Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
Punk Rock Before the Music Biz
In Memory of Tom Verlaine (1949-2023)
In October 1975, I returned to New York from my six-month sojourn in Birmingham, Michigan, as editor of Creem. I had made a deal with Newsday on Long Island to write one concert review and two short record reviews for a guaranteed $85 a week. (I would go on staff Jan. 3, 1977.) I found a fifth floor walk-up on 26th Street between Third and Lexington, a no-name zone of Indian restaurants and sweet shops during the day and prostitutes and their pimps doing their business in cars after dark.
I picked up the buzz of a new, minimalist, D.I.Y. music scene a little farther downtown, and began to explore. I realized that I should suggest a feature trend story about this scene, and my editors were game. The first January in 1976, my story appeared: The Ramones on the cover of the Newsday Sunday feature section and the headline: Punk Rock: Its Day Will Come. I thought it important to show my reporting chops and an accessible, mainstream writing style to my editors and readers. I intentionally wrote a little bit like a square, explaining to other squares this alternative universe.
Instead of talking to the bands, I interviewed the movers and shakers of the New York record industry that had started sniffing around CBGB and the other punk clubs. My sense was the same as theirs: It wasn’t just the commercial failure of the seminal New York Dolls on their minds. It was the still remembered disasters of MGM Records buying in to the nascent late 1960s Boston scene, signing and releasing bands (Ultimate Spinach, Beacon Street Union) before they had matured, and hyping them as “the Bosstown Sound.” A&R execs had a difficult balance: avoid bidding wars and signing bands too soon, or waiting too long before they were signed by another label. Here’s the story. I believe it was the first major reporting on the punk scene by any mainstream American newspaper. It was later included in Little Steven’s “Teaching Rock” curriculum. The first band I fell in love with was Television, sounding inept at first but quickly bonding into one of the great American guitar bands when “Marquee Moon” was released in 1977. Local music lover Terry Ork had put out Television’s first single, “Little Johnny Jewel,” (parts one and two) in October, 1975 on his namesake Ork Records. Tom Verlaine’s passing a few days ago reminds me we need to honor Terry, Hilly Kristal, Verlaine, and the many who passed through what was the most exciting musical uprising I got to experience first-hand.
PUNK ROCK: IT’S DAY WILL COME
by Wayne Robins
IF YOU thought Jefferson Airplane was a weird name, let some of these drop off your tongue. Talking Heads. Tuff Darts. Ramones. Planets. Heartbreakers. Shirts. Television. Day Old Bread. Manster.
They are names of some of the better known of hundreds of New York area bands, often categorized under the catch-all "punk rock" or "punk bands," that are attracting rock fans to lower Manhattan clubs like CBGB, Mothers and Max's Kansas City.
That definition is misleading, because the punkiest thing about most of the bands is their names. They represent a variety of musical styles and competence levels. Some, like Television and Talking Heads, are capable of fresh innovation. Others are dreadfully derivative.
But a few superficial elements invite this simple classification. Many of the musicians are in their early '20s, have relatively short hair and wear on stage what they wear on the street: T-shirts, jeans, chinos and, occasionally, sunglasses and leather jackets. They are post-glitter, and not hippies.
"I think the healthiest part of this scene is that record company people checking it out don't understand it," Richard Robinson, author, audio-video expert and producer of Lou Reed's first solo album, said. "It's music that 40- or 50-year-old men can't make hit singles out of it. It's strictly a live performance phenomenon. It's the difference between rock performed for 100 or 200 people and that made for 20,000."
The bands descend from two main sources. The Ramones, Heartbreakers, Talking Heads and, to a certain extent, Television, have been influenced by the Velvet Underground and its two creative survivors, Lou Reed and John Cale. Groups like the Marbles, Shirts, The Fast, and Milk 'n' Cookies regard Pete Townsend and the Who, Led Zeppelin and surprisingly, the Beatles, as source material.
Whatever the roots, most New York bands are too raw to make records, though the best of them are constantly improving. That growth potential is what draws increasing numbers of non-derelicts to a Bowery club called CBGB, which is becoming a shrine to the new New York music.
Though CBGB often smells like an ethnic perfume joke, and the bands that play are inconsistent, people are attracted by the opportunity to see the process of rock and roll being made. There is an element of risk and reward at CBGB missing from concerts by more polished and predictable artists uptown.
The first two times I saw Television, for example, I was put off by the chaotic density of the music. A few weeks ago at Mothers, a former gay bar on West 23rd Street, Television and I made a breakthrough.
The music is dense indeed, but it also is intense and passionate. The three guitarists and superb drummer laid out a hypnotic, meditative mixture of sound that, when it jelled, appeared to be emanating from a single vision. When leader Tom Verlaine sang Dylan's mournful 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door', it was a crucial frame of reference. Verlaine looked like Joan of Arc at the stake, totally transcendent.
Television’s wit: What does it mean to fall into the arms of the Venus de Milo?
Television's growing following is responsible for attracting other bands and patrons to CBGB. When Hilly Kristal - former manager of the Village Vanguard, co-founder (with Ron Delsener) of the Central Park Music Festival, and proprietor of Hilly's, a defunct Ninth Street boite - first bought the club, he intended to showcase an entirely different brand of music. The initials tell the story. CBGB and OMFUG, Kristal said, stand for "Country, Blue Grass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers."
