10 Influential Bands That Got Their Start at CBGB
It was 40 years ago that a tiny country bar in a seedy part of Manhattan compromised its principles, started booking rock acts and altered the course of music history. We're celebrating that decision with a list of 10 Influential Bands That Got Their Start at CBGB. In the winter of 1974, Hilly Kristal – the owner of CBGB, which stood for Country, Bluegrass and Blues – acquiesced to local pressure and allowed rock acts to begin playing his bar. Within the year, the venue at 315 Bowery would see its first shows by punk legends Television, the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group. For the rest of the '70s, CBGB would play host to the best in punk rock and New Wave, and became the place where out-of-town up-and-comers (from the Police to the B-52's) made their New York debuts. But today, we're focused on the local bands who took CBGB's small stage, survived the grossest bathroom in rock 'n' roll and changed music forever.
Although CBGB has become most identified with '70s punk, the bar soldiered on during the 1980s to become home turf for New York City's hardcore punk community. The venue's weekend matinee shows became legendary events, featuring scene leaders such as the Cro-Mags, Murphy's Law and Agnostic Front -- who picked their name because it sounded like a political movement. And in some ways NYHC was a movement in which Agnostic Front reflected their ugly, angry city. The band remained a fixture at CBGB, even recording a live album there in 1989, until the club's demise in 2006.
If you're seeking connective tissue in the New York punk scene, look no further than Richard Hell, who was a member of the Neon Boys, Television and the Heartbreakers (no, not Tom Petty's band) before starting his own group in 1976. With the Voidoids, Hell recorded the sneering rallying cry 'The Blank Generation,' a tribute to not caring about anything. Hell's look -- spiked hair, dirty clothes and a safety pin here and there -- was almost as influential as his music; Malcolm McLaren singled out the singer as the main inspiration for his Sex Pistols.
A few years before they began to fight for their right to party, the Beastie Boys were fighting to get noticed as part of the local hardcore punk scene. Adam Yauch, Mike Diamond and future Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach were part of the original lineup. Meanwhile, Adam Horovitz fronted another punk band, the Young and the Useless, but joined the Beasties not long before they made their first foray into hip-hop. Although the group would become intergalactic stars for their rapping, they earned their stripes as CBGB punks -- a facet that would always be present in the attitude and music of the Beastie Boys.
Ghoulish makeup and "horror punk" weren't yet part of the Misfits' schtick when Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only made their live debut at a CBGB audition showcase in 1977. The story goes that Only had "only" been playing the bass for a few months at it was. The New Jersey boys were just another punk band looking to find their chunk of the punk scene. Once they started wearing pointy "devilocks" and singing 'Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?,' the Misfits had dug their own niche. Mall T-shirt racks would never be the same.
At the invitation of Joey Ramone, the Dead Boys moved from Cleveland to New York City to join the thriving punk scene. Almost instantly, Stiv Bators, Cheetah Chrome and the boys became part of the CBGB gang, and took the mantle as one of the most exciting and violent bands to regularly play the club. Hilly Kristal even became their manager. Although Sire gave them a record contract -- and released two of the group's albums -- the label put increasing pressure on the Dead Boys to soften their sound and image. What had worked for Blondie, Talking Heads and (to an extent) the Ramones broke up the Boys. Lucky for us, we still have classics like 'Sonic Reducer' to remind us of their uncompromising rage.
Before she jumped on the CBGB stage, Patti Smith was a frequent visitor of the club, along with then-boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe and good pal Lenny Kaye. Smith and Kaye were in the audience for one of the first Television gigs at CBGB in the spring of ’74. Within a year, they’d be playing their own shows at the bar, with Smith on vocals and Kaye on guitar. The resulting music was a blend of poetry and stripped-down rock 'n' roll -- something that challenged the prevailing notion that punk applied to empty-headed brutes with nothing to say. The Patti Smith Group’s legacy of edge and artistry has inspired countless mainstream and alternative acts, not limited to R.E.M., Madonna, U2 and the Smiths. Smith and her band were also the last ones to play CBGB when the club shuttered in the fall of ’06.
By the time Blondie officially made their CBGB debut, singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein had played the club under two other names: the Stilettos (a girl group-inspired glam band) and the Angel and the Snake (a roughed-up precursor to Blondie). So Blondie’s main creative forces were veterans of the CBGB stage by the time the band took off in earnest. The group were an underground sensation for the first few years -- based on great songs like ‘X Offender’ and ‘Rip Her to Shreds’ -- incorporating a blend of punk, doo-wop, reggae and pop. In 1979 they tried on a disco beat (‘Heart of Glass’) and hit No. 1 on the charts. Blondie went platinum; Harry became an icon. Somewhere in there, CBGB was still in the DNA.
As the first great CBGB band, Television was the group that paved the way for punk rock at the club. Yet Television’s musical aesthetic doesn’t jibe with what usually comes to mind when people talk about punk. Sure, they loved the Velvet Underground and garage rock, but they also seemed to borrow from jam bands and surf instrumentals. Television showed that punk could be found in the details: Tom Verlaine’s bleating delivery, tense rhythms and a nervy tangle of guitars. The music, found on classics such as 1977’s ‘Marquee Moon,’ was both edgy and intricate. Guitar duos have been jealous of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s interplay ever since.
Beginning as a trio, Talking Heads played their first-ever gig at CBGB as the openers for the Ramones. The two bands didn’t have much in common -- David Byrne would play an acoustic guitar! -- except that each had its own way of stripping rock down to its bare essentials. Talking Heads would become the artsy nerds of the punk scene, growing from their humble CBGB origins to include a keyboard player and begin weaving strands of R&B, dance and Afrobeat into their music. Of course, the band never forgot where they began and gave a shout out to CBGB in their song ‘Life During Wartime.’
No disrespect to the other bands on this list, but when you think of CBGB, only one band should enter your brain. The bar and the Ramones are practically synonymous -- and it’s likely that neither would have become the stuff of legend without the other. And here’s how the legend goes: four guys in leather jackets took the CBGB stage on an August night in 1974 and played an entire set of songs in (wait for it) 12 minutes. Some thought the band’s speedy, sloppy rock 'n' roll was an intentional joke. Some thought Joey Ramone was mentally disabled. Others, like ‘Please Kill Me’ author Legs McNeil, felt he had witnessed something that could change everything. Over the course of 70 more shows in ’74, the Ramones converted plenty more fans. With two-minute song after two-minute song of distorted candy, wrapped tightly around lyrics about sniffing glue or beating people with baseball bats, the Ramones boiled rock down to its glorious essence. There’s a reason that “Ramones” is shorthand for punk rock.