I first heard Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers in my boyfriend’s kitchen just before high school graduation (I guess I was a late musical bloomer). I’d listened to the Ramones and the Clash and a myriad of pop punk bands in high school, but, when L.A.M.F. hit my ears, it ignited something. It was, hands down, the coolest music I’d ever heard. And so began my devotion. Already 25 years behind, I frantically tried to learn everything I could about the birth of American punk rock. My previously attained Andy Warhol infatuation came in handy and I was able to follow a trail of breadcrumbs left by the Velvet Underground right into the seedy ‘70s. I devoured every article, book, essay (and album) on the subject and one thing was clear, I had to get to CBGBs.
On a snowy winter night, rather than going to my job as a pizza delivery driver in Pittsburgh, I decided to instead drive to CBGBs with my friend Allison. We drove through a treacherous snow storm, refusing to stop until we hit New York City. And finally there I was at the Dictators 30th reunion show at CBGBs. I’d been there, the real place where it all went down. I was there! I even used the infamous and disgusting bathroom. I had my super-fan-girl moment.
And I’m not alone. CBGBs lured super fans from everywhere because, to us, the place is significant. When I heard that Hollywood was releasing a biopic of Hilly Krystal, CBGBs owner, and the early days of the club, I became apprehensive, naturally. CBGBs’ story is not a straightforward one, and we all know Hollywood’s legacy of muddy historical storytelling (I mean, remember The Doors?). After watching the trailer, I’m even less certain that this film will accurately capture the vibe, sound, and creative energy of the time. Despite the intriguing cast (Opie’s alive and kickin’!), I fear CBGB is just going to be Studio 54 with leather jackets, but I sure hope not.
The film’s saving grace however, may just be its soundtrack. With the release of its tracklisting last week, CBGB’s soundtrack is already being touted by critics as the bee’s knees. According to Spin’s Marc Hogan: “In 1983, The Big Chill soundtrack helped yuppies discover Motown. Frank Ocean surely remembers 1994’s Forrest Gump soundtrack and its Baby Boomer nostalgia. Depending on the success of the upcoming CBGB movie, the film’s soundtrack gives off the impression it might similarly define class-of-1977-style American punk rock for listeners growing up today.” He might not be wrong. CBGB’s soundtrack is chalk full of mid to late ‘70s punk classics, from the Talking Heads and Television to The Stooges and the New York Dolls (peep the full tracklisting).
They’ve created a very comprehensive compilation here for sure, but what’s most interesting to me is what’s missing from the list. No Ramones? I’m going to guess that is a licensing issue. A 2013 version of a Blondie classic? C’mon! It’s probably still good, but it’s just not the same as the ’70s version, y’know, the one we want to hear. And where are all the bands Jayne County sang about in “Max’s Kansas City”? Something is missing.
Yes, CBGBs is synonymous with PUNK, but you may be surprised at the sound of some of the original bands that graced the CBGB stage. See, back then “punk” had yet to be rigidly defined, and the bands that frequented CBGBs and other New York rock ‘n’ roll haunts may not align with your ideal of punk and that’s ok. The point is, none of these bands sounded like what was dominating the airwaves at the time. Each of these bands loathed the hippy-dippy flowers and sunshine songs and long, drawn out fuzzy opuses of the day in equal measure. Their music was different. It was theirs, and CBGB offered a stage and an eager, youthful audience, hungry for a new sound.
So here’s to the bands you likely won’t see in CBGB, the underdogs of the underground.
Mink Deville: “Spanish Stroll”
Formed in 1974 in San Francisco, Mink DeVille’s mix of bluesy rock ‘n’ soul held the title of CBGBs “house band” from 1975-1977.
If you like synthpop, you can thank Suicide. Keyboardist Martin Rev’s minimalist, ethereal, sometimes spooky sound melted with singer Alan Vega’s frenzied neo-Beat lyrics to create riotous musical magic on the CBGB stage.
The Marbles: “Red Lights”
This New York City clean-cut power pop four piece took their harmony-rich pop sensibility to CBGBs in 1975, sharing a bill with the likes of Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones and headlining the venue often.
The Mumps: “Crocodile Tears”
One of the most obscure bands of the time, the Mumps, led by Lance Loud, theatrically combined elements of pop, punk and glam rock. Though they never achieved underground acclaim, the Mumps’ vibrant sound was a favorite of many notable punk icons.
The Fleshtones: “Rockin This Joint”
Fuzzy guitar and a Farfisa organ gave these garage rock revivalists grit. These boys from Queens debuted at CBGB on May 19, 1976. It should also be noted that they shared a rehearsal space with The Cramps on the Bowery in 1977.
Rock ‘n’ roll!