You had to be there: Pittsburgh’s early punk scene documented in Erik Bauer’s new book
Erik Bauer had seen plenty of shows growing up around Pittsburgh, from Three Dog Night at Three Rivers Stadium to Talking Heads in an Oakland pizza shop. But in 1979, he brought his Nikon FM to Swissvale’s Phase III club to see John Cale in concert. It was the first of dozens of underground punk shows Bauer photographed in Pittsburgh.
“I've been going to concerts since ‘72, but finally, I had a camera,” said Bauer. “For memories sake, I just started taking pictures at the time. That kind of grew into what it is today.”
He’s referring to “Had To Be There: A Visual History of the Explosive Pittsburgh Underground, 1979-1994,” a lovingly made, nearly 200-page book from Mind Cure Records. The book showcases much of Bauer’s extensive catalog, which captures Pittsburgh punk from legendary venues like the Electric Banana and Lions Walk to house shows that cropped up over the years.
After working as a chemist in Latrobe during the day, Bauer would head into the city and photograph shows with a wonderfully worn, romantic quality. At the time, the sound of the Pittsburgh underground was broad and eclectic. In the 15 years displayed across “Had To Be There,” you see the post-punk of Hans Brinker and The Dykes or Carsickness, a burgeoning hardcore scene with Half-Life and Savage Amused, along with electronic acts, psychedelic rock, and countless others.
“I mean, we went to everything,” said Bauer in an interview that opens the book. “Because they’ll keep bringing stuff in if people keep going. You gotta participate, you know?”
Mike Seamans first met Bauer in the 1990s while working at Paul’s CDs in Bloomfield. When Seamans became the “official keeper” of long-standing local punk label Mind Cure Records in 2011, Bauer supplied photos for the label’s reissues of Pittsburgh releases. But Seamans began to wonder how else they could archive this history when he saw the sheer amount of Bauer’s photographs at shows and punk paraphernalia.
“I proposed this idea of putting together a collection of photographs because this stuff should be seen,” said Seamans. “We felt that since we both have this love of the local stuff, why don’t we start with a book of it?”
These discussions began more seriously during the pandemic, when they reached out to Jason Pettigrew, the former editor-in-chief of Alternative Press magazine, to compile biographies of 43 bands worth noting in the scene. Henry Owings, who spearheaded the book’s design, was called in to layout “Had To Be There” after a recommendation by Eli Kasan from Pittsburgh punks The Gotobeds.
“This is Erik's life's work. He had a whole career as a chemist, but his life's work is documenting this music scene,” said Seamans. “It was very important to me that it happened in the way that he wanted to see it [...] so his trust in me means a lot.”
Because the scene got little notoriety or press coverage in its time, Seamans hoped that “Had To Be There” could be the first step of many in solidifying Pittsburgh music’s place in history. That legacy will be on display at Bottom Feeder Books in Point Breeze, where framed photos from the book will be on display, starting with a reception that Bauer and Mind Cure Records are hosting on Friday, Jan. 12.
“The underground music was way more interesting than what was going on on the radio,” said Bauer. “Support your local underground. Do what you can for your scene. I don't have any musical talent or particular artistic talent, but I can work a camera.”
Bottom Feeder Books will host the book release and opening reception for “Had to Be There” on Friday, Jan.12 at 6 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through Friday, Jan. 26. Go to bottomfeederbooks.com for more details.
Ethan Beck is a Pittsburgh-born, New York-based culture writer. His work has appeared in Bandcamp Daily, Paste Magazine, Vice, Mic, Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and others.