Get to know ‘Pure Hell’, the first-ever black punk band who pioneered a genre
There are few artists as groundbreaking as Pure Hell. As a group, undoubtedly changing the landscape of punk, they have wrongfully never received the recognition they deserved. Acting as one of the pioneering bands who helped forge the legendary East Coast punk scene that spawned the likes of New York Dolls, Blondie and Ramones, the self-proclaimed ‘first-ever black punk band’ arrived as an integral part of the scene. However, despite their impact, Pure Hell remains largely unknown.
Pure Hell was formed in Philadelphia in 1974 and, in the years that followed, were cited by Bad Brains as being an influential act who helped shape their vision. Largely splitting time between their home-town and the roaring punk scene of New York City, the group was made up lead vocalist Kenny ‘Stinker’ Gordon, bassist Lenny ‘Steel’ Boles, guitarist Preston ‘Chip Wreck’ Morris and drummer Michael ‘Spider’ Sanders who were all raised on a shared diet of Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix—musicians who inspired them to make it even louder than any of their idols.
In what is a slightly debatable topic, Detroit punk band ‘Death’ has been informally awarded the title of ‘first-ever black punk band’ having formed three years prior to Pure Hell. However, the pioneering stunts that the Pure Hell put together in order to smash stereotypes in regards to what type of music was expected from black people forced them into contention. Bassist Lenny ‘Steel’ Boles, who was reflecting on his career to date, told Dazed in 2018: “We were the first black punk band in the world. We were the ones who paid the dues for it, we broke the doors down. We were genuinely the first. And we still get no credit for it.”
When Boles says they paid their dues, he truly means it. The band had to fight twice as hard as their counterparts in order to receive the same opportunities and, tragically, were never given a second chance after a falling out with management saw their record label refuse to release their album—a record which didn’t become available until decades later.
Curtis Knight, who used to sing in The Squires, a band which also featured a prodigal talent named Jimi Hendrix on guitar, became Pure Hell’s manager and oversaw their career which included a successful UK tour. However, also he controlled their plight. After a fall-out with Knight, the band’s recordings didn’t see the light of day until many years later. After being put on tape—at Knight’s insistence—the material was later bought by none other than Henry Rollins who put it out on his own label and finally provided the band with the well-earned props that should have come 50 years earlier.
Rollins told Dazed: “I listened to it and was amazed at how good it sounded. I checked in with Kenny (Gordon) and he confirmed it was the only source for the two songs. The rumour was that they had made an album and that it was sitting in a closet,” he says. “Noise Addiction, released in 2006, decades after it had been recorded, is really great. If the album had come out when they made it, that would have been a game-changer. I believe (it) would have had a tremendous impact. It’s one of those missed opportunity stories.”
Pure Hell fought their way into becoming a vital cog in the New York punk scene’s machine, winning over the respect of the New York Dolls who they struck up a great friendship. Their stock among fellow musicians continued to rise in the DIY punk scene, even performing alongside the late Sid Vicious in 1978 when he moved to the city.
The band’s career had sadly fizzled out by 1980 and, after a move to Los Angeles which didn’t pay off, it felt like they had missed the boat. Widely seen as one of the defining punk bands of the era, a reflective view on the darker side of the music industry can be pinpointed down to the one dispute with Knight which stunted their development.
Looking back at how he wants Pure Hell to be remembered all these years on, Gordon maintained: “I don’t want to be remembered just because we were black,” he said. “I want to be remembered for being a part of the first tier of punk in the ’70s.”
Poignantly adding: “I had so much fun, it doesn’t matter that I never saw a penny for it,” he says. “For us, it wasn’t about making money. It was about following our hearts and doing exactly what we wanted to do.”