Craig Leon produced early singles and albums by Blondie, the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and others.
During the height of the Brill Building era, Richard Gottehrer formed a successful songwriting partnership with Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, named FGG. “We became signed writers at April Blackwood Music, and they gave us a small office room in 1650 Broadway,” he said. “We would sit around in a work environment with a piano in a small room and the publisher would come in and say, ‘So-and-so is looking for a song for his next record.’ And that’s how you learned—you would try to write something that would suit them. We were constantly writing.” “For a lot of those songs, they made the song demo and cut the record in the same day,” said producer Craig Leon, who worked alongside Gottehrer in the 1970s. “It was very much that quote-unquote ‘punk’ approach.” This rapid-fire production style was used to create FGG’s biggest hit, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” recorded by the Angels. “One day Bob Feldman came in, and he had been at his local candy store getting soda and cream,” Gottehrer recalled. “Some girl came in and started screaming at a guy and literally said, ‘My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble because he’s gonna get you!’ ” They quickly wrote the song, and it was recorded and released within days.
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Craig Leon, who produced early singles and albums by Blondie, the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and others, would sometimes see dead homeless people on the Bowery’s sidewalk. “It was right on the borderline between the bohemian upmarket West Village and the very underground Beat scenes and junky neighborhoods,” Leon said. “It had a mixture of old fifties and sixties Beat people living there.” William Burroughs lived with poet John Giorno in his “Bunker” residence in that part of the Bowery, just a few blocks south of CBGB—where his friend Patti Smith recalled that the sidewalks were often lined with burning trashcans that helped warm the street people. The Blondie Loft was located just up the block from the Bunker, an area that was populated by many a musician, writer, junkie, and/or all of the above.
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“The people that were at Club 82,” Clem Burke said, “Lenny Kaye, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, myself, Gary Valentine, Debbie and Chris, Johnny Thunders—essentially, everybody took their platforms off, cut their hair, walked around the corner, and wound up at CBGB. That’s basically what happened, because everyone was living in the neighborhood. It literally was around the corner from CBGB.” Hilly Kristal didn’t change his Bowery bar’s name until late 1973, but it’s not as if he did any significant renovations when it became CBGB. “It was pretty much the same when it was called Hilly’s,” Suicide’s Alan Vega recalled. “The bathrooms were already horrific, even before it was renamed CBGB.” After Marion Cowings’s band Dance broke up following the Mercer Arts Center collapse, he was in a band named Squeeze that occasionally played at CBGB. He recalled that Hilly’s dogs used to run loose and defecate on the floor, so people had to watch where they stepped. “He was like a wild Bowery guy,” Cowings said, “just wild and dirty. At that time the Bowery was the Bowery. There were lots of bombed-out buildings and fleabag hotels, and lots of people sleeping on the street.”
“Blondie were more ramshackle than the Ramones,” recalled producer and recording engineer Craig Leon, who recorded their first album. “They didn’t sound very good, quite honestly. They weren’t taken seriously. If you would have said, ‘Who was the band that was least likely to be signed?’ it would have been them. Particularly in the earlier incarnations that I’d seen, like the Stilettoes.” Debbie Harry said of those early years, “We weren’t even really a garage band. We were so bad we were more like a garbage band.” Her quip is fitting, given that Blondie emerged from the ashes of a group called Pure Garbage, featuring Warholites Elda Gentile and Holly Woodlawn. During Woodlawn’s short tenure in the group, she recalled that she “jiggled my jugs, wiggled my hips, shook my maracas, and played the cymbals between my knees, a rare talent that I had picked up from a battery-operated monkey at FAO Schwarz.” After Pure Garbage broke up in early 1973, Harry ran into Gentile and suggested they start a new band. “I had made a deal with Jayne County to allow her PA system to remain in my loft in exchange for free rehearsal time,” said Gentile, “and that allowed me to put together the Stilettoes.” The band primarily played makeshift spaces and failing bars, like Bobern Bar & Grill on West Twenty-Eighth Street. Named after its owners, Bob and Ernie, Bobern was such a low-rent venue that they had to take the legs off a pool table to make a stage, but at least it was conveniently located on the same block where Gentile lived. The Stilettoes played there between October and December 1973, and they developed a following in part because Gentile had connections as a Max’s Kansas City waitress who was dating the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain (and had previously had a child with Eric Emerson).
