numb the scornful looks that people gave us on the street.”

    Oh, please. I nearly pissed myself. You got to warn a brotha!

  • GemmaSeymour

    Wow, does that take me back…I was 14, I think, when I discovered South Street for the first time. That would have been about 1983-ish. But, I spent most of the 80′s in NYC or OCNJ, and didn’t move to Philadelphia until 1991.

  • wildknives

    most of the photos represent “new wave” more than Punk. and yeah I’m proud to say “I was there!”

  • That Toddly Man

    There were lots of style waves in punk and new wave and hardcore,
    &c, Each one had its moment and each one was just as valid as the
    other. The Hot Club kids predated these pics, the anti fashion hardcore scene came after. Some of these kids, many who I knew then, were having their
    Thompson Twins or Soft Cell moment in these pics, and they had real fun
    putting those looks together and sporting them around. That said, the
    first time I same Kim Montenegro was in 1981 when I’d just moved back
    from working the clubs in London. She came pedaling down the 20 hundred
    block of Sansom on a big vintage bike with her hair wired like Pippi
    Longstocking and her eye makeup looking like she’d put in on with her
    thumb. She pretties up nice, you bet, but she was and still is a proper
    punk rock girl. When I was working at the East Side and the LOVE, she
    stole her daddie’s vintage Caddy and chased Johnny Thunders all over the
    country. Jodi Head was covered in tattoos when absolutely nobody else
    would dare to do such a thing. She took big old school bras, covered
    them in colorful glass jewels and sold them as glam tops, and to this day still
    runs a company in NYC that makes custom guitar straps that are beloved of real rockers around the world.
    I remember introducing her to the Stray Cats out at UPenn to her
    gushing, glowing joy. Punk includes a central theme of Do It Yourself,
    so dismissive know nothing comments written by cubicle dwellers just doesn’t work here.

  • Michelle Pfirman O’Mealy

    It’s all good, it’s being creative. Pics to me are a bit Mod 80 and the people are pretty. Makes me nostalgic for those carefree days!

  • Count Screwloose

    Man, you bunch of gainfully employed poseurs wouldn’t know the real Philly punk scene if it came up and bit you on the tuchis! I remember when Joe Hemorrhoid and the Space Junkies used to shoot up at Dirty Frank’s and call it performance art! I remember when Belinda Carwash and the Dandruff Flakes used to play at The Horrible Room where everyone had to have a tattoo of Hong Kong Phooey put on their face or they couldn’t get in! And what about Silent Cheese? Oh yeah, I went there!

    • Dick Hangslow

      Philly Punk?

      The very concept is hilarious.

  • DEB

    Sigh. Poor Philly, always the ugly stepchild of NYC. I knew some of these kids. Two in particular—JBD/P and ML, I’m looking at you. They weren’t punk. They were just mean girls.

  • Julie C

    Hot Club, East Side Club, Love Club…wow…this brings back memories…wish I was the girl then I am now though… :)

    • Jacqueline

      yes those where the good old days miss them much

  • Richard

    San Francisco life as a punk rock poser: http://survivingtermination.wordpress.com/

  • PD

    These are art students… looks like many of the spots from the PCA ghetto… I guess if we wanna put a label on shit some could be punk… but looks like young art students to me…