Creating the definitive collection of anything is an impossible task; creating an album that’s supposed to be the definitive representation of the New York punk scene is almost setting yourself up for the firing squad. There have been plenty of previous attempts, to be sure (hell, even Marty Thau’s 2×5 was supposed to be a ‘definitive’ compilation of the New York scene at the time, and, in hindsight, actually was). The worst offender in the series has to be the dreadful “Live From CBGB’s” album, the first release on Hilly Krystal’s CBGB Records – which contained none of the bands that anyone was actually going to see, or created a buzz.
So it is with great amazement that I inform you that New York Rocks: Original Punk Classics of the 70′s (released on Koch Records, even if the title sounds like a K-Tel release) is, actually, pretty damn representative. If you sat me down and said, “Quick, who should be on the definitive NYC punk compilation?” I would likely rattle off as follows: “Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Dictators, Heartbreakers, Blondie, Richard Hell,” and – I’ll be damned! All of the above appear on the record.
The inclusion of the Velvet Underground is only fitting; even if they predated the scene by a good 8-10 years, without Lou Reed, many of the people in the aforementioned bands would never have gotten any further than lip syncing in front of the mirrors in their bedrooms. (However, if they were going to include the Velvets, it makes the absence of the New York Dolls that much more glaring. Probably due to legal issues, but it does seem like a large gaping chasm, especially given that Johnny Thunders is represented twice, both with the Heartbreakers and solo.) There was no attempt to classify the compilation as being CBGB-oriented vs. Max’s-oriented (the Velvets never played CB’s, after all), so they don’t have that excuse.
Suicide has become one of those bands that everyone now claims that they loved or were a definitive influence, and I couldn’t argue with the presence of Wayne County. While most people tend to write him off, or sideline him as a novelty act, it’s not so much the artist that’s important here rather than the song: his/her anthem to the scene, “Max’s Kansas City”. It’s not the greatest song ever, it’s basically a campy, rhyming recitation of names of bands, over a riff borrowed from Lou Reed’s hand-me-downs. Considering that the only place that song exists is on an out of print vinyl LP I have in storage, it’s almost worth owning this collection just to have that song on CD – even as dated and corny as the song might seem now, when I was a kid in Connecticut, and reading copies of Rock Scene was the closest I could get to hanging out at Max’s, this song was magic. The Dead Boys also belong on here, no question, even if they did come from Cleveland, they definitely made their mark downtown.
So now we come to the “why are they on here” contenders, Mink DeVille and the Mumps. The press release tries to sell their presence as deliberate: “The New York scene was always about a lot more than just the Ramones and the Velvets [well, doh, since the Velvets, again, as previously mentioned, predated said scene by almost a decade], and this collection demonstrates that with its mixture of classics and hard-to-find gems by the Dictators and the Mumps…” Okay, maybe it’s just personal frame of reference, but I’d hardly toss the Dictators in the “hard-to-find” category. And, out of all the bands listed, only the Dictators were on the stage at Little Steven’s Underground Garage festival last summer, so I’m not quite seeing how they landed in the “obscure” bin. However, having said that, even though Willy DeVille never quite lived up to the hype and the promise, “Let Me Dream If I Want To” was (is, still, even) a damn good song that I would have forgotten about if it wasn’t for this compilation.
So we’ve established that, in this case, at least the label got the bands right (2 out of 14, we’ll give them a pass). The real test is the songs. Even on Rhino’s great city/scene-themed punk compilations, they’d have the right bands, but the bands in question wouldn’t license them anything worth listening to. So while (for example) the Boston collection in that series is great, the New York and LA compilations left a lot to be desired. However, in this case, Koch knocked it out of the park. The tracklisting is impeccable. I might have chosen a different Patti Smith song, but then again I’m a freak. Everything else is a home run: “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “See No Evil,” “Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” “Sonic Reducer,” “Blank Generation” – it’s all here.
So if you don’t have these songs, if you’re too young to remember, if you don’t know where to start, or if you’re old enough that you have all of this on vinyl already and never wanted to try to gather the essential songs in a digital format, this collection is damn solid for a single CD release, and lives up to its billing. After all, it’s not claiming to be definitive, just “celebrating the golden years” (Christ, I feel OLD now) “of the New York punk scene,” and that it succeeds at, in spades.