CBGB’s Heyday: Watch The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Bad Brains, Talking Heads & Blondie Perform Live (1974–1982)

There are, I guess, still many things peo­ple can do these days to tap into the lega­cy of CBGB, but I wouldn’t rec­om­mend going near most of them. The mer­chan­dis­ing empire (do, how­ev­er, new par­ents, get your tot a CBGB bib and one­sie); the “thud­ding­ly banal” 2013 film ver­sion, which… the less said about the bet­ter; yes, and CBGB, the restau­rant, in the Newark Air­port Ter­mi­nal C—proceed at your own risk.

We must sad­ly also men­tion this past summer’s “Potemkin vil­lage from hell,” a pop-up “TRGT” shop for the grand open­ing of the East Village’s new Tar­get at 14th St. and Avenue A. This abomination—which sold CBGB-styled “TRGT” shirts and prof­fered Tar­get-brand­ed Band-Aids (get it? Bands) sent “Van­ish­ing New York” blog­ger Jere­mi­ah Moss into “a state of con­fu­sion and dys­pho­ria… to see the arti­facts of my own life, my cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing, my home, dis­played above the cash reg­is­ters in a Tar­get store.”

One can­not get too upset. The venue had been in a decline for a long time. The best of grass­roots Amer­i­can cul­ture all ends up in a Tar­get or Star­bucks even­tu­al­ly, gets green lit for a biopic and turned into an inter­ac­tive gallery. At least the CBGB build­ing was added to the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places in 2013. Maybe a boost for the sales of John Var­vatos who moved a store into the for­mer club in 2007, the very same year CBGB’s founder Hilly Kristal died of lung can­cer.

Ever-taste­ful New York Post announced the takeover with the head­line Hobo Goes Haute. “All of Man­hat­tan has lost its soul to mon­ey lords,” said Dead Boys gui­tarist Chee­tah Chrome. Twelve years lat­er, the lament seems under­stat­ed. But time moves on and so should we, the CBGB of the past was a moment in his­to­ry nev­er to be seen again, as fer­vid and fer­tile as late 19th cen­tu­ry Sym­bol­ism or the Beats—movements that just hap­pened to have very much influ­enced New York punk.

Like the life and work of Arthur Rim­baud or William S. Bur­roughs, the only way to com­mune with the leg­end of CBGB is through its pri­ma­ry sources. There is no short­age. Record­ings, pho­tographs, inter­views, and much excel­lent live footage of the bands that made the T‑shirt famous in the years of punk rock’s glo­ry: The Dead Boys and The Ramones in 1977, Bad Brains, invent­ing hard­core, in 1982, a very awk­ward Talk­ing Heads and con­fi­dent Blondie play­ing the Vel­vet Under­ground all the way back in 75….

Turn­ing cul­tur­al moments into mon­u­ments and mer­chan­dise is shal­low, of course, but it’s more than that—it’s impov­er­ish­ing. It makes us think we under­stand some­thing with­out ever hav­ing seen it. It’s not enough to know that it hap­pened, we should know how it hap­pened. How was the edgy elec­tri­fied dis­co stom­per “Psy­cho Killer” once a rick­ety, “tense and ner­vous” acoustic strum­mer? How did The Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators from Cleve­land more or less invent the moves front men and women in punk almost uni­ver­sal­ly adopt­ed? How did Wash­ing­ton DC’s Bad Brains break every unspo­ken rule of punk—with com­plex break­downs, tem­po shifts, and shred­ding solos—yet still con­quer every punk stage? How did the Ramones play entire live sets short­er than some of the sin­gle songs cer­tain oth­er bands played onstage at the time? How was it to wit­ness Blondie as a killer live cov­ers act? How was it to see The Ramones play “Judy is a Punk” in 1974?

For­get the grave­yard of CBGB kitsch out there. If you’re inter­est­ed in punk rock as a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, you owe it to your­self to see as much of this his­toric footage as pos­si­ble, and to lis­ten to as many live record­ings of far-too-often unsung CBGB bands like Tele­vi­sion. And if you were there, con­do­lences. Maybe you owe it to the rest of us to tell how it real­ly was.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith Plays Songs by The Ramones, Rolling Stones, Lou Reed & More on CBGB’s Clos­ing Night (2006)

AC/DC Plays a Short Gig at CBGB in 1977: Hear Met­al Being Played on Punk’s Hal­lowed Grounds

1976 Film Blank Gen­er­a­tion Doc­u­ments CBGB Scene with Pat­ti Smith, The Ramones, Talk­ing Heads, Blondie & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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