Saturday, March 22, 2014

Punk in New York


Punk in New York: Blitzkreig Bop

Mat Snow, NME, 15 February 1986

"And one fine morning she turns on a New York-station / And doesn't believe what she hears at all / She started dancing to that fine fine music / You know her life was saved by rock and roll." (The Velvet Underground, 1970)
"When I was younger I used to listen to the car radio all the time. Truthfully, that was my only solace when I was still in high school." (Debbie Harry, 1977)
NOSTALGIA IS one thing: digging your roots is another. Ten bleak winters since the watershed year when punk exploded from cult to movement is not only a neat and obvious vantage point for retro-examination but also, as Lenny Kaye agrees, a most pertinent one. Back then people were on the look-out for the Next Big Thing and they got punk.
Now people are peering into the goat's entrails in the hope of the Next Big Punk; my betting is that what they'll get is a different can of worms altogether.
But I digress: back in 1975 the New York pioneers of punk were digging their roots. Unlike most of their British counterparts, they were no spring chickens.
Patti Smith was born in 1946, Johnny Ramone in '49, Debbie Harry had premiered in showbiz with a late '60s flower-power outfit called Wind ln The Willows...about the youngest of the lot was Johnny Thunders, born 1953, and an unflinching devotee of Eddie Cochran and Ye Earlye Who.
And in what circumstances did this generation find itself? In 1975 one in every 50 of total records sold was by Elton John. And the Eagles and Led Zeppelin weren't far behind.

"Rock'n'roll was in need of waking up at the time," recalls rock archivist and journalist Lenny Kaye (in England producing the first James LP), who was then guitarist with Patti Smith, "and a lot of people saw us as a symbol and a catalyst for that. When we went out on our first nationwide American tour, we would draw the 'underground' in each city. They were obviously looking for something, and maybe by example we inspired a lot of people, not to sound like us, but just the fact that we were doing something different.
"I remember when we played LA at the end of '74, we got 20 people coming to see us, but maybe those 20 people started forming groups. We got tagged very early with the punk label, for want of a better word. I think it was more tributary than the kind of music we played. There was a whole punk ethos around the 'Nuggets' type of groups. There was a direct line seen from the 'Nuggets' groups to The Stooges, the Dolls and the glitter bands: there was an alternative recognised music scene of which maybe David Bowie and Roxy Music were the most successful. It was looked on as different from the more accepted progressive rock groups.
"As Patti always said, one of our main functions was to act as Paul Revere – we were riding around the country saying, 'Wake up! Wake up!' We felt a sense of mission but we didn't want to make much of it because you can get too blinded by your own light. What we wanted was a certain freedom in the music – a freedom in style, a freedom in choosing our own directions."
In 1975 Patti Smith put it like this: "What we can get from the '60s is that people got so far out that old concepts were really dead. Everything that keeps us apart is really old news, man. People don't know it yet, but future generations will figure it out. That's why I'm working on a link – to keep it going" (Patti, in fact, is still living the housewife life, and is expecting her second child with Fred Smith).

You will gather that the Class of '75 had no qualms about showing their hippie roots; these roots were better understood in their land of origin than in Britain where they'd flowered as an import fad typified by that most universally vilified of old fart symbols, Bob Harris of The Old Grey Whistle Test, whose simpering 1973 description of The New York Dolls as "mock rock" went down instantly in UK punk's annals of hippie odiousness.
THE NEW York Dolls: a name to conjure with. And here's another: The Velvet Underground.
In their respective eras each became tagged as a loser band, not just for the underbelly themes of their songs, but also because they never delivered on their initial hype popularity-wise. Both suffered from bad management, unsympathetic record deals and, perhaps, that great imponderable – a mass audience that simply wasn't ready. The Velvet Underground's first LP sold a measly 35,000 copies upon its 1967 release: last year it finally went gold.
"The Velvet Underground? Certainly the most important band," proclaims Lenny Kaye. "They were the one group that proved you could scissor together the perverse side of art and the pop side of rock'n'roll. After them, The Stooges and The MC5 are my biggest influences. Sometimes I think we were the last of the '60s bands and maybe the Dolls were the first of the '70s bands, and in that little crossing was a lot of what came after."
There's a lot of pointless fun to be had in defining eras and traditions. What is certain is that by 1975 you had sufficient atrophy in pop's vital organs to disaffect a generation, that five-per-cent whose life had been saved by rock 'n' roll and now felt the favour had to be returned. And this five-percent were sufficiently numerous to provide a diversity of musicians and the necessary infrastructure to support those musicians – a paying audience, a grapevine to spread the word, and, at last, a place for it all to happen.

