Ten essential albums from the CBGB scene
Adam Di Carlo
It's easy to look at what's become of rock music over the last three and a half decades and find countless traces of the CBGB micro-culture and the fast-and-loud aesthetic it cultivated. During their now-legendary years at CBGB, bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and Patti Smith were disrespected weirdos that found a home in a filthy, drug-infested club in New York's Bowery district. They found the freedom to develop a look and sound that could finally distance itself from the peace and love generation and become it's own small but infectious underground movement.
Any band today that plays fast-tempo music with discordant, feedback drenched guitars, or heavily saturated noise-pop with synthesizers and drum machines most likely owes a debt to something that happened in this dive bar several decades ago. So we're taking a look back at the CBGB albums that made things happen, the ones that may have only shipped a few units in their time, but have gone on to unarguably shape the sights and sounds of music today.
10. Suicide - Suicide While much of the punk movement were still relying on the guitar chords of Chuck Berry, Suicide was the ultimate embodiment of pop-eccentricity. Having only a handful of fans in their time, the synth-pop/industrial sounds of duo Alan Vega and Martin Rev would go on to be as influential as any music recorded in 1977. One of the progenitors of the word "punk," Suicide combined a groundbreaking, fluxus-style noise with performance art, able to induce romantic tranquility with a song like "Cheree," then easily make a U-turn into existential horror with the psychopathic "Frankie Teardrop." Their self-titled debut would go on to shape the music of the Jesus & Mary Chain, Beck and M.I.A., who sampled their track, "Ghost Rider," for her lo-fi punk anthem, "Born Free."
9. The Cramps - Gravest Hits As Suicide was pointing the way to music's future, bands like the Cramps were looking to rock's past for inspiration, borrowing from Sun Record's primal rockabilly sound, as well taking a thematic cue from 1950s horror cinema's campy thrills. This genre, known to history as "psychobilly," would take a few decades to get off the ground in the US (and by the time it did, it was already old-hat in Europe), but in the meantime, the Cramps debut album pointed the way to yet another movement of high fashion and teenage disillusionment: Goth Rock.
8. Blondie - Parallel Lines Often dismissed as a pop band in punk clothing, CBGB natives Blondie drew a line in the sand with their disco-embracing, twenty million copies selling third album, Parallel Lines. Enlisting 70s pop-magnate Mike Chapman as producer (known best for penning and producing hits for Sweet and Suzi Quatro), the band delivered some of the best songwriting of their career, like ode to stalkerism "One Way Or Another," sticky-sweet puppy-love ballad "Sunday Girl," and farewell-punk/hello-disco mega-hit, "Heart of Glass." Yet for all the guff Parallel Lines received in its time, both the band and the album have been embraced as a historical triumph, showing the versatility of the CBGB scene outside of just a fuck-off-trash-punk ethos.
7. Heartbreakers - L.A.M.F. While the New York Dolls were definitely the progenitors of what became the CBGB sound, they were on the decline just as the venue was gaining momentum. One beautifully ephemeral byproduct of that tragedy was the formation of the Heartbreakers, an elegantly wasted group of talented yet coffin-bound wasters from the Bowery. Momentarily joined by Richard Hell after his split from Television, the core of the group was made up of ex-Dolls Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders, two of the most competently fucked up musicians west of the Atlantic.
After being stranded in England due to their slot on the collapsed Anarchy in the U.K. tour, the Heartbreakers were picked up by Track Records. Thunders' and Nolan's constant drug-run taxi cab rides between London and Birmingham, the bill for which they sent to Track, didn't prevent them from delivering an authentically arresting album, which now stands as a historical link between the sexually manic R&B of Little Richard and early Who, and what would become late-seventies punk-rock.
The band's sole studio album, L.A.M.F. contains the stylishly sloppy, I-don't-give-a-shit-but-don't-I-look-fabulous ethos that would become a blueprint for generations of rockers. In The Filth and the Fury documentary, an embarrassed Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols confesses his shameless emulation of Johnny Thunders stage presence; and it doesn't take a social science wizard to see where Pete Doherty's, cute, hollow-eyed, strung-out in sloppy suit and skinny tie screaming puppy-love punk rock identity came from.
6. Dead Boys - Young Loud and Snotty Many of the bands in this list represent a pre-punk experimentation, which illustrates how we got from the Velvet Underground to Black Flag. The image and music of the Dead Boys have almost no links to the past and were the complete embodiment of where punk was headed.
