Part II: Downtown Rock: Punk and New Wave, 1974-78

Punk was popularized in the U.K. but it was born in New York. The early history of punk rock in New York is bound to the early history of CBGB, the legendary club that ran from 1973-2006. It was the literal collapse, in August of 1973, of the Mercer Arts Center building, where protopunk groups like The New York Dolls and Suicide had performed, that sent the musicians of New York's burgeoning alternative rock scene in search of a new home. In March of 1974, Television, the band formed the previous year by Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, began a Sunday-night residency at CBGB, and soon the club became the home base for the bands that have become known as the pioneers of punk rock.

Punk or new wave (the terms are synonymous or overlapping, depending on who you ask) was largely a reaction to the pyrotechnics that had come to dominate rock in the late 'sixties. Influences included the raw sound of 'sixties garage bands like The Troggs, The Standells, and Question Mark and the Mysterians, Detroit bands The Stooges and MC5, and local glam rockers The New York Dolls. Also influential, as much for their status as New York underground rock forefathers as for their music, was The Velvet Underground. Rock journalists Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs had used the word "punk" to describe some of this music before any of the classic New York punk bands even existed, but the term was codified in 1975 with the advent of Punk magazine.

Though the Ramones came to typify the sound that would be considered classic punk, the music of the early New York bands was fairly diverse, and not all of it was musically "elemental." Television, the band that launched CBGB, had a sound that was considerably more complex than that of groups like The Ramones or the Dead Boys. To some, the term "new wave," coined by record-industry execs to make the music more palatable to the public, was a more appropriate appellation for the more artsy of the bands (Talking Heads, for instance). Debbie Harry and Blondie's take on 'sixties pop sounds added yet another flavor to the mix. Patti Smith was considered "the poet of punk," and had first made her name in downtown circles as a poet, performing her work regularly at The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church.

One of the people who was paying close attention to all this activity was Malcolm McLaren, a British impresario who managed the New York Dolls in 1974 and returned to the U.K. the following year to manage and mold The Sex Pistols. The success of the Sex Pistols and the emergence of punk as a cultural phenomenon that captured widespread media attention created a climate that the American bands profited from. By 1977 most of the pioneering New York punk acts had major-label recording contracts and national touring schedules. The music was no longer solely a downtown phenomenon. CBGB continued to present their early core artists as well as newly emerging bands. Later clubs that presented punk and post-punk acts included The Mudd Club, founded in 1978, Tier 3, and Hurrahs, which was the music's uptown outpost.

<< Downtown Music I: Bibliography and Resources | Table of Contents | Downtown Music II: Bibliography and Resources >>


Home | Fales Services | Collection Descriptions & Finding Aids | Exhibitions & Publications | Programs & Events | Contact Fales

Bobst Library | NYU Libraries | NYU Home Page