New York City in the late 1970’s appeared to be a city in decline. The subways were caked in graffitti, the city was losing money hand over fist, the crime rate was beginning to skyrocket, the streets were filthy, taxes were high, the infrastructure was old and inadequate. For a teen or a young adult; it was a fairly depressing environment at times.
It was nothing like Detroit, a city that had collapsed entirely. But it was a city that seemed to be going through rough times and falling apart at the edges.
In the skid row section, on a street called simply The Bowery, full of fleabag $2 a night flophouses, bums sleeping in the streets, an ambient aroma of stale beer, urine and feces hanging in the air, rock ‘n’ roll was undergoing one of its greatest renaissances; one that essentially closed the books on the 60’s and early 70’s dinousaurs and laid the groundwork for the 80’s indie movement, and alternative rock in general.
The centerpiece on this alleyway of human filth was a club called CBGB, forever enshrined in the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”. The club catered to a new generation of customer; younger, streetwise, drug and alcohol consuming, edgy types who had absolutely no use whatsoever for the newest mega-releases by established rock titans.
They were drawn to a punchy, quirky, tough, street-honed new music that spoke to their concerns and fears, understood their highs and lows, and prized individuality and the value in underground community. These bands were called different labels at the time: “punk” “new wave” “CBGB”. The best genre term in retrospect may be “New York Punk” distinguishing it from the L.A., Detroit, and English varieties.
New York Punk came into existence around 1975 and dominated the New York scene through the early eighties. It was a contemporary of disco, and could occasionally take on some of its elements, but most of the time it was a loud, guitar driven music that borrowed heavily from the Velvet Underground. The New York Dolls, a brash, rude local band that was one of America’s lone glam bands get credit for being the pioneers of the scene. Despite a rabid cult, they never were able to sell many records. By the time CBGB opened its doors, bands like Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, and most importantly of all, the Ramones were on the eve of their first releases, and a real scene evolved.
The Ramones were the true punks; stripped down 3-chords garage-rock noise with absurd lyrics and ironic Beach Boy-esque backing vocals. They’ll be remembered as the standard bearers of the scene, stripping rock down to its barest essence, and infusing it with a raw, primal energy that had been absent in rock for over a decade. Unlike England’s Sex Pistols, whom they’re unfairly compared to at times (they’re apples and oranges), the Ramones never set out to destroy rock; they wanted to make it fun again.
Many bands on the scene, like Blondie or Talking Heads, can’t really be described as “punk” in the true sense; they favored instrumental virtuosity and melody over raw power. Others dabbled in art-poety set to aggressive but intricate guitarwork like Patti Smith, and Tom Verlaine of Television. Some specialized in ironic pop commentary, like Richard Hell. Even granddaddy Lou Reed was considered part of the scene; the Velvet Underground specialized in deconstructing rock in the 60’s.
I was a young teen in those days; Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones made rock feel like an ongoing concern, not a stuffy mausoleum of stuff that happened before I was born. And they provided me, ironically enough, with a sense of civic pride; New York City, in its weakest moments of the 20th century, still was a happening place.
So: tonight’s playlist comes from all titles in my collection tagged as “New York Punk”, a pool of 251 files. The first 10 titles randomly selected by randomplay will be profiled, Media Center rating tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. Television: Elevation ****
Television lasted long enough to make precisely two albums, but both, especially the first, are indispensible slabs of rock n roll history. The best way to describe their music is garage band minus any blues influence, but heavy on guitar jams that relied on intricate interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. The result is an almost cerebral instrumentation, but full of punch and bite. The lyrics are fairly stream of consciousness, and secondary to the playing. This one is angular and muscular; indispensible for fans, worth it for anyone else.
2. Lou Reed: Kill Your Sons *****
The album from which this comes is largely dismissed, and Reed’s solo career is about as wildly uneven as an artist could ever dream of being. Personally, I’ve always liked the album, Sally Can’t Dance. It’s fine, stripped down rock ‘n’ roll with plenty of great guitar, bass, and drums with an almost overwhelmingly sleazy feel to it, with lyrics among the most decadent of uncle Lou’s catalog. This one is an ugly little lampoon of civilized America that seems more apropos now than ever. Fans of stripped-down rock should get it for the guitars alone, and Lou Reed novices ought to check this tune out. The fact that it’s even catchy, adds to its subversiveness.
