Contact High: Photographer Lucian Perkins on Shooting Bad Brains’ Valley Green Show
The show is now considered a seminal moment in music history
In the series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.
Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”
We caught up with legendary photographer Lucian Perkins to take us through one of his rarely seen contact sheets of Bad Brains rocking against racism at the start of their career…
Washington, D.C., 1979
On September 9th, 1979, Bad Brains frontman H.R. carefully ran an extension cord from an apartment in D.C.’s Valley Green Housing Complex out to the parking lot to power the band’s instruments. As they were setting up, a crowd started to gather — consisting predominantly of African-American residents, both fascinated and perplexed about what was about to take place — and a few middle-class white punk kids who had traveled from the suburbs to this neighborhood in Southeast D.C to hear what would become arguably the greatest hardcore band of all time.
For photographer Lucian Perkins, this was his first time documenting the Bad Brains. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, was a 26-year-old intern at the Washington Post at the time. A few weeks prior, Perkins was having a drink at DC Space when the ceiling above him started to shake.
“I went upstairs and saw four African-American kids just performing and it was amazing. They took what they were doing very seriously and they were a very tight band. This was very new to me. After they finished I sat down with H.R. and had a drink and he told me about his plans to do a Rock Against Racism show at the Valley Green housing projects in D.C. That’s when I said to myself: this could be a really interesting story to follow.”
The show, now considered a seminal moment in music history, was conceived by H.R. as a Rock Against Racism (RAR) action, a massive series of concerts in the U.K. that took place between 1976-1981 to confront rising racist ideology in Britain. Under the slogan ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’, it showcased reggae and punk bands including The Clash and Steel Pulse on the same stage. At a time when when racist skinheads danced to Jamaican ska on British dancefloors, the concert was provocative, anti-conservative and timely. And it inspired H.R. to bring something similar to D.C., a city predominantly populated by minorities (mostly African-Americans). While most of the members of the D.C. hardcore scene were accepting of all races, allowing Bad Brains, an all black band, to flourish, the need to make the political statement was nevertheless necessary.
H.R. had met some people who lived at Valley Green while working as a parking lot guard at Greater Southeast Community Hospital and decided to stage the decidedly DIY concert there. Part of H.R.’s plan was to get the punk scene to “take it to the streets” and step beyond their nascent scene. Early D.C. punk band Teen Idles and Untouchables were the openers.
“Most of the people in Valley Green were kind of in shock because this wasn’t music they were used to so they’re looking at the scene like ‘What’s going on.” On the one hand, there was a disconnect but also a connection as people were enjoying it in their own way. In a weird way it became a community event. But there was definitely a disconnect. I think possibly a lot of the younger kids in this housing project had rarely seen a white person in-person. And a lot of the punk kids had certainly never been to a housing project” remembers Perkins.
Mostly shot wide, the images on the contact sheet illustrate just how immersive and sweat-drenched Bad Brains’ shows were, almost zero division between audience and band. The image of H.R. arms raised in euphoria between two cymbals is sheer power. Babylon turned on its head with seismic vibrations. At one point, a young African-American kid in the crowd grabs the mic, swept up in the moment. The look of shock and wonder on some of the faces in the audience is priceless. The night, equally formative and subversive, is now the stuff of legend.
Not that many people brought cameras to shows back then and Perkins’ images of the Valley Green show are the only known documentation of that night.
“Valley Green was an unlikely name for the urban compound that greeted us — the name was a hopeful whitewash on a tough spot. Conceived by local council members to be a solution to poverty, it was instead a hothouse of social ills for the people who had to live there. Notorious even when it was new, it had transgressed to mythic status by the time we found our teenaged selves driving along Wheeler Road, trying to find the spot. Washington Heights was already one of the roughest neighborhoods during a time when crime statistics were reaching epic levels in D.C.” recalls musician Alec MacKaye (former a member of the DC hardcore band Untouchables who also played that night) in the book Hard Art, DC 1979.
