Of the 12 cities we are covering in the Cities of Rock blog series, New York City has to be the most difficult.
The Big Apple has such an amazing history in music from jazz to blues, folk, rock and beyond. When it comes to picking my top ten, these are not necessarily the ten best bands and certainly not the ten most popular bands, but my ten favorites. You won’t find indie darlings The National, Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Vampire Weekend here nor will you find mainstream favorites Blood Sweat & Tears, Simon & Garfunkel or Steely Dan. What might be most criminal on this list is the absence of iconic underground favorites Sonic Youth, Suicide, Television or even Velvet Underground – sorry, I just not got into those bands, but respect them.
All that being said, I give you my favorite ten bands from the city so nice they named it twice.
Of all the thrash bands to come out of the 1980s, Anthrax was the most diverse. Not only did that have the heavy skull crushing songs but they also had a sense of humor and embraced a little hip hop in their music.
At the beginning of Anthrax they were about nothing but speed metal but when Joey Belladonna replaced Neil Turbin on vocals and Frank Bello replaced Danny Lilker on bass for their second album, ‘Spreading the Disease’ (1985), the band started to show change. With the blistering guitar tandem of Scott Ian and Dan Spitz, the New York natives added in elements of straight forward metal and punk.
Over the years Anthrax saw several member changes, namely former Armored Saint vocalist John Bush joining the band after Belladonna was shown the door. Despite the member changes and seeing a lack of production from the band, original members Ian and drummer Charlie Benante never gave up. Even the 2001 anthrax attacks couldn’t shut down this band.
In the end, their perseverance pulled off. In 2010, Belladonna rejoined the band and they went on to record one of their greatest albums with 2011’s ‘Worship Music’ and were asked to join the epic concert series The Big Four.
Like the city they hail from, you can’t keep these boys down. It’s hard to say what Anthrax will do next, but it’s sure to be heavy.
Key Albums: Spreading the Disease (1985); Among the Living (1987); State of Euphoria (1988); Persistence of Time (1990); Sound of White Noise (1993); Worship Music (2011)
Starting out as a punk rock band in 1981, the Beastie Boys didn’t receive any mainstream attention until they fused hip hop, b-boy and frat-boy parodies, and hilarious videos into their act. Even then, the trio – Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, and Adam “MCA” Yauch, were criticized as frauds. The comical video for their debut single “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” didn’t help their cause either. In hindsight, the detractors were gravely wrong, the Beastie Boys were ahead of their time and a pioneering force in music.
Instituting D.I.Y. aesthetics, the Beasties had the Dust Brothers produce their second album, ‘Paul’s Boutique’ and the critics began to praise the trio. The band not only blended genres of music, but they broke down stereotypical cultural biases.
With their unique vision, the Beastie Boys videos were a main staple of video channels across the world earning them countless awards. Their music was award winning as well taking home three Grammys over their three-decade career.
In 2009 Yauch was diagnosed with parotid gland and a lymph node cancer. Fighting the battle, Yauch underwent surgery and radiation therapy, ultimately succumbing to the disease on May 4, 2012. He was 47.
It is unknown whether the remaining members of the Beastie Boys will continue, I personally doubt it, but their music and legacy will live on forever.
Key Albums: Licensed to Ill (1986); Paul’s Boutique (1989); Check Your Head (1992); Ill Communication (1994); Hello Nasty (1998)
At the age of seven or eight, I would spend my summers at the local swimming pool hanging out with my friends and keeping cool. All our Mom’s would take us, some would stay, and we’d swim until our fingers turned prune, take breaks, eat junk food and do it all over again. At this particular swimming pool, it was pretty big, they had speakers on the corner of the chain link fence and would blast the local FM station all day.
It was the late 1970s and Blondie was huge. The station had the band in heavy rotation with the singles “Hanging on the Telephone,” “One Way or Another,” and “Heart of Glass.” I didn’t know anything about this band except those three songs and the name of the band. I begged my mother to take me to the store up the street and please get me that record. She did.
The album was ‘Parallel Lines’ (1978) and when I held that record in my tiny little hands I fell in love. There she was, Deborah Harry, blonde hair with black mixed in standing like a powerful goddess in that slinky white dress. Her backing band – Chris Stein (guitar); Clem Burke (drums); Jimmy Destri (keyboards); Nigel Harrison (bass) – flanking her all dressed in black suits. The red lettering popped off the sleeve and I have been a fan ever since.
Like many bands of that era and of this list, Blondie grew into one of the most iconic and influential bands to ever come out of the Big Apple. They hit road blocks along the way, breaking up and then reuniting. Their releases have been hit or miss over the decades, but one thing is for sure, you know its Blondie.
Key Albums: Blondie (1976); Parallel Lines (1978); Eat to the Beat (1979); No Exit (1999); The Curse of Blondie (2003); Panic of Girls (2011)
Innocent Words Magazine sprang from the place where all great ideas are born: fifth-row center at an Ani DiFranco concert in Indianapolis, Ind. Standing there, I realized I was the same age as the then-thirty-year-old queen of indie folk. DiFranco boasted her own righteous label and championed the DIY ethic. I was making ends meet as a freelancer for magazines and newspapers. I felt inferior, it was time for someone to get my ass in gear.