CBGB's was that place, a tiny bar beneath a flophouse in the profoundly low-rent (as it was then) Bowery district of New York. Its full title was, and remains, Country Blue Grass Blues (and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers), and its owner is Hilly Kristal, whose only booking policy is that the act has to be interesting.
"I think Tom Verlaine actually discovered the place," recalls Lenny. "He went up to Hilly and said, 'Why don't you have some rock'n'roll here?' Hilly's idea at the time was more country-orientated.
"The first year, maybe from '74 to the beginning of '75, there was no audience but the bands themselves and the local music-orientated scenesters who had no other place to go. With Patti Smith we had a following drawn from the art-fringes and we would play a lot of cabaret/folk clubs, mostly one-offs every month or so. But we got very friendly with Television, cos we were working on the same outer limits, and we set up an actual real gig for eight weeks straight in the spring of '75, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It was good for us because it was the first time we'd settled down and played on a regular basis, and that's when a lot of the actual songs focused in, especially some of the longer, improvised stuff like 'Land' or 'Gloria'. By the time we finished CBGBs was established.

"It was a great place to play, very homey: it was really – and still is – a traditional bar. There were no amenities except for a pool table at the back. Hilly used to sleep in the back with half a dozen Russian wolfhounds and they'd be running out among the beer signs...A very real kind of place.
"One of the beauties of the scene was that it never really had a specific style. It was a bunch of different ideas; each band was totally different. The ony watershed was when one would break out. There was a momentum in the sense that as the scene grew, people started seeing it as a scene and hanging out within it. I could say that when our first record came out, November '75, that was a watershed because its success surprised everyone, not least us."
"Do you remember lying in bed/With your covers pulled up over your head/Radio playin' so no one can see?/We need change, we need it fast/Before rock's just part of the past/'Cause lately it all sounds the same to me..." (Ramones, 1980)
"We need the likes of the Ramones to reacquaint us loser white kids more than ever." (Nick Kent, NME, 1976)
TIME FOR a musical interlude. Lenny Kaye was not only one of punk's prime movers but was also intimately involved in one of its most revered and influential texts: it was he who compiled the 1972 Nuggets double-album, which contained 27 "original artyfacts from the first psychedelic era 1965 – 1968". As of Lenny's last royalty statement in 1980, Nuggets has sold a grand total of 7,000 copies, every single one of which must have inspired a new band to form.
And if Lenny were to put together a Nuggets of original artyfacts for the first New Wave era 1975 – 1977, this is what he'd include:

Television: 'Friction'
Talking Heads: 'Psycho Killer'
– "even though they outgrew it real quickly".

Richard Hell And The Voidoids: 'Blank Generation'
The Victims ("I think"): 'I Want Head'
– "'I want head till I'm dead' – can you beat that?!?"

Blondie: 'X Offender'
Dead Boys (from Cleveland): 'Sonic Reducer'
Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers: 'Chinese Rocks'
Wayne County: 'Max's Kansas City'
Ramones: 'Beat On The Brat'
– "the first time I saw them, that was the one where I fell over!"

Mink De Ville: 'Cadillac Walk'
Tuff Darts: 'All For The Love Of Rock & Roll'
Devo (from Akron, Ohio): 'Satisfaction'
Suicide: 'Cheree'
– "or anything off their first album, a complete classic".

