1970s punk is curiously iconic. From the Ramones T-shirts that adorn racks in suburban shopping malls to the CBGB-themed restaurant that recently opened in Newark Airport, we are surrounded by images of punk. Most of such representations focus on screeching vocals and buzzsaw guitars, leather jackets, heroin, and the grit and grime of downtown NYC. Punk is practically a caricature today, something made apparent by the ease with which the new HBO series Vinyl dresses up Scorsese’s usual Goodfellas gangsters in seventies rock drag.
On the ground floor, though, punk music turns out to be pretty slippery. More than just the usual ambiguities that affect any given genre, punk artists often seem to deliberately eschew stylistic commonality. This has only intensified as punk has grown into a global phenomenon, a situation that has given rise to dozens of (often competing) visions of its sound.
But even in New York during the seventies, punk was more than power chords and sneers. So much from that era sounds out of place. Proto-punk bleeds into post-punk and post-punk arrives too early. Neat lines between punk, pop, country, and disco collapse. And saxophones, synthesizers, and marimbas undermine oft-professed commitments to garage rock ideals. Even so, New York punk is far too rooted in power pop and rock ‘n’ roll to justify its inclusion under grandiose theories of British punk’s deconstructive avant-gardism. At times, the term punk seems to point less to a set of style features than a series of contradictions: rock and not rock, art and not art, queer and not queer, not quite alive and not quite dead…
This mix gathers everything weird, exceptional, and perfectly typical that was New York punk between 1965 and 1980. I include some of the usual suspects: the Ramones playing the role of teen heartthrobs for the 1979 film Rock and Roll High School, Patti Smith’s early poetic experiments with Lenny Kaye, Television covering Dylan, and even Lou Reed’s (very odd) 1976 funk/soul/disco number, “Follow the Leader.”
But, I also fold a number of less obvious examples into the mix. In putting this tape together, I drew on archival research conducted for my dissertation on New York punk. I’ve spent extensive time working in the collections at NYU, New York Public Library, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Museum and Archives (not to mention digging crates and combing through forums). Whether I was listening to compilations and bootlegs or paging through fanzine reviews, magazine articles, and promo materials, it became pretty clear to me that New York punk’s musical geography was much more complicated than many standard accounts make it out to be.
My mixtape crisscrosses the blurry borders that separate the proto from the post, the first wave from the new, and the hall of famers from the rest. These distinctions were seldom clear-cut during punk’s heyday. Instead, I elide a range of artists including Suicide, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Nervus Rex, Model Citizens, the Fast, the Marbles, and the Cramps; they were only some of dozens and dozens of musicians who played the New York circuit during the decade. I also highlight queer artists like Mumps, Magic Tramps, and Jayne County, all of whom worked to build punk up from the ground floor well before the CBGB scene was making headlines. The mix concludes with “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce,” the haunting final track from Nico’s 1967 Chelsea Girl – an album that was written out of punk history, despite being released at roughly the same time as Velvet Underground and Nico and featuring most of the same personnel.
Arranged speculatively, my mixtape plays almost like an unreleased seventies double LP compilation (transferred to digital for your listening pleasure, of course). Intended to present an anthological portrait of a long-lost musical scene that was and wasn’t, it is a definitive overview of a genre that perennially strove for and evaded definition.
- Nervus Rex: “Don’t Look”
- Jayne County: “Wonder Woman”
- The Magicians: “An Invitation to Cry”
- Patti Smith w/ Lenny Kaye: “Jesus Christ” [Live]
- 4 Skins: “I’m Mad”
- The Marbles: “Red Lights”
- Magic Tramps: “S&M – Leather Queen” [Live]
- Lydia Lunch: “Atomic Bongos”
- Suicide: “Sister Ray Says” [Live]
- Television: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” [Live]
- Lizzy Mercier Descloux: “Fire”
- The Cramps: “Human Fly”
- Model Citizens: “You Are What You Wear”
- Lou Reed: “Follow the Leader”
- Cherry Vanilla: “Shake Your Ashes”
- The Fast: “Wow Pow Bash Crash”
- Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps”
- The Ramones: “I Want You Around”
- Mumps: “Rock and Roll This, Rock and Roll That”
- Nico: “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce”
Jarek Ervin is a PhD candidate in Music at the University of Virginia. He is currently writing a dissertation on New York punk during the (long) 1970s. Ervin has held fellowships with the Library of Congress and UVa’s Bibliographical Society, and in 2015 was a Gladys Krieble Delmas Visiting Scholar at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Twitter: @jarekpaulervin