Last month, The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles premiered a documentary series on their YouTube channel called The Art Of Punk. Each episode explores the roots and stories behind the iconic artwork of seminal punk bands. It makes sense that one of the figures that MOCA got in touch with was Bryan Ray Turcotte, one of the foremost experts on the punk movement. Turcotte is responsible for Fucked Up + Photocopied: Instant Art of the Punk Rock Movement, published in 1999 and winner of the Firecracker Alternative Book Award for Music, and Punk is Dead: Punk is Everything!, published in 2007. These volumes chronicle the flyers, ephemera, and iconography that helped shape the punk movement of the '70s and '80s. So far, Turcotte has helmed episodes on Black Flag, Crass, and The Dead Kennedys, interviewing legends such as Ray Pettibon, Jello Biafra, and Henry Rollins. I called Turcotte to talk about the enduring power of flyering and the future of The Art Of Punk.
Ad Hoc: The Art Of Punk seems like a logical progression from what you did with Fucked Up + Photocopied. How did the idea for that book get off the ground?
Bryan Ray Turcotte: I grew up in the San Francisco punk scene when I was a kid. I was playing in bands when I was 13, 14, 15, opening up for bands like The Dead Kennedys and stuff in the mid-'80s. So that’s where it started, in terms of collecting flyers. I wallpapered my room with flyers when I was a kid, and we used to skateboard around town pulling flyers off of poles so that we knew what shows were happening. Eventually I graduated from high school and moved to LA to try and become a musician in a band, and I carried the flyers with me.
At some point I got a job at Slash Records and met Henry Rollins. The idea for a book had come up, but no one seemed to really think that it would do well or no one seemed to really care. So I just started doing it on my own. Jello [Biafra] was my first phone call and he gave me a bunch of numbers to different guys, like Joey [Keithley] from D.O.A. One call led to another and led to another and eventually-- after about, I don’t know, a year-- I probably had 20,000 or 30,000 flyers from upwards of 200 different contributors from all over the country. And just with stupid luck, I ended up meeting a guy who changed the whole thing around and introduced me to the guys at Gingko Press, and I showed them what I had and the book sort of started.
In another weird set of circumstances, it just became a best seller. It sort of came out of nowhere. I had never designed a book before, I had never published a book before, never fashioned myself a publisher or a writer or a designer. But it just sort of struck a chord with people, because I felt like I did have something to say and I could make a book feel the way the scene felt for me-- just chaotic and crazy. You have to twist the book around to read half the stuff, and every time you look at it you find new little things that you didn’t see before, and all kinds of secret stuff. I felt like I knew how to capture the right energy, and it just kind of struck a chord. It’s been out 13 years now, and we probably have 15, 16 editions or something like that.
Ad Hoc: You said you received over 20,000 flyers in the mail?
BRT: Yeah, and probably half the people that gave me flyers for the book wanted them returned, so my collection immediately jumped to massive proportions. Once the book came out, then they really started to pile in. People kept calling me and offering me to buy collections and they kept donating collections. Within a few years, I had already been back up to double what I had started with for the first book, and that’s what led to doing Punk is Dead: Punk is Everything! a few years ago. I had so much more stuff that I wanted to put in the first book, but just didn’t have the room.
Ad Hoc: How did you go about weeding through that huge volume of material?
BRT: It was challenging, it was definitely challenging, but the second book was even more challenging for me. The first one, I knew that I wanted to do the United States, so I was concerned about having the United States covered and not much else, but then I realized you had to do Canada, because you had to have Toronto and you had to have Vancouver with all of those bands like D.O.A. And then really what I did was just create chapters around the scenes and then start by building off the pioneering bands and then filling it out until I couldn’t fill it out anymore. So with certain scenes like LA, I had to have The Germs, and I had to have The Screamers, and I had to have X. I knew I had to feature a certain amount of bands that were the pioneers, and then I filled it in with the peripheral stuff as much as I could. Obviously, San Francisco and LA were the biggest chapters, because I was from San Francisco and lived in LA, so it was much easier for me to get stuff. But then after I did the first book, of course everybody’s questions were, “Why didn’t you do the UK or Japan, and why didn’t you do as much stuff from New York?” So then with the response book, Punk is Dead: Punk is Everything!, I was able to break it out to a little bit more worldwide, and then really focus on the scenes that I didn’t have as much stuff on as well as giving huge amounts of space to bands that were smaller, like Redd Kross and White Flag. So it was sort of like, here’s my chance to show the unsung heroes as well as some of the bigger legends, like the Sex Pistols and some UK bands. And then also feature skateboarding and zines and other things that make the scene what it is. But I had to limit myself with the first book. I have 240 pages and I have to feature these bands! And everything else sort of got edited through.
