It’s the mid-Seventies glitter-rock era, and I am drumming in a band with keyboardist Dominic and bassist Art. We somehow got wind of a music store opening that very night, it being a unique enterprise at the time: the store stocked nothing but electronic keyboard instruments.
So, it was off to hoity-toity Ardmore for the three of us, blending in as well as Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny. Which was especially ironic considering, other than us and the store employee, the place was filled with Main Line snobs who were there supporting their moneyed friend, the owner, and wouldn’t know a clavinet from a clarinet. In short, we three were the only ones present that even remotely stood a chance of ever patronizing the business.
We were a flamboyant lot, used to disapproving sneers and not ones to let it annoy or intimidate us. Also wise enough to recognize when we were on someone else’s turf and, consequently, to remain on our best behavior. Dominic even played a bit on an electric piano, making it clear we were musicians, not some riff-raff there to rob the place, or whatever these bluebloods imagined “our kind” got up to.
Still, when the owner locked the doors (with us inside the store), there was a touch of trepidation on our part. It was all for naught, as the real reason for doing so was the start of the private Grand Opening ceremony, with a special guest speaker and demonstrator.
When the owner introduced Dr. Robert Moog, three jaws hit the carpet simultaneously,
Although it was early days for synthesizers—so much so, developers had yet to figure out how more than one note at a time (e.g. chords) could be played on the instrument—we tuned-in Future Rock Stars knew we were in the presence of a certified genius and a pioneer in a whole new form of sonic expression.
In 1968, performer/composer Wendy Carlos sent shock waves through the recording industry with the release of the triple-Grammy-winning album “Switched-On Bach,” classical music with a MAJOR difference—every note was created by a Moog synthesizer.
Following her lead, more-experimental rockers such as Frank Zappa and Keith Emerson had begun exploring the possibilities of the original Moog synthesizer, a large panel loaded with an assortment of wires plugged into it, more resembling a telephone switchboard than a musical instrument.
The Minimoog synth, a compact, simplified version of the original rig had recently been released, and major musical acts were gobbling them up, both for the new sounds they produced and the portability that made the Minimoog ideal for a touring band.
The synthesizer had yet to revolutionize the music and movie industries (more on that later), but it had made enough inroads that Dr. Moog’s presence was A Very Big Deal to my trio, despite the remainder in attendance being oblivious.
“You won’t believe what happens next!”
Bob, as he preferred to be called, was a very affable host, going around the room explaining, in laymen’s terms, how some of the electronic keyboards worked, including the mellotron (which, to this day, those writing about music often get wrong.)
This, of course, built up to him showcasing his invention, demonstrating how the Minimoog could mimic the sound of a traditional string instrument, play unending rhythmic sequences with a touch of one key, make all the boops and beeps of a UFO landing, and so on.
Art, Dominic and I occasionally made jocular comments to each other; and, during one particular sequencer passage that closely resembled a drum beat, one of my bandmates ribbed “We don’t need you anymore.” Little did we know what was to come.
After demonstrating the vast variety of sound the keyboard could trigger, the good doctor remarked “I know there’s a drummer in the room”—apparently overhearing the earlier wisecrack—and, with that, produced a small drum that plugged into the synth.
Then invited me to play it!!!
With someone holding the drum in place, I tapped away with my fingers (there were no drumsticks present) as Bob threw various switches and twiddled dials, creating all sorts of sounds beyond those expected to come out of a drum.
Your humble narrator was already a very advanced drummer by that point and thus I adapted my riffing to beats best suited for whichever tone Dr. M conjured up. At one point, after we had really gotten in synch, I glanced up, only to catch Bob smiling and bobbing his head to the rhythm.
So, for just that brief moment, I stood there completely awestruck, thinking “Hot damn, I’m jamming with the inventor of this revolutionary drum, it’sRobert freakin’ Moog—and he’s digging what I’m doing!”
And all of this transpired simply because we got a tip-off about a store opening and casually decided to kill an hour one bored evening, before getting up to our usual shenanigans. Crazy, huh?
It was no hyperbole when I mentioned how the now-deceased Dr. Moog and his invention changed the world of entertainment.
You know how a different musical style will come along and be considered “a new sound”? Dr. Moog (and a few others on the same path) quite literally created new sounds, ones that had never been heard before in the entire history of mankind.
