New York City has a rich musical history, from the Jazz Age to the gritty punk-rock scene of the 1970s. So it’s no surprise the Big Apple is home to some of the greatest bands of all time.
The Ramones burst onto the rock scene in New York City in the mid-1970s with their era-defining punk sound. Formed by four “brothers” from Forest Hills, Queens, in 1974, this world-renowned band offered stripped-down versions of rock’n’roll songs that attracted many followers from the get-go. The Ramones consistently played no-frills, back-to-the-basics sets at hotspots in the city like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. While their music consisted of super short songs with up-beat tempos, the lyrics were loaded with a mix of pent-up angst and a rush of loud excitement that led to their subsequent global success. Listen to songs like ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ to realize the durability of their breakthrough punk-rock sound.
New York Dolls formed in New York City in 1971, coming onto the proto-punk scene along with bands like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Known for their androgynous wardrobe and unmatched vulgarity, the band quickly epitomized punk rock even before there was an official name for the sound. Made up of David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Arthur Kane, Rick Rivets and Billy Murcia – the latter two replaced by Syl Sylvain and Jerry Nolan, respectively – the New York Dolls rose fast and were prolific. Their most popular albums were their first two – New York Dolls (1973) and Too Much Too Soon (1974) – which strongly embodied their New York roots and ruthless attitudes. With a powerhouse sound, they rocked venues like the Mercer Arts Center, which was hugely popular for the underground music scene in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Songs like ‘Trash’ and ‘Personality Crisis’ are worth a listen, especially if you can envision yourself in a grungy Lower East Side dive bar rocking along.
The Velvet Underground formed in 1964 in New York. An unmatched attitude and provocativeness launched the band into the underground rock scene, where it made a lasting impact. Co-founder Lou Reed was born in Brooklyn, where he began writing and performing with various city-based garage bands. He met John Cale, a Welsh musician who had come to the United States to study classical music, and the two formed the foundation for The Velvet Underground. It wasn’t until they were introduced to Andy Warhol in the late 1960s that the band started gaining traction and securing larger gigs. Their sound was rooted in poetry and art, and though the band didn’t achieve much commercial success during their brief stint, their dedicated cult following has propelled them to be regarded as one of the most important rock bands of the 1960s.
Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond Jr, Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti formed The Strokes in New York City in 1998. Their debut album Is This It (2001) was perhaps their greatest success, launching the band into widespread fame and critical acclaim. Their unmistakable melodic garage-rock sound informed what we know as indie rock today. Their debut live performance was at The Spiral in NYC, but it wasn’t until they played Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom that they began to reach bigger audiences. Their most recent album is 2013’s Comedown Machine, but it’s their early records that are worth a listen or re-listen. Songs like ‘Barely Legal’ and ‘Alone Together’ will remind you of their greatest feat – an unapologetic, self-assured sound straight from the start.
Blondie was influential in the punk/new wave scene in NYC in the late 1970s. Formed by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, the band had a fresh and vibrant musical vibe, and the group skyrocketed to fame, with eight Top 40 singles. Their catchy pop songs veered into genres like reggae, rap and disco. Harry personified glam rock with her bleached-blond hair and pouty lips, an edgy and playful look that many fans sought to replicate. ‘Heart of Glass’ may be their most famous song, but listening to ‘The Tide Is High’ and ‘Call Me’ will give you a more complete sense of the band’s sound.
The ’80s punk revolution cannot be described without mentioning Sonic Youth, an underground band formed in New York City in 1981. The name comes from combining the nickname of MC5’s Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith with ‘Youth’ from reggae artist Big Youth. Founded by Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo, the band was deeply associated with the “no wave” music scene that was burgeoning in the late 1970s. Sonic Youth is mostly known for infiltrating the alternative-rock scene with rebellious guitar noise like on popular songs ‘Kool Thing’ and ‘Teenage Riot.’
Founded by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1972, Steely Dan enjoyed much commercial success before breaking up in 1981. This American band blended jazz, funk, R&B and pop and was known for their wry and eccentric song lyrics. Their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) featured sophisticated sounds that broke through much of what rock’n’roll came to be defined by. The band’s success came from this differentiation – it’s what helped them achieve critical acclaim even long after they were broken up. Listen to top songs like ‘The Boston Rag’ and ‘Do It Again’ and it’s easy to see why people were so drawn to their music; it was fresh yet still emblematic of rock.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are the quintessential 1960s folk-rock duo. The two musicians met in 1953 in Queens, where they started making music together, but they didn’t officially team up until 10 years later. It was their second studio album, Sounds of Silence (1966), that propelled them to commercial success and kicked off their nationwide college tours. With hits like ‘I Am a Rock’ and The Graduate soundtrack’s ‘Mrs. Robinson,’ Simon & Garfunkel produced some of the most cherished music of the ’60s and early ’70s. Their poetic lyrics and angelic voices are what they will be most remembered for.
Talking Heads were formed in 1975 and became part of the huge new-wave genre in the early 1980s. The band was founded by David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, all alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design. Their music is avant garde with elements of punk, funk, dance and African rock; just listen to ‘Once in a Lifetime’ and it’s easy to recognize just how much the band was able to master so many sounds. After the Talking Heads’ first gig, opening for the Ramones at CBGB in 1975, they were quickly signed to Sire Records in 1976. Though the band members ultimately parted to pursue solo projects, their sound influenced generations of bands, including Arcade Fire and Gorillaz.
The Beastie Boys were a hip-hop/rock band founded in New York City in 1981 consisting of Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch and Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz. Originally playing underground clubs around the city with a punk sound, the band didn’t gain much popularity until their hit rap single ‘Cookie Puss,’ which marked the band’s crossover to the rap scene. After teaming up with famed producer Rick Rubin in 1984 and signing with Def Jam Recordings, the group solidified their role in the hip-hop genre and even opened for Madonna on her Virgin Tour. Released in 1986, Licensed To Ill became the first hip-hop album to reach the top spot on the Billboard charts and was the biggest-selling rap album of the 1980s. The Beastie Boys remain a pop-culture phenomenon today and influencer to countless musical artists, even after Yauch’s death in 2012.
Michael LoRé contributed additional reporting to this article.