Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
S3:E10 – What Makes Punk, Punk? – Part 1
When you think country, bluegrass, blues, and other music for uplifting gormandizers, what comes to mind?
If you’re not already familiar with a particular acronym, you probably don’t know who Hilly Kristal was either.
Kristal was a former marine, had pursued both opera and folk as a singer, and worked behind the scenes at the Village Vanguard, the famous jazz venue in Greenwich Village.
At some point he decided he was better at the business side of things rather than on the stage, and opened his own club called Hilly’s On 9th Street in 1966. Pre-fame Bette Midler was one of the regular performers there.
It was successful enough that he started a second club called Hilly’s On West 13th Street.
And then he looked around for a third location.
The late 1960s and early 70s wasn’t a good time for New York City.
Broke and crime-ridden, it let its worst neighborhoods get even worse.
The Bowery had always been a very rough area on Manhattan’s lower east side. It was a place for people who had hit rock bottom.
Drunks, drug addicts, and other down-on-their-luck people lived there, to the extent that you can call it living.
The Bowery’s streets were lined with gambling dens, brothels, and flophouses.
One such flophouse called The Palace Hotel was located at 315 Broadway. It had a bar on the first floor, The Palace Bar, that had a steady clientele of alcoholics who would line up outside each morning before opening, waiting for their pick-me-up drinks.
Property values were, obviously, really low. And cheap housing attracts artists. Art doesn’t pay much so young artists end up living in dangerous places.
Kristal was observant enough to know two things. First, there were muggers in the area but they would go after the easy targets, the drunks who were in no condition to fight back. Second, if the artists were in the neighborhood already, there would be musicians there, too, and they’d need a place to perform.
He rented The Palace Bar in 1969 for $600 a month.
He first renamed it “Hilly’s On The Bowery” and tried to make it similar to his other clubs. But it still attracted the same drunks as before.
Something had to change.
In 1973, he rebranded it with the initials of his intentions: Country, BlueGrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers.
That’s all it said on the awning over the door. CBGB OMFUG.
Kristal booked bands with the understanding that they could only do original music. Genre didn’t matter, despite the initials over the door. He wanted real artists. (The only other all-originals rock club in New York was Max’s Kansas City.)
Build it, as the saying goes, and they will come. Kristal was right, there were already musicians in the neighborhood, but who were they?
The bands that eventually played at CBGB’s were pretty diverse, but they had a couple things in common.
They may or may not have been from New York originally, but listened to some of the same records from the late 60s – records that may not have been popular at the time but have become legendary since.
“It seemed like a lot of the people who started the early both punk and new wave bands in America were the only Stooges fan in their town; the only Velvet Underground fan.
And then we all moved to bigger towns and met each other and started bands.”Jello Biafra, singer for the Dead Kennedys
The Stooges, also known as Iggy Pop & The Stooges, were a fiery live act from Detroit and had released three albums between 1969 and 1973. The first was self-titled and peaked at #106 on the Billboard 200. The third, Raw Power, got only as high as #182. The middle album, Fun House, didn’t chart at all.
Still, their free-spirited freak outs influenced punk and metal musicians alike.
The MC5, also from Detroit, had a similar career and effect.
Velvet Underground were a band that Andy Warhol managed like another one of his art projects. It included songwriter and deadpan street poet Lou Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, classically trained Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale, and Maureen Tucker, a percussionist with no experience whatsoever who played her bass drum sideways and didn’t use cymbals. Warhol insisted that a German model and singer called Nico be included on the first album. It was called The Velvet Underground and Nico.
This lineup created a debut album as varied as their backgrounds. It ranged from the lovely Sunday Morning to the experimental Venus In Furs to the soft/loud roller coaster of Heroin. Reed’s lyrics talked about the lives of people no one else cared about.
Like folks who might drink at The Palace Bar.
The topics, the poor recording, and the wide ground the album covered stylistically probably prevented it from being more popular. It didn’t help that it was released, withdrawn, and released again due to a threatened lawsuit.
The back cover showed the band performing in front of a screen with the projected image of actor Eric Emerson from one of Warhol’s films.
Emerson, who was short on money after a drug arrest, said he should be compensated for the unauthorized use of his image.
The record label, Verve, recalled the album from stores and re-released it with a black sticker over the photo.
In subsequent releases, Emerson’s face was blurred out. He was paid no money.
Whatever the reason, the album didn’t sell well, but as musician Brian Eno famously said, “…everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
“You have entire bands that gave us twenty album canons that are all wonderful, but came from one song on this Velvet’s record.
If you look at each song on the Velvet Underground’s debut album, you can measure entire genres being created by an individual song on that record.
Not just bands, but entire genres.”Music critic Jim DeRogatis
DeRogatis says that
- Sunday Morning led to Radiohead
- Venus In Furs led to Siouxsie & The Banshees and goth in general
- Run Run Run gave us shoegaze
- European Son gave us noise rock
- I’ll Be Your Mirror gave us slowcore
…and the list goes on.
Any band that makes alternative or underground music since 1968 was influenced by The Velvet Underground and Nico – even if they’ve never heard it.