3. Patti Smith Group: My Generation ****
The Who’s tune, unlike you’ve heard it, recorded live early in Patti’s career. This is a wicked garage band workout, rough and tumble, and vulgar, and it does the song proud in spirit, if not 100% in execution. Complete with feedback explosions and sounds of destruction in the background. Patti’s vocals are wild, not yet the art-poetry they were becoming, but stream of consciousness. John Cale of Velvet Underground guests. This was added as a bonus cut to the reissue of Horses.
4. Blondie: Atomic *****
Blondie has never quite gotten the props they deserve. The focus was always on Deborah Harry (so much so that the band took to distributing “Blondie is a Band” bumper stickers), but the band could play up a storm in a modernized dance-friendly British Invasion style. Atomic, from Eat to The Beat, came out as Blondie was reaching their apex. It has a disco beat but twangy guitar and some real jamming on it. Harry’s voice is as elegant and inviting as she ever got. This tune might give new listeners the wrong impression; Blondie wasn’t disco, although they had a few disco-flavored tracks. Chris Stien, especially, knew his way around a guitar, and Clem Burke was one of the best drummers of his day.
5. The Ramones: Teenage Lobotomy *****
Moronic fun from quite possibly America’s most influential group, at least since the Velvets. Everything you ever look for in the Ramones is packed into this 2:03 stick of dynamite. Ridiculous fright-show lyrics; charging punk chords, throbbing bass, good punk drumming. Joey Ramone redefines frontman for a new generation.
6. The New York Dolls: Looking For A Kiss ****
If you ignore the fact that these guys wore pumps and bathed in mascara and lipstick, these potent sleazoids from New York play a rough, macho brand of rock ‘n’ roll that recalls the Rolling Stones at their hardest, and also serves as a template for half of the punk riffs and lines that turned up in other bands’ creations a few years down the line. The stars here are David Johanssen and his tough-guy vocal delivery, and Johnny Thunders’ busy guitar playing, which alternates between chunky and rhythmic, and lightning leads. Powerful stuff; fans of hard rock and 70’s punk should check out more from these guys.
7. Richard Hell & The Voidoids: Blank Generation *****
Hell had spent time in Television, and later with Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, before striking out with his solo debut. Blank Generation quickly became an anthem of the scene at the time. Among the Voidoids was the excellent guitarist Robert Quine, a frequent Lou Reed collaborator. This song, and the album from which it comes is an excellent distillation of the sound and attitude of the New York punk scene; the influence this band had on future punk bands is profound. This is a classic that earns its rep; doesn’t even sound very dated due to the punch in the playing, and the romping arrangement.
8. Talking Heads: Thank You For Sending Me An Angel ****
Lest anyone think the Talking Heads weren’t a rock band, here’s proof positive that they could be. A galloping two minute guitar driven rocker, with a propulsive polyrhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz, and David Byrne sounding like a real frontman, even with his semi-fruity, hiccupy vocals. Tuneful background vocals low in the mix, trademark oddball lyrics, and a smart, cohesive Brian Eno production. One of the best album cuts from their sophomore release.
9. Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers: Born To Lose ***
Thunders had been in the New York Dolls, before building his own cult following after their breakup. Known as much for his self-destructive behavior as his groundbreaking guitar playing (the quality of which could vary from night to night), not a whole lot of people have listened to his solo work in recent years. This has an anthem like quality to it, a pretty catchy hook, solid rock ‘n’ roll playing. This version is from a 1984 remix of this bands’ 1977 release, L.A.M.F. I’ve not heard the original mix; this is said to be superior, although it still has a healthy dose of murk to it. Thunders gets a good solo in, but this doesn’t get transcendent. He died in 1991.
10. Deborah Harry: Jump Jump ***
Solo Deborah Harry album released in the waning days of Blondie. Not well received at the time, this benefits from a funky production from Nile Rodgers. Unfortunately, funk is one style Harry, a notorious dabbler, has never managed to pull off convincingly. This has some disco polish, a great bassline, tinkling keyboards, and powerful drumming. On top of it all, Harry sounds as likable as ever, but also out of place. Fans of “Rapture” will dig this. Blondie fans who hated “Rapture” aren’t going to like it. I’m kinda in the middle, myself.
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