Filmmaker Kirk LeClaire revives footage of early Montana rock and punk groups

Filmmaker and documentarian Kirk LeClaire grew up in Billings at a pivotal time for music. In 2022, he released two albums contrasting very different musical scenes in Montana: bar bands of the 1970s and early punk, post punk, new wave and hardcore bands.

Released in 2022 in partnership with Lost Sounds Montana, “Many Moons: “Live at the Molly Brown,” dives into the archives of Billings, Mont. bar bands scene from the 1970s, and LeClaire’s second release of 2022, “Without Warning: Early Montana Punk, Postpunk, New Wave + Hardcore 1979 – 1991” explores 20 bands from that time.

In both releases, LeClaire brings back a slice of time where the drinking age in Montana was changed to 18 and music was being discovered in bars.

“It created an explosion (of people) wanting to go to bars and needing to be entertained,” said LeClaire. “Particularly being from Billings, live music was a hard thing to see—especially when you’re young and you couldn’t get into bars. All of a sudden, there were all kinds of avenues that created a scene for bands that toured the entire Northwest.”

LeClaire found audio recordings of the Billings-Based band Many Moons from a performance in Bozeman in 1974. Many Moons was a touring act of the time, primary gigging in the Northwest. The record features a defining psychedelic rock sound and extended jams and includes covers of classic 70s songs like the Moody Blues’ “Ride My See-Saw” and Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”

“People didn’t want to go to a bar and hear particularly original music,” said LeClaire. “They wanted to hear things they were familiar with they could dance to.”

In direct response to bar bands playing covers came a new kind of sound. The “do-it-yourself” scene began to take hold, where people began to realize they could release their own music and make their own music scenes, and it spurred a new energy in the Montana music scene.

The bar band scene was dying down and the do-it-yourself scene was ramping up, described LeClaire. “Punk rock and new wave—it really had an effect on people, and they wanted something new.”

In “Without Warning: Early Montana Punk, Postpunk, New Wave + Hardcore 1979 – 1991,” that time in Montana music is captured through the music of 20 bands such as The Pugs, Just Ducky, Sugar Ruth, Boy Toast, and others. The release includes extensive documentation from this time, essays, newspaper clippings, and more.

A clipping from a newspaper out of Thompson Falls, Mont, on May 1, 1980 reads: “It’s not likely that a Missoula punk rock band will ever be rehired to play at another Hot Springs High School … In fact, the prom performance found stuck strong disfavor that Supt. G.R. McLaughlin ordered the band to shut down and closed the prom well before it was scheduled to end.” The band was Just Ducky.

Early Montana punk rockers were disrupters to a status quo of comfortable music and danceable tracks. LeClaire’s interests in this time was first explored in the 2019 film showcased at the MINT Film Festival, “…So Good I Can’t Take It,” which began his exploration of experimental music in Montana starting in the 1970s and carried into the 1990s.

As if two album releases were not enough, in 2022 LeClaire completed a short documentary film “Every Hundred Miles (across America with Robert Frank)” featuring a young filmmaker who accompanies master photographer Robert Frank on a three-day road trip across the U.S. from California to New York, shot on a super 8 camera. The film was an official selection at the 2022 Montana International Film Festival, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, and winner of Best Documentary at the Oregon Documentary Film Festival this year.

LeClaire now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has taught in the Art Department of California State University East Bay for the past 25 years.

Hear our interview, which ran on January 23 on Yellowstone Public Radio.

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