During the 1970s, New York City was gradually becoming the hub of the rising punk scene in the United States. With more and more punk artists and bands coming up during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, New York was at the centre of what would go on to influence rising punk artists in the rest of the country and in the UK as well. The rise of the punk scene in New York City happened at a crucial time in history.
It was a time that followed economic crises. It was only a few decades down the line from the wars that ravaged the country, hitting the financially and socially insecure individuals, especially hard. It was during this time that the punk movement started to gain force. Brutal, bratty and unrelenting, New York City would prove to be the genre’s natural home.
Punk was a branch of rock music that had an approach that was anti-establishment and unrestricted in terms of the so-called profanities. To someone who may not be acquainted with the movement, punk may often come off as crass. But the whole point of it was to make a complete shift from the mainstream and all that was conventional – including the use of language and music.
What initially started out with garage bands steadily grew into an underground movement. During the later half of the 20th century, multiple venues and places were hiring punk artists to perform at their clubs, pubs, bars, restaurants and so on. It was in those clubs that multiple punk artists started out from.
We are looking at some of the most iconic places in New York City that played a big part in the rising punk scene and remain heritage sites. They are essential places to visit for any punk.
New York City’s punk landmarks:
Max’s Kansas City
A nightclub and restaurant located at 213 Park Avenue South, Max’s was a spot where people from all different walks of the high-end life came to spend their leisure time. From musicians to artists, to politicians to writers and so forth, Max’s Kansas City played a pivotal role in the growth of punk music.
Artists like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground got a massive push from venues like Max’s that launched them in their career later on in their life. The New York Dolls had their last show at Max’s before Lou Reed quit the band in 1970. Patti Smith and her boyfriend, Robert Mapplethorpe, played regularly at Max’s between 1969 and 1970s. Even Sid Vicious played all his US solo gigs at Max’s following the break-up of the Sex Pistols.
The place had originally started out as a steakhouse and bar. The word goes that they made some mean chickpeas, too (which they threw at each other). So, if you were to sit there on your table contemplating on whether to get your steak medium-rare or rare and what alcohol to take with it, with chickpeas flying over your head, and the legendary punks playing in front of you, it would certainly have been quite an exceptional moment to witness, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, the original site of Max’s closed down in 1981. The building survives, though, and a Korean deli sits there in place of Max’s.
CBGB stood for Country, Bluegrass and Blues – seemingly having nothing to do with punk at all. The poetry readings and country music were what the owner of the shop had in mind, but somehow CBGB ended up being one of the most seminal venues in the history of punk culture.
Opened in 1973 in Manhattan’s East Village, CBGB was a commonplace where punk rock and new wave bands could be found taking to the stage and performing their hearts out. A storefront beside CBGB which initially was a café and record shop converted into an art gallery and second performance space. The venue was called CB’s 313 Gallery. On the other side of CBGB was a bar and café that served a delicious New York pizza.
From the 1980s, CBGB became known for its hardcore punk. Famous punk groups like Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, Blondie and the Ramones frequented there. Ramones even played their first shows at CBGB, arguably starting the notion of punk as we know it with three chords and little hope of success. The club closed in 2006, and the last performance they had was by Patti Smith. What had been the CBGB building at one point at 315 Bowery was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of The Bowery Historic District.
Though CBGB no longer exists, it still remains an iconic element in the history of punk music.
A7 was a less hyped venue of the NYC punk scene, not quite gaining the popularity as CBGB or Max’s Kansas City did. Still, it is certainly a noteworthy mention as a significant place of interest in punk history. It was located on the southeast corner of East Village in Manhattan.
From 1981 to ’84 was an unofficial headquarter of the NYHC scene. The NYHC or The New York Hardcore was starting to gain popularity in the late 20th century, and A7 was the place for NYHC fanatics.
One of the first bands to play at the A7 were The Violators, after which other bands like Minor Threat, Social Distortion, The Undead and so on also played gigs at the club. With icons such as Bad Brains performing at the A7, the club gradually turned into a hardcore scene; the club staff were also members of NYHC. For the longest time, the club operated without a liquor license, which often warranted police raids. A7 was closed and another bar, Niagra, came up in its place over the years.
We now shift from venues where the musicians performed to venues that were a place where artists stayed or lived for a stretch of time when they were in New York City. The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, NYC, was just that. Located between the Seventh and Eighth Avenues, this building became home to various artists, actors, musicians, writers and more.
Although it still stands in the same place to this day, the building is a witness to all the cultural changes in New York City over the course of several decades. Chelsea Hotel is widely known as the site where Sex Pistols’ member Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen was stabbed to death in 1978. The hotel was also referred to in Joey Ramone’s song ‘Like A Drug I Never Did Before’.
It was also where Patti Smith and her boyfriend Mapplethorpe lodged in when they frequented Max’s and CBGB. The building was a designated New York City landmark and was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
St. Mark’s Place
Although it is more of a street than a particular building or room, St. Mark’s Place was an important area where the punk scene grew. Along the two sides of the roads, there were a number of stores and shops that made their way into the works of famous punk artists.
The epicentre of punk rock, St. Mark’s Street had a boutique exclusively made to tend to the punk icons, their accessories and styling and so on. Manic Panic was the first boutique in the U.S to sell punk attire. It opened a line of its own make-up and vibrant hair dyes to cash in on the counterculture. David Bowie, Joey Ramone and Cindy Lauper were some of the many artists who were patrons of the store.
On the southwest corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue, a newspaper, magazine and tobacco store stood by the name of Gem Spa was in front of which the photograph for the eponymous New York Dolls LP back cover was shot. Lou Reed’s song ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ makes reference to the character of Sally walking down and to his place at St. Mark Street. Led Zeppelin’s album cover for Physical Graffiti was photographed featuring a rather symmetrical and appropriate cover for the album.
St. Mark’s Place was as much a part of the punk culture as the punk culture was for St. Mark’s Place.
Mercer Arts Centre
The Mercer’s Arts Centre, before it became the core of the rock and roll and punk legend, was called the “Lincoln Centre of Off-Broadway”. The building housed five Off-Broadway theatres. The main floor had the Mercer Hansberry Theatre and the Mercer Brecht Theatre, on the second floor were four cabaret theatres and a rehearsal space.
It was here that the New York Dolls performed twice a week regularly at the Oscar Wilde Room of the Mercer Arts Center. In the band’s earlier days, Ruby and the Rednecks used to open for them at the gigs and were greatly inspired by them. The Blue Room saw artists like Suicide and Modern Lovers perform with vigour.
The New York Dolls were kicked out of the establishment in 1972 because the Mercer Arts Center no longer wanted a rock and roll influence in their shows. But with the departure of the New York Dolls the Center’s popularity steadily declined. In 1973, the Mercer Art’s Center building suddenly collapsed but thankfully there were no casualties. The Center’s role, however short in the punk scene it might have been, was momentous nonetheless.