In the pre-social media days before everyone had a camera in their pocket, taking pictures at concerts was complicated and difficult.
It involved dragging camera gear around, pushing the film, manually focusing, hoping you got the shot — but not finding that out until the film was developed.
If you ever went to a show at the old Cameron Village Underground, which was Raleigh’s live-music hub from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, you likely saw former News & Observer photographer Chris Seward taking pictures there.
Before coming to the N&O, Seward was the main music photographer for Spectator, a free weekly paper. He shot just about everyone who played there, from on-the-rise touring acts like the Go-Go’s and R.E.M. to local heroes like the Fabulous Knobs, Arrogance and PKM.
A selection of the countless pictures Seward took from that time are on display at a City of Raleigh Museum exhibit, “The Underground: Raleigh’s Music Scene 1976-1985.” It’s a period-piece glimpse of an era, shot in black and white.
The timing of the exhibit is serendipitous. This week, Smedes York, president of Cameron Village owner York Properties, said a new jazz club is in the works for the space, which has been largely unused as a music venue for decades.
“We do have a plan we’re working on very hard to put in one nightspot,” York said in an interview. “It would utilize the tunnel, for a jazz club.”
The yet-to-named club likely would be more subdued than the nights Seward experienced.
“The night Iggy Pop played there, there were no bottles,” Seward said in an interview. He retired from The N&O in June.
“He had a habit of breaking bottles and slashing himself,” Seward said. “They didn’t want copy-cats in the crowd to try that and sever an artery.”
Beginning of the Underground
The Cameron Village Underground opened in the fall of 1971, at the corner of Clark and Woodburn streets. The main entrance was a glass kiosk in the parking lot, like the entrance to a subway, and you’d walk down a flight of stairs to get in.
It was under what is now Fresh Market, which at that time was Boylan Pearce department store (then recently relocated from downtown). Smedes York said his father, Willie, Cameron Village’s original developer, envisioned that Boylan Pearce would one day expand into the subterranean downstairs space.
When that didn’t happen, Plan B was a series of nightclubs and shops. The jazz club Frog & Nightgown was the first, moving in from its previous location on Medlin Drive. Others followed, including The Pier, Deja Vu and Bear’s Den.
The complex quickly became a hangout for musicians as well as fans. Don Dixon, who was bassist/co-leader of local kingpins Arrogance, recalled that Frog & Nightgown owner Peter Ingram would always give him the table by the stage. He got to meet Dizzy Gillespie, Barry Manilow (when he was Bette Midler’s pianist) and other acts.
Part of the deal was that Dixon was available to play when needed.
“He’d have me playing upright bass with female impersonators,” Dixon told the N&O in a 2015 interview. “It was unbelievable down there, you literally would not have believed what it was like. Not that it was some fantastic place on any kind of spiritual level. But so many bands, national acts, played there all the time and there was so much positive energy.”
One of those national acts was a then-unknown R.E.M., on their first road trip outside Georgia. R.E.M. played The Pier in the summer of 1980, and Seward was there to shoot it.
“It was a Monday ‘New Wave Night’ for a dollar, and maybe three dozen people came,” Seward said. “At the end of the night, the crowd was onstage dancing and the band was down on the floor playing. That’s when I took the picture of (guitarist) Peter Buck pointing at me, even though I normally don’t go for people mugging for the camera.”
Previously unpublished, that picture of R.E.M. is one of the City of Raleigh Museum show’s signature images. Three years later, Dixon served as co-producer of R.E.M.’s first full-length album, 1983’s landmark “Murmur.”
The Underground revived?
While the Fabulous Knobs, Arrogance and other local Underground stars had significant regional success, none ever broke through to the nationwide level. Seward, who documented the scene, was as mystified about that as everyone else.
“Live in a club, the Knobs were amazing,” Seward said. “I don’t know why that didn’t translate to records. Maybe you had to be there drinking and dancing and sweating. Arrogance, I don’t know why, either. They had a really good sound. PKM, too. Had Van Halen not come out when they did, I think PKM could have been that big.”
As the Underground-era bands ran their course, so did the Underground clubs. With that scene fading, the clubs all closed one by one and were gone by the mid-1980s. By then, the main focus of the music scene had shifted to the Brewery nightclub on Hillsborough Street.
Smedes said he hopes the revived Underground could be open by the end of 2019, pending the resolution of some issues with Fresh Market, which uses the space for storage.
“It’s something that would be great for Cameron Village. I’m personally involved in this as tenant as well. So I’m working hard on it.”
Until that comes to pass, “The Underground” exhibit is an excellent time capsule from a time when Raleigh was a much smaller, quieter town than it is now.
“Everybody back then wanted Arrogance, PKM and the Knobs to make it so they could say they were there in the early days, like the Beatles at the Cavern Club,” Seward said. “It wasn’t quite the level of CBGB in New York, but Raleigh punched above its weight. For a city this small, good acts would come through and get a good reception. I was lucky enough to be there with a camera.”
What: “The Underground: Raleigh’s Music Scene 1976-1985,” photos by Chris Seward
Where: City of Raleigh Museum, 220 Fayetteville St., Raleigh
When: On display through December
Details: 919-996-2220 or CityOfRaleighMuseum.org