The Story of Pure Hell, the “First Black Punk Band” That Emerged in the 70s, Then Disappeared for Decades

In the mid-sev­en­ties, many peo­ple felt exclud­ed from and dis­dained by the main­stream of rock and roll, which had large­ly come to rep­re­sent itself as a straight white boys and girls club full of super­rich rock stars. The nar­row image fos­tered atti­tudes of implic­it racism and homo­pho­bia that explod­ed in the 1979 “Dis­co Sucks” back­lash. This despite the fact that rock and roll began as inter­ra­cial music built on the flam­boy­ant­ly ambigu­ous sex­u­al­i­ty of Lit­tle Richard, the racy short sto­ries of Chuck Berry, the grooves of Chub­by Check­er, the edgy beats of Bo Did­dley, and a great many unsung black female per­form­ers.

Now we tend to remem­ber 70s rock dif­fer­ent­ly, not so much as the era of KISS or the Eagles, but as the trans­gres­sive time of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Fred­die Mer­cury, of the huge com­mer­cial and cre­ative tri­umphs of women-led bands like Fleet­wood Mac and Heart, of punk and new wave out­siders set­ting the tem­plate for four decades of alter­na­tive rock: The Ramones, Pat­ti Smith, the Sex Pis­tols, Blondie, The Clash, Joy Divi­sion, Talk­ing Heads, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk…. We remem­ber it, still, as a time when rock was most­ly white, and when black artists most­ly record­ed dis­co, funk, soul, and R&B.

The record indus­try and radio mar­kets had seg­re­gat­ed, and it would stay that way into the 80s, though jazz artists like Miles Davis made seri­ous inroads into rock exper­i­men­ta­tion, bands like Parliament/Funkadelic released hard rock psy­che­delia, Prince chan­neled both Lit­tle Richard and Chuck Berry, and ear­ly punks like Detroit’s Death and Philadelphia’s Pure Hell made ground­break­ing punk and met­al. The for­mer escaped crit­i­cal notice, but the lat­ter became famous, then dis­ap­peared from rock his­to­ry for decades.

Death, the vision­ary trio of broth­ers who were recent­ly redis­cov­ered and cel­e­brat­ed, nev­er real­ly made it in their time out­side of a small cir­cle. Pure Hell, on the oth­er hand, were an inte­gral part of the New York punk scene and stars in Europe, and have been for­got­ten by most offi­cial punk his­to­ries. They “lived with the New York Dolls and played with Sid Vicious,” writes Cas­sidy George at Dazed, “but they’ve been large­ly writ­ten out of cul­tur­al his­to­ry.” They are some­times writ­ten back in, just as, to their dis­may, they were pro­mot­ed: as the “first black punk band.” But there’s far more to their his­to­ry than that.

“I don’t want to be remem­bered just because we were black,” says singer Ken­ny “Stinker” Gor­don. “I want to be remem­bered for being a part of the first tier of punk in the 70s.” He is not exag­ger­at­ing. New York Dolls gui­tarist John­ny Thun­ders pro­mot­ed the band, lead­ing to gigs as Max’s Kansas City and a fea­ture in Andy Warhol’s Inter­view mag­a­zine, “mark­ing their ‘place’ in a scene of cul­tur­al influ­encers.” They appeared in a 1978 issue of Melody Mak­er dur­ing their UK tour, in a pho­to with Sid Vicious, who wears his swasti­ka t‑shirt and pad­lock and chain. (Gor­don also wore a swasti­ka t‑shirt onstage.) Just one of many sec­ond-page write-ups in Melody Mak­er, NME, and the Euro­pean press.

All of the hype sur­round­ing the band is part of the his­tor­i­cal record, for those who look through back­pages and archives, but their music has most­ly gone unheard for over a gen­er­a­tion, large­ly because their album Noise Addic­tion only came out in 2006. After they released their first sin­gle in ‘78, then refused to change their sound for a record deal, their man­ag­er Cur­tis Knight abscond­ed with the mas­ter tapes and refused to release them. Lis­ten to their debut sin­gle, a cov­er of “These Boots Are Made for Walk­ing,” above. Melody Mak­er called it, with a wink, “the for­mer Nan­cy Sina­tra hit.” The song reached num­ber four on the UK alter­na­tive charts.