Eventually, polyphonic—meaning multiple keys could be played simultaneously, like an organ or piano—synthesizers were developed. As were pre-sets. In simple terms, rather than having to set dozens of knobs and switches in order to change over to a desired sound, the player could dial up an assigned number.
This combination was a tremendous boon to live performance. No longer did a keyboardist have to fumble around in a mad dash under poor lighting between songs, hoping to replicate a desired tone. Or worse yet, the band having to attempt to play along with a tape, often a disaster.
Instead, Kenny Keyboard can calmly flip to Preset 3, press both hands on a group of keys and fill the hall with the lush sounds of a string section, then swing over to Preset 9 for a “flute” solo. If you have attended a rock, pop or hip-hop concert with a keyboard player onstage, you’ve likely experienced a synthesizer “in action.”
Though you may not realize it, synths are employed in many hit records, as well as familiar TV and movie theme songs. But it goes well beyond theme songs. Synthesizers often create background sounds and music, and simulate storms, battlestar shootouts, and so much more. They are also incorporated in radio and television commercials, and may even be heard over the sound system at the local supermarket. In other words, odds are quite high that synthesizers are a part of your daily life.
None of which may have ever come into being if not for some extremely bright individuals seeking to wed electricity to sound.
Was just reminiscing about (picture temporarily goes out of focus, harp arpeggio plays) all us Mohawked young lads jumping in the mosh pit at CBGB, spit flying everywhere, during the punk rock explosion.
The reason I added the cinematic touch to the above is because, in real life, except for the punk rock explosion itself, none of this ever happened.
At least not at first.
Unless you were one of two members of The Plasmatics, you didn’t have a Mohawk on the 1977 New York punk scene (England being a different kettle of fish and chips.) There were no mosh pits. And if you spat on someone, you were liable to get decked.
I don’t care what you “heard.” Or even what you may have seen in the movie CBGB, loaded with utter nonsense such as Genya Ravan being a key player on the burgeoning punk rock scene.
I knew Genya at the time and even did some freelance work for her Polish Records label. She adamantly turned down my crew’s invitation to join us when we were venturing out to catch acts at the punk/new wave venues.
And the reason I knew the New-York-based Raven is because I, a member of the Philly punk rock scene, spent an average of two weekends a month in NYC, spending every single night checking out multi-band bills in all sorts of holes in the walls.
Was also a musician, so saw thing from that side of the equation as well.
Now, you can trust the account of an actual participant in the real punk rock explosion, or shake your head like an imbecile, too stubborn to believe you got conned by: revisionists; people who weren’t even there but are trying to “look cool”; a music journalist that never heard of The Clash until “Rock The Casbah” became an FM radio hit; or similar frauds.
If you chose the second option, beat it. No one will miss you. As for everyone remaining, let’s examine facts.
First off, some odds and ends. Although I’ve focused on the scene in New York—a city on the brink of bankruptcy and with the Son Of Sam on the loose at the time—there were also vibrant punk scenes in Philadelphia, DC, Baltimore and Boston. I’ll use OPR to represent “Original Punk Rocker” and generalize a bit for the sake of a manageable word count.
New Wave, though you’d never know it from current coverage, was just as big as punk rock, with emerging bands such as Blondie, Devo and The B-52s. There were also bands on the cusp, like XTC and Magazine, i.e. they weren’t as poppy as the New Wavers but more musically complex than, say, The Dictators and Ramones.
All of the above (and their lesser-known contemporaries) played the same venues, were equally far from the mainstream, only seemed to get airplay on select college radio stations and press in a small number of niche publications, and, if they had a record deal at all, it was almost always with a small indie label. As such, I’m putting them all under the punk rock umbrella for this piece.
If you were a young man in the first half of the Seventies and didn’t have long hair, you were likely a puss still under your parents’ thumbs, a straight-arrow, a sell-out for some Squaresville job, or maybe even a narc. You were distinctly in the minority and definitely not cool.
From the Sixties hangover through the Glam/Glitter Rock period, you didn’t see much more than the lobes of ears, male or female.
And that’s why chopping off your flowing mane was a Very Big Deal.
Shearing your curls was making a major commitment because you knew, if you regretted doing it, there was no reverse switch. It may take a year or more to grow back your luxurious locks. In the meantime, you’d have the appearance of a narc or any of the other above undesirables.
Furthermore, with the relative brevity and the haphazardness of the typical punk rock ‘do, you looked like someone who either just woke up or got electrocuted, and unlike anyone else around, be they a short- or a longhair.
