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Blank Generation: New York Punk (a random playlist)

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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.

Lou Reed: Street Hassle (1978)   Talking Heads: Talking Heads 77 (1977) Blondie: Blondie (1976)   Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopa (1976)

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.

The Velvet Underground: Loaded (1970)&nbspThe Ramones: The Ramones (1976) Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Destiny Street (1982) Tuff darts: Tuff Darts (1978)

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: Marquee Moon (1977)
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 *****
Lou Reed: Sally can't Dance (1974)
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 ****
Patti Smith Group: horses (1975)
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: eat To The Beat (1979)
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 *****
The Ramones: Rocket To Russia (1977)
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 ****
The New York Dolls: The New York Dolls (1973)
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 *****
Richard Hell & The Voidoids: Blank Generation (1978)
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 ****
Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
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 ***
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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 ***
Deborah Harry: KooKoo (1981)
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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About uao

  • Joey K.

    Hey, mister “writer” – check this out…You said:

    6. The New York Dolls: Looking For A Kiss ****

    “If you ignore the fact that these guys wore dresses, and that their bassist later had a sex-change operation…”

    Unbelievable!! Why don’t you get your facts right?? Arthur “Killer” Kane NEVER had a sex change operation, in fact he married a woman named Barbara and I saw him just before he died, still chasing girls. Also, the Dolls never wore dresses…make-up, lipstick, pumps – yes, dresses, no.

    You shouldn’t be a writer if you’re going to post shit like this.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Sorry, dude. I was thinking of Wayne County>>Jayne County who played with New York Doll Jerry Nolan. I fixed it.

  • http://www.webtribe.net/~giaco/johnnythunders/ Giaco

    Born to Lose ~ Johnny Thunders …

  • david

    Nice choices mostly-
    but I don’t think your Blondie selections fit in a New York Punk programme…both cuts are from a later, more dance-oriented Blondie- and don’t encompass the New York attitdue and raw energy of earlier cuts such as

    Kung Fu Girls
    X Offender
    Fan Mail
    or even 11:59 or Will Anything Happen from Parallel Lines.

    My 2 cents.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    A couple of quibbles. The Talking Heads are from Boston, so they aren’t really a New York band, even if they appeared there among many other places. And I agree on Blondie – much too late, especially Jump Jump.

    I’d also throw in a vital omission – maybe to replace “Jump Jump”. How about “This Day and Age” by D. L. Byron. He was a feature of the New York club scene for years and IMO one of the great unrecognized songwriting geniuses of the 70s and 80s. His drug problems in the 80s really eclipsed what could have been a stellar career. I’ve never seen a more dynamic performer live.

    Dave

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    Wait, I’m not done…

    How about a nod to Robert Gordon while we’re at it?

    Dave

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Dave, my recollection of Talking Heads history is that David Byrne met Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz when they were all students at RISD, in Providence. They moved to NY shortly thereafter.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    Providence, Boston – close enough when you live in Texas. But you’re right on their point of origin. Looked ‘em up. Didn’t realize David Byrne was originally from Scotland.

    Dave

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    But Dave, if you’re in New England, a miss is as good as a mile.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Awrgh. I thought this was dead and buried. It was an early article; I’m better at it now.

    As for Talking Heads, I realize they weren’t from NY originally; neither were some of the other bands/musicians. However, they gained renown after their move to NY; the piece was a tip of the hat to what was happening in NY at the time.

    I plan to redo this one at some point. But thanks for the thoughts and info; it always helps.

  • Vern Halen

    Love these overviews. If you’re going to redo this article sometimes, maybe give a nod to the MC5 & the Stooges – I know, it’s Detroit proto punk & not the New Yawk flavor at all, but I’ve always thought there was a spiritual connection there somewhere. The Dictaors doing “Search & Destroy”, the MC5’s Fred Smith marrying Patti Smith, etc. And the Velvets, too (John Cale produced the Stooges’ first album, and I believe he actually fell off the stage at the end of that live take of Patti Smith’s My Generation!).