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By the early 1970s, the future Joey Ramone began playing drums (using the name Jeffrey Starship) for the glam band Sniper, which performed at Mercer’s and Max’s Kansas City. Meanwhile, Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh joined a short-lived band with two future Ramones—John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi—which practiced in the basement of his mother’s gallery, Art Garden. “We put the PA down there, so it had already been turned into a rehearsal place,” he said. “And when my brother got into the Ramones, of course they were all allowed to rehearse there as well.” Erdelyi encouraged Cummings to start a band, and was more of a manager figure during the Ramones’ early days. “Tommy’s role became increasingly more important and pivotal in an organizational and artistic way,” Leigh said. “Tommy really helped the whole thing gel and kind of helped it define itself.” For Craig Leon, who produced the band’s first album, the Ramones were like a performance art piece. “Tommy knew how to create this image of what they became,” Leon said. “He originally studied to be a film guy, and he saw things in that visual sense. Even though the Ramones were definitely rock ’n’ roll, they reminded me a lot of Warhol. The four of them had that deadpan Andy Warhol persona. They were, like, straight out of the New York art scene.” Joey Ramone started out as the band’s drummer until it became clear that he was a much better frontman, so Tommy took over on the drum stool. Joey, Johnny, and Tommy expanded to a quartet when another neighbor, Douglas Colvin (later Dee Dee Ramone), joined on bass, and by 1975 they were regularly playing at CBGB.
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“At first the Ramones just had one long twenty-minute song, with different riffs running through,” said Craig Leon, who was tasked with transforming the group’s live sets into an album that was recorded at Plaza Sound, above Radio City Music Hall. “They were all written as individual songs, but they never thought about it from a recording point of view—you know, ‘How is this song gonna end?’ They’d just play and then ‘One-two-three-four,’ they’d start the new one.” Most punk histories maintain that Sire Records paid a paltry $6,400 to record Ramones, but Leon said, “We never paid the full studio rate. It was actually cheaper than $6,000.” The album cover had similarly modest origins. Sire hired a music biz pro to photograph the band, but they hated the results and instead chose an outtake from a more informal photo shoot with Punk magazine contributor Roberta Bayley. “We just went over to Arturo [Vega]’s loft and everybody was there,” Bayley recalled. “We went outside, and first we found this playground, and then did a few different setups there against that brick wall.” The Ramones likely sold more T‑shirts than records—especially in the 1970s, when mainstream listeners couldn’t decode the catchy pop songs that lurked just below the surface guitar noise. When they opened for blues-boogie arena rocker Edgar Winter, the Ramones were met with a hail of bottles and boos. “There were people who wanted to burn the Ramones records and stuff like that because they were horrible, in their opinion,” Leon said. “Ramones songs are now played at sports arenas and on commercials, so it’s hard to understand how extreme they sounded at the time.”
