Punking Out (1978): American Indie #13

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Punking Out

You can never get enough Ramones and footage of 1970s CBGB, can you? So although this short documentary – it lasts only a smidgeon over 25 minutes – is not a millions miles away from this entry in the series, I reckon that Punking Out deserves a post here. Despite that awful title.

Directed, produced and edited by Maggi Carson, Juliusz Kossakowski and Ric Shore on a budget of around $7,000, Punking Out was filmed inside CBGB in the spring of 1977. Three acts are featured with snippets of their performances, together with interviews from some of the band members backstage after a set.

The documentary also talks to punters dotted around the bar. These range from committed regulars like Lydia Lunch and Helen Wheels, through to a couple of straights who had only ventured in to have a nosey at the much talked about bar. They weren’t going to come back. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal is also quizzed about noise and violence in the venue. It is noisy. It’s not terribly violent.

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Richard Hell’s great anthem Blank Generation opens proceedings, and we see more of the crowd, a real mix of music lovers. Some guys have long hair, some have bushy beards and nowhere is any kind of codified punk look in evidence. In other words, 1977 CBGB is absolutely nothing like Spike Lee’s vision of 1977 CGBG in his film Summer of Sam with mohicans, mohawks, piercings and a mosh pit. Whoever did the research for that film should never work in the same capacity ever again. Just as Randall Miller, the man behind the CBGB film of 2013, should never at any point in the future be allowed to step in front of a camera.

The interviews here come across as natural, with no questions and answers being discussed beforehand. Some look drunk, some stoned, some zapped on a high that isn’t entirely obvious.

‘Do you belong to the blank generation?’ a guy with fuzzy hair and aviator shades is asked. ‘I’m blank, you know,’ he replies, smiling. ‘There’s nuthin’ coming in and nuthin’ going out.’

Up next are The Dead Boys, who I always judged to be trying too hard to come across as young, loud and snotty. Here they play a pub band cover of Anarchy in the UK and when interviewed, they talk over themselves and are keen to stress that they haven’t rehearsed in a month.

The camera cuts to a pre-Teenage Jesus & The Jerks Lydia Lunch. With a mischevious grin, she talks about throwing a ‘genuinely used tampon’ at the band and tells us they’re ‘great fucks’ and that she’s fucked them. I’m guessing she must have skipped a few classes at finishing school. Inevitably we hear I Need Lunch.


Then it’s Ramones time. They blast through Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue and then a childlike Dee Dee, who’s wearing Bay City Rollers T-shirt, is quizzed about the song’s controversial lyrics. ‘It’s really just a frustration thing, cause there was nothing else to do. We got something better to do now. What’d’ya want me to say? That I want all kids to go drink ammonia or something? No, I don’t want that.’

You’ve likely seen some of this footage recycled in a number of later documentaries like The End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones and the punk episode of the BBC’s 1996 music documentary series Dancing in the Street. There’s a reason why it’s been reused so often. It’s fantastic.

Yeah, it would have been good to see some Patti Smith, Television and Talking Heads, and maybe some lesser known acts, but the documentary is only a snapshot of the venue that became one of the most legendary in music history.

CBGB Punters

Many now feel sad that some shop called Patagonia currently resides in what was once CBCG, but nothing lasts forever – and many of the faces we see in Punking Out are now dead: Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy, Stiv Bators, Robert Quine of The Voidoids, Helen Wheels and Hilly himself.

Let’s face it; the Bowery has been utterly transformed since the 1970s, with retail values rocketing during the area’s gentrification. Going to see a show where you have to step over a Bowery bum on your way in to see Blondie or The Heartbreakers must have been a far different experience to sitting next to a horde of tourists and middle-class hipster locals while watching some group with precious little of the talent of the acts that helped establish CBGB as a byword for musical innovation.

As Patti Smith said during the set that would be the last performance there before the shutters came down for the final time: ‘Kids, they’ll find some other club.’

Helen Wheels in Punking Out

Its closure in 2006 did made me think back to my own teenage years. There was a plan in 1978 to convert the Glasgow Apollo into a bingo hall.

I was livid, I wanted The Clash and The Jam, not Legs Eleven and Two Fat Ladies. I’d seen many brilliant shows there, including The Ramones headlining. I’d seen The Dead Boys support The Damned and Richard Hell support The Clash. I signed all the petitions going to save the venue and dreaded it being shut and Glasgow becoming a ‘rock ghost town’. A reprieve was eventually granted but by the time it did close in 1985, I was hardly ever there. The Barrowlands had reinvented itself as a music venue and the old ballroom was a better place to see a band.

In his book Ramones (33 1/3), Nicholas Rombes called Punking Out ‘probably the best documentary of the 1970s CBGB scene’. It was selected for both the Chicago and the Philadelphia International Film Festival in 1978 and the following year it screened at the New York Film Expo. It is undoubtedly well worth seeking out.

For more on the film: http://www.punkingoutfilm.com/

Friday Night Film Club #1 – CBGB & Summer of Sam



CBGB (2013)
Director: Randall Miller
Cast: Alan Rickman, Malin Åkerman, Johnny Galecki

CBGB, the last I heard, was somehow being transported to New Jersey where it is to be relaunched as a restaurant in Newark Airport, which is kind of like re-opening the Glasgow Apollo as a hairdressing salon in Airdrie. Well that idea isn’t that much dafter surely?

I did promise to review CBGB back in 2013 but after watching the film I found it difficult to muster up the necessary enthusiasm.

Alarm bells had began to ring when I caught Malin Åkerman promoting the movie on Craig Ferguson’s chat show where she told Craig that she was playing Blondie. Not Debbie Harry but Blondie.

