But by 1976 Mott The Hoople and The New York Dolls had broken up, Elliott Murphy was on his second record label in three years (soon to be on his third) and disco & Peter Frampton ruled the charts and airwaves. Where was a West Side rocker supposed to turn? What could a poor boy do, ‘cept to play for a punk-rock band? By 1976 I had completely bought into the entire Year Zero concept that changed New York City’s Joseph Hyman into Joey Ramone and London’s Joe Mellor into Joe Strummer & John Lydon into Johnny Rotten. (I’m not even gonna dignify John Ritchie’s transformation into Sid Vicious in this grouping.) (While we’re on the topic, why was everybody in punk named John or Joe?)
My biggest problem with punk was the sheer, rampant unprofessionalism rife in the movement. An oft-stated maxim of this blog is: All of my standards of rock & roll professionalism are based on The Who in 1969. Given that stance, punk-rock circa 1976-1978 was gonna present a whole host of problems. Two cases in point…..
1) I’m pretty sure it must have been the summer of 1978 when I went to see local Columbus band Screaming Urge, who were then the darlings, if not reigning kings, of the local punk-rock scene. They were playing an outdoor show on the Ohio State University campus, I believe for some hemp-related Legalize Pot movement. (Which was problematic to me right from the start: What was a punk band doing playing a hippie fest?) They were pretty sloppy, pretty ramshackle, the songs weren’t great; they weren’t exactly The Clash in matters of tightness or cohesion, if you get my drift. And then, maybe a half hour into the set one of the guitar players broke a string. I expected at that point for a roadie to come out with a spare six-string, fix the primary and return it next song. No, there was no roadie, there was no spare guitar, there was no string changing, the guy just continued short-stringed on his axe. Two songs later, the OTHER guitar player broke a different string. Now there was a few minutes of serious head-scratching and conferring between the band members on how to continue. Their solution, which boggles my too-analytical, too-professional, too-OCD mind to this day in 2012, was for the two guitarists to TRADE GUITARS! For the life of me I couldn’t and still can’t imagine what that swap was supposed to accomplish. Both guitars were seriously out of tune from the slack of the missing strings, what possible purpose could trading them have served? The band limped through three or four more ever-increasing out of tune songs until the bass-playing lead singer couldn’t pitch his voice anymore to the "chords" the guitar players were discordantly bashing out. They would have been better off taking a string off one guitar and putting it on the other just to have ONE normally-strung instrument, and played as a trio.
And that’s when I realized; I was trying to apply 1960’s solutions to 1970’s problems. Your band can’t play in tune? Just say, "We’re anti-tuning, man." Drummer can’t play in time? Just adopt the stance; "We’re incorporating free jazz into our music, man." Lead singer can’t sing? Sneer and intone in a haughty faux-English accent, "We’re into atonality in our vocals, man, get with the times." Witnessing the sonic debacle that was Screaming Urge that night, who were supposed to be the "top-of-the-heap" Columbus punk, just further validated my then new-found affection and committment to Romantic Noise. (Willie Phoenix’s "punk" band, who were actually probably more power pop.) (Much, much more on Romantic Noise and Willie Phoenix in future segments of Growing Old With Rock & Roll.)
2) My ex-wife Pat and I visited Boston the summer of 1977. I was really totally in love with the Boston punk scene. To this day I think it was far superior to any of the other nascent, burgeoning punk scenes, easily topping New York City and even London, England. (And Los Angeles? Please.) I had sent away (there’s that mail-order thing again) for the Live At The Rat double album as soon as I read about it in New York Rocker (the paper that replaced Creem magazine as my mid-to-late 70’s rock & roll bible). This was to be my first visit to the Rathskeller Club that gave the album its name and the Boston punk scene its locus. So here’s the thing; I had been going to the Columbus Agora, my hometown’s flagship venue, for shows since 1968, after discovering it on a class field trip to the Ohio State campus conducted by my journalism teacher, Sister Ann Mary. (See blog entry Linda Finneran and Scoring Heroin.) The Agora was a 1300-person capacity club and it was packed every time I went. Even before being signed to a major label deal with Casablanca Records (home of Kiss, among others) local heavy metal band The Godz could sell out the Agora pretty much any Friday or Saturday night they chose to play there. In short, the Agora was my template for rock & roll success.
So Pat and I wound up wandering up and down Kenmore Square (an area I knew well from previous Boston trips to visit Dave Blackburn as far back at 1971) looking for the Rat. I had the address written down, but we walked right past it twice because I was looking for a venue capable of holding 1300 people; my thought process being, "If Columbus, a town of under one million residents (at that time) supports a club like the Agora, a city of Boston’s population (four million, in 1977), has to sport a comparable venue." Oh, how very, very wrong I was. Pat and I finally stopped in the Kenmore Square Strawberries Record Store location and asked where the Rathskeller was. The counter guy just looked at me like I was from Mars, "It’s right there," he said, pointing out the window to the left. "Where?" I persisted cluelessly, still looking for a movie marquee-sized sign advertising that night’s bands. "Right THERE, right where those stairs are," he shot back, totally frustrated with my Midwest naïveté.
