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From Patti Smith to Blondie: The 10 greatest albums of the CBGB punk movement

@TomTaylorFO

In 1974, it was clear, maybe Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not New York’s — the city was falling into some sort of adrenalised comic book dystopia. Andy Warhol’s factory had stepped one toke over the line, and the prelapsarian dream that blossomed from the flowerbed of the sixties was now a ruinous relic like a long-forgotten civilisation that the History Channel will say was built by aliens and abandoned centuries from now. 

The spirit of the age was gritty tumult and grimy turmoil. Hippy flower power was an old ideal that had been paved over and buried under brutalist architecture. While opiates and Chines Rocks replaced opulent excesses, the only priceless spiritual commodity that the zeitgeist had to offer was poverty. 

This feverish despair that had been forecast in a thousand bad acid trips from the decade earlier reflected the disheartening failure of the technological fix to bring about post-war progression. The sprawl of concrete, commercialism and internal decay sunk New York’s lowly denizens into a plashy mire of crime and punishment. 

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However, punk gloriously clawed its way out of the darkened depths of degeneracy and never even brushed itself clean after it clambered into a sauntering snarl. Joey Ramone was the bowl cut Frankenstein monster that the cultural New York cocktail shaker had poured out as an emblem of the disintegration of humanity after a fair glug of The Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls had been slung in there. 

The place they were serving this most-vile concoction was none other than The CBGB: The spiritual home of seventies artistic heathenry. From here a cultural wave akin to a beer-sodden leather-clad Italian Renaissance occurred where the notion of art as an elitist medium was bludgeoned into submission by kids who had something to say.

Sadly, the show was over and the cultural mecca became a clothes shop when Patti Smith played the final performance there on this day in 2006. Thus, we’re celebrating the mammoth impact of the scene, by ranking the best albums produced in its heyday. The rules are: The records had to be released between 1975 and 1978 and there can only be one per artist. Just imagine this level of quality in three short years!

The 10 greatest albums of the CBGB punk movement ‘1975 – 1978’:

10. Go Girl Crazy! By The Dictators

“I didn’t have to be here you know. I didn’t have to show up here. With my best financial holdings, I could’ve been basking in the sun in Florida, this is just a hobby for me. Nothing you hear, a hobby!” And so begins the ironic mantra of punk rock. This wasn’t a hobby and the kids certainly had nowhere else to be, but boy were they going to make the most of the circumstances that had befallen them.

Released in 1975, Go Girl Crazy! Is undoubtedly one of the very first progenitors of punk. All the tenets are in place early – humour runs rife, the raucous scintillating guitar leads of Ross ‘The Boss’ Funichello could knock the socks off of Gandhi, and the playfulness of youth is frothing at the mouth. If this is the tenth best, then you know we’re in for one hell of a list!

(Credit: Epic Records)

9. Young, Loud and Snotty by Dead Boys

One of the curious things about the development of pop culture is that it became so adept at defining itself that by the time of punk all of the iconographies fell into place in an instant. Without hearing the record itself, you just know where Young, Loud and Snotty by Dead Boys comes from. 

The record was released in 1977 and pushed punk on towards heavier tones, with production that sounds like a wasp trapped in a can of cider and having a whale of a time in there. Befittingly that same suffused underground explosion is amplified even further in ‘Hey Little Girl’ which was actually recorded live in the CBGB itself. What a bunch of rotters!

(Credit: Sire Records)

8. L.A.M.F by The Heartbreakers

Such was the punk scene at the time, having only one album in this per artist is a rule that comes with an asterisk. At the time, bands were swapping members around like a spliff in downtown Kingston. It seems like you’d wake up on a stranger’s sofa and then later that night you’d be on stage with them. 

With Johnny Thunders, Walter Lure, Billy Rath and Jerry Nolan all listed personnel and Richard Hell floating somewhere in the welter, L.A.M.F is a tricky album to pin down. And there is an element of that elusive nature in its sound.