If anyone defines the indie music spirit, it is one Miss Ani DiFranco. I got into the Buffalo native’s music late into the game with her album ‘Dilate,’ but once I did discover Ani, I was head over heels. Ani was pure do-it-yourself, even turning down major labels left and right to do it her way. I liked her style immediately.
Living a somewhat sheltered life in the Midwest I learned about feminism, lesbians and New York via DiFranco’s music. She was honest and outspoken no matter if it was about life, love or politics, the five-foot-nothing singer pulled no punches and I liked that too.
Though my love for DiFranco’s music has waned in the past decade, I still hold a special place in my heart for her. If it wasn’t for DiFranco I most likely would still trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life.
Key Albums: Self-Titled (1990); Not So Soft (1991); Imperfectly(1992); Puddle Dive (1993); Out of Range (1994); Not a Pretty Girl (1995); Dilate (1996); Little Plastic Castle (1998); Up Up Up Up Up Up (1998); To the Teeth (1999); Revelling/Reckoning (2001); Evolve (2003); Educated Guess (2004); Knuckle Down (2005); w/ Utah Phillips The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (1996); Fellow Workers (1999).
Hamel on Trial is the moniker Ed Hamell took on when he ventured on to a solo career over 30 years ago. After a few stints in rock bands, the brash New Yorker found a battered 1937 Gibson acoustic guitar in a pawn shop and it spoke to him, he might tell you, literally. He bought that guitar and started writing songs.
Hamel on Trial morphed into something no other songwriter has ever done before or since. With New York influences on his sleeve and a heavy dose of the Ramones, Hamell wrote songs which were unconventional, to say the least. He has been called just about everything under the book from “Bill Hicks, Hunter S. Thompson and Joe Strummer all rolled into one” by Philadelphia Weekly and a “one-man Tarantino flick: loud, vicious, luridly hilarious, gleefully and deeply offensive” by the Village Voice.
His first two albums went relatively unnoticed, but soon found himself playing in the majors when he was signed to Mercury Records and they released his 1996 album ‘Big As Life’ and the live follow up a year later ‘The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword.’ The major label deal didn’t work out, go figure. After a few releases on Such-A-Punch and a near fatal car accident, Hamell found nirvana when he was signed to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. The two anti-folk heroes were a perfect fit and Ms. DiFranco took Hamell under her wing, sending Hamell out on the road for a succession of tours, which brought Hamell on Trial’s music to a whole new audience.
This is where I met the bald man with a story for everything. Since then, I can’t spread the gospel of Hamell to enough people. I feel like he is one of a kind, at least to a kid in the small town corn fields of Illinois. In a world of shitty bands after shitty bands, I consider Ed Hamell a modern day hero right up there with my admiration for Johnny Cash.
Key Albums: Big as Life (1996); The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword (1997); Choochtown (2000); Ed’s Not Dead: Hamell Comes Alive (2001); Tough Love (2003); Yep (2003); Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs (2006); Terrorism of Everyday Life (2008); The Happiest Man in the World (2014).
Born in Pennsylvania, raised in Maryland and spending some time in California, Joan Jett is the coolest adopted daughter of New York City.
When I saw the video for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts “I Love Rock & Roll” in 1981 it blew my mind. Here was this petite woman clad in leather playing loud aggressive rock in a gritty New York bar. The distorted guitar riff was magnificent and it would become the first cool song I ever learned to play on guitar.
Not only did Jett influence me, but thousands of people. What she did for female rock & rollers was immeasurable. Jett was of the mindset “what you see is what you get” and what you got was a raw powerful three-chord rock & roll.
Jett was a proverbial hit making machine in the 1980s with the songs “Bad Reputation;” “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah);” “Light of Day;” “I Hate Myself for Loving You;” “Crimson and Clover;” and the aforementioned “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Jett has taken her success and used it for good paving the way for female rockers and when Seattle singer Mia Zapata was raped and murdered and the band reunited to honor their fallen singer, Jett was right there to fill in. The concert was ultimately recorded and released as Evil Stig. Jett, who is a member of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame has also been recognized for her work with animal welfare. In November 2012, Jett received the Nanci Alexander Activist Award for her work.
Joan Jett, a multiple nominee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has taken what Patti Smith did for female rockers in the 1970s and expanded upon it since the 1980s. She is rock & roll.
Key Albums: I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll (1981); Bad Reputation (1981); Album (1983); Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (1984); Up Your Alley (1988); Notorious (1991); Fetish (1999); Naked (2004)
There is no other band that I have a bigger love hate relationship with than Kiss.
Let’s get this out of the way. Gene Simmons is a money hungry douche who is a walking contradiction and would probably sell his first born if he could make a profit. He and his partner in crime aren’t above putting the Kiss logo on anything. From coffee to coffins to condoms, you can probably find Kiss on it. That being said, Simmons and Stanley are brilliant marketing. They were in the forefront, putting their likeness on anything way back in the 1970s from pin ball machines, lunch boxes to puzzles, they had it all.