Blondie first came to his attention when Richard Gottehrer was recording a 1976 music festival at CBGB. “I was in the truck recording all the bands for a live album for CBGB’s,” recalled Craig Leon, who was then working for Instant Records. “We did a sound check and Debbie came in the truck and she saw Richie and me sitting there, and she said to Richie, ‘I want you to make a record of me.’ ” The no-nonsense Gottehrer set up a rehearsal for Blondie to see if they had what it took to be stars—or at least release a catchy single. “I remember grinning from ear to ear throughout the whole rehearsal because the songs were so great,” he said. “She was great. You could tell right away they were special.” Unfortunately, Gottehrer had no luck convincing any major labels that Blondie was marketable, though he finally persuaded an old friend from his Brill Building years, Larry Uttal, whose label Private Stock Records was home to the 1960s pop singer Frankie Valli. Uttal agreed to release one Blondie single with an option on a full-length album, and Leon was dispatched to record their debut. The obvious choice for a single was the Valentine-penned “Sex Offender,” with “In the Flesh” as the B-side. That single was recorded at Plaza Sound (as were their first two albums), a midtown studio above Radio City Music Hall. Debbie Harry’s suburban parents took her to see Christmas shows at Radio City in the 1950s, when CBGB owner Hilly Kristal was in the chorus that backed the Rockettes. It is quite possible that Harry heard Kristal sing during a Radio City holiday show long before either was involved in punk rock. Plaza Sound Studios was a huge room that had previously been used as a radio studio for the NBC Symphony Orchestra and a rehearsal space for the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini.
From Chapter 33 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The word punk had previously been used by a handful of rock writers, such as Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Lenny Kaye, but it hadn’t yet circulated widely as a music genre name. “Nobody in New York wanted to be called ‘punk,’ ” said Ramones producer Craig Leon. “There were no real tags except ‘New York Rock.’ ” By early to mid-1976, just after Punk began publishing—and could be purchased at CBGB’s bar—mass media outlets located in midtown began taking notice of this subculture that was brewing nearby. “I think punk,” Kristian Hoffman observed, “the name that got attached to our bands, happened because Punk magazine existed.” Punk magazine’s John Holmstrom added: “Punk rock didn’t really start with Punk magazine, but we really put it on the map. We brought media attention.” Even though some on the scene hated Punk—or at least thought it was sexist, knuckle dragging, or just plain clueless—they still hoped the magazine would write about their bands, because media coverage was hard to come by. Unfortunately, this eventually had the effect of flattening the diversity of New York’s underground rock scene, reducing punk to a one-dimensional parody of itself. “I think Punk was more about the cartoon aspects of the music,” Kaye said. “It was not a lot about the music. It was mostly a caricature of the music, which is somewhat valuable, and somewhat limiting.” The British punk band the Sex Pistols never had a Top 10 hit in the United States, but their media presence was substantial. US news outlets latched onto the sensationalistic, violent aspects of the British punk scene—which were then projected onto groups like the Ramones, much to their chagrin. This attracted boorish types who thought that being ‘punk’ was about starting fights, so most American record companies kept their distance from the scene. “Once the Sex Pistols and the British music scene embraced the word punk, it was very, very bad to have that word associated with the New York bands,” the Fast’s Paul Zone recalled. “It was hurting all of the New York artists to be called punk, because it was associated with the whole Sex Pistols fiasco.”
Punk’s bad boy image was codified by corporate and indie media outlets soon after the rise of the Sex Pistols. The loud-hard-fast music of the Ramones, for example, further solidified the perception of punk as music made by and for angry young men who rejected “girly” prefab pop. The punk explosion supposedly reset the cultural clock to Year Zero, but far from rejecting the musical past, many early New York punks who hung out at CBGB embraced the guilty pleasures of their youth during the Brill Building era. “Our number one main influence was the sixties,” Paul Zone said. “The Ramones, you listen to their songs and they’re complete bubblegum pop, without a doubt.” Lead singer Joey Ramone readily admitted, “We really liked bubblegum music, and we really liked the Bay City Rollers. Their song ‘Saturday Night’ had a great chant in it, so we wanted a song with a chant in it: ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go!’ on ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was our ‘Saturday Night.’ ” The Ramones wore leather biker jackets and ripped jeans and had tough scowls on their faces, but that pose was also underpinned by a Warholian irony and poppy fizz. Craig Leon noted that they embraced bubblegum and 1960s pop as “a return to the rock ’n’ roll roots. Even the manufactured stuff like the Shangri-Las was young people speaking to other young people.”