Had to Be There captures the sights and sound of the underground in Pittsburgh, 1979-94 | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Had to Be There captures the sights and sound of the underground in Pittsburgh, 1979-94

click to enlarge Had to Be There captures the sights and sound of the underground in Pittsburgh, 1979-94
Photo: Erik Bauer, courtesy of Mind Cure Records

One night at the Electric Banana in 1984, vocalist Jeff Lamm was captured on film leaning back and tilting his microphone stand towards a figure emerging from the crowd — a bearded, figure clad in denim and a cut-off t-shirt (Mike Seate, future newspaper columnist and documentarian), fist raised as the inevitable shout-along chorus drew near. Captured on film by Erik Bauer, this photo depicts a moment in time when finding new music wasn’t as easy as typing a few commands into your smartphone. It took a lot of work. And if it didn’t exist yet, you kind of had to go out and make it yourself.

This photo can be found in what I humbly suggest is the best book of Pittsburgh history in recent years, which, surprisingly, isn’t a memoir of gridiron glory, labor strife, or any of the usual subjects. It’s a sharp, glossy picture book of mostly (but not totally) forgotten bands playing to crowds of dozens (or less) — a vivid burst of rebellious energy as an amorphous group of disaffected kids tried to build art and community in a city bleeding out in the aftermath of industrial collapse.

Had to Be There: A Visual History of the Explosive Pittsburgh Underground was based on photos taken by Erik Bauer between 1979 and 1994. He worked as a research chemist for Kennametal in Westmoreland county — but every spare moment he got, coupled with every tank of gas he could fill, he was off to Pittsburgh in a cloud of dust, shooting photos at every punk rock show in every dive bar, basement, and improvised space he could find. Even if you weren’t there (I just missed it), the sounds these bands made still echo deeply in the music being made here today.

click to enlarge Had to Be There captures the sights and sound of the underground in Pittsburgh, 1979-94
Photo: Erik Bauer, courtesy of Mind Cure Records
Michael Seamans of Mind Cure Records had been putting out reissues of Pittsburgh bands like Savage Amuse, Eviction, The Bats (featuring The Mysteries of Pittsburgh novelist Michael Chabon), and others. Though that’s still the plan, bottlenecks in the music industry, particularly in pressing records, slowed that production down to a crawl. Whenever he needed a photo for a reissue, he was told to ask Erik Bauer.

“I started to get a glimpse into how deep this well of material was,” Seamans tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “[Bauer] had this professional career. But going and documenting shows — this was like, in a way, his life's work. And as I got to know him better as I continued to work on these projects, and he would show me more and more, I realized that there was way more material that could be fit into reissued records.”

During the long, dark days of the pandemic, these photos started to coalesce into the shape of a book.

“I don't have any particular musical or artistic talent, but I can use a camera,” Bauer says. “And I had been going to shows for five, seven years before I got the camera and was able to start taking pictures. So, you know, it was fun. And I’d help some of the bands out — I’d always give them copies of the photos. It was my contribution to the scene.”

Punk rock didn’t have to travel far when it arrived in Pittsburgh in the late ‘70s, stemming largely from Cleveland/Akron with bands like Devo, The Dead Boys, and Pere Ubu. Bauer’s pics from punk’s early days in Pittsburgh capture shows at legendary venues like the Electric Banana and the Syria Mosque (both in Oakland) and less-legendary ones like the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center and Market Square.

“There was a lot of really great music being made,” recalls Bauer. “Very little of it made it onto some form media — vinyl or tapes at the time — but some did. And I got to know people who were in one band after another. And the sound would change, but it was still really interesting stuff, and that's what got me into that kind of music in the first place. It wasn't the same old thing you heard on the radio all the time.”
click to enlarge Had to Be There captures the sights and sound of the underground in Pittsburgh, 1979-94
Photo: Erik Bauer, courtesy of Mind Cure Records
Hardcore punk – ever louder, ever faster, ever angrier at everything – was the dominant sound, as it was most places, with bands like Half Life looming large. But there were a lot of other sounds, too: the swirling psychedelic garage revival of The Cynics, the whiskey-ravaged roar of vocalist Reid Paley over the din of The Five, the melancholy indie rock everyman of the Karl Hendricks Trio, and The Cardboards with “synths perched on wobbly ironing boards (sometimes with a bouquet of flowers at one end).”

“There was a lot of hardcore, starting in ’83,” notes Bauer. “Near the end of the timeframe of the book, more metal influences came into that sound. Post-punk, pop-punk, alt-country. I thought The Cardboards were one of the greatest dance bands ever — that’s what a dance band should sound like. And the whole [psychedelic] thing was going on as well.”

So far, the reaction to Had to Be There has been surprising to Bauer.

“The thing that surprised me the most is the people who weren’t there, who are interested,” he says. “I guess the people who are into the music are interested in the scene, and all of it.”

The book also features band write-ups from music journalist Jason Pettigrew (Alternative Press), art direction from Henry Owings (Chunklet magazine), and an intro by Sam Matthews. Other books could be forthcoming — Bauer has thousands of other photos, many from big national touring bands that came through Pittsburgh.

“This the first of what I hope is a lot of projects,” says Seamans. “There’s a lot of great bands that aren’t in the book because Erik didn’t have pictures of them. There’s a lot of history that pre-dates or post-dates it. It’s the beginning of a new chapter of Mind Cure.”

Book release party for Had to Be There: A Visual History of the Explosive Pittsburgh Underground (1979-94), Jan. 12, 6-8 p.m., Bottom Feeder Books, 415 Gettysburg St., Point Breeze. The exhibition will be on view through Jan. 26, Wed-Sun 12-6 p.m.

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