blondie new york city punk
Blondie. [Photo via YouTube]

“HEY! HO! LET’S GO!” You know the chant well. It’s been shouted at every sporting event since at least the mid-’90s. It is one of the foundational texts of punk, the Ramones‘ “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

Of course, Australian punk drumming YouTube sensation Kye Smith has cut a skate-punk arrangement with members of Teenage Bottlerocket. It’s where every punk rocker ever learned the art of chainsaw guitars, writing edgy/minimalist pop songs full of socially unacceptable subject matter and how to hang a black leather jacket on their shoulders.

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But the Ramones aren’t the totality of the mid-’70s New York punk experience. It generally gets acknowledged New York City, and CBGB, is punk’s womb, or bassinet at least. The truth is, punk was an idea in the air that germinated virtually simultaneously around the planet by the sort of misfits who were scooping up Stooges and New York Dolls records out of the world’s 99-cent bins. (Yes, including the Misfits! But that’s a story for a different time.) But New York (and Detroit before it) appear to be where much of its roots are.

And like every early punk scene, no two bands sounded alike. Some simply wanted to rock harder than Joni Mitchell and not have to go to a conservatory to do so. Some wanted to wed the idea of the Kingsmen’s legendary “Louie Louie” to something akin to transcendence, something striving to be art. The petri dish was the garbage, filth, fetid odors and cheap rents that was bankrupt New York City in the mid-’70s. 

Like many a great joke, this story begins with two men walking into a bar. Those men happen to be Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, and the bar is CBGB.

1. Television

Look at the timeline, and Television are the next domino after the Dolls. It was co-leaders Hell and Verlaine who convinced Hilly Kristal to allow them use of his biker bar at Bleecker and Bowery. (The pair even built the first stage.) And when Hell was still in the band, Television weren’t the energetic art-rock band with intricate, complex twin lead guitars (courtesy Verlaine and six-string partner Richard Lloyd) of note. They were every bit the classic punk band: Jagged, spiky, twisting on a stew of runaway neuroses and 18th century poetes maudits, banging at their Fenders like the early Kinks. Television were simple and dangerous, making torn-and-slashed music in torn-and-slashed clothing and torn-and-slashed haircuts. “Double Exposure,” recorded at CBGB shortly after they began their residency, audibly demonstrates how early Television beat the Ramones to inventing this sound.

2. Patti Smith Group

Patti Smith was a revelation. A published poet, she wanted more: She wanted to rock. That she did: Looking like Keith Richards, spitting rhymes like electric Bob Dylan and Rimbaud having unprotected sex, writhing in the grip of some ancient holy spirit before a modern garage band. What she did with Van Morrison’s garage chestnut “Gloria” was sublime, beautiful, profane and blasphemous, all at once: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine…” Whoa! You can say that in a song?! Yes, you can. Smith symbolized freedom. Still does.

3. Richard Hell And The Voidoids

Richard Hell is New York’s other punk poet laureate. He’s all over this story, passing through Television and the Heartbreakers before arriving at his Voidoids. Wanna know where the early punks learned how to spike their hair and rip and safety-pin their thrift store finery? Hell is their tutor. He also authored that numb, nihilistic cool. “Blank Generation,” caught here at CBGB in 1978 by German filmmaker Ulli Lommel for his same-titled film, was his signature tune: “To lose my train of thought and fall into your arms’ tracks/And watch beneath the eyelids every passing dot.” Note future Ramone Marky (still Marc Bell) behind the drums.

4. Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers 

Johnny Thunders had taught every future punk guitarist how to play in the New York Dolls. His pal Jerry Nolan set a similar example for all future punk drummers. Deciding they’d rather score smack back home than suffer singer David Johansen’s hectoring on a 1975 Florida tour (organized by future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren), they abandoned ship. They hooked up with bassist Richard Hell and guitarist Walter Lure, and Hell showed how to strip the Dolls’ napalm R&B to the new rock ethic—which they inspired to begin with. Relocating to England in late ’76 after replacing Hell with Billy Rath, everyone from the Pistols down took note of the Heartbreakers’ nuclear Yardbirds sound and Keith-Richards-in-a-street-gang cool. Their 1977 debut LP, L.A.M.F., was suitably explosive but marred by a bad mastering job at the time. Here we see them in their natural habitat, Max’s Kansas City (NYC punk’s other home), blasting through two-minute warheads such as the surf classic “Pipeline,” their signature tune “Chinese Rocks” and Thunders’ rejoinder to the Pistols’ disrespectful “New York,” “London Boys.”

5. Blondie

Blondie sifted through the refuse of the ’60s to find inspiration for their modern, urban poptones. They had it all: Debbie Harry’s gutter-Marilyn-Monroe sex appeal, a mini-Keith Moon in drummer Clem Burke, Jimmy Destri’s trashy keyboards and chunky guitars courtesy of Chris Stein and Frank Infante. Many didn’t think of them as punk at all, especially once their disco pastiche “Heart Of Glass” topped the charts in 1978. But “Dreaming,” performed here on Midnight Special in ’79, pummels as hard as any Ramones tune, Burke particularly shining.

6. The Dictators

The Dictators played NYC rock for those who couldn’t get into the Dolls’ gender-bending flash. They came from the Bronx, the typical New York headquarters for wise asses with guitars. Andy Shernoff wrote killer, catchy songs full of Mad magazine humor, Ross The Boss overplayed lead guitar better than any heavy metal axe god you can name and Handsome Dick Manitoba preened and bellowed like the pro wrestler he should’ve been. “New York, New York” displays the proud loser attitude better than any other song: “Smoking marijuana, watching Channel Five…”

7. Dead Boys

Finally, we have two Cleveland transplants to Gotham. Dead Boys were a gonzo Stooges/Dolls/MC5 mashup, fronted by Stiv Bators’ Alice Cooper vocals (and Iggy And The Three Stooges slapstick antics) and Cheetah Chrome’s vicious guitar heroics. They were a sick cartoon on a kamikaze run into the heart of America. “Sonic Reducer” remains a standard every punk band should know, the ultimate teen nihilism anthem: “Don’t need no pretty face/Don’t need the human race!”

8. The Cramps 

The Cramps, meantime, abandoned Cleveland for NYC to reimagine the New York Dolls as a more rockabilly/garage-inspired outfit. The constants would be life partners, Lux Interior as an Iggy Presley-esque warbler and Poison Ivy Rorschach playing guitar like her name was Linka Wray. “New Kind Of Kick” makes drug habits sound like a party rather than an addiction: “Some new kind of buzz/I wanna go hog mad!”

In short, New York City was only slightly ahead of the worldwide punk curve, but only by seconds. It’s where a butterfly flapped its wings, then fluttered across the rest of the world. Outcasts everywhere got a similar idea almost at the same moment the Ramones were first walking onstage at CBGB, picking up their guitars unaware anyone else was as sick and pissed off as they were with what passed for rock ‘n’ roll in 1975. That was the roar that resulted from that one flap of a butterfly’s wings on the Lower East Side. And fortunately for us, those wings contained all kinds of colors.