  • http://www.sphinxmontreal.com SphinxMontreal

    With regards to niteclub culture,in addition to CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City also played an integral role in the New York City pre-punk scene

    http://www.maxskansascity.com/

    Also, the Mudd Club deserves honorable mention.

  • http://halfbakered.blogspot.com mike hollihan

    Excellent as usual, uao. But since this is a music discussion, there must be quibbles.

    You do great to call punk “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.” But then you seem to place a higher value to the loud, stripped down descendants of Detroit than the others.

    There were a lot of early punks who looked back to the Sixties — Mink DeVille, Blondie, even the PSG’s Lenny Kaye. And you’ve cut out a lot of punks like James Chance, Teenage Jesus, Robert Gordon, etc., who pushed a lot of edges and boundaries — a core tenet for much of punk.

    My favorite Blondie tune? “Picture This.” Pure Sixites bliss with punk energy. You might have picked “Hangin’ on the Telephone” (a cover song from LA’s The Nerves) for your Blondie song, as it demonstrated the East Coast/West Coast connection in punk.

    Still, I love these lists and the thought and writing that go into them. When ya gonna take a look at Ohio’s punk scene or the Great Lost First Wave of California punk? I’d love to see your take.

  • Mike Leary

    While I applaud the mention of the importance of CBGBs (I used to work there)
    I think it should be pointed out as another commentor stated that Max’s did have as much to do and MORE in some cases with the NYC Punk Scene…

    Bands like the Dolls and Wayne Jayne Country and to some extent Blondie were really more of what you would call Max’s acts. Yes Blondie got their start at CBGBs but they were hated at first and didn’t get accepted by the CBs crowd until they started polishing their act at Max’s

    the Dolls were purely a Max’s band in the eyes of anyone who was in the scene at the time and yes they played CBs but it was not what you would call their home turf.

    As for the quibbling about the THeads not being from NY well other than the Ramones who really was from NY? It’s irrelevent since they were PART of the NYC Punk Scene…B52’s are also considered part of that NYC punk scene and hell they came from Athens Georgia!

    We must understand that the NYC Punk scene was just about the ONLY punk scene at the time. Other than the British scene which was largely inspired by the Ramones and NYC Punk scene. So just about every punk band you love at one point had to come to NY and CBs or Max’s to find their audience. Since it was the only audience in the country at the time!

    Not until the Surf Punks and hardcore crowd in California came around was there really any other punk scene around.
    There were punks all over the country but in the early years they all gravitated to CBs and Max’s…

    And to deny them their contribution to the NYC punk scene simply because they don’t have a NYC birth certificate is unfair…
    Many bands like the Dead Boys would be left out of and cheated of their contribution to what NYC punk was all about!

  • http://gonzo-marx.blogspot.com gonzo marx

    Iggy and the Stooges!!!

    nuff said

    Excelsior!

  • Jonesy

    Ah! Where are the Stooges? And MC5! And not sure completely why Blondie is up here..

    But other than that, nice write up.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    I really need to do a revision of this one; it keeps bubbling back up from the depths….

    For you Stooges and MC5 fans, you’re standing at the wrong bus terminal. Head west, to Detroit!

  • Commie Spam

    Hi, I’m from Holland. In Europe many consider this site is on new wave, not on punk because punk was originated in Britain. It was a reaction to, amongst other things, the high youth unemployment that was Britain harassing at that time. For that reason their lyrics were very political (The Clash! Sham 69!).
    I disagree the Ramones (one of my favourite bands!) were a real punk band because a real punk band shall never write songs like ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ and ‘Spiderman’, though those songs are very funny and exciting indeed.
    Don’t get me wrong: this is a great side and it isn’t my intention at all to insult anyone, I only disagree as far as definitions used in this site are concerned.