Pure Hell describe their jour­ney through the mid-sev­en­ties New York punk scene in the mon­tage of inter­view clips at the top, scored by wicked, riff-laden record­ings of their songs. The sto­ry began with four friends from a tough neigh­bor­hood in West Philadel­phia. “We dressed in drag and wore wigs, basi­cal­ly dar­ing peo­ple to both­er us. Peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood would say, ‘Don’t go into hous­es with those guys, you may not come out!’” They were pres­sured to join a gang, says bassist Lenny “Steel” Boles, but refused. They packed up a U‑Haul and moved into the Chelsea Hotel, then played their first show across the street at Mother’s.

Leg­endary sto­ries about the band abound. (They played Sid Vicious’ last appear­ance onstage and were caught up in the media cir­cus sur­round­ing Nan­cy Spungen’s death). What’s most inter­est­ing about them is the music and their last­ing influ­ence, despite what Boles describes as being “snubbed” by record labels unless they agreed to “do this Motown thing, say­ing like, ‘You guys are black so you’ve got­ta do some­thing that’s dance­able.” After los­ing their man­ag­er and their mas­ters, they set­tled in L.A., where they played with the Germs and the Cramps but “lost their momen­tum,” writes George.

“It was total­ly over by 1980,” says Gor­don. All the same, their heavy pro­to-met­al sound, draw­ing from reg­gae and Hen­drix as much as from Bowie and Nan­cy Sina­tra, sparked the admi­ra­tion of many emerg­ing punk bands, includ­ing Wash­ing­ton, DC leg­ends Bad Brains, who acknowl­edge the debt their furi­ous reggae/metal thrash owes to Pure Hell. Bad Brains broke col­or bar­ri­ers in New York a few years lat­er, and got most of the cred­it for it, large­ly because Pure Hell left behind noth­ing but a mys­te­ri­ous sin­gle and a “rumor,” says Hen­ry Rollins, “that they had made an album and that it was sit­ting in a clos­et.”

After the tapes resur­faced, near­ly every­one who heard the record became an instant fan, includ­ing Rollins. “If the album had come out when they made it, that would have been a game chang­er,” he says. “I believe [it] would have had a tremen­dous impact. It’s one of those missed oppor­tu­ni­ty sto­ries.” But it is also a found oppor­tu­ni­ty sto­ry. They are now get­ting recog­ni­tion for their music and his­tor­i­cal role. In 2012 they reformed to play their first show since 1979, with Ran­cid, Buz­zcocks, Pub­lic Image Ltd, and Social Dis­tor­tion. Pure Hell will find their way back into the sto­ry of New York punk, and it will be a more inter­est­ing sto­ry for their redis­cov­ery.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

New Doc­u­men­tary Brings You Inside Africa’s Lit­tle-Known Punk Rock Scene

Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

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

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  • Ruki says:

    “This despite the fact that rock and roll began as inter­ra­cial music…”

    Actu­al­ly, RnR came direct­ly from the Black com­mu­ni­ty. It was quick­ly appro­pri­at­ed by Whites when they saw they could make mon­ey from it with White musi­cians.

  • bookwormbandit says:

    call­ing rock­n­roll ‘black music’ is like call­ing bas­ket­ball a ‘white game’ at least you can pin­point to the exact white (mr. nai­smith) per­son who invent­ed bas­ket­ball…

    but since you wan­na get into racial iden­ti­ty and inven­tion, black peo­ple did­nt invent the elec­tric gui­tar, not one item of record­ing tech­nol­o­gy or record fab­ri­ca­tion, mod­ern per­cus­sion, effects, musi­cal nota­tion, micro­phones, etc, etc…

    wan­na talk about the white man rip­ping off black artists? if it was­nt for white peo­ple youd have no record­ings of any black artists ever. Still need more? How about you take a clos­er look at this band and how thi­er black man­ag­er cur­tis squire held on to this band’s mas­ters for 30 years and kept them on pur­pose.

    you just a race hus­tler and an uni­formed mal­con­tent

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