WHO'S THAT GIRL? Melody Maker 50 Years Ago This Week

Fifty years ago this week I wrote my first piece for Melody Maker on the bands that played in downtown New York, in places like CBGBs and Club 82. The photographer Bob Gruen was my guide and in Club 82 he introduced me to a beautiful girl called Debbie, one of three singers with a group called The Stilettos. 

I visited both CBGBs and Club 82 several times before I wrote the piece and it mentions many acts, the Stilettos among them. I now realise that this was the first ever mention of Debbie Harry in a British newspaper, music or otherwise, and Chris Stein graciously confirms this is in his recent memoir Under A Rock. A Bob Gruen photo accompanied the piece and when I got my hands on a copy I called Debbie at the beauty salon where she worked in those days and we arranged to meet so I could give her that issue of MM. She was very excited to have her picture in a paper, any paper, for the first time. I found the picture below, which was probably taken by Bob, on the internet and if my memory serves me correctly, this is the dress she was wearing on the night I first saw her, so the chances are it was taken that night.

This is the unedited piece I wrote for MM, issue dated July 6, 1974. 

“HEY MAN, what’s happening?” The inevitable hip American greeting is accompanied with “gimme five” (an invitation to shake hands) and responded to with: “Hey man, what’s happening with you?”

    The cynics who say that nothing’s happening in New York today are very wrong. There are dozens of immature young bands playing in scruffy late night places in Greenwich Village and the Bowery every evening, creating a similar atmosphere to that which existed in London in the early sixties.

    Excitement, sweat, crude and simple music and a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude mingle together in this new generation of bands.

    Cynics dismiss them as trash. They will point out, quite correctly, that they’re not as good as so-and-so who can fill Madison Square Garden, but it’s a lame attitude. Rock must always look towards the future.

    In these seedy clubs inhabited by barely competent musicians lies that future. Somewhere, in among them, is the next generation equivalent of The Rolling Stones or The Who.

    In the same way that the Stones and The Who began their careers as brash and exciting clashes with the accepted music business establishment, so these New York bands clash with their superiors in rock. Through the passage of time the Stones and the Who and countless others have become the establishment they once clashed with so fiercely: the new young bands are railing against this establishment in the same way.

    While record companies promote their newly signed artists with expensive parties for press and radio jocks at established clubs, the new bands just play for the kids. They might not be very good technically but then so were all of today’s rock giants in their formative years. A parallel could easily be drawn between London’s pub rock and these brash new Manhattan bands and their shameless punk rock, overtones of bisexuality and happy untogetherness.

    Two similarities stand out immediately: both types of bands are young musicians from a different generation than the accepted heavies and their followers, and in both cases many of the groups have yet to sign record contracts if, indeed, they will ever be offered one.

    Both types are doing it for love.

    But here the lines draw apart. In the case of the British pub rockers, it seems to be a desire on their part to return to basics, to pull away from the accepted course that rock has taken over the past five years (all original numbers, masses of equipment, blistering guitar solos demonstrating the instrumental ability of the lead guitarist) and simply display general good taste in repertoire culled from the last ten years.

    The music is all important and the band takes second place.

    With the New Yorkers the opposite occurs. The effect is paramount to the music. Shock and outrage is the name of the game: the more freakish, the more outlandish the fetishes of the personnel and the more bizarre their clothes the better. It’s not much more than grabbing a guitar, learning a few chords, applying lipstick, and bingo!

    In general, the music is pretty duff, crash bang repeated riffs coupled with an amateurishness that smacks of taking the plunge before they’re ready. They seem to thrive on tuneless singing and have little concept of sound balance. Good PA systems are probably out of their financial reach, anyway.

    Nevertheless, these misgivings are lost in the atmosphere they create from a mixed bag of influences from rock over the past eight years. They’ve taken ideas from the Stones’ lawlessness, the Who’s punk, Bowie’s bisexuality and Zeppelin’s riffs.

    Who are they? Starting at the top we have the New York Dolls, who are no newcomers nowadays. Regardless of musical merit, they cannot be accused of jumping on the bandwagon as they set it rolling in the first place.

    The Dolls are really outside the confines of underground New York by now: they’ve released a couple of albums and toured on a countrywide basis. They’ve even been over to England.

