Photos: NYC’s Early ’80s Music Scene Revisited At New MCNY Exhibit

There have been few more dynamic periods in New York City musical history than the 1980s, when a wide variety of artists across an even wider number of genres—punk, pop, hip-hop, salsa, jazz and more—pushed the boundaries of culture amidst a city teetering on the brink of chaos. Whether it was Madonna making her debut at Danceteria, Blondie inspiring Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, experimental artists such as Laurie Anderson briefly breaking through to the mainstream, or beloved weirdos such as the Talking Heads and Cyndi Lauper dominating MTV, NYC-based musicians were everywhere and trying everything.

This creatively fertile period of NYC history is the subject of New York, New Music: 1980-1986, a new exhibit at the Museum Of The City Of New York opening June 11th (and running through spring 2022). It was planned to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the launch of MTV, which happened on August 1st, 1981.

“The idea is to give an overarching impression of all the various music happening in the city,” Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photographs at MCNY, told Gothamist. “We thought it just really gives a sense of the kind of energy and diversity in music that was happening at the time.”



A photo of Debbie Harry, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Fab 5 Freddy with others on the set for the music video of "Rapture"
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Debbie Harry, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Fab 5 Freddy with others on the set for the music video of “Rapture” Courtesy Charlie Ahearn

While the museum has previously hosted galleries looking at musicians in the 1970s, Corcoran said that looking at the musical culture in the early ’80s was an appealing window with which to explore what the city was like at the time.

“It was in particular a time when musicians were able to afford to be here in the city, and there was a real openness to exploring outside of one’s own traditional genres,” Corcoran said. “There seemed to be a lot of cross-pollination of ideas and music, and that we found particularly appealing.”

The exhibit includes more than 350 objects, including video footage, photography, artifacts, and ephemera highlighting artists who are still well-known performers and ones who have slipped a little more into obscurity. You’ll see photos of no wave legends DNA; Funky 4 + 1 making TV history as the first hip-hop group on national TV on Saturday Night Live; footage of Liquid Liquid performing in Tompkins Square Park; rare clips of the Lounge Lizards and Kid Creole and the Coconuts in concert; experimental Arthur Russell pieces; rare early MTV interviews with David Johansen, Madonna, and Run-DMC; original flyers for the Beastie Boys and Bad Brains; and a lot more.

One piece from the exhibit that Corcoran pointed out was a 1982 Danceteria flyer advertising Madonna’s first ever show at the Hell’s Kitchen venue: “And she is basically the opening act for a British band called A Certain Ratio. We think of her as this powerful figure in the world of pop culture, and she’s the small type on the invitation and the secondary act,” he said. “Just to see that little bit of ephemera, it says something about the scene and how some people that came out of it from humble beginnings became very well-known and important popular cultural figures.”

The music being made at the time wasn’t cloistered off by neighborhoods or geography either. Venues were experimenting with different formats on a nightly basis.

“It might be a reggae night one night, and it might be hip-hop DJ’s the next night, or a place like the Mudd Club, it could be a no wave band, and then it could be somebody like Eddie Palmieri or Ray Barretto,” Corcoran said. “The beauty of a lot of clubs at the time was they were pretty open to having different styles of music on different nights. And as a result, I think a lot of people were exposed to a lot of different forms of music. And that in turn influenced the kinds of music that bands were making at the time and that they would be more open to other styles and incorporating it either overtly or more subconsciously into the music they made.”



A photo of DJ Larry Levan at Paradise Garage
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DJ Larry Levan at Paradise Garage Photograph by Bill Bernstein

It was a period in which artists and performers fluidly moved between music, art, literature and filmmaking. To that end, there will be a few companion programs and features to go along with the exhibit, including at least four Moonlight & Movies showings inspired by the gallery. Martin Scorsese’s underrated masterpiece After Hours will be screened on June 17th, Krush Groove on July 15th, Muppets Take Manhattan on August 12th, and Smithereens on September 9th. You can get more info about those screenings here.

The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 5th Avenue, at 104th Street. You can get ticketing and special events details for the exhibit right here.

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