Prepare for the stare.
Which was fine, despite the rudeness of others, because your hair was a statement, not just some new fashion trend, in plain sight around the clock: “I reject conforming to the norm of the squares and the hipsters, and hope you don’t like it.”
It took guts to walk around figuratively flipping off the general public, quite intentionally adopting an appearance hardly anyone else had at the time.
Of course getting that look was a challenge in itself. When I decided to shed my full Ital-fro, I brought along the latest Punk magazine (issue 6, published June, 1976), it containing a photo-illustrated comic-book-style story featuring punk pioneer Richard Hell visible at many angles.
And why did I do this? Because virtually nobody outside of the minute OPR circle had ever heard of punk rock in the Bicentennial year!
I was going to a pricey crimping establishment at the time, with some of the top stylists in Philly, not Joe The Barber with a little shop around the corner. And when I mentioned punk rock, it drew nothing but blank stares.
Additionally, I knew of only one store downtown where I could get my leather jacket.
That should give you an idea of how underground the scene was when it was first breaking, and the effort it took to adopt the look.
As far as shirts and blouses, you might rummage through thrift shops and fine some dayglo shirts at an Army-Navy/hunting store. Better still, alter your existing tops via tears, cuts, staples, chains and burns, so they were suitably repulsive to those you were hoping to offend.
Maybe you were lucky enough to know someone adept at silkscreening, who could make something offbeat. And it was fairly common on the UK scene to break out a felt tip and write right on the fabric.
DIY—Do It Yourself—was extremely significant in the early days, whether it was decorating your jacket or making up posters for a band’s upcoming show. On one hand, this inspired a lot of creativity. On the other…well, you had no choice.
There weren’t any Hot Topics or home PCs on which to create slick graphics and iron-ons, no internet or eBay. Unless you were a trust fund baby, you couldn’t afford a professional service. So, DIY it was. Besides, mass-produced was the antithesis of what punk rock stood for.
IN OTHER WORDS, currently having neon-colored hair like ten million others, and buying a Joan Jett T-shirt at the mall does not make you any more “punk rock” than your 10th grade homeroom teacher.
Some OPRs are old enough to have kids who have kids. Meaning you may be dressing and wearing the same styles as your grandparents. Oooh, how “rebellious”!!!
The Rock Portion Of The Equation
Aside from glam, in the early portion of the decade, the music scene of the Seventies sucked more than all the Hoovers in a vacuum-machine store combined.
Prog kings Emerson, Lake & Palmer were playing football stadiums, accompanied by a full orchestra. Fleetwood Mac spent a million dollars—a million!—taking a year to record “Tusk,” an album so cutting-edge that college marching bands were performing its title track. Former Bowie and Yes keyboard man Rick Wakeman toured with a full ice show presentation. And once-radical Jefferson Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship, releasing radio-friendly horrors such as “We Built This City On Rock And Roll.” (Sure you did.)
Then there was the vehemently despised–by OPRs and diehard rock ‘n’ rollers alike–disco, assembly line dross cranked out for self-centered zombies who didn’t know they were dead.
“Weeee, the world has turned to shit, but we can slip into our official disco uniforms, snort some coke and dance, baby. Screw everyone else! Look how much fun I’m desperately trying to have.”
By 1975, rock bands who were once fresh and innovative had settled into a safe formula; replaced key members with hired hands; adopted clichés like the automatic encore to play their big hit, and the arms-around-each-other-then-bow-to-the-audience patronizing exit move; and, grown rich and flaunted it with private jets and limos—and/or died.
The vibrant inventiveness of the late Sixties had gone full-corporate, musicians attending board meetings, fortunes being at stake and spent.
You and three friends decided to buy instruments and form a band. Even after you got competent enough to perform a set-full of songs, what chance did you have of even getting considered for a recording contract or played on the radio, when competing against established acts with a half-million-dollar light and sound rig and a string section? Especially with record companies and radio station programmers also in full Playing It Safe Mode, more interested in clones than in anything breaking the mold.
Worse yet, you could no longer relate to one-time heroes, there was such a vast chasm between the high-living rock gods and your crowd.
Punk rock and New Wave came in and said, to quote Johnny Rotten, “Fuck this and fuck that.”
It was all about streamlining the bloated mess rock had become. Short, simple, fast and loud, and most of all, fun to do. Never mind if the guitarist didn’t know a diminished ninth (chord) from a vodka fifth.
