Friday, 25 April 2014

CBGB: The Venue That Changed Rock

by Callum Cross

Hilly Kristal outside CBGB in the 1970s
I was watching a film called CBGB the other day, which tells the true story behind the beginning of punk rock and subsequent rock genres, this caught my attention so I did some back-reading and decided to write this short article.
In 1973, Hilly Kristal bought a rundown bar in New York's poor Bowery district with a view to making it a “Country, Bluegrass and Blues” club, hence the name CBGB. Although his initial plan didn’t go the road he thought it might, what a journey it took him on.

Over the 30+ years that CBGB was open it hosted 50,000 bands many of which you may or may not know. The remarkable thing about his club was that he would only allow artists with original music, to avoid the cost of royalties; this meant that a lot of new sounds were born in this small club.

Although his financial stability was poor at the best of times, Hilly’s club essentially gave birth to Punk in the early/mid 70s. In 1974 alone, the Ramones played 77 shows; the first one included 6 songs, the sum of which lasted no more than 17 minutes. Along with the Ramones, other popular punk acts like Blondie, Television, Patti Smith and Talking Heads all started playing in the first 2 years of CBGB’s existence. It was because of this club that punk gathered such a social hype and became what it did.
Inside CBGB
(source: New York Daily)
Along with the running of the club, the godfather of punk, as Kristal was known, also took on a few of the bands and became their managers, most notably The Dead Boys. Although Kristal himself was not a “punk”, he took them on and nearly bankrupted his club to get them a record deal. Unfortunately, after the second studio album the band imploded on itself which culminated with the severe hospitalization of their drummer and eventually the death of iconic punk front man Stiv Bators; still, they produced what is widely recognised as the first real punk song, "Sonic Reducer” (shown here as performed at CBGBs in 1977):

After the punk era had faded, CBGB’s still blossomed - now as a worldwide music attraction with sales of merchandise giving Hilly Kristal a small fortune. Instead of abusing the popularity of the club to charge high prices, he still maintained low entry costs, sometimes allowing free entry too. The club remained open until the early 2000s, when Hilly had a legal battle with the City of New York and had to relinquish ownership of the estate. A few years later, he was diagnosed with a terminal lung cancer and passed away in 2007.
Due to its enormous effect on the pop culture of the 70s and 80s, CBGB has been referenced in numerous songs, in a few films and, fittingly, given a whole film devoted to it. I would recommend watching CBGB as it has kept me captivated twice for a couple of hours and also introduced to me some new bands to listen to.

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