Ad Hoc: You mentioned how you started getting immersed in the punk scene at a young age. Were there any particular flyers you saw or shows you attended that were particularly influential or piqued your interest?
BRT: When I first got into the scene I was in junior high school, and I obviously got pulled into it from the records first; The Clash and Black Flag and things like that sort of pulled me in immediately. Those friends I grew up with in grammar school were like, “You’re weird!” so I lost a lot of my friends and made new friends who were listening to cooler music. By the time I was a freshman in high school, the older guys who were in the scene were like, “Alright, it’s your time to see shows.” So I was fortunate enough to be in the North California area, in San Jose and Los Gatos and Hayward and all those surrounding suburbs. There were a lot of bands and a lot of shows happening. For me, there’s a lot of stuff that stands out because there were just so many shows that I saw. Seeing Minor Threat at the On Broadway, or seeing The Misfits at the On Broadway. Those were epic shows, but my favorite shows were always the ones that were, like, seeing Crucifix and Executioner at De Anza College in the cafeteria with a hundred kids. It was always more the local bands like Social Unrest and Fang and The Faction-- those were the shows where it felt like it was our school and our friends. You’d go up to the city and see shows that had a lot more rougher, older guys. The smaller ones were the ones that really left a big impression on me.
Ad Hoc: How did the idea behind your books develop into The Art Of Punk?
BRT: That’s a good question. I feel like I had no intention of becoming a voice in the scene at all. I just knew that there was no book on the subject that had been done right. I thought they were too focused or just not good enough. I mean that was my real intention-- just to make a rad book and to focus on the art rather than the scene itself. I got in [to the scene] second generation, so it felt like something I couldn’t really talk to, like how did it start? I don’t know, I just knew it was there when I found it. So the art was something I felt like I could really speak to. There weren’t a lot of people who had covered it, and with Fucked Up + Photocopied I learned a lot. I had become friends with all the guys who were creating this rad art. So somehow over the years, with Fucked Up being successful and doing Punk is Dead and hanging flyers in galleries all over the world to show people what this stuff really looked like, I ended up speaking at NYU about art history and the art of punk. It became something that I was very interested in, and I could sort of break down how each scene had a different approach and a different feel to the way they advertised or the way they did their flyers, like LA vs. San Francisco or San Francisco vs. DC.
So I guess the idea had come up at MOCA that they had wanted to create some more content around their YouTube channel, and somebody said that they should talk to me. And they came and set up a meeting and said, if you were to do something on film, what would it be? And I pretty much said I’d do exactly what I’ve been doing with my books but on film, and that I would focus on the artists and get the behind-the-scenes stories of how some of those symbols and record sleeves had come to life. Like, what was the inspiration behind it and how did they feel at the time they created it and how do they feel about it now looking back on it? And they were pretty much like, that’s a good idea, go off and do it, and then we just dove in hard and went way farther than I thought we would go. I thought these were going to be little, five-minute shows, just talking to one or two people, and then it ended up that a lot of people wanted to talk about it. Each interview I did was like an hour and a half long. All of a sudden they had music and special effects. It just sort of grew into this thing, to where we’re doing four more episodes for them now. I feel like at the end of it all, I could end up doing a feature film on it. The bummer is that I can’t interview Arturo Vega anymore, and three out of the four Ramones are dead. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m just never going to get because of that. It’s difficult.
Ad Hoc: Given the MOCA YouTube channel and the punk fashion event that recently happened at The Met— would you say the art world and the punk community seem to be merging more?