Unfortunately at times CBGB resembles that show where Matthew Kennedy brought on members of the public to imitate their singing heroes. Tonight Matthew, I’m Going to be Iggy Pop/Cheetah Chrome/David Byrne etc etc. Except at least on Stars in Their Eyes the contestants did actually sing rather than lip-sync their impersonations.

Promoted with the tagline ‘50,000 Bands and One Disgusting Bathroom’, CBGB promised to be the American 24 Hour Party People but was just too mainstream and predictable – the exact opposite of acts like Television, The Ramones and Patti Smith that became synonymous with the venue.

CBGB bombed at the box office with a total U.S. theatrical gross of only $40,400 and critics were largely dismissive, Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times for example branding it ‘merely a mess of caricatures.’

If you haven’t seen the film, it might be an idea to just watch the trailer which contains the only line that I laughed at (regarding Ramones’ song titles). Or, even better, watch any of the many documentaries that examine the club and its influence.

Summer of Sam (1999)
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino

CBGB was also featured as a location in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and it would have to be said that painstakingly detailed research into his subject matter do not feature as one of Lee’s qualities as a filmmaker. Seeing SOS gives the impression that for him punk was something that only really happened in London where Sid Vicious sang with that band The Sex Pistols.

Now I can’t claim to have been a CBGB regular in 1977 (or at any other time) but I have watched a fair amount of footage from the venue and the crowds really bore no similarity to what Lee presents here with his motley crew of extras who all look like those awful so called punks that hung around the King’s Road in the early ’80s, hoping that a tourist would slip them 50 pence so they could be photographed with them. And no Spike, you wouldn’t have seen tongue rings and septum piercings in the summer of 1977 either.

Despite the anachronisms, SOS is not the total flop that CBGB is. Lee was a breath of fresh air in the American independent cinema scene of the 1980s and since his early days he’s always been able to construct a memorable set piece scene.

SOS also tackles some explosive subject matter – a real life serial killer whose murders raise tensions across the city, including an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx. All to the backdrop of the disco phenomenon and emergence of punk.

The cast is very good here too, especially John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way & Kick-Ass 2) who plays Vinny, a disco dancing hairdresser who classes women into two categories, Madonna or Whore – his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) being the former while her pal Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) is the latter.


There’s also some great music, The Who’s Baba O’Riley, Chic’s Everybody Dance and Got to Give It Up by Marvin Gaye being just three examples, but Lee never combines these tracks with his imagery with the same imagination as, say, Lee’s bete noire Quentin Tarantino, which is no crime but I do have a slight problem with some of the songs being so nail on the head obvious, like when Dionna is packing her bags and walking out on Vinny, Lee feels the need to spell things out with Thelma Houston’s version of Don’t Leave Me This Way.

And of course, he couldn’t resist including Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer either, which is heard in a cafe in the background on the radio, the DJ obviously having been given an advance copy to play as the scene is set in the middle of summer and the track wasn’t released till the middle of September on the album 77, while as a single it wasn’t released in the States till December.

Okay, I’m being a little pedantic.

More worrying is the fact that while Spike Lee has always been quick to condemn any stereotyping of black characters in cinema, not for the first time he could be accused of racism himself for his portrayal of a New York Italian community. In SOS, if your surname ends with a vowel then in probability you’ll be a special kind of stupid, the guys usually women hating bullies with a side helping of homophobia and distrust of anyone different – because he’s a punk rock freak, some of these idiots somehow get it into their heads that Ritchie (Adrien Brody) might just be the Son of Sam.

SOS is a long film and just not compelling enough to justify its length of 142 minutes. Unlike American Hustle, where David O. Russell arguably out Scorsesed Martin Scorsese, Lee’s move into similar territory only makes you wonder what the great man would have conjured up utilising the same subject matter.

If you want a better serial killer film try Zodiac and if you want a better disco movie Saturday Night Fever is for you.

Trivia: John Turturro (The Big Lebowski and Do the Right Thing) supplies the voice of Harvey, the black dog who order Sam to kill.

‘50,000 bands. One disgusting bathroom.’

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Coming soon to a cinema near you, CBGB the Movie:


Filmed in New York, CBGB is directed by Randal Miller, who also co-wrote the script along with Jody Savin. The movie will debut on September 5 on America’s DirecTV and will air there for a month before starting its theatrical release in America on the 11th of October. The British release will hopefully follow on soon afterwards.

Alan Rickman plays venue owner Hilly Kristal and CBGB regular and founding editor of Punk magazine John Holmstrom believes the role might just bring an award or two for him. Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins plays Iggy Pop, Rupert Grint plays Cheetah Chrome of The Dead Boys and Patti Smith is portrayed by Mickey Sumner, whose dad Gordon’s band will be featured in the film too, along with a whole bunch of acts who are undoubtedly much more usually associated with the iconic Bowery club like The Ramones, Television and Talking Heads.

CBGB Poster

A number of Scottish bands were among those supposed 50,000 bands who played sets there over the years from The Rezillos, who fitted in a gig while recording Can’t Stand The Rezillos at the Power Station Studios, through to Teenage Fanclub and The Fuse as well as – and I’m not kidding here – The Sons of Scotland Pipe Band, who played a rock and roll inspired set back in 2005 in the same week they performed at the Tartan Week Parade in New York.

CBGB, the venue, opened in late 1973 and was forced to close in October 2006 although the club the venue did unofficially transplant itself to Glasgow in May of 1977 when Talking Heads and The Ramones played at Strathclyde Uni while Blondie and Television played the Apollo the following evening. I’ll post a piece later on ‘The Weekend CBGB came to Glasgow’ to coincide with the film’s British release.