CBGB was the brain-child of Hilly Kristal, and in the mid-1970s, if you wanted to in on the next wave in music, this little hole in the wall in the Bowery in New York City was the place to catch it. The Bowery was the perfect setting to foster punk’s gritty urban spirit – seedy, run-down and notorious for its winos and crime.
Hilly didn’t set out to host some of the most iconic moments in punk rock history, he set out to open a country and bluegrass venue. Colloquially reduced down to an acronym, the club’s name, CBGB OMFUG actually stands for: Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers. It was in this ‘Other’ category that punk found its champion, because one of the things that Hilly was famous for was giving people a chance. This went hand in hand with the punk push back against classic rock, celebrating intention over virtuoso talent.
Starting with New York’s poster boys for punk, the Ramones, here are six bands who ruled the grimy underbelly of CBGB, discovering everyone else was just as pissed off as they were.
“HEY! HO! LET’S GO!” You know the chant well. This speedy call-to-arms is one of the foundational texts of punk. The Ramones were certainly not the first punk band, but in their uniform leather jackets, skinny black jeans and matching haircuts, armed with this battle cry, they defined it with military precision.
When the Ramones first auditioned to play at CBGB, Hilly Kristal famously told them, “Nobody’s gonna like you guys, but I’ll have you back.”
Television first emerged simple, dangerous and every bit punk. Their sound was jagged, spiky, twisting and neurotic; torn-and-slashed just like their clothing. The band’s original co-leaders, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine were the first to convince Hilly Kristal to let them use CBGB for live gigs, they pair even built the first stage.
3. Patti Smith Group
Patti Smith was a revelation. New York’s eminent punk poet laureate proved that punk is philosophy, well beyond the scope of four chords. Spitting beautiful, profane and blasphemous rhymes, writhing in the grip of some ancient holy spirit before a modern garage band looking like Keith Richards; Patti Smith may not have sounded like your typical CBGB’s punk band, but she embodied the doctrine of artistic freedom that the whole scene was founded on.
4. Richard Hell And The Voidoids
Richard Hell is all over this story, passing through Television and the Heartbreakers before arriving at the Voidoids. He mastered the art of thrift store finery, pairing numb, nihilistic cool with spiked hair and safety-pin piercings. “Blank Generation,” caught here at CBGB in 1978 features a future Ramone Marky (still Marc Bell) behind the drums.
5. Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers
Playing with the New York Dolls and fronting the Heartbreakers, Johnny Thunders embodied punk rock from day one. Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan from the Dolls hooked up with bassist Richard Hell and guitarist Walter Lure, to form the Heartbreakers. They took CBGB napalm sound to England when they relocated in the mid-70s. Everyone from the Pistols to the Clash took note of the Heartbreakers’ nuclear Yardbirds sound and in-a-street-gang cool.
6. The Cramps
The Cramps stood out from the rest of the CBGB scene with their playful concoction of rockabilly, surf rock, garage, and blues, framed in retro horror imagery and raunchy, pin-up style innuendo. But make no mistake, they were every bit as punk. They even requested that a fan club started in their honour called Legion Of The Cramped, be shut down because they were “real loners.” Respect.
Its stage was tiny and toilets hellish, but its bar was huge and clientele legends-in-waiting. CBGB was the perfect antidote to glam, glitter and disco – who knows what punk would be without it!
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