This wasn’t Sinatra’s New York

Poster crop

In Andrzej Klimowski’s pop art-inspired poster for Taxi Driver (1976), the film’s anti-hero Travis Bickle is portrayed as a man out of time – connected to, but somehow out of sync with, the rest of the city as it rushes past him.

It’s the perfect visual metaphor for Seventies New York City itself – connected to, but somehow out of sync with, the rest of America.

New York in the Seventies was suffering the financial hangover from the Mad Men party of the Sixties. The Martinis had run dry, the economy was tanking, and crime was running amok. Despite the best efforts of Milton Glaser’s ‘I ♥ NY’ campaign, over a million people scurried for a bolt-hole in the burbs, taking their tax dollars with them.

The exodus of the middle-classes left the city to, as Travis Bickle so delicately put it, the “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies…”

Punk comes cheap

But for a new generation of artists, freeloaders and musical wannabes there was a positive side to the population drain: rents tumbled as the invisible hand of supply and demand did its work. Good accommodation suddenly became cheap, or at least cheap enough for young arty sorts to afford it. The members of Talking Heads, for instance, could—and did—set themselves up in downtown loft for $250 a month. And with less pressure to get a job, they had all the “head space” they needed to perfect their art.

And so came the art. Sixties counterculturalists all across America may have shuddered when Nixon began his second term in 1973, but it’s doubtful whether any of that registered with the New York Dolls, who were rushing through their 200mph tranny rock in front of druggie crowds at the Mercers Art Center in Soho. Getting the jump on London, 240 Mercer Street was the official birthplace of punk – and the epitome of New York’s out-of-sync-ness with the rest of America. Nobody here was going to let Nixon spoil their party.

Then, after the literal collapse of the Mercer Arts Center in the summer of ’73, the scene moved to CBGB’s, the greasy firetrap at 315 Bowery. This is where punk matured in various directions. One night, you’d have Television playing their anthem for economically doomed youth ‘Blank Generation’. The next night, the more folk-ish poet-punk of Patti Smith, inspired as much by French verse as by the New York Dolls. And then, in between it all, there were the Jewish, working-class Ramones, who always kept it blunt, simple and raw.

And as it spread outwards. Bands such as Talking Heads and Blondie honed their sound during long residences at CBGB’s, as well as the Warhol haunt Max’s Kansas City, before stepping out into the world and into immense commercial success.

Night fever

At the same time as the wasted skinny types were nodding along to the music at CBGB’s, a more flamboyant and mostly gay crowd was, only a few blocks away at The Gallery, dropping acid to a very different sort of music. In his industrial loft at 132 West 22nd Street in Chelsea, Nicky Siano began mixing Philly dance tunes together on two record decks, simultaneously creating both the cult of the superstar DJ and a little thing called ‘disco’.

From its gay nucleus at The Gallery and David Mancuso’s The Loft, disco’s ostentatious appeal soon spread to clubs such as Infinity and Truman Capote’s hangout Le Jardin. And the outer boroughs weren’t left out, either. Brooklyn’s 2001 Odyssey pulled in a younger, straighter and more blue collar crowd. This scene was the basis for Nik Cohn’s famous essay for the New York Magazine, ‘Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’, and the inspiration for Saturday Night Fever.

NYC disco climaxed in ‘77 with the opening of Ian Schrager’s temple to hedonism Studio 54 at 254 West 54th Street in midtown. Designed by professional clubber Carmen D’Alessio, Studio 54 boasted a gigantic prop coke spoon and a door policy so draconian that Mick Jagger was turned away from the opening night—even though Bianca Jagger was let in—and Nile Rodgers and the rest of Chic were barred from a New Year’s Eve party.

After this snub, Rodgers and the band retired to his apartment and, during an all-night jam session fuelled by a giant pile of cocaine, they hammered out a track with the chorus ‘fuck off’, aimed at the doormen. This was later toned down to ‘freak out’ – and the resulting track ‘Le Freak’ sold over seven million copies.

The Bronx is the home of hip-hop…

The origins of hip-hop are oft disputed, with some folk even suggesting that Dylan’s rat-a-tat delivery of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ makes it the first rap record. But, for my money, hip-hop really began sometime in the summer of ’73, on 179th Street between Sedgwick and Cedar Avenue in the South Bronx, when the Jamaican immigrant Kool Herc jacked his homemade sound-system into a lamppost and started spinning discs for his neighbourhood. At any rate, it was certainly Kool Herc who pioneered the ‘breakbeats’ that underpinned a million rap tracks.

Later in the Seventies, at parties across the city, Grandmaster Flash drove crowds wild with his prowess on the wheels of steel, especially his cross-fader innovation, which allowed him to loop popular breaks indefinitely. This was when hip-hop culture really took off in New York. Flash’s turntable pyrotechnics inspired legions of young DJs, including the Spectrum City crew and their talented emcee – one Chuck D.

Hip-hop was slower to be picked up by the music business than the other music pouring out of New York at the time. The audience and atmosphere were as integral to the experience as the DJ and the guy on the mic – and how could vinyl possibly capture excitement of a block party? But the mainstream still beckoned. With the success of the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and the release, a couple of years later, of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’, Black America’s new folk music boldly body popped out of NYC and took over America.

A new era

One decade, one city, and three music scenes that still reverberate today – and there was more besides. It’s as Will Hermes says in his excellent portrait of New York and music in the Seventies, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: ‘artists were breaking music apart and rebuilding it for a new era.’ And on that note, this brief tour comes to an end. It’s time to head to your local record store, and do your own exploring.

One Comment

  1. Disco still reverberates today? God I sincerely hope not!

    Like punk in the UK, I don’t think you should overlook the part played by the art scene in NY punk; though in the UK it was more art schools producing the likes of Adam & The Ants, Jamie Reid, Vivienne Westwood & of course McLaren himself, whereas in NY it was more the wider art scene that involved the hangers on and lingerers from The Factory, the junkies and gender benders. The Velvets still loomed large as an influence, whereas the UK I don’t think had any equivalent. We had pub rock roots, the US had garage rock like the Seeds and The Sonics. They also had the influence of overtly political bands like MC5. I don’t see US New Wave as particularly mutating from a clear evolutionary line.

    Also there were important strains of simultaneous burgeoning punk on the West Coast with Crime & The Tubes, and the industrial heartland of Ohio & Detroit, Devo, Electric Eels, Rocket from The Tombs (who became Pere Ubu & The Dead Boys) & Iggy Pop & Alice Cooper, so again I don’t think it was particularly unique to NYC. Sort of similar to how evolution conspires to produce very similar species in environments that are cut off from one another, although Pere Ubu & the Dead Boys clearly owed a lot to NYC for establishing their New wave credentials.

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