Opening its doors in 1973, CBGB’s is one of the most legendary rock venues in the history of music. No ifs or buts, CBGB’s was the place to be if you wanted to be heard amid the dirge of New York. It was the birthplace of punk and all the grim-filled beauty that went with it. Founded by Hilly Kristal, the club stood for all that was expressive and authentic.
The crowd at the iconic venue do not suffer posers, fools, morons, or anybody else for that matter. The lumpy and bumpy clientele was notorious for flipping from not caring enough to look up from their drinks to, in the blink of an eye, throwing their glasses on stage within the utmost angst. It was an intimidating place to play and only a few select acts ever triumphed on its stage.
Officially closing its doors on October 15th, 2006, the New York stalwart was formerly a biker bar but later transformed under Kristal to become one of the most important venues in the country during the late ’70s and ’80s. The letters forming the name CBGB stood for ‘country’, ‘bluegrass’, and ‘blues’, all of which speak to Kristal’s original vision.
Despite this vision, CBGB soon became a famed venue of punk rock and new wave bands like the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and Talking Heads and the on to providing one of the only welcoming platforms for hardcore punk during the ’80s. The list below proves that the venue can be rightly thought of as one of the most potent places to perform in music’s history.
Here, we’re taking a look back at some of the venue’s most iconic performances of all time from some of the club’s most notorious patrons and performers.
CBGB’s greatest performances:
In 1974 the musical climate was rife with glam, glitter, and disco-breath. One band determined to flip the script firmly on its greasy head was The Ramones and they started their punk rock revolution at their spiritual home: CBGB’s in New York.
The Ramones represented a whole new type of rock and roll. They were not content with the folk sensibilities of the sixties, nor were they swayed by the alien glitter of glam rock, Ramones were staring down the barrel of a new youth movement, and they made it happen with a simple “One! Two! Three! Four!”. It was a combination of artist and venue that promoters can only dream of.
One eyewitness to the scene was music journalist Legs McNeil, the future co-founder of Punk magazine told History.com: “They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song…and it was just this wall of noise,” McNeil later recalled. “These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.”
Watch as the Ramones take to the CBGB stage to give an introduction to punk. The audio quality isn’t great, but what did you expect?
Talking Heads (1975)
Talking Heads, complete with the swashbuckling artistry of David Byrne, took to the grimy yet famous CBGB stage for the very first time in 1975 just one year on from their inception. When the then-trio began performing at the infamous venue in support of punk upstarts the Ramones, there was a sense that this band were something unique, something different, something worth paying attention to.
In the footage below, one can sense this notion of immersion, of impressive domination of a hostile crowd, a band beginning to build. Byrne may not have yet finessed his jerking and jabbering performance style, but the band were laying the foundations for a skyscraper career.
In this rare footage, we see Talking Heads before they became everyone’s favourite influence performing the fantastic ‘Psycho Killer’.
The electric energy which pulsed through New York in the mid-to-late-seventies all seemed to congregate in the depths of the grim-ridden punk club CBGB. It was there that Patti Smith, Ramones, Talking Heads, and so many others found their musical feet. But it was there that Blondie and Debbie Harry created their own genre and called it ‘new wave’.
Blondie represented one of the few bands on this list to transcend the club and its ethos. While the band may have moved toward the shining lights of mainstream stardom, they began on the dirty stage in the bowels of New York. Across many nights, the band made the venue and extension of their furious sound and provided plenty of unforgettable nights but one was better than the rest.
The gig in question was immortalised by the band in their DVD Blondie: Live at CBGB and shows a Harry at full tilt a band without reproach and the club bouncing to every note. Watch Blondie play ‘Rip Her to Shreds’ below.
Beastie Boys (1982)
CBGB’s by the early eighties had cemented its place among the greatest musical landmarks of North America. It was rightly recognised as the birthplace of punk and following the relative success of the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and more the queue was usually around the block given any night.
That prompted the establishment to start putting on matinee punk performances. They encouraged smaller acts to jump on stage at thrash for 20 minutes at a crowd who had nothing better to do on an afternoon than sit and drink. One such punk band was the early incarnation of the Beastie Boys.
Back in 1982, they were a hardcore band comprising vocalist Michael Diamond, bassist Adam Yauch, drummer Kate Schellenbach and guitarist John Berry. Below you can hear that maiden set at CBGB’s legendary venue.
Guns ‘N’ Roses (1987)
Just a few short months after Guns ‘N’ Roses had shared their seminal record Appetite For Destruction they made their way to the near-depths of New York’s bubbling underbelly. They didn’t quite make it to CBGB’s but did find their way to the CBGB Record Canteen.
The venue was essentially the shopfront next door bought and hollowed out to double as a record shop and venue. It wouldn’t quite be the dripping walls of Kristal’s punk palace, but it’s near enough.
In 1987 there was no band bigger than Axl Rose and Slash’s crew, here they play a pokey show and give an iconic performance.
Dead Boys (1977)
They may have hailed from Cleveland, Ohio but the band known as Dead Boys are as synonymous with the New York punk scene as pretty much everyone. They operated like drunken hitmen when they stepped on stage.
Stinking of grime and disrespect the group would deliver full-throttle performances hell-bent on driving you headfirst into the wall. The below performance is from 1977 but could be one of many from the band who are quite possibly the archetypal CBGB group — dirty, deranged and damn proud of it.
Patti Smith (2006)
Of course, we had to finish off this list with the very last performance at the legendary punk venue. Fitting, it would seem, that the last person to play the venue would not only be the Queen of New York’s underground scene herself, Patti Smith. But would also see the singer contribute covers of some of CBGB’s hall of fame.
Covering The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass, she adds her own unique viewpoint on the dad-rock classic. Smith then moved on to not only play a Ramones-medley with an electric and energetic enthusiasm that would’ve made the gruesome foursome proud but then offers a touching rendition of Lou Reed/Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’.
The series of covers and the performance, in general, was Patti Smith’s final farewell to the place where so much of what we consider mainstay punk rock nowadays found its first words.
From the dirty and grime-filled incubator of CBGB to, New York and then out to the world, this was the place to scream your name hoping to be heard.