  • Commie Spam

    It’s me again, the Dutchman. Well, I totally agree with Jonesy, “Why is Blondie here?” Again, don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Blondie: I’ve nearly got all their music, CD’s and records as well, even the first pressing of ‘Denis’, including some great bootlegs. Anyway, I’ve also wondered why people think ‘em punk … they’re, although according to me, the second best pop band ever (ABBA were the best)but to call ‘em punk is no good.

  • Commie Spam

    This site is great(!), so please forgive me I can’t stop writing. Anyway, I’ve got some burning questions: How come the sleeve of my album ‘Blank Generations’ (on vinyl, 180 gram)differs from the album depicted on this site? Another question: I’ve got a CD by one of my favourite bands, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, called ‘Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers: Vive la Revolution!’ Does anyone of yours know if that’s a bootleg?

  • Commie Spam

    This is only a linguistic correction: in my latest comment I wrote, “How come the sleeve of my album of ‘Blank Generation’ …” Of course this should be, “How come the sleeve of my copy of ‘Blank Generation’ …”
    I don’t want the Anglo-Saxon readers to think the Dutch don’t speak Englissh. Incidentally, being a youngster (I’m fourty-one now) it was my intention to read English letters. Yours,

  • Ron Littke

    Does anybody know what happened to the band Model Citizens?
    They were from Columbia Univerity and were big in New York in the early 80’s. I’m trying to find their music.

  • ryan

    I’d take issue with one point that punk was started in England.Many might say it started with Iggy…or with the Velvet Underground. The bump up I think started in England yes…but with the band the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders…Jerry Nolan…Walter Lure and Billy Rath. Because of their affintity for drugs their potential both on this tour of England and their greatness as a whole were cut short. Everything after them was in some way connected. Just a humble opinion

  • STM

    I can’t agree with the Iggy Pop or Velvet Underground argument, but there’d certainly be a case in the US for The Ramones, among others. Radio Birdman was another non-British band with huge influence in the birth of this era.

    Probably in truth the thrashing style of music was on its way some time prior – but it was bands like The Clash (early stuff) and artists like Billy Childish that took it to another level. (In my view, the Sex Pistols were just cashing in).

    Punk was really born out of frustration with the British class structure, the impotence of the left and the Labour Party to improve the lot of the working class in comparison to those higher up the social echelon and the steady move to the right of British politics.

    Interestingly, its birth was followed by the rise to power of Conservative Party leader Maggie Thatcher, whose aims were probably diametrically opposed to those espoused by the anarchic followers of the punk movement.

    And paradoxically, it was Thatcher’s violently divided Britain that also brought about the beginning of the end of punk, as it was she who, accidentally I suspect, was instrumental in dismantling many of the invisible barriers that held people back under the class system.

    Under Thatcher, and for the first time in British history, working class people could genuinely aspire to positions in society that had hitherto been denied them simply because of their birth status. That she did this to the detriment of many workers was a side-effect that led to huge social upheaval. Young Punks also came from all echelons of British society and mixed together.

    Interesting times though. I lived through it and loved it. It was like a revolution, not just in music (which in truth wasn’t that good, but I suppose that was part of the appeal as well. An angry, two-fingered musical “up-yours” to the record industry) but also in attitudes. It truly provided young people in Britain with a catalyst for social change.

    The results are to be seen today in Tony Blair’s New Labour and a more open Britain.

  • KEVIN

    I GREW UP WITH PRE PUNK ON STATEN ISLAND NYC I KNEW DAVID JOHANSEN, I ALSO PLAYED IN ROCK GROUPS, NEVER DID MUCH, BUT IT WAS ALWAYS INTERESTING TO ME THAT NY DOLLS AND WU TANG CAME FROM THE SAME CONSERVATIVE WORKING CLASS NEIGHBORHOOD.

  • chuck

    punk started in america for one thing [velvet underground 1966]followed by the stooges in 69 ,,,,,johnny thunders only offical record solo is so alone and with the heartbreakers l.a.m.f