Record mostly in Essex, London as punk switched shores, the record is reminiscent of the best sort of hangover when you wake up still drunk from the night before and ward of the threat with a blunderbuss of action and night-before-introspection.

(Credit: Track Records)

7. Suicide by Suicide

In August 1969, Alan Vega and Martin Rev witnessed The Stooges and life would never be the same for them again. As Vega himself once said: “It was when I saw Iggy Pop, that’s what did it for me. That changed my life pretty much.”

With that Suicide were formed and they would capture the hearts of many in the budding CBGB New York boom. The band’s mantra was a million miles away from those of a decade ago: “I always said I was never gonna be an entertainer. Suicide was never supposed to be about entertainment.”

If any testimony was needed to define the band’s assertion that they were not entertainers then a ten-minute eerie hellscape that describes the tale of a young factory working father driven to delusion by destitution should do the trick. Like mad scientists depicting political depravity, Suicide sampled the DNA of William S. Burroughs, tapped into the cinematic scope of Taxi Driver and handed the sickly creation over to David Cronenberg to direct. With that, the full gestalt of New York culture was dragged into punk. 

(Credit: Red Star Records)

6. Blank Generation by Richard Hell and the Voidoids

In 1975, Richard Hell left Television. Fuck ‘em. They were illuminating the future of music, becoming a fixture in the heart of New York’s art scene, and having demos produced by none other than Brian Eno, but what’s the point if they can’t see the merit in Hell penned songs like ‘Blank Generation’. For a man who has lived lying down then what is one more flop to the canvas. 

From that laidback spot in the gutter, Hell soon thrashed out his own tune and Blank Generation perfectly captures the sound. He is a poet who somehow has his head in the sweet clouds and clogs in six feet of stinking subterranean dirt at all times. Alongside this is a swirling and evolving soundscape that rumbles on like a Bayou Tapestry of Punk. We’re certainly heading towards the high-end records now!

(Credit: Sire Records)

5. Parallel Lines by Blondie

Punk was the Pandora’s Box of music. Once it was opened, it was never going back in, and as it burst into brilliance it immediately scuttled off into a myriad magical direction. Blondie blended it with pop with aplomb and in the process helped to spawn a crest of new wave bands thereafter.

Punk had produced some amazing songs up until this point and indeed so had Blondie, but now, with Parallel Lines, the genre had recognisable singles to point to. Tracks like ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘One Way Or Another’ stood out like sore cocks at an orgy amid the scene as the rushing moment of punk met with a pause of refinement. However, rather than tempering it’s cutting edge, it simply made the party a bit more flippy floppy. And boy did they look good!

(Credit: Chrysalis Records)

4. Talking Heads: 77 by Talking Heads

Every now and then music needs somebody to come along, grab it by the lapels and rattle it about like a pinball in-play during an earthquake. Even within the Promethean maelstrom of punk, the art school ways of Talking Heads somehow landed like a cold splash of water to the face of anyone with their finger firmly to the pulse. 

Talking Heads didn’t exactly blast the industry like a power hose though. David Byrne and the band more sort of moseyed up to the music industry, introduced themselves as an intergalactic presence, walked it hand-in-hand to the dancefloor and showed it how to make Flippy Floppy. As bassist Tina Weymouth once said, “When Talking Heads started, we called ourselves Thinking Man’s Dance Music.” 

They had acerbic intelligence to add to punks’ wit, an eye for where culture was headed and an unbelievable array of tunes to boot. This was the record that added a twist of lemon to the movement: Fun had come to town.

(Credit: Sire Records)

3. Ramones by Ramones

The timeless appeal of the Ramones was best summed up by the British punk poet, John Cooper Clarke, who wrote in the Ramones fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, the following pithy piece of punk proclaiming prose: “In late 1975, I read an article on the Ramones, a four-man gang from Queens. Much was made of their snotty asocial stage manner and the speed and brevity of their songs. […] I bought the LP. The Ramones were and are an enthusiasm of mine. They understood that it was better to have clever lyrics about moronic subjects than the other way round.”

