Various Artists

CBGB's and the Birth of U.S. Punk

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CBGB's and the Birth of U.S. Punk Review

by Mark Deming

While the historically minded rock fan is doubtless aware that punk rock was born and bred in the United States, many passing observers still seem to think that English bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash dreamed the stuff up all on their own, neatly ignoring the fact that the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, MC5, and the New York Dolls blocked out the blueprints years before, and the Ramones created the first working template while Malcolm McLaren was still selling clothes to Teddy Boys. Since many histories of the punk movement written by British writers barely acknowledge that America was on the scene first, it's nice to have this compilation, compiled and well-annotated by U.K. rock scribe Johnny Chandler, who pays tribute to pioneering U.S. punk and pre-punk acts. CBGB's and the Birth of U.S. Punk shows that Chandler understands well who the major characters were, offering examples of '60s garage rock (the Sonics, the Seeds), acid-punk dementia (the 13th Floor Elevators), late-'60s and early-'70s creative trailblazers (Iggy & the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Modern Lovers), and valued members of punk's first graduating class (the Ramones, Television, Blondie, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, the Dead Boys). The album is hampered by several odd track choices, many of which seem to be the product of licensing problems. The Iggy & the Stooges and Dead Boys tracks are lo-fi alternate versions of tunes better presented elsewhere (on albums released by much larger labels); the same is also true of the cuts by Television and the Ramones, but in these cases the substitutes are of markedly better quality (though someone should tell "Chandler" that the live take of Television's "Friction" wasn't recorded at CBGB, but at My Father's Place in scenic New Jersey). The presence of "California Uber Alles" by the Dead Kennedys also seems a bit odd, since they were hardly in the first wave of West Coast punk (the Weirdos or the Germs would have been a far better choice), and is there anyone who really believes Wayne County & the Electric Chairs were a band of lasting significance? But Chandler does give well-deserved props to the crucially important Cleveland scene with Pere Ubu and the Electric Eels, and as an overview of the gestation and birth of American punk rock, CBGB's and the Birth of U.S. Punk covers an impressive amount of ground in little over an hour. This really should be the subject of an extensive box set, but as a quick introduction or a trip down leather-jacketed memory lane, this disc serves its purpose rather well, and it sure makes for fun listening.

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