After the cataclysm of 9/11, people here in NYC got serious. A rebirth of diehard New York City Rock N Roll spirit ensued - trashy, sleazy, sexy, hungry, and down for whatever. Riff-driven rock bands once again pack downtown haunts like CBGB and Don Hill's. Grunge and Alt and mohawk revivals kaput; a new generation awaketh.
New York is no different from anywhere else in that local rock bands don't always get the attention they deserve, but under the aura of a "New York Rock" scene, they read as incredibly powerful. People worldwide pay attention to what goes on here. Lotsa dreamers arrive looking for a vibe they read about or heard about - which might not even exist. Millions come to catch a whiff of downtown cool (that's the reason CBGB T-shirts fetch $75 at Bloomingdale's: consumers seek a quick connection to that Debbie Harry/Johnny Thunders mystique). The irony is that New York Rock N Roll is catapulted to legendary status only by acclaim from afar. The Big Apple is birthplace of disco, techno, hip hop, house, electro etc., but the city's rock bands almost always get the shaft.
To understand New York City Rock N Roll's recent renaissance, one must know its roots. The genre begins with the early-70s glam of the New York Dolls, who combined funky downtown artistic influences, like The Fugs and The Velvet Underground, with an extreme version of The Rolling Stones' bad-boy androgyny. But unlike the truly glamorous London Glam of David Bowie and T Rex, the Dolls came off as scary and trashy. David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Sylvain Sylvain et al weren't transvestites in the classic sense; they were more like tough guys with five o'clock shadows who smoked cigars while wearing dresses on the subway. That trashy vibe, endemic to all New York Rock, partly comes from the city's tenement legacy.
Out of the Dolls' ashes rose a generation of bands later known as "Punk." Upstart punk bands played at Max's Kansas City, known for its connection to Warhol's Factory, and CBGB, a funky, rundown C&W bar on Bowery's skid row where losers in leather jackets congregated to see the Ramones. Punk outfits were stripped-down rock bands reacting to the "laid back" pomp of the 70s - less about head, more about heart. The Ramones, as well as Handsome Dick Manitoba's Bronx-based Dictators, were really hyped-up versions of hard-edged surf rockers and Nuggets-style garage acts. Pre-sex-change Wayne County and his band The Electric Chairs were happening, but County split for London in '77. The break-out band of New York punk was the fierce, female-fronted Blondie who, unlike most New York bands, sold lots of records. They also changed the rules for women in rock.
In reaction to punk's excesses came austere 80s movements like New York hardcore - Kraut, Cro-Mags, Murphy's Law, Agnostic Front, etc. - and post-HC East Village noise bands like Helmet, Cop Shoot Cop, and Unsane. Those bands were a total disconnect from the earlier trashy Rock N Roll - the only pocket of trashy rock came from a small cadre of grungy post-HC types with Hell's Angels-friendly attitude, led by Raging Slab and Circus Of Power (bands best known for their influence on future scum-rock stars White Zombie and Monster Magnet). Then came East Village gentrification, and the music really changed. The collegiate vibe of Soul Coughing, Bogmen et al replaced the earlier angst. Once-vibrant Avenue A sounded more like 6th Street in Austin, Texas, or High St in Columbus, Ohio. So, the NYCRNR spirit went dormant for a very long time.
The 90s saw NYCRNR's brief re-emergence with the band D Generation, who reclaimed The New York Dolls' punked-out throne. Two of the members, ex-Heart Attack frontman Jesse Malin and future Danzig bassist Howie Pyro, threw the popular Green Door parties at Yardbirds producer Giorgio Gomelsky's loft on 24th Street, where NYCRNR once again reared its ugly head. Out of that came Coney Island High, the club responsible for the city's noted mid-90s punk scene. At the same time arose the Squeezebox parties on Friday nights at Don Hill's - a glam party for gays and drag queens frequented by straight onlookers. Out of Squeezebox came Miss Guy and the Toilet Boys, a band best described as a gay punk version of hair metal. Another important current was the trashy East Village chick rock of Lunachicks - who, along with West Coast artists L7 and Courtney Love, comprise the roots of women in rock today.
