The city’s 70s rock scene has been eulogised in the HBO series, but, as a reissued compilation shows, the 80s’ diverse, experimental music was far more important
Like all historical fiction, the HBO series Vinyl – Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese’s foray into the New-York-in-the-70s-nostalgia cottage industry – is bound to upset those who were actually there. Take, for example, the show’s imagining of the invention of punk rock anomie: not in the acts of re-creation of Richard Hell safety-pinning a torn T-shirt or Jeffrey Ross Hyman donning a leather jacket and transforming into Joey Ramone, but rather the vision of an aspiring junior A&R assistant.
The A&R assistant, Jamie Vine, asks Kip Stevens, the lead singer of the fictional band the Nasty Bits, “OK, so what do you give a fuck about?” “Fucking. Fighting … nothing,” he replies. “That’s it,” Vine exclaims. “That’s your persona: not giving a fuck.”
Watching this, Cynthia Sley, the lead singer of the Bush Tetras, one of the quintessential New York post-punk groups, was dumbfounded. “Oh my God, I didn’t know anybody who went into a band with that attitude,” she says. “That was so stupid. It was more like, ‘Let’s read some Rimbaud and talk about it while doing coke all night.’”
For all of its shortcomings – that it’s little more than a parade of nifty period details in search of a story, the pungent cocktail of blow and testosterone that seemingly drives the entire narrative arc, its inability to draw a compelling or even convincing female character – Vinyl perhaps suffers from a more fatal flaw: it’s looking at the wrong era in New York’s musical history.
Sure, through the fog of memory, the 70s in New York were incredibly sexy. At roughly the same time, punk, disco and hip-hop were invented in the Big Apple, perhaps forever defining everything that came after. The city may have been falling apart, but Studio 54 allowed even working-class kids from Queens (provided they had some style) the opportunity to snort coke off Truman Capote’s monocle or take Diane von Furstenberg for a whirl on the dance floor. If Studio wasn’t your bag, you could achieve another kind of celebrity by painting your name as big and brightly as possible on the 4 train or reinvent yourself in the shaggy glamor of the downtown demimonde revolving around Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.
New York was at its most potent during the period that followed Vinyl’s mid-70s: the brief time between the death of disco in the aftermath of Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago in July 1979 and Run DMC’s first album in March 1984. As the recently reissued compilation of Soul Jazz’s New York Noise shows, this was a period of intense creative activity when everyone seemed to be on the same page, ideas bounced around and across different scenes, the underground, overground, avant-gardists, dancers, guitar heroes, film-makers, DJs and performance artists all talked to each other (and, sometimes, as in the case of the sui generis Arthur Russell and his remarkable Clean on Your Bean #1, this conversation happened in the head of a single person). It was a time when ESG, a group of self-taught sisters from the notorious Moore Houses in the Bronx, could open up for PiL and Gang of Four, while the serpentine polyrhythms of a quartet of downtown experimentalists could provide the basis for one of the biggest hip-hop records of the time.
Yes, punk, disco and hip-hop were born in the 70s in response to the death of the communitarian dream of the 60s and the post-capitalist scrapheap left behind in capitalism’s capital city, but in the early 80s they all realized that they had effectively come to the same conclusion, that abnegation and nihilistic hedonism are really the same thing. As much as was possible given the intense de facto segregation that existed in New York at the time, there was a sense that everyone was in it together, that a minimalist funk vamp was all you needed to bring together multitudes, and in the hands of bands like the Bush Tetras and Konk it did as scraping guitar sounds rubbed shoulders with salsa horns, African polyrhythms, Bohannon-style grooves, and dub basslines. Even in the insular hardcore scene, the mighty Bad Brains fused escape-velocity punk with reggae and fusion licks and False Prophets incorporated rap.
None of this is to say that the Big Apple was without serious problems: large swaths of the city were nothing but rubble, the vigilante Guardian Angels patrolled the subways because there were no transit cops, and not being able to get mail delivered because junkies had smashed open all the mailboxes in your building in order to stash their drugs is nothing to wax nostalgic about. Yet the ruins of NYC in the early 80s allowed you to dream of a better world and to craft your own world. As a billboard for one of the crucial art galleries of the time, Semaphore, read: “In my end is my beginning.” The Manhattan of today and its $2m average house price inspires only envy and resentment.
“The city was bankrupt and it was really burnt out,” says Pat Place, the guitarist of the Bush Tetras, whose Too Many Creeps and Can’t Be Funky anchor New York Noise. “People did not want to be here, it was really dangerous. I think that opened it up for young artists.”
In many ways, Place is the embodiment of the cross-pollination of the time. Place was an exhibiting visual artist and photographer who also appeared (along with Lydia Lunch) in Vivienne Dick’s No Wave cinema classic She Had Her Gun All Ready when she joined the original punk-funk band, The Contortions. Her scything guitar can be heard on the still-abrasive Contort Yourself. “She played her guitar like a painter,” says Bush Tetras drummer Dee Pop. “She was trying to find suitable sounds and colors as opposed to, ‘I’m playing these chords and this structure.’”