Pere Ubu (from Cleveland): "kind of maverick – 'Thirty Seconds Over Winterland'".
The Runaways (from LA):'Cherry Bomb'
The Avengers (from San Francisco): 'Car Crash'
The Miamis: 'We Deliver 24 Hours A Day'
The Brats: 'First Rock Star On The Moon'

Lenny Kaye neglects to name any Patti Smith song; for several obvious reasons, 'Gloria' has to be the choice.
"Let's see...Dylan, the Stones, The Who, Hendrix...the whole series of Velvet Underground days. Another band from that period I really thought was hot was Tony Williams' Lifetime. I saw them in New York – took my life in my hands to go there, but it was worth it. They were just so unbelievable." (Tom Verlaine, 1977)
"My father always watched Ed Sullivan, and he screamed at me, 'Look at these guys!' I was totally into black stuff, I didn't want to see this Rolling Stones crap. But my father acted so nuts, it was like, he was so cool, for him to react so violently attracted me...They put the touch on me. I was blushing jelly. This was no mama's boy music. It was alchemical. I couldn't fathom the recipe but I was ready. Blind love for my father was the first thing I sacrificed to Mick Jagger." (Patti Smith, 1973, 1975)
UNLIKE BRITISH punk, American New Wave never really conveyed a sense of history in the making, of bands being harbingers of social change. Nor did the commercial success of Patti Smith, Talking Heads and Blondie influence pop's mainstream and record industry to the degree that did punk in Britain. Artistic diversity and freedom was the New Wave's common cause, which quickly became incorporated into the marketing wisdom of the majors. With a few exceptions, they took a cold bath with it saleswise, the industry only being saved from commercial pneumonia by the late '70s disco boom and Brit-vid invasion of the early '80s
Though they'd drawn liberally from Patti Smith's inspiration, the Ramones' sound and Richard Hell's image, as far as the bullet-headed Stalinists of British punk were concerned, American – that is New York – punk had sold out early on; and by adopting the anodyne self-description of New Wave, the likes of Talking Heads had sullied the punk badge of honour and distanced themselves from the street much as the hippies were perceived to have done.
"New Wave at least was broader. Punk, especially when it got to England, was defined as a black leather jacket, a safety pin and spitting. New Wave, which was a term borrowed from the cinema, was at least more descriptive of what went on. We didn't want a million bands sounding like one thing; that's what we were against. We basically wanted a new force of energy to take over the music and make it exciting and interesting again. And maybe through the unlocking of music – since we'd grown up in the '60s when music was really a social force – people could unlock their own personal lives. That's all New Wave was: like any other definition, it soon came to mean a skinny tie, but that's not why it began in the first place."
After the 1975-6 generation had broken out to wider success or otherwise, the NY scene was replenished by the so-called No Wave, where the likes of DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and The Contortions took music even closer to the edge, but at a cost to accessibility. Gradually the scene ran down.
"It had its moment. People's tastes change. After certain possibilities get explored, people tend to get a little predictable. That's not to say there is not a lot of good music and musicians still in New York – including myself, I must admit – but you're dealing with the right place at the right time. And in 1975, '76, New York was. It was that peculiar locus of bands speaking to a certain global consciousness.
"It was also part of a movement. Now it's much more individually cool artists. And New York is still cookin' – look at hip-hop. As far as I'm concerned, that's as interesting and sonically appealing as New Wave music, if not more so cos it's spread across races. Forget countries and geographies; to spread it through the different streams of humanity, I think that's pretty cool. Fourth World Funk – a cool idea. The consciousness in New York is not as rock-oriented as it was – but so what?"
"I love this whole band scene. They all believe so strongly in the myth of rock 'n' roll. It's like those bands on the Nuggets album – Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Amboy Dukes, The Strangeloves, Mouse And The Traps – all of those bands had at least one song out of their repertoire that was great. Whether or not they can really play isn't the point; they're all living out their fantasies, and they achieve their own kind of perfection." (Lenny Kaye, 1975)
"WE WEREN'T like gruff revolutionaries storming the barricades: we enjoyed going on radio stations and saying Fuck! It was fun, the fun of teenage rebellion in many ways. I'm sure certain mythologies are growing up around it – I can see it in the papers now – but to me then as it seems now, it was just hanging out. Hanging out never really changes.
"We wrecked a few guitars, got wild and put ourselves on the edge and learned to live through it and learn something from it. I came out of the '60s with a lot of ideals, and in the '70s I put them into practice. We never gave up on those ideals. When we broke up we'd done everything we wanted to do on our terms, and I'm proud of that."

© Mat Snow, 1986

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