Rock History 101: CBGB’s

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, American punk rock lived at 315 Bowery at Bleecker Street in Manhattan, New York. The 3,300 square feet of rock ‘n’ roll heaven known as CBGB’s was the smoking gun that shot the likes of Television, Blondie and The Ramones into the musical spotlight, inspiring a generation of memories for adrenaline charged fans.

Founded in 1973 by Hilly Kristal, CBGB’s stands for Country, Bluegrass and Blues, but it was punk rock, and not the roots music of its namesake that would transform the club into a New York City icon. Famous for its filthy bathrooms and memorabilia covered walls, the club’s grimy, but character rich décor echoed the brash and provocative charm of its signature acts.

Many of America’s most influential punk and New Wave bands found their first taste of success on CBGB’s small, intimate stage and helped turn it into one of the dirtiest and sexiest rock clubs ever. The CBGB’s golden era began on March 31, 1974 with Television’s first gig. Television would later become CBGB’s Sunday night staple. The Ramones debuted on August 16 of the same year. Other important firsts during the club’s formative years include Blondie’s debut on January 17, 1975; The Patti Smith Group on February 14, 1975 and the Talking Heads first appearance, opening for The Ramones on June 8, 1975. The Police even made its first American appearances onstage at CBGB’s on October 20 and 21, 1978. Other regulars included The Dead Boys, The Dictators and The Heartbreakers.

With the exception of the touring Police, these debuting bands became cornerstones of the scene, coming to make multiple appearances and building a rabid NYC, and beyond, following. The Ramones often played a set twice because it was so short, and Blondie was said to have appeared onstage every weekend for about seven months. Those were the halcyon days of CBGB’s, and those were the bands that truly formed the club’s legacy. The only rule was the acts were to play only original music –- no covers, although The Ramones snuck them in occasionally (as did The Replacements). This had less to do with the club’s originality and much more to do with Kristal’s fear of having to pay ASCAP royalties.

As the ’70s wound down, and CBGB’s entered the ’80s, the club shifted focus to hardcore punk. Sunday afternoons were known as Matinee Day or Thrash Day, and bands such as Agnostic Frost, Cro-Mags and Warzone replaced the more classic punk sound of the ’70s counterparts. The hardcore scene tended to get out of control and violent at times, though, and in 1990, Kristal temporarily declined to book hardcore acts. A notable ’80s highlight were the Sonic Youth gigs for Daydream Nation, in 1988.

Already big names, such as Pearl Jam, Green Day and The White Stripes made appearances at the club in the last few years of its existence, but the club had lost some of its luster. In 2005, a dispute arose between CBGB’s and the Bowery Residents Committee, which claimed Kristal owed $91,000 in back rent. That was the beginning of the end for the gloriously loud and trashy mecca, which had played host to an estimated 50,000 bands.

Despite several attempts to save the New York landmark, Patti Smith played the final concert ever at CBGB’s on October 15, 2006. Its doors closed forever, and several of its contents, such as a wooden phone booth and the outdoor awning, soon found a home in New York’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex. There was talk of Hilly Kristal salvaging whatever he could from the club and moving it to Las Vegas, but a battle with cancer forced his passing less than a year later, on August 27, 2007.

The spirit of CBGB’s transcends its once flyered walls, and now a John Varvatos store has taken residence in its earthly home. Maybe there really is a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, and just maybe somewhere out there Hilly Kristal is still seeking out high octane talent, and Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone are still tearing up the stage. Who knows? Maybe Keith Moon is even sitting in on drums.


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