Green Door and Squeezebox were great, but they were essentially hip punk parties, devoid of blue-collar hard-rock attitude. When veteran club owner Don Hill asked me to launch the longhair-friendly Röck Cändy parties in 1999, Rock N Roll was a totally dead issue in New York. There were a few acts still holding on, but they were like beat-down dogs. I literally lost friends over the throwback vibe of Röck Cändy - they thought I'd totally lost it. Hard-earned journalistic credibility crashed-and-burned in certain circles. One of the better hard rock writers, Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy, let me know that he heard about what I was doing, and that he was not into it.
The first few months were brutal, nobody came. The third week's show was me DJing to George Petros, Spider and her boyfriend - as well as a very unamused staff. Some weeks later the four loser bands I booked literally brought in $15 revenue. Then there was Grammy Night 2000, when every single person in Manhattan must've been out partying with Puff Daddy.
Unlike CBGB or Continental, venues within close proximity to the East Village or Lower East Side, Don Hill's is located on a desolate stretch of old Irish bars by the Holland Tunnel, one block from the West Side Highway, so you need a damn good reason to be heading there. But, build-it-and-they-will-come, and Don and I eventually cultivated the best young rock scene in eons. And, you know it's a great scene 'cuz the industry and its media experts have no fucking clue about it. Record biz types still seem to be looking for the next Strokes or Yeah Yeah Yeahs - and if they ever find 'em, they can have 'em.
The New York rock scene went away and later resurfaced. Society's rules changed during that time - which means that things are quite different now than back when Blondie was doing it. Women have a more pronounced role today; they are way more "empowered." The best thing about the current version of NYCRNR is the chicks who dominate the scene, evidenced by the fact that most of the bands include woman. And thankfully, these ladies ain't Riot Grrls, they're not "tired of guys staring at them." They set the stage for everything that goes on in the scene these days. They come from all walks of life: "models," dealers, nurses, bartenders, circus performers, even a VH-1 VJ. What they all share is fierce attitude. If you've ever been to one of our monthly BITCH parties, you'd know just what I mean.
This current New York City Rock N Roll scene blurs the lines between trashy glam rock, righteous chick rock, and arty metal. The scene includes a lot of bands that once denied their NYCRNR pedigree, but who ultimately embrace it.
The bands herein come out of mighty Manhattan, not out of frat-row Williamsburg. They promote NYCRNR with a powerful, energetic, alcohol-fueled, high-and-mighty, fuck-you attitude - and they put up with a whole lotta bullshit in search of a dream. The city itself has dramatically changed, and this next generation of NYCRNR is a part of its reinvention. Those piece-of-shit Muslim terrorists who murdered 3,000 on 9/11 (RIP hero fireman Johnny Heff of The Bullys) thought they could take New York down, but they were wrong.
Think about how all your favorite bands were once part of some cool scene you either read about or heard about. You'd rally behind a certain pool of bands because they represented a spirit to which you related. Well, these New York bands know they're possessed by an undeniable new spirit. A great thrill of serious music fans today is to be able to say they were onto a sound and scene before anyone else - well, here's your chance. Years from now, you'll be able to browbeat others with the fact that you were into these bands back in '03. The public will come to know a few of these artists, and of course, one of them may make it big. There are 22 bands contained on this compilation, so lay the odds at 22-to-1 - a helluva lot better chance at success than Powerball or the New York Lottery.
I could go on and on with some highly intellectualized diatribe about the raison d'être of these kickass NYC bands and the mischievous social misfits who comprise them. A wide range of musicological, sociological, historical, and psycho-sexual issues offer a compelling look at post-Millennial, post-WTC Big Apple subculture. But all that misses the point - 'cuz yo, this ain't rocket science, this ain't brain surgery - this is New York City Rock N Roll.
- Steven Blush, NYC, September 2003