IN THE SUMMER OF 1975, scenes started to cohere around sounds emanating from lower Manhattan. Local musicians and critics sat up and took note. With a massive festival of unsigned bands, CBGB, a dank little Bowery club, confirmed its status as ground zero for New York’s rock and roll underground. Just a few months earlier, Patti Smith, cult poet and fledgling improvisational rocker, had kicked off a seven–week run there with another favorite local band, Television, by signing a seven–album, $750,000 contract. The summer CBGB festival included dozens of hopefuls competing to follow her lead.
Neighborhood newspaper critics took turns eking out interpretations. James Wolcott, in the Village Voice, accurately traced the movement’s origins to The Velvet Underground and the previous decade’s subterranean bohemians. Identifying a “conservative” impulse in the new underground rock, Wolcott saw the new bands — including eventual success stories such as Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones — as restoring rock’s original spirit of amateurish, youthful rebellion. The scene’s paradoxically revolutionary and preservationist nature wasn’t lost on other observers either. In March of 1976, one critic in the SoHo Weekly News gushed that “New York is currently the scene of the third great rock reformation” — following the fifties original and the sixties British invasion – “and it’s about time, too.” Patti Smith had already written in multiple magazines about the need for new rock and roll messiahs, whose coming she saw in the aforementioned Television. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, writing in 1977 within months of Blondie’s and Television’s LP debuts, disclosed something like hometown pride in his hope that “the heartland would finally be moved” by the New York scene. “[A]vant-punk seems likely to make some sort of breakthrough,” he wrote. “I don’t know how big it will be or whether I’ll like its shape when it’s over. All I know is that I haven’t been this excited about rock and roll in at least 10 years.”
Christgau’s spirit of 1977 now seems charmingly parochial. As the dearest fans of New York punk know, it took some time for this scene’s cultural influence to be fully realized and it’s still being reckoned with. Much of the music produced in CBGB’s first five years remains the province of rock snobs, hipsters, and New York chauvinists, though all three of those categories enjoy growing global memberships. And while many of us remain convinced that what happened in New York rock and roll in the mid-seventies hasn’t be matched since, mainstream audiences are still likely not aware that 1973 - 1977 were, as the subtitle to Will Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire has it, five years that changed music forever.
The downtown rock scene forms the emotional core of Hermes’s history, but the story he tells of punk rock’s birth on the Bowery is just one of the threads in his narrative, and in many ways it’s the book’s least surprising one. Along with early hip hop, punk is the genre whose story’s been told most often, with renewed attention thanks to much-read recent memoirs from Patti Smith and James Wolcott. What sets Hermes’s book apart from predecessors such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s ...read more