Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Rhythm and Views

By Michael Brooks

JANUARY 19, 1999: 

Various Artists

United States of Punk
(Polygram)

IN 1977, JUST as Elvis gradually emitted his last Kentucky-fried-Quaalude-induced fart, something important occurred: I celebrated my third birthday. I had a record player, and what I played consisted of Hits From the Muppet Show, which was followed up with Smurfing Sing Song and Urban Chipmunk. This is not an embarrassing admission, because it's what I liked at the time. However, the time was 1977, and something else happened in '77 besides the Muppets and Elvis: Punk broke that year, or it started to die, depending on who you ask.

Punk began in the mid '60s with garage bands trying to sound like the Yardbirds, Stones, Kinks, et al, inadvertently creating a sound all their own. "Professional" bands like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5 and the Modern Lovers molded the sound even more. By 1974, those garage murmurings started to assert themselves in opposition to the over-indulgent sound found in groups like Grand Funk, Blue Oyster Cult, and Led Zeppelin, i.e., ROCK.

Ground Zero was New York, and by 1975 the residents included Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders, Alan Vega, Martin Rev, Tom Verlaine, Debbie Harry, and four guys who adopted the same surname: the Ramones.

The Ramones debut in 1976 was not the first effort from the New York scene. Smith's Horses came out in '75, but before that were two bands featured in this collection: The Dictators and the New York Dolls. The Dolls influence was wide-spread. Their glam look is traceable in KISS and countless glam rock bands since. Yet they also possessed guitarist Johnny Thunders, who collaborated with Dee Dee Ramone as well as ex-Neon Boy Richard Hell to form the Heartbreakers in 1975. Eventually, Hell quit the Heartbreakers to form his own group, the Voidoids. It's right around here that the story gets much too involved to condense.

Just know that in 1977, Richard Hell and the Voidoids released Blank Generation; and Television (Hell's first band, co-founded with Tom Verlaine) issued Marquee Moon; and both the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group had two albums to their credit. For a better explanation read From the Velvets to the Voidoids, by Clinton Heylin; or better yet, get this CD and read the excellent liner notes by Ron Bally, whose reviews appear regularly in the pages of The Weekly.

Bally has done an amazing job of gathering and compiling selections that survey the American punk scene from the mid '70s to the early '80s. Six cuts come from the New York scene centered around CBGBs, my favorite being "Judy Is A Punk," by the Ramones (actually a 1975 demo). Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, are represented by the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" (the track listened to most often at peak volume), and Devo with "Mongoloid." My only disappointment is that there's no Rocket From the Tombs/Pere Ubu track.

Next up, DMZ and the Real Kids keep the garage sound going with "Might He I.D." and "Do the Boob." John Felice of the Real Kids also played with the Taxi Boys and the Modern Lovers, with Jonathan Richman.

The West Coast contributes as well, proving that punk avoided exile in the east: The Weirdos, Flipper, Zeros, and Dead Kennedys (with present-day-legal-trouble frontman Jello Biafra) all have points to prove, and you'd better listen up.

Bally rounds out the compilation with the New Jersey-bred Misfits in a time when Glen Danzig didn't take himself so seriously as to be comic, and a sample from the Bad Brains, appropriately hailing from our nation's capital.

This is a well-represented introduction to a genre often misrepresented or misunderstood by the casual observer. Punk, like the blues, is imbued with an integrity that gets swept aside in the corporate deluge of products called "artists" who reinvent themselves weekly for a crack at a month on the record store shelves. Until a certain Weekly editor digs up a promised copy of Chipmunk Punk, I'll keep my fingers curled around this one.


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