Marketing, greed and general douche baggery aside, there is something special for the kids of the 1970s which endear them to Kiss. I see Kiss fans like Star Trek fans, they are dedicated to the end, they are a little bit weird. It seems like there is nothing that Simmons and Stanley can do which will turn off the diehard Kiss fan.
It only seems fitting that the last thing we talk about with Kiss is their music, let’s face it, they aren’t inventing the wheel with their songs, nor do they care. If “four chords and the truth” ever applied to a band it would be Kiss and they don’t even need the truth part. There is a reason it took the band over two decades to be recognized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a reason they’ve never been on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. But when you hear the opening chords to “Detroit Rock City,” “Love Gun,” I Love It Loud,” “Lick It Up” and countless other songs, you get goose bumps and that excited feeling like you are a kid all over again.
Key Albums: Kiss (1974); Hotter Than Hell (1974); Destroyer (1976); Love Gun (1977); Creatures of the Night (1982); Lick It Up (1983); Animalize (1984); Asylum (1985)
Living Colour’s 1988 breakout hit “Cult of Personality” was both a blessing and a curse for Corey Glover (vocals); Vernon Reid (guitar); Muzz Skillings (bass); and Will Calhoun (drums). The song was in heavy rotation on MTV and radio, but the band never capitalized on a bigger single after that. For the average music fan, this might make Living Colour a one-hit wonder cast off, but for those who stuck with the band they know otherwise.
The band is led by guitar virtuoso Reid with actor-turned singer Glover and the two led the band through an amazing early journey finding them self-playing alongside rock legends as Mick Jagger and rap heroes Chuck D.
Mixing every off shoot genre of rock you can think of, including heavy metal, along with jazz, blues and hip hop, no one knew how to take Living Colour let alone pigeonhole them into one genre. Let’s be honest, four black men playing hard rock and heavy metal was just unheard of at the time.
The band had a strong political message in their lyrics to go along with their powerful back beat and groove, but sadly it wasn’t strong enough of the band to stick together. After a revolving door of members and 1993’s ‘Stain,’ one of the best records of the 1990s, the band broke up. They reunited in the early 2000’s and sounded as if they never took any time off.
The 2-time Grammy winners are back in action with original members Glover, Reid, Calhoun and long-time bassist Doug Wimbush and are in the works to release an album of all new material in 2014.
Key Albums: Vivid (1988); Time’s Up (1990); Stain (1993); Collideøscope (2003)
Back in high school, I listened to lot of music. Yet unlike now, I listened to music with blinders on. If the band didn’t have cool guitars, lots of hair and spandex, I didn’t want much of it.
Looking back, I am not ashamed of my big hair metal days (although I personally did not have big hair since I went to Catholic school) because the music I listened to was just part of the journey of where I am today. Nonetheless, I am ashamed of not knowing more types of music back then.
It was the mid-1980s, and big hair metal was king in my town: Poison, Motley Crue, Dokken and so many others. (Some I don’t care to remember). My friends and I would go out on the weekends and do stupid teenage-type things, mostly getting in trouble or making fools of ourselves or both. My friend Greg, the owner of the rusted out Datsun B-210 played Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” every single day. I still can’t listen to that song 20-plus years later without getting nauseous.
I was into Dokken and Poison. My friend Matt was into Stryper because he was dating some chick who was religious, and then there was Scott. Scott was different. I don’t know why, but looking back, he had an impact on my future musical life. I doubt Scott even remembers me now.
Scott liked punk rock music. I am not talking punk like today’s pop punk bands – I am talking The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Scott would bring cassettes. He would play these crazy songs from the Ramones: “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” It was just an eye opening experience. I never heard anything like it before. Songs were barley three minutes, and where were the guitar solos? It was amazing. There wasn’t any party songs, songs about fucking slutty drunk girls. It was so political and so enraged.
We would rock these songs in the B-210, in which the stereo was actually worth more than the car itself. We would roll down the windows in the summer night air and sing our lungs out. I didn’t know the message behind the songs. I didn’t know the Ramones in detail for that matter. It was just fun. It was The Ramones!!
Key Albums: Ramones (1976); Leave Home (1977); Rocket to Russia (1977); Road to Ruin (1978); End of the Century (1980); Too Tough to Die (1984)
With an unwavering passion and progressive ideals, Patti Smith has been an inspiring force in music since she burst onto the NYC scene in the early 1970s.
Labeled as “punk rock’s poet laureate” Smith never achieved mass commercial success and quite frankly, I doubt she cared. She is a true artist, standing for what she believes in and will to go that extra mile for the sake of art. In short, she never did anything for the money.
Blending punk music with poetry, free form jazz and anything else she saw fit to throw into her songwriting kettle, Smith’s songs, like her stage presence has raw emotional power.
Smith was and still is one of the most praised female performers of her generation and never used her sex to earn any acclaim. Instead, she won you over with her intelligence and uncompromising creativity, something musicians of present day, both female and male, could certainly learn from.
Key Albums: Horses (1975); Easter (1978); Gone Again (1996); Gung Ho (2000); Trampin’ (2004); Banga (2012)