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.