BRT: Let’s just say, for example, if I were Richard Hell and I still dressed the same way I did in 1976 and then somebody was doing a big Met fashion gala and there were a bunch of people running around dressing like me or pretending to dress like me, I might be a little frustrated. They’re all running around with these costumes on pretending to be punk. But it’s really not the case. All the people I talked to that seemed bitter about The Met thing, they’re like 50 years old and they’re teaching at schools and they don’t look they way they did and they’re not on tour or doing that sort of stuff, so I feel like they should feel super stoked and super complimented. They weren’t fashion students, they weren’t college students; they were just street punks. I think they should be honored that it has gotten to that level to where they’re celebrating people like Vivienne Westwood. When you really break it down, someone like Vivienne Westwood and some of the earlier people, they deserve to have acclaim because they did change the world. They did change fashion. They did change the way Ralph Lauren and all the other guys do their jobs.
Ad Hoc: In watching the Art Of Punk episodes, everyone seems really gung ho to be talking about those stories and anecdotes that they have. You mentioned you had been in contact with some of them because of Fucked Up, but what was it like trying to enlist more people into this project?
BRT: Actually it was challenging. Again, it’s one of those things— I’ll put it this way. When I was doing Fucked Up + Photocopied, Ian McKaye and I had become friends, but we had become friends over the phone. We talked a lot and I asked him to do a piece for the book, and he ended up giving me all these flyers and was very helpful and giving me numbers. But he never did write the foreword for the book. Then once he saw the book he cornered me at a party in LA once and said, “my biggest regret of last year was that I didn’t write for your book, because it came out amazing, and I’m proud of it and it’s awesome.” I said alright, you can write the foreword for the next book. So that’s how he came around to writing for Punk is Dead: Punk is Everything! I think that my starting with Jello and going forward with the books, I started with Keith Morris and he pulled in Chuck [Dukowski]. I had never met Chuck before, so that was awesome for me. Once I had Keith and Chuck, it wasn’t too hard to pull in Flea. And then all of a sudden I had Flea, and it was like, you can’t do something on Black Flag and have Flea without getting Henry [Rollins], so that sort of fell in line. And he came into it reluctantly. He came in like, “Who are you and what do you want?” And then by the time we got five minutes into the conversation, he was amazing.
Ad Hoc: What are the four new episodes you have lined up?
BRT: We have The Misfits, The Screamers, Suicidal Tendencies, and the Sex Pistols.
Ad Hoc: So these new ones are definitely branching out more in terms of location and time period. Why did you go with those bands?
BRT: Yeah. Personally, I feel like Misfits is akin to Black Flag in terms of folklore, legend, and iconic imagery. Screamers is definitely more like Crass in that they’re probably more known about than being heard. It’s sort of underground. You know the logo but you never really heard the band. And then I feel like Suicidal Tendencies is definitely more like the Dead Kennedys in that there’s some fame and notoriety and strong scene bonds and that sort of stuff. And the Pistols was purely because it’s just something that I could do, that I felt like if you’re talking about the art, Jamie Reid was pivotal in that more Mickey Mouse club-style pop-rock thing. It’s not necessarily my thing; I love the darker edged stuff, but I think it’s important. Like I said, Arturo Vega is dead, a lot of those guys, so I feel like I’m limited to the stories that I can tell, at least directly, person-to-person. I’m just trying to get them done before these guys can’t do it anymore.
Ad Hoc: Do you think that with the rise of the internet and social media the age of flyering has died?
BRT: That’s a good question, and it is something that’s come up for me. I would say within my circle of people it hasn’t, but overall, it has. In the hardcore scene it’s essential to do flyers, and in this scene we all do flyers, and when you talk to bands like Hoax you realize that they don’t rely on cellphones and computers as much, and that they are still doing it in a way that feels almost like they’re the Amish of the scene. It’s like vinyl, is it dead? Actually, it’s on the rise. Is it ever going to be what it was? No. That was the only medium that you could buy records on in the '80s. You have lots of choices now. People would choose to get cheap MP3s over spending a lot of money on vinyl. They’re going to choose cheap over expensive no matter what. But I don’t think it will die. I think it’s something that lives within the aesthetic of all bands. You want to see the images while you’re listening to the music. You want to have something tactile to hold onto as an invitation to go to the show or something to take behind, whether it’s T-shirts, flyers, or stickers. When we go do shows at Chaos in Tejas every year, we flyer the town. I think that you have to do the social media stuff in order to get the bodies into shows, but I think for the true hardcore guys, the true ones that are going to criticize or judge, you have to do the flyers. You have to put the work in, which is cool. I still do it the old school way, hand-illustrated text and everything. I make flyers for every show.