So much about punk rock was a reflection of the times. And the mid-Seventies weren’t pretty. New York City verged on collapse, and the streets were mean in many other urban American cities. Our British brethren were getting out of school and going straight on the dole, there were so few “career opportunities” offered.
The “fall of Saigon,” signifying the inglorious end of the Vietnam War, did not occur until April, 1975. That in turn meant young men of punk’s Blank Generation had had the “opportunity” to be drafted into the Army when they were age 18; and if they lucked out and weren’t selected, they’d spent years seeing friends and family return from Nam in a box, maimed or carrying a nasty heroin habit.
Both sexes of the Blank Generation were too young for the Summer Of Love and Woodstock. Instead of the utopia of freedom and free love slightly older Baby Boomers filled our adolescent heads with, by the time we reached adulthood, we got stuck cleaning up the garbage left behind by embittered, sometime drug-addled flower children turning in their beads and incense for a three-piece suit.
Watergate and Tricky Dick Nixon’s shenanigans destroyed any remaining trust in the US government. Britain’s monarchy was considered a not-so-funny joke.
So, what you had circa 1976 was a group of disillusioned, understandably hostile young adults with either no or entry-level, minimum-wage going-nowhere jobs. (I worked for the local municipality, climbing down manholes to place bricks of rat poison.)
Alienated from society as a whole, loaded with youthful energy and no outlet for it, and no longer buying into hippie hyperbole about peace, love and understanding. A volatile mix in very bleak times. Little solace in music anymore, either.
Here’s the VERY important part, younger readers.
If the first half of the Seventies “sounds brutal”—which it was—imagine living it 24/7. And imagine is all you can do because YOU DID NOT LIVE IT and therefore cannot fully grasp what it was really like.
Sure, you may have conjectured. But that’s all. Additionally, the information you based your impression upon may be inaccurate, wildly exaggerated, romanticized or wishful thinking.
Before you break out the Grandpa Simpson memes, this is not “You kids today have it easy, sonny boy” or “Yelling at clouds.” It’s about context.
The late teens through early twenties is no joyride, regardless of birth year. I am not claiming everything is sunshine and lollipops today. Nonethless, some periods of history are much worse than others—and the mid-Seventies blew.
We were irate young people who got tired of hearing crap from others and decided to get aggressive. Screw being defensive. It was time to be offensive. “You don’t approve of my red no-name sneakers and this girl’s torn-up fishnet stockings? Good!”
The thing is, punk rock was OUR reaction based on OUR environment. If you weren’t around for it, get your OWN damn sound and look reflecting YOUR environment. Wearing Doc Martens and a Mohawk as a youth in 2019 makes you no more “punk rock” than donning moccasins and a feather headdress makes you Native American.
If we agree cultural appropriation is a serious offense, what do you think you’re doing?
“But, Stately, times have changed.”
Precisely—but you haven’t, mimicking the sights and sounds of an explosion that detonated forty-plus years ago!
You know who’s more “punk rock” than you? For starters, the people behind the Giphy GIF-creating site. It’s about streamlining, DIY, not merely accepting things as they are, and being creative, as well as simple enough that anyone can do it. That’s a hell of a lot more punk rock than wearing the same ripped jeans Johnny Ramone did in 1977.
The original spirit of the punk rock movement was about rejecting tradition and “acceptable” appearance, not establishing them.
We had a party—which, incidentally, ended decades ago (a whole different story)—and unless you were a young adult in the late Seventies, you WEREN’T INVITED.
None of us has a choice of when we are born. As such, maybe you missed out on the legitimate punk rock movement. Conversely, we missed out on growing up with all the fantastic digital technology half-taken for granted by all of us. Those are the breaks. Doesn’t make one group better than the other. It simply separates reality from fantasy-based posturing.
You might be, say, 23 full of vim and vigor, and “living in shitty times,” much like we were. Understand I do “get” the frustration that spawned punk rock persists. I will also readily admit it’s not like we invented and thus have some sort of patent on youthful rebellion.
Like you, we believed we inherited a crappy world from our elders, Just like the beatniks did in the Fifties to early Sixties. And the founders of biker gangs did, post-WW2. And groups of people before them throughout history.
That didn’t give us the right to wear berets and shabby sweatshirts, play bongos at coffeehouses and call ourselves beatniks any more than you have the right to claim to be punk rockers.
Don’t like reading that? Too bad. What makes you think I care?