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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Don Pyle on Photographing Toronto Punk in the 1970s, and How Pink Floyd Fit Into the Underground

Posted By on Tue, May 6, 2014 at 9:29 AM

click to enlarge The Dead Boys - DON PYLE
  • Don Pyle
  • The Dead Boys

Don Pyle's book of photography, ephemera, and memoir, Trouble in the Camera Club, documents his experience as a Toronto teen in the late 1970s, infatuated with underground rock and, once the word came around, punk. Close-ups depict Debbie Harry crouched on stage, The Ramones on their first tour, and The Dead Boys looking grotesque, along with intimate live portraits of local bands like The Diodes and The Viletones. In the first section, Pyle lucidly examines the music's appeal to an alienated high-school student. Then, descriptions of individual shows create a brisk narrative of his immersion in the scene. Pyle's written accompaniment is a vivid memoir of avid fandom from proto-punk through the unhinged first wave. A portal into his formative years, it illuminates the scene and excitement that has inspired Pyle's lifelong endeavors as a musician and record producer.

Don Pyle will narrate a slideshow of his images at Adobe Books on Thursday, May 8. An exhibit of his prints is on display at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland through May 10.

click to enlarge Blondie - DON PYLE
  • Don Pyle
  • Blondie

There's much more writing here than in a typical photo book, and I found myself as enthralled by your words as the ephemera and images.

After the fact, I wish there was even more writing, but it was so much work as is. Back then, I was developing and printing photos myself, and learning how to do all of those things in poor conditions. I'd leave the negatives to dry in the dark room at high school and the janitor would come in to clean and knock them on the floor he had just mopped, so there was a lot of retouching. The whole process took more like four years, because I had an arrangement with another publisher that kept stalling. It started off as 100 pages of black and white photos and grew to be 300 pages, full color and full of essays.

Was it very emotional to comb through your archives after so long?

Scanning this stuff, I saw my father, who I didn't really know, friends who are dead now, lots of people from bands who are dead, and there was a lot of, "Holy shit, this feels so recent, but it's a lifetime ago." There really were a lot of emotions. There are some photos that took like eight hours to retouch. You're looking at every single detail, going over every square centimeter with scrutiny and spending a lot of time looking at people's eyes and expressions, or things in the background, like people's personal possessions in a plastic bag sitting beside their amplifier. Freddie Pompeii from The Viletones, he was wearing syringes on a chain around his neck. At the time when I took those pictures, the idea of heroin was something that was just in stories. Meanwhile, he's wearing it around his neck and it became the thing that nearly destroyed his life. You see that now and know how the story is going to go. It seemed simple then, but 30 years later it's weighted. It has a lot of meaning attached to it.

So many of the photos feel intimate because they're close-ups, and, like you mention in the book, they're almost all shot from the front row.

Yeah, part of that was just to get good pictures. When I look at my pictures, I see that they're really portraits. I didn't have a flash, which was limiting. I didn't get shots of people leaping in the air or their hair flying. I had to go for the lit, still moment. Other people who took pictures of the scene might have had a few years of experience with shooting bands. They had developed a language for what a typical live shot was, but I was at the beginning stage.

There's a great picture of your friend Roger wearing a home-made Ramones t-shirt standing in front of a Pink Floyd poster. Now, that looks like a pretty dramatic shift of interests -- from Floyd to the Ramones -- but it seems like it was natural, even necessary at the time.

There were some things that changed overnight, and some things that didn't. Like Pink Floyd: before Dark Side of the Moon, they were an underground band. We wanted to be into obscure, underground things. Roxy Music albums looked more exciting than Bob Seger, and it was a continuation of that. When we were looking at records and reading about bands just before "punk" was a known thing, when we were reading about the Sex Pistols in NME, we just thought that bands like The Ramones, The Fast, or Sparks looked the most exciting. For a lot of that stuff, the label was just "underground." In that way, Pink Floyd kind of fit in. There was a reaction against that stuff, like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who I hated long before punk, but I loved Deep Purple. Wire's 154 album is so Pink Floyd. When that came out I was so excited. It's like dropping coloring in the water -- it all disperses eventually and becomes one color.

click to enlarge Diodes - DON PYLE
  • Don Pyle
  • Diodes

Your descriptions of punk before punk in the book -- embodied by artists like Wayne County and New York Dolls -- are very interesting. When that style of music was suddenly called punk, how did you feel about the term?

I did embrace that term for a time, like in 1976 or 1977, before the explosion. I often think of Sid Vicious being the demarcation. He was in one of the first bands ever defined as punk, The Flowers of Romance, and then he joined the Pistols. I remember when their first song came out, "Belsen Was a Gas," I thought, "Okay, this is stupid." It's a crappy song. It's got this Nazi imagery that I wasn't crazy about, but all of a sudden there were these jocks coming to shows dressed like Sid Vicious. It very quickly became caricature. People from high school who had made fun of me were now cutting their hair short and being nice to me. So, I was very cynical and suspicious and dismissive and judgmental about that shift.

You contextualize the book as a narrative of personal experience, rather than some sort of authoritative guide, which I like because I feel like punk defies definitive narratives and documentation.

Oh yeah, and it's worse now in the internet generation with so many lists. There are so many lists of the most essential blah blah blah. When I was writing the book, I was very conscious of trying to recall my experience at the time. I can't say definitively what was true of the time, just of my experience, and I just tried to put myself back in that mindset, rather than writing in hindsight and saying which bands went and got shitty.

Well, you don't say explicitly that bands got shitty, but you mention that a lot of the early live incarnations of Toronto bands weren't ever adequately represented on their recordings.

Right. I mean to be fair, look at the recorded output of a country like England or the U.S. There are many more amazing albums there than from Canada at the time. The isolation, the geography, the smaller population, the lack of support, the lack of media, that didn't help, but also in the end there were just better bands elsewhere. We had amazing bands, but so much of what was amazing was just being there for when they formed and having a personal experience with them.

There's a parallel to the Bay Area, where none of the earliest San Francisco punk bands really got to make albums, and much of the first wave of groups were already disbanded by 1978 or so.

I think the Bay Area is a great analogy. I was into California music. When everybody knew about music from England or New York, California felt like the next underground scene to be discovered. It felt like a secret underground, like my own thing, because nobody else knew the bands from there. We'd get copies of Slash magazine from L.A. and one was always set aside for me.

-- @Lefebvre_Sam


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