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The revolution that saved rock

A new boxed set celebrates '70s punk

By Todd Leopold

The Ramones: They've been called the first punk group, and they blazed the trail for the many that followed.

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'Blitzkrieg Bop' - Ramones
'See No Evil' - Television
'The Modern World' - The Jam
'Blank Generation' - Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Elvis Costello

(CNN) -- It was 1975, and rock was dead.

OK, maybe not dead, but certainly as bloated and ponderous as a 300-pound politician at a school board hearing.

Paul McCartney -- Paul McCartney, who once scorched through "I'm Down" and "I Saw Her Standing There"! -- was telling listeners to "Listen to What the Man Said." The Who -- the Who! -- were 10 years removed from "My Generation" and offering up "Squeeze Box." And the Rolling Stones, well exiled off Main Street, were about to start recording "Black and Blue," surely their '70s nadir.

Oh, sure, those heroes could still bring it occasionally, and there was some good stuff around -- Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," Roxy Music's "Siren," Springsteen's "Born to Run," late funk/early disco -- but music was, in general, being dominated by self-important artistes who'd given up changing the world for a little of the world's change.

But on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, during a grubby time in New York when the Daily News blared "Ford to City: Drop Dead," there were stirrings of a revolution.

One band was singing about sniffing glue and blitzkrieg bops. Another offered wild, intertwined guitars as it sang about the Venus de Milo and a "Marquee Moon." Four neatly dressed kids, three recently arrived from art school, told deadpan tales about psycho killers and reading books.

And there were several more, some playing hard and fast, others playing slow and off-kilter, and they had a scene revolving around a club called CBGB.

It was called "punk."

'We were bored with everything we heard'

Nowadays, people tend to think of punk as snarling kids in dirty leather bludgeoning fast, power-chording guitars. But, as a new four-CD boxed set, "No Thanks: The '70s Punk Rebellion" (Rhino) indicates, it was a heck of a lot more.

'We were bored with everything we heard'

"We wanted to reclaim punk in the '70s as a movement," says Gary Stewart, the boxed set's producer. (Rhino is a division of Time Warner, as is CNN.) "People see it as a genre, as loud, fast, angry music. But for every Ramones, there was a Blondie or a Rezillos. Some of the music was very literary, other music was bubblegum."

The connection between it all, he says, was in its rejection of the status quo -- in the form of corporate rock and comfortable rock stars -- and its determination to reclaim earlier influences, such as the British Invasion.

"We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard," Joey Ramone once explained. "Everything was 10th-generation Led Zeppelin ... overproduced, or just junk. We missed music like it used to be."

Punk was nothing new. The term was reportedly coined in 1971 by rock critic Dave Marsh in a review of a show by Question Mark and the Mysterians, themselves part of the great thrash of 1960s garage bands, the movement's forerunners.

And elements of punk rock arguably can be traced back to the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. After all, who are early Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis if not punks?

Still, few people were listening in the beginning.

'It was a totally different world'

One key band is missing from "No Thanks": the Sex Pistols.

Try as it might, Rhino couldn't get permission to use any Pistols songs.

"It hurts me not to have them," says set producer Gary Stewart. "We can't pretend it doesn't matter. It's like a British Invasion set without the Beatles."

So, in the back of the "No Thanks" booklet, there's an apology: "We tried our best to get the Pistols on this set; it just didn't work out. And let's be honest: 'Never Mind the Bollocks' -- the punk equivalent of 'Sgt. Peppers' -- is a more essential purchase than this set."

After encouraging listeners to buy "Bollocks" -- if they haven't already -- Stewart signs off, "Apology accepted?"

Well, OK.

Television guitarist Richard Lloyd remembers having a difficult time finding a place to play in the early days. The group discovered CBGB, a "s***hole" underneath a Bowery flophouse, and essentially told owner Hilly Kristal whatever he wanted to hear -- "anything to get in," Lloyd says. The group needed a place "to be the house band and not get kicked out," he recalls.

He remembers making maybe a buck or two the first night, but people showed up, so Kristal invited the band back.

Television was quickly followed by the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads. But even as the groups at CBGB earned a following, the wider world was mostly unaware.

"The music we would see was underground rock nobody cared about," recalls downtown New York denizen Ira Robbins, the founder of the music magazine Trouser Press and a contributor to the "No Thanks" liner notes. "Then, in 1976, word filtered out about the Sex Pistols and the Damned. Now we had something to get excited about."

Ironically, the New York-based magazine had refrained from covering the New York bands because "it seemed myopic," Robbins says.

A turning point in punk's acceptance, he notes, was a Ramones concert at London's Roundhouse on the all-too-appropriate date of July 4, 1976.

The kids from Queens were unpretentious, wrote songs from sidewalk level, were adequate musicians at best -- and showed you could form a band with those attributes.

"Everyone in England saw something they'd never seen," Robbins says. Working-class English musicians, living in a country with few choices and a music business that trumpeted art-rock or polished glam, now saw a way out. "It was a totally different world."

At the same time, the raw Sex Pistols came into prominence. The group was led by John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon, and they sang of "No future" and pierced their clothes with safety pins. British authorities banned the group and their singles "Anarchy in the UK" and "God Save the Queen"; the songs went to No. 1 anyway, and in 1977 punk hit the cover of Time magazine.

The gold rush was on.

'Things started to split'

The Clash reflected the bitterness of late-'70s British youth, the multiculturalism of a changing UK, and released a string of classic albums.

Well, not immediately. Punk may have overtaken England, but in America, disco and laid-back California cool reigned.

"It was like pulling teeth to get signed," Lloyd recalls. "Everybody [at record labels] was hesitant. None of the bands were easy to see business-wise."

"I didn't think any of the bands would make it," Robbins adds. "There was no context for this, no indie rock [in '75-'76]. ... There were only [the big labels] and their goal was to put out records and get on the radio."

Gradually the tide turned and the public caught on. The song selection on "No Thanks" roughly traces the music chronologically, and while the first disc includes bedrock songs of the era -- the Clash's "White Riot," Richard Hell and the Voidoids' "Blank Generation" -- by discs three and four some minor hits are emerging, such as the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry," Elvis Costello's "Radio Radio," and Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him?"

Elsewhere in the music biz, Blondie had hit No. 1, the Ramones were being produced by Phil Spector, and The Clash had shown their chops -- and hit-making ability -- with "London Calling." The punk movement had started going mainstream -- if that isn't an oxymoron.

"By 1980, you had college radio and later [in 1981] MTV, and things started to split," Stewart says. "Some bands had become more established, and others went underground. All of it was good, but it just wasn't part of the same movement."

Television, once the house band at CBGB, went against the punk grain with lengthy compositions -- but the band's gutsy guitar interplay fit right in.

The seeds punk planted gave birth to the great American indie boom of the '80s and the early-'90s grunge sound. As a style it underscores much of today's alternative radio, from the angular desperation of the Strokes to the force of Rage Against the Machine.

Will there be a new punk movement? The original punk scene, like the rap/hip-hop movement that paralleled it in black music, had the element of surprise. Today, in our ultra-wired world, it's hard to stay underground. "[Record industry] people don't want to have bands get away from them," Robbins says.

On the other hand, as Paul Weller noted in the Jam's 1977 song "The Modern World," "I know where I am and going to/It's somewhere I won't preview." The record business is in a funk; radio is dull and flat.

Perhaps another punk age may be just a paradigm away.

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