Though originally from Cleveland, Ohio, these boys followed the same path to New York's morally-complex Bowery as most CBGB inhabitants. Enlisting the not-yet-classic three-chord song structure, along with the Iggy Pop-esque blood and audience bating, and the homeless dandy look of UK punk, the Dead Boys were on their way to becoming the ideal poster-boys of the media-saturated music revolution.
So why has your teenage nephew heard of the Sex Pistols and not the Dead Boys? Well, after this now-legendary debut album was a hit with the scene but made no money, their label pressured the band to soften up their image, ditching the idea of Lou Reed overseeing their followup record and enlisting the guy who produced Cream (one of the leading bands on the punk rock hit-list), resulting in a sound that failed to expand their rough-and-ready aesthetic -- alienating their underground base -- while yielding no commercial hits. The band were finished shortly after.
5. Richard Hell and the Voidoids - Blank Generation Yes, Richard Hell's name is attached to three entries in this list. It's difficult to overstate Hell's contributions to New York punk rock. After working his way through Television and the Heartbreakers, Hell landed his seminal band with the Voidoids, not only penning the closest punk ever came to an anthem with "Blank Generation," but appearing in a consciously torn and safety-pinned shirt one night at CBGB inspired a new aesthetic in scene-fucker Malcolm McClaren, who would soon return to England to open his SEX clothing store and (arguably) assemble the Sex Pistols. Songs like "Love Comes in Spurts" and "New Pleasure" show the comedic playfulness that Hell provided to a genre of music that would grow to take itself entirely too seriously.
4. Talking Heads - 77 While the Dead Boys were pressured to be commercial while still sounding unique, Talking Heads was able to employ the discordant mania of punk rock while still crafting a radio-friendly hook that would stick in your head for days. Formerly of art-rock darlings the Modern Lovers, guitarist Jerry Harrison's bouncy, experimental funk provided a tight, choppy foundation for David Byrne's autistic child-like squawks and howls. Beyond the predictable fans of Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, this debut album would go on to inspire unlikely songs like Ice-T's controversial "Cop Killer" and Trick Daddy's "Sugar," speaking to the universally recognized versatility of one of the most influential bands since the Beatles.
3. Television - Marquee Moon Too complex to be punk, too simple to be jazz, Marquee Moon stands alone in the grand rainbow of late '70s rock. Without enough clear hooks to prick the ears of radio DJs, the album came and went without any commercial fireworks, but would go onto infect the European twee-punk scene with its playful recklessness, as well as the post-punk movement with its unrelenting rhythms weaving in and out of anxious melodies. Originally fronted by CBGB luminary, Richard Hell, the band's increasing virtuosity clashed with Hell's more primal approach -- ultimately, the band-geeks won out, and we now have this eccentric gem, which is more often compared to San Francisco bands like Love and Quicksilver Messenger Service than the more Hell-inspired punk groups like Dead Boys and The Sex Pistols.
2. Ramones - Ramones The most common complaint that punks had for music of the '70s was that it became too complex and lost its soul. And that is how the Ramones became the most beloved of their scene and most influential band of their time, boiling songs down to minimalistic quickies that are short on guitar chords and drum solos, yet chocked full of all the fury and wit that originally gave us rock and roll.
Combining a Beach Boys pop-tenderness ("I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend") with the street-wise drugginess of Lou Reed ("Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue") all wrapped around a savage worldweariness ("Beat On The Brat;" "53rd & 3rd"), the Ramones created an identity that stood in contrast to the peace and love generation, inspiring young misfits with something more immediate, more dangerous. If you didn't get it that was fine, because you weren't invited anyway.
1. Patti Smith - Horses Utilizing Dylan's method of poetic imagery and virulent songwriting, along with the Stones' primitive, ambiguous sexuality, Patti Smith dropped a roofie in the cocktail of rock history with her seminal debut release, Horses. After busking around Paris and NYC's Chelsea Hotel scene, Smith found a transcendent musical partner in guitarist and rock archivist Lenny Kaye. After several gigs improvising music to her live poetry readings at Max's Kansas City, the Patti Smith Group developed enough material to lay down an album.
Former Velvet Underground guitarist John Cale signed on to produce the album, layering and manipulating Smith's vocals and fluctuating the mix of the instruments, creating multiple dimensions of sound for the listener, essentially bringing them into the darkly surreal world of the songs. Slightly older than the gutter disciples that came to define the CBGB scene, Smith became an elder statesman of the rock club, the mystical, intellectual and sexually hypnagogic icon among icons.
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