The club CBGB’s (which stands for ‘country, bluegrass, blues’ – and its sub-title OMFUG - ‘other music for uplifting gourmandizers’) was opened in late 1973 in the New York. Located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on The Bowery, it quickly became the place to be for anyone interested in the new music scene of the city. At the time The Bowery was a pretty seedy and dangerous place to be; mainly populated by muggers, pimps, prostitutes, homeless, drunks and derelicts, it was a place no-one really cared about by all accounts and was synonymous with ‘skid row’. However, the rent was cheap, it wasn’t in a residential area and the locals were too out of it to care either way. The founder and owner of the club, Hilly Crystal, originally opened it for country, bluegrass and blues music; however he soon adopted a ‘Rock Only’ policy and began booking new bands. Among these bands were many who went on to later, bigger mainstream success, including; The Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, The Ramones and Blondie just to name a few.
Crystal had another policy that he would book bands under; namely that bands should be original – anything was allowed and anyone was allowed into the club. This meant that bands playing were free to experiment with their music without restriction. Also important was that there was an audience to play to. Once word had spread around, CBGB’s was the place to go to see and hear new bands that were appearing there, and the place would be packed.
When The Ramones played their first gig there in 1974, they blew the audience and Crystal away. Short, loud, fast, bubble gum pop songs delivered with ferocious force and energy, their set that was only made up of about ten songs, was over in twenty minutes. Added to this was the fact that the vocals couldn’t be heard properly, the amplifiers crackled and screeched. Famously, after Dee-Dee Ramones’ intro of ‘1-2-3-4’ they all launched into different songs. But, it didn’t matter, it was something totally new, it was original. The thing that did matter was that an idea had been sparked and there was a space, a place to work on it. This was to be the prevailing sense in the years to come.
In the summer of 1974, the Patti Smith Group played two sets a night, four nights a week, for seven weeks straight. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe used to hang around outside Max’s Kansas City, and not being allowed in, they had gravitated to CBGB’s, where they were accepted. Soon after, Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye formed the Patti Smith Group. Smith had already had two poetry books published and this influenced her singing style, improvising poetry over the music. Playing so often at CBGB gave them the opportunity to really fine tune what they wanted to do, to fully find the way to express themselves through words and music. By 1975 they had signed to Arista Records and released their debut album Horses (featuring Rock’n’Roll Nigger), which received wide critical acclaim. They followed this up in 1976 with Radio Ethiopia, and Easter in 1978.
It was the case for many other bands; The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, The Misfits, The Fleshtones, The Cramps, The Shirts and The Dead Boys all had the debut albums released two or three years later. It was the birth of the New York punk/rock scene in more ways than one. The word ‘punk’ was first coined by Legs McNeil, writer and co-founder of Punk magazine, in late 1975. The New York scene was a pivotal influence on the British punk scene and the music industry as a whole.
The Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren had spent some time in New York in 1973 - 1974, and through his association with The New York Dolls had gotten a taste of what was happening at CBGB’s, and brought some of that energy back to England. His association with New York continued on and off over the following years with bands such as The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunder touring England and Europe.
By late 1975, CBGB’s was attracting a lot of media and record company attention. Photographers, film-makers, journalists, record company executives were all turning up to see what was going on. As a result of this attention articles were written, photos taken, films made, albums were released and then distributed around the world, for anyone who was interested, to listen to and read about.
Despite the sensation around the punk scene that was rapidly growing, CBGB’s maintained the ethos of only booking original bands, allowing bands like Talking Heads to develop their style, which was anything but punk. Films of their first gigs there record a somewhat shy, gentle, fragile awkwardness. This seems in complete opposition to a band called The Dead Boys, a band having made their way from Cleveland, Ohio in 1976. Their first album released in 1977, titled ‘Young, Loud and Snotty’ epitomised their outrageously obscene and high energy, and brilliant performances.
All this was the perfect antidote to what rock and roll had become by the 70’s, the music industry was dominated by stadium bands playing soft rock. The revolution and flower power era of the 60’s had faded away, and record company bank balances (and power) got fatter and fatter. Crystals’ connections with other club owners around the US also brought in new bands, giving them somewhere to play when no-one would book them in their hometowns outside of New York.
It’s hard to imagine what would have happened in music in the late 20th century without CBGB’s, maybe someone else, somewhere else might have opened a club with similar attitudes, maybe not. A place like CBGB’s provided the place for the opportunity for anyone to able to say what they wanted to say, without restrictions or reprisals, or a lot of pay for their trouble. It signified a cultural breakthrough and opened the gates for a new type of self-expression.