Perkins wasn’t a punk rock insider but he trusted his senses when it came to documenting culture. He worked at night at the Washington Post to develop the film, showing the images to Bob Woodward, the storied journalist who broke the Watergate scandal and, at the time, the Metro editor at The Washington Post. Woodward’s response: “Does this really exist in Washington?”
It’s important to talk about the significance of this night in context to what was happening in the nation’s capital in the late 70’s/early 80’s. The 1968 riots (which began after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.) ushered in a decade of economic hardship and social division. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” was the famous edict of the Kerner Commission. Subsequently, D.C. saw a massive demographic shift that branded DC as the “Chocolate City” in the 1970’s. On the cusp of the Reagan presidency. D.C.’s soul was a spilling out into the streets. Go-Go, D.C.’s answer to hip-hop developed during the mid-1970s but the political and social climate was nothing short of polarizing.
Perkins photographed the Bad Brains and the Punk scene on and off from Sep of 1979 to Jan 1980. Valley Green meanwhile was razed in 1991, replaced by single family homes and townhouses—but the legacy of that one single night in Valley Green remains, mythologized on silver gelatin…
The negatives from the Valley Green concert were put away and somewhat forgotten until 1995, when Perkins hired photographer/photo archivist Lely Constantinople. Going through several decades of archives in his basement, Constantinople’s eyes grew wide when she came upon the unmarked negatives from the Valley Green show. She then recognized her boyfriend (now husband), Alec MacKaye, in some of the imagery. MacKaye was just fourteen when he attended the Valley Green concert, His older brother Ian, later of Minor Threat and Fugazi, was there too, with his band, the Teen Idles.
“I knew they were important and I knew I had to show them to Alec,” recalls Constantinople.
“When Lely brought home these contact sheets, I recognized almost everybody in these photos. They were taken at a time when not many took pictures and they captured a time that was pivotal.” says MacKaye.
So I show up at Valley Green apartments and the band is setting up in a parking lot. D.C. was much more segregated back then and the punk scene and the African Americans residents didn’t typically have alot of interaction day to day. Alec Mackaye was 14 at the time and he said going to Valley Green was life changing. So what I thought of as somewhat comical at the time was actually very important. On some levels, it was a real disconnect. But, at the same time, I think it really helped a lot of people understand the world around them a little differently. A lot of the people that lived there didn’t know what to make of it and the music too was so different from what they were used to hearing.
H.R. was a natural showman. He had the stage presence of James Brown or Jimi Hendrix. You couldn’t stop watching him.
The Camera Nerd Out
Nikon FM2 with a direct flash because it was so dark where I was photographing. And I would do a long exposure to pick up as much of the background as I could.
Your photographs from that night at Valley Green are the only ones that exist documenting this historic moment. How does that make you feel as a photographer?
As a photographer, this was a dream. You’ve got two cultures so different from each other just smacked together. And to be able to photograph them together was amazing. The punk scene in D.C. in general was so organic and they were usually right down with the audience. What grew out of this became so important to so many people. It’s quite extraordinary where all of this went.
Over the course of photographing the Bad Brains, you really capture that thing of being immersed in the music and moment, both from an audience perspective and a band’s perspective.
I loved photographing H.R. with the audience and the interaction with the crowd. It was about a year before I showed them the photos. Today with digital, you shoot so much more because you’re not limited with the frames. Also, with digital cameras you can show people their images right away. But when I shot the Bad Brains, it was about a year before I showed them the photos. And it was interesting to see their reaction.
How do you feel looking back on these images after so many years?
One of the big lessons I’ve learned is how important the photographs we take today can be in the future. To see these images over 30 years later, makes you realize how crucial they are for history. It’s important to save all your images. Back then, I never realized that these images would mean so much to so many people. I’m very aware when I take photos today.
Follow Lucian Perkins on Instagram and website. Check out his book Hard Art, DC. The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published on Mass Appeal, will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.