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Celebrating Metropolis Video, the '70s Filmmakers Who Shot CBGB, Talking Heads, Blondie & More

CBGB
William LaForce Jr./NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

CBGB

On the version of “Psycho Killer” off Talking Heads’ 1977 debut album Talking Heads ’77, David Byrne does not sing, “Listen to me now, I’ve passed the test / I think I’m cute, I think I’m the best.” But during a live performance of that song caught by the public access arm of Manhattan Cable TV, he does.

The reason is simple: The footage was shot in December 1975, well before the Heads would enter the studio to cut their classic debut. And that’s not all Metropolis Video, a seven-person team of twentysomething shooters who operated in the '70s, is sitting on. On Tuesday (Oct. 3, 7 pm ET) at longstanding New York arts venue The Kitchen, Metropolis will screen 75 minutes of music they shot at CBGB in ’75, featuring early punk rock bands the Heartbreakers and Tuff Darts; new wave game-changers Blondie and Talking Heads; and a jazzy, twelve-minute rock opera from Orchestra Luna. Some of the Heads material, captured in August and September of ’75, is particularly rare; aside from in a documentary here and there, it hasn't been seen since it was first shown on public access in the mid-’70s. And it captures the band at a fascinating moment: it was the year they got going, and before guitarist Jerry Harrison made the group a foursome.

But The Kitchen show is about more than punk rock’s most legendary venue and the bands that played there -- it’s about Metropolis, too. Before going their separate ways, the septet held its last hurrah -- a two-night screening of their CBGB footage -- at the Kitchen in October 1977. So it’s been forty years since much of this footage has been seen, and forty years since Metropolis last celebrated the victory of documenting underground history.

Between August and December of 1975, Metropolis Video made their way to CBGB about a half dozen times, with a simple purpose: to fill their thirty-minute public access show with the brand new sights and sounds of punk and new wave. Metropolis member Paul Dougherty asked CBGB owner Hilly Kristal for permission to film at the club, and off they went.

“From there, it was a matter of just borrowing public access department’s equipment [laughs] late at night -- sometimes on weeknights, but mostly on weekends -- and then getting it back before the next business day,” says Metropolis Video’s Michael Owen over the phone with another member, Steve Lawrence. “And that’s how we proceeded.”

The black-and-white footage they shot at CBGB that year is mesmerizing. Everything was fresh: the club was only two years old, Blondie had gotten together in ’74, and Talking Heads had started up earlier that year. There’s a sense of discovery in the videos; the musicians were in pursuit of something. From Tina Weymouth’s funk bass to Chris Frantz’s hard-grooving drums to Byrne’s intriguingly aloof onstage vibe, the Heads are especially electric in the Metropolis Video footage shot over three different ’75 CBGB shows. Plus, there was an openness to their sound; guitarist Jerry Harrison would appear on their first album, but had not yet hopped aboard.

“One of the things that’s fascinating for fans of Talking Heads is to see them as a trio,” explains Lawrence. “’Cause all the recordings are with them as a quartet. And larger moving forward, supplemented by some of the amazing musicians they worked with over the years. And to see them at this early stage, and just how focused and powerful they were. The syncopation. To me, they’re one of the great trios.”

Metropolis split up in ’77 -- members went on to win Emmys and get nominated for Oscars -- but their work did not go unnoticed while it was happening. One vote of confidence in particular has stayed with Owen.

“If you go through John Lennon’s interviews about life in New York -- this is a text, not necessarily something that was recorded -- there’s an exchange that he makes about why it’s cool to live in New York,” says Owen. “He says, ‘You can even turn on the TV and see a band playing at CBGB.’ Which indicates to me that he stumbled across the channel at least once.”

And there were those two original nights at the Kitchen, of course, back in '77. On those evenings, Metropolis Video finally made it to the stage themselves. All eyes were on them. People had come to see what they had to offer.

“That was a very strong proof of concept, that these bands -- the performances we had recorded and the way we had done it -- really connected with an audience,” says Lawrence. “And both of those shows were sold out. It was like being at a concert, the way people responded.”

 


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