The 1973 collapse of the Mercer Arts Center, home to a New York Dolls residency and the center of a nascent “underground” rock scene, left unsigned and outsider bands nowhere to play and develop their sound. One small gritty bar at 315 Bowery soon began to fill that void.
Owner Hilly Kristal took over what had been a dive bar and then a biker hangout with the idea of featuring music very different from what the club was to become famous for – the full name of CBGB’s OMFUG was "Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers" – but by early 1974 he was booking live music from bands that had been playing the Mercer, including Suicide and Wayne County. When Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine of Television spotted the club while on the bus to their Bowery rehearsal space, they approached Kristal claiming that they played a little of everything the club was titled for and somehow secured three Sunday gigs with the promise that their manager could pack the bar.
Kristal liked the energy and crowd that the young bands attracted, and the accompanying bar receipts. The bands kept the door receipts, so the more they built their fan base and the more folks drank, the better it was for everyone involved.
Second on the bill in the early Television gigs were the Stilletoes, a band featuring Chris Stein and Debbie Harry that soon transformed to Blondie and began their own headlining stint. Founding punks the Ramones soon followed and a scene was born.
“I thought it was very crude music…. Very loud and abrasive. It was not what I liked in music. But what I liked where people were really into it. They were very sincere and really believed in themselves. They had a real desire to express themselves….” (Hilly Kristal, owner)
It was a destination that one had to be rather determined to either perform in or really want to see the bands that did, as the neighborhood at the time was notorious and the club itself owed its cheap rent to being under a flophouse.
"The Bowery was, to repeat, a drab, ugly, and unsavory place. But it was good enough for rock and rollers. The people who frequented CBGB didn't seem to mind staggering drunks and stepping over a few bodies." (Hilly Kristal)
The list of bands that played CBGB’s in the first wave of American punk and into the New Wave included Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, the Cramps, the Dead Boys, the Misfits, the Voidoids, the Runaways, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Agnostic Front. The first of the English punk acts to play the US played at Hilly’s bar, and even the Beastie Boys, in their earliest hardcore phase, debuted there.
Few if any clubs are more intricately tied to as influential a musical scene as CBGB’s.
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