Part 3 of my look at the New York underground rock scene in 1976.
A certain rivalry exists between CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, where underground acts now appear regularly in the top room. The rivalry has occasionally taken on ugly proportions with clubs vying for acts on the same weekend and deliberately promoting rival bands on the same night to see where the fans’ loyalty lies. Some bands remain loyal to one club but others, especially high steppers like the Ramones, are obviously welcome at both clubs.
“There’s a natural rivalry in a sense of competitiveness,” admits Kristal. “We have tried to get together on this but we can’t because we each have to do our own thing. I know that Peter Crawley (booker at Max’s) hasn’t wanted to book bands that have played at CBGBs a week before, I think the bands don’t realise, this...that we have to run these places to make a profit and over-exposure will kill that.”
Leee Childers, who until recently did publicity for Max’s and who now manages The Heartbreakers, confirmed that at one time there had been a vicious rivalry between the two clubs.
“When Max’s decided to go rock and roll, they had a meeting with Hilly Kristal and decided to co-operate by not booking conflicting bands on the same night, but Max’s were only offering one night’s work compared to CBGBs three. As soon as Max’s booked a band for Friday night, CBGBs would turn around and offer the band three nights. Obviously they’d prefer three nights’ work so Max’s suffered,” Childers told me.
“At one time there was an unwritten rule that if a band played CBGBs, they couldn’t play Max’s, but that’s cooling down a bit now. Most bands can play both clubs. Except of course, The Dictators who will never play Max’s.”
The latter remark stems from a physical confrontation that took place between Wayne County, the rock female impersonator, who is strictly a Max’s artist, and ‘Handsome’ Dick Manitoba, the burly lead singer of The Dictators. It occurred during a Dictators set at CBGBs and has resulted in bad blood between these two acts ever since.
At both clubs the bands earn whatever is taken on the door minus a sum for the supporting act. At CBGBs The Ramones hold the record for a single night’s takings – slightly over $2,000 – though The Runaways almost beat them on their first and only visit to the city.
According to Childers, bands can earn more in a single night at Max’s (Max’s is bigger than CBGBs) but they prefer the three-night policy of CBGBs not only because they enjoy playing as much as possible but because three nights means more money in the long run.
“At the end of a three-day run, we always make about $2,500 at CBGBs,” said Childers, referring to The Heartbreakers. “It’s not bad money really... we’re not starving at all despite what people think.”
Kristal says Television are his most consistent big draw. “After three nights, playing two sets a night, any one of about half-a-dozen of the top groups would take away between $3,000 and $3,500... maybe a little less if things are quiet.”
Kristal does have a problem, though, with industry types and other musicians who don’t want to fork out their $3 or $4 entry fee. “We can get up to 150 people who are in bands and who don’t want to pay and if that prevents the groups from making money, then I have to put a foot down somewhere.
“That’s why I have this three-night policy, putting bands on for Friday, Saturday and Sunday or Thursday, Friday and Saturday. If other musicians want to see the group they can come in on the Thursdays or the Sundays when it’s slower.”
Aside from CBGBs and Max’s, three other clubs are now presenting underground bands. Club 82, at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 4th Street, still presents bands on an occasional basis, although most nights it is a disco. The 82 was among the first to offer opportunities to unsigned acts, opening its doors immediately after the Mercer Arts Centre (where Patti Smith and the Dolls played their initial gigs) burned down. Opened in the early fifties as a gay club catering to females, it still attracts its fair share of transvestites and is staffed by women in men’s suits, shirts and ties, with cropped hair.
Two weeks ago a new club called On The Rocks opened at Bleeker and Broadway, presenting acts on as many nights a week as they can book them. The Dolls played opening night and The Heartbreakers are due there this week. Like CBGBs they are attempting a three-night policy, though they haven’t quite established themselves yet.
Lastly, the former owner of Max’s, Micky Ruskin, has presented selected underground bands at his Lower Manhattan Ocean club way downtown on Spring Street. Current policy at the Ocean, which opened in May, is to have live music on Monday and Tuesday only, commencing at midnight, and they attempt to cater to a rather more sophisticated (older) audience than that attending CBGBs or Max’s.
Among the bands appearing there are Talking Heads, The Miamis, Black Eagle (a NY-based reggae band) and John Cale (who put together a scratch band for a one-off appearance earlier this summer). Elsewhere Manhattan offers little in the way of venues for the underground bands.
Even so the bands continue to multiply at alarming proportions. Recently CBGBs showcased half-a-dozen unsigned bands from Boston during a special “best of Boston underground” weekend, and two outfits, Ready Teddy and Willy Loco, impressed the locals.
“It’s not getting overpopulated,” emphasises Danny Fields when I suggested that matters were getting out of hand. Fields, who manages The Ramones and who has fashioned a career out of promoting punk rock from The Doors to the MC5 to Iggy Pop, is a firm believer in “the more the merrier” attitude.
“I don’t object to the number of bands increasing each week,” he says. “This year the record companies have realised that there is something real happening in the New York underground, and bands are being recognised at last as having something worthwhile to offer.
“Of the bands that I am familiar with, there is no common factor in the music or the output, and there’s an audience out there for all the different types of music that these bands are creating. New York has always been a centre for talented people in all facets of the arts and now it is becoming a centre for rock as well.”