Since CBGB closed its doors nine years ago, there has been a gaping hole in the cultural heart of New York City. Places like this Bowery staple can never be planned; they are organic, nurtured by time, place and chance. This filthy, dirty, little club launched and cradled hundreds of performers during its 30-plus-year run — many forgettable and some downright awful. But for a small select group, it was a game changer for both the artists and music lovers everywhere. Here is a list of 10 notable artists who graced its stage and left a significant impression.
One fateful day, in 1974, two band members of Television (Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine) convinced CBGB’s owner (Hilly Kristal) to let their rock band play his club. This agreement immediately transformed this seedy country and western bar overnight into a seedy punk rock haven. Television never went on to become a big name act as some of the other artists who played there. They did, however, become a highly influential outfit garnishing high praise for their inventive long form punk sound jams that had more in common with jazz or the Grateful Dead.
Patti Smith was the queen of CBGB; she reigned supreme here, her second home. Patti’s electrifying, ferocious musical and poetry performances here were of legend. It didn’t take much time for her to get noticed, as she was quickly signed to a major record label. Her first album, Horses, is considered by many critics as one of the best rock records ever recorded. She might not have been the first to play the club, but she was most certainly the last. Smith closed CBGB’s doors with one of her most memorable shows.
For most of the top-forty-record-buying public during the late 1970s-early 80s, it was usually Blondie who was their first introduction to new wave music. Fueled by a driving punk and disco backbeat, infectious melodies and its lead singer, Deborah Harry, Blondie topped the charts selling millions of albums filled with big hit singles. From 1975 through 1977, Blondie was a staple at CBGB, where they caught the eyes and ears of the people who put them on a trajectory to stardom. Blondie honored the club that gave them their first big break by performing at CBGB during its last week in existence.
Just as rock music was becoming bloated and pretentious, along came The Ramones. Suddenly, the big bands of the era, which were recording twenty-minute plus songs, incorporating orchestras, choirs, and singing about Siberian Deities and Edgar Allen Poe, were exposed for what they really were — ridiculous. In 1975, The Ramones rushed the stage at CBGB, singing about sniffing glue, baseball bat fights and bad horror movies. Game, set, and match. Defined by their relentless buzz saw guitars, tunes clocking in at two minutes or less and all beginning with their trademark 1,2,3,4 count off, The Ramones were the shot heard around the world, and if not, then at least in New York and London.
At the height of the club’s punk rock power, a band composed of recent graduates from the Rhode Island School of Design entered CBGB. Contrast to its ripped jeans, leather-clad, safety pin and dog collar-wearing patrons, The Talking Heads dressed as if they had just walked out of a J. Crew catalogue. They sang edgy pop songs about paranoia, buildings, food, paper, finding cities to live in and psycho killers. Thus began the debut of one of the most critically acclimated and admired art rock bands of all time. They were the rare breed that seemed to be able to bridge the art world, experimental music and accessible catchy pop into a frothy and infectious mix.
No, this is not a mistake. Before The Beastie Boys brought hip-hop to white suburban America, they were a bunch of snotty, hard-core punk rock kids. The Beasties initially started as a punk band outfit called The Young and the Useless and then gradually changed over to Beasties. They palled around with the hardcore punk rock community at CBGB, with the likes of The Bad Brains, Agnostic Front and The Mistfits. By the mid-80s, they made their switch over to hip-hop and huddled with producer and svengali Rick Rubin who was then running Def Jam records out of a NYU dormitory. Their collaboration created their first record, Licensed to Ill, which became a major influential force. They are considered, along with Run DMC, as rap music’s first crossover acts.
DJ, techno, electronic dance music legend — Moby has roots going back to CBGB. In the early 80s, with the rise of the hardcore punk rock movement, Moby was initially a member of a hardcore punk band, The Vatican Commandoes. The band eventually broke up after two years of playing; however, Moby was inspired by this experience and committed himself to a life within music.
No band in the history of music has gone to such great lengths to deliberately destroy their career than The Replacements. For some, they came off more as a drunken performance art piece than a band. Their live shows were notorious for inebriation and erratic behavior, which included nudity, fights, alienating their fan base, deliberate poor performances, and destruction. They also absolutely HATED music videos during the golden age of MTV. Yet, on one of those rare nights when they really wanted to play, The Replacements were possibly the best rock band you would ever experience. Even with all that baggage, all the major record companies were dying to sign them. The industry set up a big look-see gig for them at CBGB in 1984 to showcase their talent. They rewarded everyone there by showing up drunk and badly playing a set list of mostly cheesy cover songs — it went all downhill from there. Needless to say, they did get signed and are now considered one of the most influential bands of the past 25 years. Now that’s rock and roll.
When The Police arrived in New York in the fall of 1978, punk rock and new wave music were in full swing. Their air flight from the UK was late landing, and they immediately had to make a mad dash into Manhattan in order not to miss their CBGB debut. Nobody there knew who they were or seemed to care as they began their set, but when it was over, everybody knew their name. The crowd was blown away with their mix of new wave backbeat, reggae rhythms and the singing of its lead singer, Sting. The Police shortly thereafter exploded across the United States and Europe, becoming a pop smash and music force over the next several years, garnishing praise and selling out stadiums worldwide.