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Riot! Punk on the Lower East Side


Nights on the Lower East Side have always been a bit raucous – whether at a German beer saloon or a contemporary nightclub, this neighborhood has always known how to make some noise. It’s no surprise, then, that the noisiest and most riotous music movement in American history, punk rock, got is start right here on the Lower East Side! The history of punk rock on the Lower East Side can be nasty and brutish, but it is certainly not short.

An abandoned building on the Lower East Side in the 1970's.

Beginning in the 1950’s and peaking in the 1970’s, New Yorkers began to flee the grime and crime of the city and a vacuum of money ensued, nearly bankrupting the city. This change hit the Lower East Side hard – never a wealthy neighborhood, the absence of money coming in, and the high rate of buildings condemned (like 97 Orchard Street), caused crime and drug use to skyrocket. As buildings decayed and rent prices dropped, artists flocked to to the neighborhood.

In the 1960’s, a Lower East Side band called the Holy Modal Rounders combined anarchy, eccentricity, and rather blatant drug references with traditional folk sounds. The result was “Freak Folk,” a proto-punk genre.

Another band called the Fugs (comprised of two poets, a drummer, and two members of the Holy Modal Rounders) started to play music that we would today recognize as punk – chaotic, vernacular, and vulgar – but the “freak folk” sound remained prevalent.  The Fugs began play around the Lower East Side; they even mentioned the neighborhood in their song “Slum Goddess.”

Another band on The Fugs label, The Godz, made the kind of nonsensical noise-music that your parents always accused you of listening to, including one song “White Cat Heat” which is just the band making cat noises – it’s very unsettling. The Godz turned away from folk traditions by using electric guitars, but the tactic wasn’t considered truly punk until the Velvet Underground went electric in 1967. The iconic punk band the Velvet Underground actually began as an acoustic act in 1965, with Lou Reed and John Cale  in a Lower East Side bar on Ludlow Street.

Album cover for "The Velvet Underground & Nico." 1967.

The first all-electric punk album from the Lower East Side came from David Peel, whose backing band was called, appropriately, the Lower East Side. In 1971, music journalist Lester Bangs coined the term “punk” to describe the noise-rock of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

By the early 1970’s, arena rock had infiltrated the punk scene; the New York Dolls mixed punk and gay culture into songs like “Personality Crisis.” Around the same time, avant-garde poet Patti Smith began to put her poetry to music, and released her masterpiece album Horses in 1975.  Patti Smith began to play with a band from Queens called the Ramones  (who sung about Queens in their song “Rockaway Beach”) at a little dive called CGBG’s – and some might say that’s when punk got cool.

The Ramones in front of CBGB, perhaps the most famous and filthy NYC punk show venue, which closed in 2006.

When the punk scene spread to London, British bands like the Sex Pistols quickly helped it become a global phenomenon – a phenomenon that started right here, on the wild streets of the Lower East Side.

If you’d like to experience your own evening on the Lower East Side, check out the our Evenings at the Tenement programs here!

– Posted by Lib Tietjen