Punk Rock and Urban Decay in New York – Part 2

Essential Question

What social and economic forces shaped Downtown New York City during the 1970s, and how might they have influenced the region’s music scene?


In Part One of this lesson, students considered how Downtown New York City was reshaped by Post-WWII economic and demographic shifts. They were introduced to Hilly Kristal, owner of the CBGB club, and discussed how the decline of Lower Manhattan may have also created possibilities for Kristal’s venue, which New Musical Express writer Nick Kent described in 1976 as “mythically scuzzy” yet “incredibly exciting.”

Many histories frame 1970s popular music culture as a battle between the dramatic excesses of Arena Rock and the increasingly robotic, depersonalized sounds of Disco. However, what Kent and many others seem to have found thrilling about CBGB bands such as The Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and particularly The Ramones, was their lack of connection to either genre. As Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore points out in a segment of the Sonic Highways “New York City” episode included in this lesson, Disco seemed to be for the glamorous, Arena Rock for a few chosen Gods among men, and, like many, he couldn’t imagine himself being either.

Not The Ramones. They looked normal–not “beautiful”–played fast, but kept the words and music simple, and, to many, they were a revelation. They filtered the egalitarian spirit of 1960s garage Rock and Roll through the environment of 1970s Downtown New York. The Ramones were attainable; Moore saw them and thought, “I can be like that.” In the words of musician Stevie Van Zandt, The Ramones were, “the crossroads, the intersection, the meeting place where everything comes together.”

In this lesson, students will view footage of The Ramones and the CBGB club from the Sonic Highways “New York City” episode and consider how the venue and music may reflect what they learned in Part One of this lesson about the state of Downtown New York in the 1970s. Students will then work in groups, studying images of both “mainstream” Rock and CBGB bands of the era to explore how the landscape of the suburban and urban might be reflected by both.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About the changing landscape of New York City post WWII, in particular “White Flight” and demographic change
    • How music reflected changing attitudes toward physical space in the 1970s
    • About the CBGB night club, The Ramones, and early Punk Rock music in 1970s New York
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to explain through group discussion and written analysis how changing economic and social conditions in New York City during the 1970s played an essential role in influencing the city’s music scene.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Have students share the musical research they did for homework and discuss their responses to the prompts as a class.


  1. Show Clip 2, “CBGB and the Birth of Punk”
    • Why do you think CBGB might have become “a magnet for really eclectic people”? If people are eclectic–meaning they’re coming from different places–what about a place like CBGB might bring them together?
    • In what ways does the inside of CBGB seem to have reflected the environment around it in New York? How do the bands seem to have expressed both?
    • Several people in this clip suggest that Punk was in some ways a natural byproduct of this particular time and place. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. Break the class into groups of two. Distribute Handout 3A to one member and Handout 3B to the other. Have each student complete the Handout, and then present the handout to his or her partner. Once groups have finished, discuss the following questions as a class:
    • How would you contrast the venues at which you see Led Zeppelin and The Ramones performing? How do you think these venues might affect their music?
    • How would you compare the visual imagery of Kiss and Led Zeppelin with what you see of The Ramones? (Encourage students to consider the down-to-earth accessibility of The Ramones in comparison to the “epic” images created by Led Zeppelin and Kiss.)
    • How do you think the imagery on the Joni Mitchell and James Taylor album covers might relate to broader sentiments about suburban life at the time? Can you relate them to the imagery of the suburbs in Part One of this lesson? How would you contrast the images of The Ramones with that?
  3. Play Clip 3, “The Ramones”. Ask your students:
    • Why do you think the record executive Seymour Stein was so excited about The Ramones performing 15 songs in 18 minutes? What might that have represented to him or others? (Encourage students to consider the massive proportions of the Led Zeppelin and Kiss images they saw and then what short, fast songs might seem like in comparison.)
    • In this clip, Thurston Moore suggests he was drawn to The Ramones by vocalist Joey Ramone’s height. What do you think seeing another very tall person might have meant to Moore? How did The Ramones appeal to him visually? (Encourage students to consider that Moore, and many others, felt that The Ramones were “normal” in that they weren’t glamorous.)
    • In what ways do you think The Ramones, or any other music you’ve heard here has captured with Moore calls, “the energy of the urban”?  (Students may compare the no-frills approach of The Ramones to the stark environment in which they performed. Also, encourage students to consider possible relationships between what some might call the excesses of Kiss or Led Zeppelin and the sprawling, comfortable nature of urban life.)

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask the class:
    • In what ways do you now think music might be able to represent the sound of a particular place and way of living?
    • Can you think of other music that reflects a time and place?
    • Think of one of your favorite groups, can you hear the sound of a place in their music? If so, how?

Extension Activity:

  1. Watch The Ramones perform “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” live and The Ramones “Punk Movement” interview. Write a short essay that addresses the following questions:
    • What do you hear the two members of The Ramones interviewed here say about why they play the way they do?
    • How can you hear what they’re discussing in the live performance of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”?
    • How do the members of The Ramones feel about other people playing music? Do they feel that it’s only for “professionals,” or something best done by many? How do you hear this reflected in the performance of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.”
    • Do you think music is something anyone can do? Why or why not?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
  • Core Music Standard: Connecting
  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.