Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Absolute Kristal

CBGB's new punk rock label

By Ted Drozdowski

JULY 6, 1998:  Hilly Kristal's mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore.

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. But the 66-year-old hipster who owns the New York City punk-rock mecca CBGB says he's tired of seeing young, promising bands take it on the chin from major labels, so he's entering the record biz himself.

"Actually, I should have done this before," he explains by phone from his desk near the club's storefront entryway on the Bowery. "I've put many records out, starting with Live at CBGBs back in 1976. But I've never really marketed them or had them distributed before. This time, were doing all of that. We're really gonna try to sell these records."

For now, Kristal's new CBGB Records, Ltd., has two releases, Wives' Ripped and Ricanstruction's Liberation. Wives are a female trio who play unadorned punk rock: amps on 10, vocals on adrenaline, lyrics on coping with life's brambles. Their CD is produced by punk-era doyen Genya Ravan, who also produced the Dead Boys' 1977 masterpiece Young, Loud & Snotty (Sire).

Ricanstruction are a whole new breed of punks. The guitars shout Ramones, but singer/lyricist Alano Baez is talkin' 'bout a revolution. And not in a whisper. He howls about police brutality, the injustices of the ghetto, the immigrant's American Dream turned nightmare. All the while Latin polyrhythms played off the drum kit and various hand percussion create a sonic variation on what might have happened if Santana had jammed with the Sex Pistols. The result is something that's as much a Latino-American punk manifesto as an album, fresh-sounding and dangerous in the best rock-and-roll tradition.

"I wanted to start the label with music that people would expect from CBGB, more or less," Kristal continues. "I wanted the first records to have a punky feeling and be hard and loud."

That sort of music has been associated with CBGB since 1974, when guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were looking for a place for their edgy new band Television to play. They persuaded Kristal to book them for one night a week in the tunnel-like space he had dubbed CBGB and OMFUG (for Country, Blue Grass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandisers) after he left his job managing jazz showplace the Village Vanguard. Soon a supportive audience and then other bands, including the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, Mink DeVille, and Talking Heads, established a beachhead there, and punk's attack on corporate rock was launched.

"When punk first started here, the bands weren't good," Kristal recalls. "I was used to hearing great players at the Village Vanguard, who were really technically advanced. These kids needed to learn to play their instruments, and over time they did, but right from the beginning they really had something to say.

"Wives and Ricanstruction are better players than the original punk-rock bands. Wives are very smart and hard and direct. Ricanstruction? Well, a Latino punk-rock band with their kind of message has a hard row to plow. For one thing, most people of Latin heritage are conservative; so are A&R people, who I don't think would take a chance on what they do. I'm willing to give them and Wives a start at making records and see what happens.

"I got fed up dealing with major labels. They drop bands without giving them a chance, all kinds of politics are involved when it comes to them marketing records. God, I sit right by the door here, and I hear the bands talking to Louise Parnassa, who books the bands here and works with me on the label, and there are so many horror stories about dealings with the majors. It's terrible."

The final straw may have been Warner Bros.' abandonment of an art-grunge band Kristal managed named Fossil. After two executives (Seymour Stein and Howie Klein) who supported the band left the label, Fossil were dropped in '96, despite high positions on the college-airplay charts and a strong grassroots following. So Fossil broke up. "When most bands are dropped by a major, they feel their career is over -- and in most cases it is," Kristal observes.

The new label's next raft of releases will float this fall; it may include a compilation of recordings by the cult outfit Certain General. Also, Kristal and Parnassa will launch the subsidiary label 313 Gallery, which is named for the address of the performance space/art gallery Kristal operates next to CBGB. That label will feature music with a softer edge, with Latino pop from Kevin Johanson, plus singer/songwriter Sonia Bork and Linda Potatos, a band from Bremen, Germany.

Kristal's also planning the club's 25th anniversary celebration, which will take place this December. "We're still trying to do what we did from the beginning," he reflects: "get the best music out there onto our stage and make it sound good."

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