This raucous songwriting style of the half Afghan hound, half-mad scientist crossbreed Joey Ramone and carefree vantage would soon waft over from the States to England, where the Sex Pistols picked up the scent. At their first riotous gig, a Frenchman in attendance reportedly heckled Steve Jones by yelling: “You can’t play!” to which Steve Jones replied: “SO WHAT!”. The rest, as they say, is ancient history and a lot of it was crafted in the Ramones image. 

This album might have only shifted around 5,000 copies in its first year, but since then it’s made one hell of an impact and turned the Ramones into legends. Everything about their debut record is now iconic; the cover image, taken by punk’s foremost photographer Roberta Bayley for only $125; the trashy sound recorded in seven days on a meagre budget of $6,400; even the snarling quickfire songwriting. Everything about the album is the quintessence of punk as we know it.

(Credit: Sire Records)

2. Horses by Patti Smith

Punk, by definition, can’t be pinned on a single person; it crawled from the plashy depths that rock and roll landed in after the prelapsarian slip of the ‘60s and snarled up like a straggly dirge to that loss of innocence. It came clad in drainpipe trousers and copious leather, and it needed a nurturing hand. 

Patti Smith was that nurturing hand. And Patti Smith is nothing if not grandiose. The opening stanza to her memoir concludes, “men cannot judge it, for art sings of God and ultimately belongs to him,” and the first lyric she ever put forward to the world in the opening rap to her 1975 debut album, Horses, was “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” 

In her words she speaks to a higher level, one that both belongs to, and is of art. It is also one that transcends the punk boundaries of piss, spit and platitudes and relishes in the need for “freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are.”

The Godmother of Punk has always been about what happens next in an ever-evolving career, and it is with this finger to the pulse attitude and passion for self-expression that Patti Smith saved rock ‘n’ roll. In short, punk made guitars fun again – Horses was central not only to that but also ensuring it had a crash helmet on to protect its cerebral backbone as it went hurtling into the future. Anyone who ever said poetry was boring ought to listen and weep.

(Credit: Arista)

1. Marquee Moon by Television

As the brisking wind that The New York Dolls had stirred into motion quickly started pulling up trees and forming some mad new craze called punk, Patti Smith was working as a journalist. At one point, she would trundle along to see a band called Television at some little-known club slowly gaining traction called CBGB

As a signifier of the arty intent of the band performing that night, a wall of televisions would be stacked behind them, each displaying different channels, except for one, tastefully off-centre that showed something akin to David Lynch-esque CCTV footage of the CBGB itself. 

Patti Smith’s piece would be titled: “Television: Escapees from Heaven.” And one of the most proto-punk statements within the piece reads: “Confused sexual energy makes young guys so desirable; their careless way of dressing; their strange way of walking; filled with so much longing. Just relentlessly adolescent.” Bearing in mind this at a time when they only had the New York Dolls and the Ramones for company, this youthful spirit proudly exhibited by Television was pretty much the Promethean punk force.

Every wondrous element of the movement is wrung out on the canvas of Marque Moon, to such an extent that you could drop a ten-tonne bomb into the spinning guizer of the vinyl and never hear it hit the bottom. There are some critics out there who miss the point of the CBGB scene and think the bands were making a movement, not music. Marquee Moon towers over such vacuous remarks as an edifice of unbridled creativity. 

“I remember when I first heard that” is a rare sentence in music, but the showering half notes of the title track is a celestial sonic rain you are unlikely to forget. The depth to the album does not necessarily reside in the lyrics, subject matters, or any profound innovation; it lingers in the obfuscated sonic reaches of energy and atmosphere. The closest you can come is to say that it sounds like a band seizing the zeitgeist through a dreamy oracle distance in some weird spiritual sense like punk alchemists. 

(Credit: Elektra Records)