    In the wake of the Dolls are scores more, too numerous to mention and chances are I’m missing some here and now. In no particular order we have Teenage Lust, the Fast, Jet Black, Television, the Stilettos, the Miamis, Palace, the Harlots of 42nd St., Star Theatre, Wayne County, Another Pretty Face and the Brats. At the time of writing some may be splitting, some may no longer exist and personnel from two or more may have formed a new band.

    They play at places like the 82 Club (far and away the most popular), the Coventry in Queens, CBGBs in the Bowery, Upstairs at Max’s (occasionally) and the Mushroom in the Village. Without exception, they’re seedy low-spots in a city that has managed to encompass the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

    ‘Phone up the 82 Club any time of the day or night and you receive a recorded message: “Dance, dance, dance,” says an oldish-sounding man. “Dance the night away. This is where the Stars hang out. David Bowie, John Lennon. Free roast buffet on Sundays and live music every Wednesday. This Wednesday...”

    Almost all of the above bands have played the 82 Club and even if they haven’t, the musicians who comprise them can be found down there. I’ve seen Bowie there once, and Lennon reportedly once paid a ten minute visit but left after being surrounded by kids.

    It costs anything between two and five dollars to get inside, depending on the night of the week or whether there’s a band. It’s more like an English discotheque than a club, but the premises (and name) have a long history. From the 1940s up to the end of the sixties it was one of New York’s most glamorous drag theatres.

    Female impersonators, transvestites and their ilk made the 82 their home, and even today the element of bi-sexuality runs strong. On the door and behind the bar are some of New York’s more celebrated butch women.

    But back to the bands. They play on Wednesdays and generally pack the place. Never had I seen the 82 more crowded than about three weeks back when Wayne County topped the bill over the Stilettos. Wayne came out in full drag which was pretty stunning, but the music was overly loud and under inspired for my tastes. He went down a bomb though.

    The Stilettos, who opened up, had more potential but less rehearsal. Fronted by a cuddly platinum blonde called Debbi [sic], they’re a girl vocal trio with a male guitar/bass/drums back-up band.

    The three chicks take turns to sing solo while the other two chant away behind, and some of the songs were well worth putting on vinyl. Ninety-five per cent were original, but the style was taken from the late ‘fifties era of vocal groups.

    In the same vein, but slicker and with an added male singer, are Teenage Lust who’ve been going the rounds for over two years now. Again there’s three girls aptly titled the Lustettes who are the focal point of the group. The girls have carefully choreographed routines which they stick to with rigid discipline.

    Their singer wears a white tail suit and white topper, and jumps around a lot, easing himself from the stage on to any piece of furniture available that will stand his weight. They were loud and visually exciting, but I felt the material let them down, especially when the girls weren’t on stage.

    Television are another whose expertise is overshadowed by their enthusiasm: I saw them a few months back when they were woefully under-rehearsed and little more than a joke. Last weekend at CBGBs (far less populated than the 82), they did better.

    They’re crude but young and the bass player needs a crash course in fundamentals before they’ll get any better. The second time I saw them they reminded me of The Searchers with their unison vocal work and ringing, trebly guitars. Again, they did all original material.

    Another Pretty Face are a five piece band who don’t rely entirely on their own material, but pick intelligently from British material which never caught on in America. They plunder savagely from Roxy Music and T. Rex and put over excellent cover versions.

    Though their initial impact is with the gay rock liberation movement, and the singer imitates David Bowie depressingly well, there’s talent beneath the make-up that’s gotta show through sooner or later. I think it will. Star Theatre actually drove me out of CBGBs the other night when I’d gone along to catch the Stilettos for a second time. They feature Eric “Love” Emerson on vocals, a one-time protégé of Andy Warhol who comes on rather like Arthur Brown, lighting candles and squatting like a Russian folk dancer to sing his songs.

    It was the volume that drove me away rather than the actual show as they’re as tight a band than any around. After the happy untogetherness of the Stilettos it was too much to take: miking up drums in a place no larger than the average living room is surely going too far.

    There are the Miamis who everyone assures me are “better than so and so,” and the Fast are forever filling my letter box with invitations to go and see them. 

1 comment:

Chris said...

I saw Blondie as support to Television at Birmingham Odeon . Not exactly a New York club experience but Ms Harry proved to be a reason to leave the bar early .