But after a successful run by Television last spring, Verlaine's friend Patti Smith packed the house for seven weeks. A summer rock festival scheduled for two weeks lasted 23 days and put CBGB on the map as the first club showcasing new rock acts since the collapse of the Broadway Central Hotel brought on the instant demise of its notorious tenant, the Mercer Arts Center. At Mercer, acts like Kiss and Melissa Manchester got their first public exposure.
The star attraction at the Mercer in its heyday - 1972 - was the New York Dolls, an erratic band prone to moments of genius. Encouraged by the adoration of the New York rock critics, Mercury Records signed the Dolls and launched a massive promotional campaign, which backfired baldly when the Dolls' offensive faltered in the rest of glitter-wary America. Some observers blame the Dolls debacle for instilling undue caution among record companies, which sometimes have been accused of ignoring the creative cauldron downtown.
"People are afraid of hyping something from New York because of the Dolls' backlash, Craig Leon, artists and repertoire chief at Sire Records, said. But rock scholar Robinson sees that hesitancy, whether based on caution or ignorance, as a blessing.
It would be tragic if record companies started exploiting these bands," Robinson said. "The record companies are still trying to figure out Patti Smith. But if they try to understand her and think it's got something to do with Television, they're wrong. And if they put these bands down because they're not musical, they're wrong again."
But Ed Naha, Columbia Records A & R staffer and a former rock critic, has seen a number of these bands and gives a harsh assessment. "Some bands shouldn't be allowed near a microphone. In this situation, 'avant-garde' becomes a code word for 'awful and 'crude' translates into 'basic rock and roll.' Everybody is a third cousin twice removed from the Velvet Underground. I mean, jeez!"
Arista Records A & R head Bob Feiden, who already has signed artists on the circuit's opposite extremes- Patti Smith and musical comics, the Movies - looks upon the scene somewhat whimsically.
"There are so many bands I think they reproduce asexually over the weekend," Feiden said. "The main thing is the names. I love the names. But the attitude of the bands doesn't yet seem appealing to a broad national front. The punk stance, for example, might be isolating rather than inviting, as in the case of the Dolls.
"The main thing I find missing though, is songs,” Feiden said. "Not only hit songs, which are vital but not always essential, but great copyright songs, classics like Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven', which is hardly your typical AM radio fare."
Feiden may be correct, but what makes the downtown scene distinctive is that each band performs its own compositions rather than providing Top 40 dance music more typical in Long Island or New Jersey bars. And if the songs and performance are rough edged, Hilly Kristal takes an active role in helping the CBGB bands smooth out.
"A lot of the groups need work to jell," Kristal said. "I tell them if they're sloppy, or if they're not making progress. They can't play the same stuff over and over. Most bands have a tendency to play too long, and too loud. I tell them to tighten up and cut down on the volume. I don't tell them what to play or write, but I know what's gonna make an audience want them back here."
Kristal's advice rarely goes unheeded. "Hilly's our God. You can quote me on that," Ron Ardito, 21-year old guitarist of Brooklyn's Shirts, said. The Shirts could use a God to bestow favor and an occasional steak. Not because the band's music is bad - it's developing nicely, and they work at it with determination - but because money is tight throughout the circuit.
Bands split whatever is collected at the door when they play at CBGB and Mothers, a percentage of the door receipts at high overhead Max's. With at least two bands sharing admissions in the $3 to $3.75 range, nobody is getting rich. (Not even Hilly - he still runs a moving and trucking business during the day.)
Most of the musicians, in fact, have day jobs. Ardito drives a cab. Even Tom Verlaine does occasional odd jobs to keep body and soul together when he's not trying to separate them onstage.
Besides Television, there are a number of other bands worth seeing on the CBGB-Max's Kansas City Mothers circuit. Talking Heads members know more about tonality, harmony and composition than they like to let on, as if they were Julliard students disguised as the preppy Bowery Boys. Tuff Darts perform songs like 'Attacked, Seduced and Abandoned' with the punkish cool of 1959 Franklin Square battle-of-the bands winners. The Planets write the most accessible songs and have a little of the multicultural charisma that made Arthur Lee and Love one of the last decade's most influential bands.
Record companies are beginning to pay attention, and with that attention, the scene is threatening to expand beyond the boundaries of its lower Manhattan triangle. Sire Records released a slick superficial first album by City Lights and is on the cusp of signing the Ramones, once notorious for playing 12 songs in 20 minutes. The Ramones' repertoire has expanded significantly, said the band's manager, 16 Magazine editor Danny Fields: Now they play 25 songs in 40 minutes.
Hilly is offering a tour package to colleges, and New York's public access cable television has a Rock at CBGB show Saturdays at midnight. A raunchy, semi-literate magazine called Punk has appeared on Manhattan newsstands with a bizarre caricature of Lou Reed on the cover and an editorial proclaiming: "Death to Disco! Long Live the Rock!"
But the best thing that can happen to the New York bands right now is for a few more clubs to showcase them, and then to be left alone. Record companies should keep their eyes and ears open, but not sign any of them for at least six months. None of these bands is ready to record without stunting its growth. Everyone involved should heed the message that became prophetic in the title of the Dolls' second and last album, which was concerned with burning out at an early age. The title was "Too Much, Too Soon." We hope we won't get fooled again.
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