In 1997, when he was 16, local music fan Al Champagne came across “Your Punk Heritage,” a compilation CD by long-defunct New Orleans band the Normals. He knew nothing about the Normals but bought it anyway.
“I thought it would be this crummy band imitating the Clash,” he recalled. “I was surprised at how good it was.”
That CD launched Champagne on a quest to learn all he could about New Orleans punk rock and New Wave, a scene that had already flamed out by the early 1980s, long before he was old enough to go to shows.
In 2011, Champagne’s abiding interest inspired him to start making a documentary film about this lesser-known chapter of New Orleans music history, which played out at Jed’s on Oak Street, Jimmy’s Music Club on Willow Street, Ole Man River’s in Avondale and other now-defunct nightspots.
Six years later, Champagne’s film, “Almost Ready: The Story of Punk Rock in New Orleans,” is nearly finished. He’s interviewed dozens of musicians, club owners and fans, and collected rare performance footage and other memorabilia.
On Saturday, The Willow, 8200 Willow St. — former home of Jimmy’s — will host a benefit to raise money to help Champagne finish the film. Scheduled performers include Lenny Zenith, who fronted the punk-pop band RZA back in the day and is now based in New York; Sexdog, another veteran act that features Cranston Clements on guitar and is working on a new album; Glamarama, which includes ex-members of the Red Rockers and the Backstabbers and specializes in the music of David Bowie, T. Rex and Slade; and The Tomb of Nick Cage, a newer local horror punk/metal/New Wave band.
The show starts early, at 6 p.m. Admission is $10. There also will be a raffle of a guitar from Schecter Guitar Research; Michael Ciravolo, the California-based company's president, was a member of the New Orleans-based New Wave band the Models in the '80s.
Champagne, who took some video-production classes at Delgado Community College but is otherwise a self-taught documentarian, supports himself with a day job. He's spent the past six years working on his labor of love when time and money allow. He hopes the money from this week’s benefit and a possible crowd-sourcing campaign enables him to travel to conduct several final interviews and covers such post-production costs as the licensing of songs used in the film.
He started from scratch, with no information other than the liner notes from the Normals compilation CD he bought at age 16. Those liner notes, by writer Kevin Combs, became the starting point for Champagne’s research.
Once word of the project started getting out, he was “flooded with requests” from people who wanted to be part of it, he said. “The film ended up being a lot bigger than I thought."
It spans roughly the mid-1970s to the mid-‘80s, from pre-punk to post-punk. Featured bands include the Normals, whose 1978 single “Almost Ready” inspired the documentary's title; the Red Rockers, whose “China” enjoyed a run on MTV; the Fat City-based band the Dukes; popular New Wave group The Cold; power-pop trio the Limit, whose frontman, Christian Serpas, now leads honky-tonk combo Ghost Town; the rockabilly-leaning Blue Vipers, featuring guitarist Johnny J; and hardcore punk/metal hybrid Shell Shock.
Hurricane Katrina’s devastation made the task of collecting material for the documentary more difficult. “Lots of footage was lost in Katrina, and Katrina made a lot of these records rarer,” Champagne said.
Jimmy’s proprietor Jimmy Anselmo, who still owns the building that now houses Willow, was instrumental in putting Champagne in touch with far-flung musicians. Champagne decided which bands warranted inclusion in the film in part by how valuable their old recordings have become.
Vinyl records from New Orleans’ punk/New Wave heyday are sought-after collectors’ items, especially overseas. Copies of the Limit’s four-song 1983 EP have fetched $100 on eBay; in 2012, a Texas-based independent record company re-released it on CD. A single by the Skinnies recently sold for $500 on eBay, Champagne said.
Many of the “likes” on the film’s Facebook page, he notes, “come from foreign countries where they know these songs. These bands never would have imagined that 30 years later, their records would be collectors’ items in Europe and Japan.”
Or that they would be the subject of a documentary film.