I hate to be one of those people who goes on about how punk was an all-American phenomenon before it crossed the pond. But hell, I’ve no less an authority on the counterculture than William S. Burroughs on my side, or on the side of Legs McNeil, at least, the music journalist who just happened to give punk its name by co-founding Punk magazine in 1975. Of McNeil’s seminal oral history Please Kill Me, Burroughs remarks, “This book tells it like was.” More accurately, it lets the music’s frontiersmen and women tell it, starting with Lou Reed and the Velvets and other mainstays in Andy Warhol’s Factory scene.
McNeil’s book surveys a number of major American scenesters, most of them from New York, with the exception of The Stooges from Detroit, and one exceptional band from, of all places, Cleveland, Ohio. The Dead Boys rarely get their due, but they were as influential as the Ramones in the downtown New York scene. Along with Iggy Pop, Dead Boys’ lead singer Stiv Bators indulged in the kind of thrilling onstage depravity mainstream audiences came to think of as the special provenance of the Sex Pistols. In the mid-seventies, these bands, along with Patti Smith, the Ramones, the New York Dolls, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids, etc. invented all the moves punk came to be known for.
An excellent companion to McNeil’s print documentary, the short, 1978 film Punking Out, above, surveys three key downtown New York bands—the Ramones, the Dead Boys, who moved to the city in ‘76, and Richard Hell & the Voidoids. (Hell gave McNeil’s book its title, designing a t-shirt with a bullseye painted on it and the words “please kill me” scrawled above. He admitted he was “too much of a coward” to wear it.) All three bands played central roles in the CBGB’s scene, and Hell—who also played in Neon Boys, Television, and the Heartbreakers—gets credit for more or less inventing punk fashion—from spiked hair to DIY clothing designs held together with safety pins.
Made by Maggi Carson, Juliusz Kossakowski and Ric Shore, the film serves as its own oral history of sorts, featuring interviews with fans and the bands and CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal (who says, “the more crowded and the louder it is, I think, the less violence.”) Watch it for the history, but also for the classic performances, captured from every angle in black and white, with surprisingly decent audio. And if you’d like to own your own copy, you can purchase it here for $11.95. The film’s site quotes one fan giving it the ultimate old guy thumbs-up: “Great!!! Buy it for your kids!” It’s educational, for sure. Punking Out belongs on every punk syllabus right next to Please Kill Me.
Note: You can check out a copies of Punking Out from the New York Public Library, and you can have them shipped anywhere in the world.