Pat and I walked down the short flight of stairs into a basement club that couldn’t have held more than a couple hundred people. The only employees there were a janitor mopping the floors and a guy stocking bottles behind the bar. The Columbus Agora had a dedicated, fully-staffed box office all day, every day. "We’re not open yet, whattya need?" the bartender asked. "Uhhh, we were looking to get tickets for the show tonight." "Tickets? You don’t need tickets, it’s Third Rail playing tonight, doors are at nine o’clock, just show up after that." "What if it sells out?" I replied. (Third Rail were one of the bands featured on the Live At The Rat album and fairly popular in town if I were to believe my Boston fanzine reading.) The guy actually laughed, "It’s NOT gonna sell out, believe me. Come back after nine."
We dutifully returned right at nine, paid our cover and settled in at the Rat. By 10 pm there were maybe 20 other people in the place. A camera crew of some kind was setting up in one corner and about 15 minutes before showtime Richard Nolan, the lead singer & songwriter from Third Rail, was going from table to table telling people that a news crew from one of the local T.V. channels was filming a feature about punk-rock for that night’s news segment. Further, he asked if we could, in his words, "Whoop it up and act really punk," that night for the cameras. Now, let’s delineate just the top problems I had with this interaction: 1) On my rock & roll planet the lead singer of the headlining band does not come out and rub shoulders with the audience. I fully realized that punk was supposed to be leveling the playing field and bringing rock & roll back to its roots, but Jesus, let’s try to keep a little magic and mystery in the presentation. I found glad-handing the paying customers more suited to middle-school cheerleader tryouts than to aspiring rock & roll stars. 2) Should the lead singer have to ASK the audience to "whoop it up and act punk?" Wasn’t it HIS FUCKING JOB to get us to that state? 3) What was "acting punk" supposed to mean, anyway? Were we supposed to spit on him? Throw up on the floor? Pogo? I thought punk was supposed to be throwing away restrictions, now it was already becoming just a play-acting fashion show. 4) Why were there only 20-some paying customers at what I thought was a popular club presenting who I thought was a popular band?
As it transpired, Third Rail’s performance was shaky at best. Nolan was a self-involved junior-league Lou Reed-wannabe and I walked out of the Rat that night with a fuckload of my punk-rock preconceptions seriously shaken, if not obliterated. How could the top punk-rock club in Boston, Massachusetts, not be much bigger than the bar area of my beloved Columbus Agora? What did this mean about CBGB’s in New York City? (Which I had imagined must hold around 3000 people, given N.Y.C.’s population of 8 million.) Did this mean that maybe punk-rock was not the broad-based, fanatical fan-supported movement that was going to wipe the likes of Styx, Journey and Foreigner from the airwaves and stages of America? Was punk-rock just the invention and wishful thinking of a few big city rock critics?
The answer to that last question is, of course, "Yes." Looking back, I have to figure that The Sex Pistols probably played to less human beings in their entire 18-month "career" than Eagles or Fleetwood Mac did in just one of their late-70’s stadium sellout shows. The Clash fared somewhat better until that built-in "regular people aren’t supposed to like us, just a fringe element of really smart people we would like to have as friends" aspect of punk-rock reared up and fucked with Joe Strummer’s head, the same way it would decades later with Kurt Cobain's. Punk-rock ghettoized itself away from "real rock & roll" more and more completely as time wore on – its own clubs, its own haircuts, its own rituals – devolving into the inevitable "alternative rock." I wanted 1976 punk-rock to wipe the planet free of Led Zeppelin, Queen, and disco music. Instead I was rewarded with synth-pop, hair-metal and (dare I speak its name?) MTV. It was not a good trade-off. So where does that leave us in 2012? On the one hand we’ve got pop stars Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. On the other we’ve The Black Keys and Kasabian.
God help us.
postscript; I never stopped loving punk, of course, as it settled into its little rock & roll niche, especially Boston punk. I was playing the CD compilation I made from my records by The Real Kids just this morning as I was showering. And The Neighborhoods and Mission Of Burma are seldom far from my turntable or CD player. But from 1976 through 1978 and a lotta years after that Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band and Aerosmith certainly rocked umpteen more hours of mine than Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Lydia Lunch or James Chance.
© 2012 Ricki C.
The Patti Smith Group simultaneously honoring and expanding the 60’s on Saturday Night Live, 1976. I've come to believe that this period of the mid to late-70’s was the last gasp of the 1960’s baby boom rock generation. Either you made the leap to punk & new wave and rode that crest through the 80’s with REM and The Replacements and then onto someone like Alejandro Escovedo in the 90’s; or you hunkered down and became comfortably numb with endless repeat listenings of Pink Floyd, The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead, sucking at the teat of classic-rock radio for your 100,000th fix/repetition of Bob Seger doing "Turn The Page" from Live Bullet.