Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong continue sorting through their archives of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at N.Y.U.’s Fales Library.

(Photo: Emily Armstrong)

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ushered in a long cold winter of conservatism in America. But a little bit of heat was generating on the Lower East Side. Over on the Bowery, the Ballistic Kisses were in their loft, practicing. With a sound that combined post-punk and politics, they brought something new to the downtown club scene.

Michael Shore, rock critic for The Soho Weekly News recalls, “In those days we did not even have a name for electropop, synth or what they were doing. And their lead singer, Mike Parker was very intense. They were the first NYC band with genuine, serious political thought, but with an interesting difference from the Sex Pistols — they seemed to be more street level. The Ballistic Kisses had an honest, urgent, sincere political thing going on.”

The band also had an interesting back story. Parker was an established poet and an elected judge in the bohemian mining town of Ward, Colorado. He came east with his friend and fellow martial artist, Jeff Freund. When Parker moved into a Bowery loft with musician Michael Hrynyk, things started to happen. Drummer Rich McClusky remembers,“Hrynyk would stay in bed all day and play music on his synthesizer and Michael Parker would read his poetry real loud. They figured, why don’t we put some of this to music? Jeff started playing bass and they wanted someone to do percussion instead of a drum box, so I joined them.”

Keyboard-driven with no guitar, BK songs were stripped down and rhythmic; lyrically, they were more complex. They took an unblinking look at the harsh realities of life on the Lower East Side where, for many, it was not Morning in America. “Domestic Servants” examined the hard times of the working poor; “Black and Broke” defiantly celebrated sex workers struggling for some dignity; and the song in today’s clip, “Tuff Shit,” brutally skewered the haves take on the have-nots. Jeff Freund says, “It was a fantasy came true for me — to take Michael’s poetry and turn it into credible music. It was real street, he was the articulate punk.”

It worked. Booking agent Ruth Polsky got Ballistic Kisses their first gig and the band took off. They had an unusual mix of poetry, live music, politics and martial arts (numchuck battles were part of the act) and it drew appreciative crowds. Mike Parker summed it up: “It was nice to take poetry and have people shake their ass to it. It was something every poet dreams about.” Describing a typical Ballistic Kisses audience, Freund observed, “People danced with fury when they danced with us.”

(Photo: Emily Armstrong)

And the social commentary didn’t put people off, either. “Our audience was ready for it. The street was part of our lives here in NYC,” Parker remarked. “If you could make people move while they were listening and they enjoyed it, politics were easy to swallow. It wasn’t something they had to think about; it was something they could feel.”

The Ballistic Kisses recorded two albums in the UK, “Total Access” and “Wet Moment.” David Wojnarowicz, artist and friend of the band, designed the covers. “The songs were so simple they appealed to people’s basic instincts,” McClusky said. “You got fired from your job, well that’s Tuff Shit. I was very happy that I was able to play music, with words that really meant something to me,
that told stories. That was the greatest part, the camaraderie and the message.”

These days, Mike Parker is back in Ward, Colorado, writing poetry and climbing mountains. Jeff Freund moved to Sweden and works as a stage designer and writer. Rich McClusky is an electrician in New Jersey, and recently began playing music again. Mike Hrynyk died from AIDS in 1990 and is greatly missed.

It’s 2013, Obama is starting his second term and times are changing. Might be just the time to start listening to those Ballistic Kisses songs again. We could all use a little heat.

This post originally appeared on The Local East Village.