While many people have often referred to the club as CBGBs, with the added “s,” the club was actually called CBGB. In fact, the formal name of the club was entitled CBGB & OMFUG. The abbreviated letters stood for, “Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.”
The club CBGB started in 1973 when owner Hilly Krystal rented the dusty old space and originally named the venue Hilly’s. Hilly Krystal began to operate it as a biker bar and dive bar. After being approached with the idea to book music acts, Hilly Krystal began turning the bar into a music club that served old chili. In February of 1974, Hilly booked his first musical act called The Squeeze. The band consisted of Television’s Fred Smith and JD Daugherty who would later become part of The Patti Smith Group. The group The Squeeze had nothing to do with the English band called Squeeze that featured Paul Carrack singing lead vocals on some tracks.
The CBGB club would quickly become an iconic location and is often referred to as the birthplace of punk rock, although calling any one particular club the birthplace of any artistic movement is ignorant of the movement itself. Nonetheless, Hilly Krystal was visionary in the way he recognized the originality and spirit of the Punk Scene.
The mid-nineteen seventies defined the battle between the classic sounds of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Yes versus the onslaught of the new sounds of Disco. Rock fans hated Disco for the most part. However many fans were also bored with the sounds of Queen and Elton John and straight ahead 70’s Rock. There was a need for something fresh. A new sound began to flourish both in the cities of New York and London. It was a sound inspired by a movement against current trends both from a political and cultural stigma. The music of this movement, fueled by speed and complete rebellion was quickly dubbed “punk.”
CBGB became a focal point of the punk movement. One of the important and forgotten aspects of the famed club’s rise to success would be due to the closing of the Mercer Arts Center in August of 1973. This closure left many young and upcoming acts without a place to play, The acts began to look at CBGB as an alternate place to perform. Many bands would flourish and find comfort inside those graffiti-strewn, blood-spattered, filthy caked walls. One such notable band would be The Ramones. Unlike any other band ever seen, The Ramones would eventually become known as the godfathers of punk, although some would argue that The Sex Pistols were the band that ignited the movement. Nonetheless. while The Sex Pistols were complaining about the Queen of England, The Ramones were singing about teenage issues that most other bands ignored. The group hailed from Forest Hills Queens. They would all take the stage names, Joey Ramone Johnny Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, and Tommy Ramone.
The Ramones were unlike any band on the scenes. Some said they were the worst band that had ever heard. However, there were many who heard something else. The Ramones were loud, in your face and above all they played faster than any other band. The band would blast through their sets, often doing 10 to 13 songs in just a span of 17 minutes. In the days of dinosaur bands who focused on lengthy tracks and overblown guitar solos, The Ramones were something new, and their energy was relentless.
The Ramones were not the only band making a name for themselves and CBGB at the same time. One can not ignore the impact Patti Smith had on the club and the punk scene itself. In 1975, Patti Smith performed at CBGB for seven straight weeks. When CBGB announced they were closing down Patti Smith returned to the club to play one final set in October of 2006.
By the late 1970s, CBGB was one of the top spots to go and hear the exciting new sounds of punk music. Along with Max’s Kansas City, CBGB was a prime spot for fresh music and a scene that permeated the bubble gum kid glove area that punk was destroying. However, more than just punks would gather at CBGB, the art scene and poetry scene would also collect. This mashup of talent and crowd is what created the true aura of the club. CBGB paved the way for originality and tested what normal was, the acts were new, and they displayed a look, a sound, and general ideology that hadn’t been seen before. This was the true draw of CBGB, it was new and it was theirs, it wasn’t the country club.
For many, CBGB was a place where they could go and listen to the music they identified. It was where their friends played, it was where their people were. Similar to the Ramones call of unity “Gabba Gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us” CBGB put out its own siren song, calling the underdog, the bully, the victim, the brat, the weird kid, the artsy kid, the drug addict, the alcoholic, and anyone else that society generally avoided to its doors.
CBGB had an open-door policy on many nights. Any band could play there. It offered musicians a chance to be seen. Not all bands became famous, and in the end as the club started to become known as the place to play, they started to draw more famous groups. Debbie Harry of Blondie got her start at CBGB but not as the lead singer of Blondie who were not even formed at the time. Debbie Harry started performing at CBGB n 1974 as a member of the band the Stillettoes.
The club CBGB also hosted shows from bands that would become household names like The Police, B-52s, Talking Heads, Television, and Joan Jett. Even bands that never became mainstream but enjoyed success in the punk and new wave movements had performed at CBGB. Groups such as Mink Deville, The Cramps, The Dictators, and The Dead Boys all played a role in the history of CBGB.
By the 1980s, CBGB began featuring hardcore punk bands, changing the tide and catering to the anger of the kids who packed inside its walls. However, due to violence, Hilly Krystal, at least for a short while, stopped booking hardcore bands, though he would soon start up again. CBGB gave a stage for many acts through the years, including Green Day, and more. Changing with the times while remaining the same was a success for the club. Sadly, due to high rent prices and structural issues and its inability to keep up with health codes, CBGB was forced to close its doors.
When one door closes, another opens and such is the case with CBGB. While the venue may have closed its doors in 2005, in 2012 the CBGB Music Festival was born, becoming one of the largest music festivals in New York City. The spirit of the venue and those who have played it was reborn with the happening of three large concerts, taking place in Times Square and Central Park. In 2013, the former location for the club was added to New York’s historic registry, forever marking the building as a historic landmark. While the location has now been taken over by retailer John Varvatos, the feel of the history forever remains. When one steps foot in what used to be CBGB and steps to where the stage once sat, it’s easy to hear the last coughs of a musical history that is stored within the bones of the building for eternity.