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Photo book celebrates Pittsburgh's post-punk underground music scene

Young white man with microphone crowd-surfs
Erik Bauer
Mind Cure Books
Surf's up: Hardcore band 2000 Maniacs performs at the Electric Banana in May 1983.

In the early 1970s, a teenage Pittsburgh fan of Neil Diamond and Three Dog Night discovered a new musical pathway. It started with Lou Reed’s 1972 album “Transformer” (the one with “Walk on the Wild Side”), wound its way through the Ramones’ first LP, and only gathered momentum from there.

One result of Erik Bauer’s journey was that he became perhaps the key photographic chronicler of Pittsburgh’s nascent underground music scene. Now, his images have been gathered into a new book, “Had to Be There: A Visual History of the Explosive Pittsburgh Underground (1979-1994),” from locally based Mind Cure Books.

The glossy 192-page hardback includes hundreds of lively, mostly color photos of dozens of bands playing in venues from houses to vanished clubs like Oakland’s Electric Banana.

The bands include such pioneering local acts as Carsickness, The Cardboards and The Five, and even early versions of garage rock revivalists The Cynics, who today tour internationally. From new-wave cardigans and Black Flag T-shirts to leather motorcycle jackets and spiked hair, the book is a compendium of the era’s styles and a time capsule full of mosh pits, sweaty torsos and delirious grins.

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See and Be Scene

Bauer, who graduated from Pitt in 1976, shortly thereafter started catching then-new touring bands like the Ramones and Talking Heads at small venues here. He was working as a chemist at Kennametal in Westmoreland County when he saw his first show by a local band: his friend Larry Olinger’s punk group The Inmates, at a house concert.

After Bauer’s mother gave him her Nikon FM 35 mm camera, the first act he photographed was Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale at Swissvale club Phase III. That was actually the final show at Phase III, but Bauer’s enthusiasm for photography merged with his passion for local underground acts.

A book cover reading “Had to Be There: A Visual History of the Explosive Pittsburgh Underground (1979-1994)" by Erik Bauer.
Mind Cure Books

Indie by definition — before that term was in vogue — these were DIY bands who defied the tradition that you had to have years of experience (or any) or master a bunch of cover songs (or any) before you played live.

If anything, the performers’ minimal experience translated into only greater enthusiasm by audiences, who were typically drawn from the ranks of local college students. As his photos attest, Bauer dwelled amidst the melee.

“I even lost a camera flash once to someone stage diving or crowd surfing — you know, trying to get a shot,” he said, with a laugh. “And he crashed into me and snapped the flash off the hot shoe. Yeah, there was a lot of that going on.”

Bauer, now 69 and retired, recalls the groups as musically diverse, from Pittsburgh’s first hardcore punk band, Real Enemy (which Bauer said grew indirectly out of a road trip to hardcore hotbed Washington, D.C., he undertook with the group’s two co-founders), to post-punk, industrial noise, electronic dance music, and even early alt-country.

“Anything you wanted really was happening here in Pittsburgh,” he said.

While the scene was dominated by young white men, there were exceptions, including the Black female duo the Beach Bunnies and the late Bobby Porter, the huge-voiced frontman for bands including Thin White Line and Young Lust. And that’s not forgetting the all-female Barbed Wire Dolls and woman-fronted groups like Pleasure Heads and Thickhead Grin.

Some of the bands in “Had to Be There” lasted just months; others toured, recorded and even garnered college-radio airplay. Some got to open on Pittsburgh tour stops by nationally known acts like Hüsker Dü, Samhain and Henry Rollins. But in general, the scene they helped define was small, reliant in those pre-internet days on word of mouth, handmade posters, and tiny ads in local newspapers.

“You could fill the [Electric] Banana on certain nights, depending on the band,” said Bauer. “That included local bands, too. But if it was a touring band … probably 250, 300, could be squeezed into the Banana. Then there were also shows where there were two of us in the audience, four in the local opening band, which made six, and the poor touring band had four people in it!”


“Had to Be There” is organized by year. It includes a forward by scene stalwart Sam Matthews; a Q&A with Bauer by former longtime Alternative Press editor-in-chief Jason Pettigrew; and Pettigrew's handy appendix with brief histories of many key bands. It also reproduces a generous supply of vintage concert posters. Most modestly, in recognition of the size of Pittsburgh’s classic underground music scene, it also appends a list of some 120 contemporaneous acts of whom Bauer doesn’t have photos.

Erik Bauer.
Mind Cure Books
Erik Bauer as photographed circa 1984.

“Had to Be There” grew from Bauer’s relationship with Mike Seamans, owner of Wilkinsburg-based Mind Cure Records, which under previous ownership released records and cassettes by some of these bands. Seamans used some of Bauer’s photos for his reissues of early Mind Cure releases. The book took shape during the pandemic.

Seamans said “Had to Be There,” which had an initial press run of 500 copies, is selling well. Copies are available in-person at his shop, Fungus Books, at Bottom Feeder Books, and mail-order through Copacetic Comics and Get Hip Recordings. A second printing is planned.

Many of the book’s fans are surely scenesters from back in the day, like Cynics founder and guitarist Gregg Kostelich, who appears in several photos. “There’s a lot of cool stuff” in the book, said Kostelich, who also owns Get Hip. He added, “It’s a launching pad for more things to happen” in terms of celebrating the Pittsburgh scene.

Bauer said he’s been surprised by how many people are interested in the book — even people who weren’t “there” at the shows. “My sister has friends in their 30s who weren't there and wanted this book,” he said.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: