New York Rock: The Birth of Punk, an Oral History
Joey Ramone, Richard Hell, Blondie and others describe the organic 1970s movement for nonconformists with an FU attitude
By Steven Blush
Editor’s Note: As a city that represents endless possibilities, New York has long been the setting for the dawning of new movements, styles, and musical genres. And perhaps no music origin story has inspired as much appreciation, celebration, and imitation as the birth of punk rock in New York City in the 1970s.
In the following excerpt from his new book New York Rock, Steven Blush gathers interviews with many of the artists, critics and original scenesters who witnessed first-hand the formation of punk’s distinctive subculture—a unique prism of influences, crosscurrents, and psychoactive distractions that coalesced around groundbreaking artists like The Ramones, Television, Richard Hell, Talking Heads, and Blondie.
Direct quotes from artists and other key observers are cited by year below, and Mr. Blush’s words are included in italics to provide context to the narrative. As the posters plastered around downtown NYC proclaimed in 1975: Punk is Coming!
TOMMY WYNBRANDT (The Miamis): New York was in bad shape. No one had money. Streets were dirty, subway cars were covered in graffiti, and one going-out-of-business sign after another plastered storefronts. Muggings were everyday occurrences. People sold ratty belongings on the street. It was like an endless loop of Kojak. (2011)
SONNY VINCENT (The Testors): The city was rough: gangs roaming, junkies everywhere. Forty-Second Street was worse than movies portray. The city was in default, the middle class had moved out. Graffiti everywhere, garbage, violence, drug deals on the street. You name it. But it was ours. There was a flourishing music and art scene and cheap rents. (2011)
“Punk” was a negative term picked up from prison slang (for homosexuals), and before that from Shakespeare (describing a trollop as a “taffety punk” in All’s Well That Ends Well). In the 50s, “punk” defined a belligerent twerp. Rock critic Lester Bangs used “punk” to describe Iggy Pop’s Stooges, and Alan Vega adopted the tag to promote his band Suicide. Punk Magazine plastered posters downtown in 1975 proclaiming, “Punk is Coming!” And people began calling the new acts punk rock.
HILLY KRISTAL (CBGB): “Punk” was a reincarnated term that goes back to Iggy and the Stooges. We called our scene “street rock” back then. It was the aftermath of the 60s, a deep recession, where everyone had $60 apartments and lived on food stamps. That’s why everyone wore cheap jeans and T-shirts. (2005)
SCOTT KEMPNER (The Dictators): A punk was misunderstood, a victim, embodied a smoldering rage at one’s own ineffectiveness, the little engine that can’t. You know the word has its origins in prisons. The one who becomes a sex slave to others was a punk, a humble beginning, for sure. It retained some of the victim vibe of its prison origin until it gets transferred to an actual outlaw and/or criminal — but definitely an outsider. (2010)
Sonically, punk was different from what came before. Before punk, rock guitarists had a blues-based sound — strumming Gibsons and Les Pauls. Punks beat up on Fender guitars played loud through Marshalls and other amps, creating a unique blare. Punk’s revved-up, stripped-down amateur spunk defied all previous notions of musical virtuosity. To any “real” musician, being called “punk” was no compliment.
JOEY RAMONE (The Ramones): We were a reaction to all the pretentiousness and clichés and all the bullshit. It was at the beginning of disco, the beginning of corporate rock, like Journey, Foreigner, all that shit. You know, five or six tracks on an album, 45-minute guitar solos or drum solos. All the mega-bands were content writing the worst shit possible and selling billions of records, and they didn’t have to get off their asses and do anything. We cut that shit out. We made it fresh again, like it originally was. (1986)
HANDSOME DICK MANITOBA (The Dictators): It was the start of the megastar musician in rock: huge stages with guitar heroes. Alvin Lee and Ten Years After or prog-rock — we hated that stuff. We hated those bands that were overly musical. (2003)
MITCH SCHNEIDER (publicist): New York punk was great because it sounded like the city. It was tightly wound, really urgent, and New York sucked at that time. You think of Son of Sam and the city looked like a wreck. It was not an attractive place. (2005)
Punk quickly evolved into an “umbrella” movement for nonconformists with an edgy new attitude. A major aspect of punk was its intense reaction to the 70s hippie-esque escapism. Punks espoused “reality,” capturing glitter-rock’s brashness in a bid to refresh rock. That’s why the short hair, fast music, and FU attitude proved so enticing to some, and so threatening to the status quo.
RICHARD HELL (The Voidoids): By the time I was in New York and in a position to do things, the 60s era had passed, and music had become dull, pompous and irrelevant. So I wanted to — and the people I was hanging with wanted to — make music that was about real life again. So, we went that way. (2006)
LESTER BANGS (writer): Each band had a different thing to say that was something of their own. I mean, Richard Hell was a very defeatist sort of nihilism. Talking Heads were a collegian kind of art school — I’m trying not to make them sound so bad because I really love ’em. Ramones were playing with the concept of being dumb, but not dumb, and being all-American, but yet alien mutant — you know, feeling different, an outsider yet yearning for that all-American cars, girls, surfing and all that when you can’t even drive. Television was into all that French symbolism poetry stuff. So each of them had real strong personalities and distinct identities. (1980)
RUSSELL WOLINSKY (Sic F*cks): The original scene was eclectic with few punk or even rock bands. It’s ironic how punk started with Patti Smith and Television, which was very poetic and Dylanesque. These were people who didn’t fit in the neighborhoods they grew up in, so they got into this kind of music. I loved all that, but when the Ramones and Dictators came in, I was like, “That’s more like it.” Especially when Dead Boys came, it was like, “Wow, a genuine rock band.” (2011)
JOHN HOLMSTROM (Punk Magazine): There was a thing back then about not playing it safe. You weren’t supposed to be commercial yet you were supposed to be able to sell records. There was an idea that if you could be bad enough to make everyone hate you, you could eventually get good enough to make ’em love you. It’s like pro wrestling, where the worst heel becomes a good guy ’cause they make people react strongly. (2004)
JOY RYDER (Joy Ryder & Avis Davis): New York was alive again; there was a real groundswell. Kids were dressing up to go see bands again. It wasn’t about hippie fests or folk cafés; it was a throwback to a club mentality. It was a working-class-hero thing not based on whom you knew or what school you went to. It felt like a giant high school, with an in-crowd and out-crowd — infantile in some ways but beautiful in others. I could never achieve or want to achieve a lush orchestral sound, so it was great to see people into the raw sound. The vibe in the air was to make it as easy and immediate as possible. It was like haiku: so clean and simple. You felt part of a movement; there was punk dancing, and punk painting with Basquiat and Haring. It was direct and naive, and we loved it and didn’t care. (2011)
CHRIS STEIN (Blondie): At the time, the New York punk scene was our lives. Now, I wish there was something like that happening. I wish I could fuckin’ go out and see the same two hundred people every weekend, that’d be great. Punk was about people who couldn’t really play just going up there — but they knew how to stand onstage, they knew how to hold a guitar. Sure, it was a posed era, but it was also a great time. (1999)
PHILIPPE MARCADE (The Senders): It was great because it was very local and underground. Everybody knew everybody, no one was signed, no money, no Internet! One must also remember these were the freest times in the history of mankind, simply because the pill already existed but AIDS didn’t. I miss that sense of freedom. (2010)
CLEM BURKE (Blondie): What went down in the 70s had more impact on modern culture than what happened in the 60s. People today, the way they act and look, I don’t see a bunch of hippies running around. They’re in black leather or glam clothes, and the music’s punk. It had a profound effect on the start of the twenty-first century. (1999)
DAVID JOHANSEN (New York Dolls): I didn’t even notice when punk first happened. I remember one incident where the Ramones were rehearsing down the hall from us, and I went in there, hung out for a while, and said, “You guys suck, you’re not gonna go anywhere.” What did I know? I told Chris Frantz one day, “You’re an amazing guy, what are you doing with this band? That’s no life.” I thought it was great that there was finally a scene happening. But I had no idea there was a movement going on. (1997)
Punk redefined the look and feel of rock. Things would never be the same again.
KRISTIAN HOFFMAN (The Mumps): Being a punk is like being a kid with eyes bigger than his stomach. Their brains are bigger than their abilities — they got the idea but they just can’t do it. It’s ambition without discipline. (1977)
JOHNNY ZEEK (The Shirts): You gotta look like you’re always ready for a fight, even if you wouldn’t get into one. And look like you’re carrying a switchblade. (1977)
HILLY KRISTAL (CBGB): They’ll drink anything — dirty water, if I gave it to them. Punks don’t really care about anything but the music. (1977)
GYDA GASH (New York scene): Punk was not a fashionable movement. It wasn’t this social scene — it was people who were social cripples. It was a lot of sad, angry, damaged, misfit kids that were not pretty or cool — women like myself who were not beautiful or Playboy Bunnies or models; the shy, angry kids, the ones that never fit in. That’s why there was so much drug use. It fit perfectly with that kind of mindset. (2004)
To its fans, punk reenergized moribund rock. To its detractors, it was amateur hour.
ARTHUR ALEXANDER (Sorrows/The Poppees): The late-70s New York scene was what I imagined it must’ve been like during the early 60s Liverpool/London scene: all these bands coming out of the woodwork, and all these clubs supporting their growth; musicians and bands hanging out every night, checking each other out, stealing each other’s ideas, and record companies actually hitting the clubs and checking out bands instead of conducting focus groups — an explosion of ideas and creativity. (2010)
CRAIG LEON (producer): When I signed the Ramones, a lot of people were interested because they were making a buzz in the newspapers and drawing crowds in New York. But at the time, they were seen as “Oh, they can’t play.” People were afraid to sign them because they thought they could never make a record. (2006)
JON TIVEN (Prix): People in the business I knew back then had no time for punk. They acknowledged something was going on but couldn’t figure a way to pigeonhole it in the way they needed. This was so rough-edged and such a far cry from the slick stuff they were selling, they didn’t get that there was an audience. They didn’t think that people who bought Queen and Bowie would buy Television records. I figured it wouldn’t be a revolution but it more or less became one. (2011)
TOM VERLAINE (Television): I didn’t think there was any punk, and I still don’t. I think punk is slightly more aggressive bubblegum. Structurally speaking, it’s pumping eighth notes, right? It’s ramped-up bubble-gum, with a bit more of an angry lyric, but not always. Some so-called punk records were just as funny as bubblegum records. (2006)
The U.K. punk explosion of 1977 was inspired by and legitimized the existing New York subculture. Notable scenes occurred in Los Angeles and San Francisco by the next year.
JAYNE COUNTY (Electric Chairs): I was the DJ at Max’s for a long time. I was the first to ever spin the Dolls, Sex Pistols, and the Damned. In fact, when I played the Damned, Dee Dee Ramone ran over outraged. He said, “Who’s this copying us?” I said the Damned from England. He said, “Don’t play them. Play us New York people. Don’t play those stupid English bands.” He didn’t like those bands copping their sound. (1993)
JERRY NOLAN (New York Dolls): The scene in London reminds me of New York four years ago, but they’ve taken it a step further. It’s the same atmosphere with a different type of music. You soon get bored with yourselves if you don’t have other bands to look at and learn from, and here we can learn a lot. I notice that they’ve picked up a few things from us too, which is great. It’s very inspiring. (1977)
GLENN DANZIG (The Misﬁts): Stuff was called punk here way before it was called punk in England. Malcolm McLaren got the great idea for his punk band when he came over here. We’d seen Television in New York in 1973–74. Even in the 60s, you could go in a record shop and find a punk section. It meant garage bands but it said “punk.” (1997)
GREG GINN (Black Flag): The common perception was that punk started in London, but we knew better than that. It didn’t come out of London, and it didn’t come out of L.A. — it came out of New York. We followed the New York bands first. (2004)
Circa 1975, Richard Hell was spotted in the East Village in ripped shirts held together by safety pins. Malcolm McLaren, then working with the Dolls, took that image in his head back to London, and with designer-wife Vivienne Westwood, stylized punk-fringe-Downtown-junkie-artist-squalor to high fashion and pop culture.
BOB GRUEN (photographer): One night Richard Hell apparently had a fight with a girlfriend. I don’t know if it was over drugs or whatever, but somebody cut up all his clothes. He had to go out, so he took a bunch of safety pins and pinned them together where they were ripped and went out, because he didn’t give a shit. Well, Malcolm saw that and he was fascinated by the “unique design.” This wasn’t fashion; it was more like how do you get out of the house when you’ve got no clothes left? (2006)
RICHARD LLOYD (Television): Malcolm was managing New York Dolls, who were in a slump. He dressed them in red patent leather with a communist flag backdrop. We did a co-bill in Manhattan. Malcolm fell in love with Television and wanted to manage us. He was turned down, so he went back to England and used the image he got from us, from Richard Hell, and started marketing the image in his wife’s clothing shop. Ripped clothing, safety pins, stitches were Richard’s idea! So that’s where the Sex Pistols came from. (1999)
Joey Ramone became punk’s key character, not just for his physical presence and status in the scene, but for his support of bands he loved. You’d always see him out, at CBGB or the Clash at the Palladium, or Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding at the Lone Star.
HANDSOME DICK MANITOBA: The Ramones didn’t create something from scratch: they redefined it. Joey was a fan, a historian of sorts. He studied all the pop bands and rock bands, and then spit it back in his own style. (2003)
ANDY SHERNOFF (The Dictators): There was a club called the Coventry. We were the only punk band there so we were outcasts. Joey used to come see us. Then I saw a poster saying the Ramones were playing CBGB. So I went and there were the Ramones and Blondie playing with like a dozen people in the place. Blondie hadn’t yet got their shit together, but the Ramones did like fifteen songs in fifteen minutes. It was brilliant. (1996)
JERRY ONLY (The Misﬁts): My first recollection of being in the Misfits was going to CBGB and seeing the Ramones walk in the door looking like a football team. After that, I knew what to do. (1997)
LESLIE WEST (The Vagrants/Mountain): Johnny Ramone I knew back then because he wanted to be our road manager. He lived across the street. We used to call him Johnny Beatle because he had a Beatles haircut. (2011)
DANNY CORNYETZ (VJ): They just struck me as having a bad attitude. I saw one of their first shows at CBs, and they arrived in a limo. Nobody knew who they were, they had no money, yet somehow had a limo. People crowded around the doors. They looked like made-up rock stars to me. Everyone else at CBs had a fucked-up look, but with the Ramones, it seemed like a marketing technique. I guess I was wrong. (2004)