One of the most notorious concerts in punk’s underreported legacy just surfaced in the new documentary We Were There To Be There. Produced by Field of Vision, The Cramps and The Mutants have their glory on full display at the infamous Napa State Mental Hospital concert in 1978.
Recorded by Bay Area documentarian Joe Rees and his ragtag film crew, they uncovered what would become the most sought after VHS tape of the underground punk scene. In an era that propelled bands to word of mouth fame, this show was among the most emblematic snapshots of the scene that surrounded the Bay Area at the time.
The directors, Mike Plante and Jason Willis, take the audience through the climate that created the west coast punk world, providing political and social context to the emerging movement that defined the late ’70s.
After successfully competing with the CBGBs crowd in New York, The Cramps were among the most prominent acts after returning to the West Coast. Sharing the stage with early innovators from The Ramones to Blondie, they cut their teeth with upcoming pioneers of new genres that were unknown at the time. Genres like punk and New Wave were being tried for the first time and The Cramps had a front row seat to its early incarnation, while contributing to its inception
The Mutants shared a similar trajectory, in the wake of new music being welcomed into the fold, trading the psychobilly genre made by The Cramps in favor of the New Wave they were surrounded by back in New York.
Before delving into the actual show filmed by Rees, the documentary unfolds the desolation of San Francisco and the fading music scene that once spawned out of the Haight Ashbury scene. What was once the home of psychedelic rock was quickly devolving by the industrialization that many states in the midwest can attest to.
Rees captured more than meets the eye on his Sony camera, providing a few motifs to newcomers. Some of the angles from the footage might remind fans of their obscured view at concerts that were equally as inconvenient yet true to memory. Their Link Wray riffs and eccentric frontman stirred the audience into a frenzy. Despite the aggression of the music, the interactive audience appeared visually engaged and generally supportive of the performance.
You find yourself wondering who’s in the band as audience members join the stage to sing into the mic and shout as prominent as Lux Interior. His performance is more prestigious on the original Rees tape, complete with his southern swing and Elvis demeanor.
They were a true outlier within their time. Despite the popularity contest being handed to Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, the bands going off road in terms of genres were reaping the rewards from fans rather than critics. In retrospect, The Cramps and The Mutants were ahead of their time and wouldn’t get their credit until after the fact.
One was expanding the boundaries of rockabilly and the others introduced the earliest example of New Wave. There was a valuable opportunity for record labels to capitalize on these acts in their prime. Such is life for innovative bands with inconvenient timing, too early for the critics and too weird for the fans.
We Were There To Be There awards them that credit by revisiting a show that represents the scene that wasn’t covered by the major outlets. Back when fanzines were more in touch with the youth, these VHS tapes served as the template for what defined the trends of the era.
Rees’s recording offers a fly-on-the-wall view and a brief glimpse on the expansive world of punk. The footage may have only lasted as long as the average Ramones gig, yet it provides enough context on where these bands came from and how they paved the way for newcomers in the next decade.