They’ve heard bands that have. Or as Lester Bangs said:
“All modern music begins with the Velvet Underground.”
Velvet Underground’s various styles told musicians to follow whatever direction suited them. The Stooges’ raw power gave bands the right to rock hard without worrying about virtuosity. And that’s what the bands that started playing at CBGB had in common.
The Dictators sounded nothing like Blondie who sounded nothing like The Ramones who sounded nothing like Television who sounded nothing like The Patti Smith Group who sounded nothing like Talking Heads. They all started playing at CBGB in 1974 or 75, and they gave originality more importance than execution.
And that’s what punk was before it had a name.
It was making the music you wanted to make without worrying about trends or other people’s opinions.
Diversity is as beautiful as beauty is diverse.
So. What happened?
How did that hodgepodge of sounds become a single genre?
Before the word “punk” was used to describe the scene at CBGB, it had a few other meanings, none of them good. As an adjective, it meant being in poor health or otherwise inferior. As nouns, it meant wood that was too decayed to use for anything other than burning, or a novice, or a hoodlum, or a young man used for sex, especially in prison.
Yet when artist John Holmstrom and writers Legs McNeil and Ged Dunn, Jr. had the idea to start a music magazine like Creem or Rolling Stone but with cartoons, they decided to call it Punk.
It was about celebrating the ostracized.
Photo Credit: Tom Ahern
Holmstrom and McNeil went to CBGB to see The Ramones, and Lou Reed was in the audience. They approached him and said they wanted to interview him for their magazine and would put him on the cover. Reed dryly replied, “Your circulation must be fabulous.”
The first issue had the Reed interview, a feature on Marlon Brando (“The Original Punk”), a Ramones centerfold, and a sort of editorial declaring “Death to Disco Shit.”
Though the editorial was negative about disco, it had the effect of pulling together the punk scene.
It’s easier to have an “us” when there’s a “them.”.
The mainstream music press, if they mentioned this downtown scene at all, took to calling it “punk rock.”
That lumped all those bands that sounded nothing like each other into the same new catchphrase. The bands didn’t really like being called punk or even being treated as working in the same genre, because they weren’t.
What held them together was their idea that music didn’t have to be sanctioned by major labels or the press to be good. Musicians didn’t have to be trained, classically or otherwise, to create something interesting. Songwriting should be back to basics, but smart and poetic.
However, a genre with a threatening sounding name sold newspapers, and that was especially true in London.
Where the tabloid press had a field day with The Sex Pistols.
A clothing shop in London became the epicenter for the burgeoning punk fad.
The shop, called SEX, was co-owned by designer Vivienne Westwood and provocateur Malcolm MacLaren. Westwood and McLaren visited New York and worked a deal to supply The New York Dolls with stage clothes.
That was fine for an European tour, but McLaren wanted something shocking to get attention. He thought that the Americans hate nothing more than communism. So he dressed the Dolls in red patent leather and used the hammer and sickle as a stage backdrop. This was just as glam rock was fading out anyway, and the shock tactic backfired. Guitarist Johnny Thunders blamed McLaren for the band’s breakup.
While in New York, Westwood and McLaren had been to CBGB and saw Richard Hell & The Voidoids perform. Hell wore a shirt held together with safety pins because he couldn’t afford new clothes.
Soon, SEX was selling clothing with safety pins. It became a fashion statement, along with bondage trousers, spiked mohawk hairstyles, and leather motorcycle jackets like The Ramones wore.
Some people put safety pins through their cheeks. In the UK, punk was a fashion statement first, a music genre second. The tabloid press was more than happy to put this “deviant” look on its covers.
The British punk bands, however, were something to behold, no matter what they wore. The Clash, Generation X, Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Damned, The Slits, X-Ray Spex all had their own sound, but were much more similar to each other than the bands in New York. That’s probably because the musicians knew each other and had already played in previous bands with each other.
Chrissy Hynde, for instance, not only worked at SEX, she had been in an early version of The Damned, an early version of The Clash, and bands called The Unusuals, Johnny Moped, The Moors Murderers, and others.
When her visa was about to expire, two members of The Sex Pistols agreed to marry her so she could stay.
All that before she started The Pretenders.
The Sex Pistols exemplified the English punk sound. Much like The Ramones, they stripped rock & roll down to eighth note downstrokes and power chords.
Where most chords are triads, meaning they have three notes, power chords have only two. A major triad has the root note, the third note up the scale, and the fifth note. A power chord has only the root and the fifth. Players might play the octave up from the root, too.
So: the notes in a C major chord are: C, E, and G.
In the power chord version, it’s just C and G. Power chords are neither major or minor.
They’re also really easy to play.
Many punk bands used power chords – but could be more sophisticated.
We’ll get to all of that next week. This is only the beginning.
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
Velvet Underground & Nico
I Wanna Be Your Dog
New York Dolls
(I Live For) Cars And Girls
Patti Smith Group
Max’s Kansas City
Wayne County & The Backstreet Boys
Anarchy In The UK
The Sex Pistols
Richard Hell & The Voidoids
See No Evil
Love Goes To Building On Fire
Oh Bondage Up Yours!
Gary Gilmore’s Eyes
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