(Revised from an interview with Jimmi by Paul Emery, DJ)
In 1974, Ronny and I moved into a loft with two other musicians, a piano player and a drummer. We were trying to get a record deal. So we were writing and recording original songs for about two years. Our manager brought our tapes around, and nothing. We got no response at all for two years. And then one morning, the drummer said to me, "Hey, I went to a club last night in Manhattan, and there were bands playing original material," which was really unusual in 1976. It was like hearing the Yardbirds in the 1960s. So we went in there and heard the band. I went up to Hilly Kristal, the manager of the place, and said, "Could we play here?" He said, "You've got to audition."
We came down Tuesday night and auditioned. Television was there, and they were playing pool (in those days there was a pool table set up next to the stage). They heard us, and they went up to Hilly and said, "Hey, these guys are good. You should book them here."
Hilly booked us right away and the first band that we played with was The Shirts, with Annie Golden. We played with Talking Heads the next week, and then Blondie, and Mink DeVille, Willy DeVille's band. We played with a lot of good bands there. Some of the other groups I remember were the Dead Boys, the Plasmatics, and Squeeze.
A couple of months after we started playing CBGB's, they made the Live at CBGB's album with Mink DeVille, Robert Gordon, and so on, and they asked us to be on the album. We went into CBGB's and Hilly, the owner, said, "We're doing an album tomorrow. You want to be on it?" I said "Okay. Any rehearsal?" "No." We just jumped up on stage and recorded "It Feels Alright Tonight" and "I Need a Million", and they went on the album.
The Live at CBGB's album was in 1976, before all the bands got signed to big labels. The first cut is Tuff Darts, when Robert Gordon was in that band. He was the lead singer before he went on his own and started playing with Link Wray and others.
One of my favorite bands at CBGB's, also on the Live at CBGB's album, was Mink DeVille. This was when Willy DeVille was the lead singer. It was his band. Anybody who knows him knows he went to New Orleans and cut some great albums later with Eddie Bo and Alan Toussaint. This was his first band, and I think it was the best.
After the album, CBGB's became a showcase place for bands. They started calling the music punk rock because the Sex Pistols were coming over from England, and the Police, and all those groups. They started labeling all the groups who played there punk rock groups. Then by 1979 they started calling it New Wave. The bands didn't call it that. It was just a label to sell music.
Before we played CBGB's, we hated what we had to do. To make any money and survive as a band, we couldn't do any of our originals in clubs. We were playing out in Long Island doing whatever the Top 40 was. And it was really a drag. So we were always looking to play our stuff. But you know when you're playing a club, and you do your own stuff, it's not familiar music to people, so they don't really want to hear it.
So there was CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. Those were the two places in New York where you could play original stuff. And it was great, because everybody came there! All the bands that were doing originals and recording in their little studios at home, they all came out, and there was all this great music. I remember one night Frank Zappa showed up at CBGB's, while the Poppies were playing. It was that kind of place; you never knew who might drop in.
The reason they called it punk rock was because just before this happened there was such a high-tech thing in the music business, where you had to be a great musician and be playing 20 years before you had a record out. Everything had to be technically great. And these guys were just starting out, but it was so refreshing because it was real. And nobody cared if anybody could even play. It was just young punks.
Television was the first band I saw when I went there. They never got the recognition that they deserved. If you notice Tom Verlaine, the lead singer, his voice is very punk. You heard a lot of people copy that sound afterward. But Television was musical and punk at the same time. A lot of punk bands were just two or three chords, distortion, and screaming, but these guys had melodic structure to their songs. It was really nice.
If you got too melodic in that place, the crowd didn't understand it. Some of them used to spit on the bands when they liked them. We didn't want to get spit on. I would have jumped off the stage and punched the guy in the mouth, and said, "This is how I say I like you."
Richard Hell and the Voidoids were well-liked there. They were one of the other first bands that were there, and they were really pretty good too. These guys were from New York. I used to see them on the F train all the time on the BMT, on the subway.
CBGB's actually stands for Country, Blue Grass, and Blues. It started off as a country/folk club, and then it was just opened to all original music. Then it boomed. If you wanted to get a record deal you had to play at CBGB's. Because all the companies were coming down and listening to the bands and saying, "Oh, we can sign them."
This was the new sound, but it was a little too scary. It got a little more poppy and commercial, and that was when they started calling it New Wave, and saying we can sign this, this is close to commercial. That's why the bands that got signed first were bands like Blondie and Talking Heads. They were the first ones to make the breakthrough, and they were a bit more melodic than the other bands.
The first time I heard Talking Heads was in the afternoon when we were doing a sound check. There were only three guys in the band. Jerry Harrison, the keyboard player, wasn't in the band yet. I was standing at the sound board and the sound man was having a really hard time getting a guitar sound from David Byrne's guitar. He was playing a cheap little Fender guitar. And finally the sound man, Charlie Martin, went up to David and said, "I've been working on this for half an hour. I can't get your guitar to sound anything but cheesy." And David said, "That's the sound I want." The only reason I bring it up is because everybody had the same guitar sound up until this punk rock thing. It was all distorted sustaining Gibsons and Les Pauls. When the punk rock thing came out, people started playing Fender guitars and playing through different amps, and it was very strange sounding if you hadn't heard that sound before. As I said, like the Yardbirds.
Talking Heads were a big influence on other bands. The first time I heard them I said, "What is this? I don't know if this is good or bad." The third time I liked them. But people did get the feeling they were going to be really big.
The record companies were always looking for the new Beatles. The year before our first album was released, Bruce Springsteen came out, also on Columbia, and Elvis Costello - so everybody got categorized under that heading of New Wave. After spending fifteen years before that trying to get a record deal, I didn't care. Sure if this is going to help us, fine, you can call us whatever you want.
It's all hype and show business, so as soon as we started playing at CBGB's, the same record companies that weren't interested at all before, were suddenly interested. We got offered deals from every single record company that we auditioned for. We chose CBS. In 1979 we got signed to Columbia Records. The guy who signed us to Columbia Records on our first album was Paul Atkinson, the guitar player from the Zombies. He first heard us playing at the Ratskeller in Boston and signed us based on our songwriting. We had two albums on Columbia, the first one (The Laughing Dogs) produced by Bruce Botnik, and the second (The Laughing Dogs Meet Their Makers) by Pete Kerr. Rob Freeman (in picture below) did the sound engineering.
CBGB's wasn't a big club. You couldn't fit many people in that place. Max's Kansas City and CBGB's were the main ones, but then there were other ones. Hurrah's was a place that opened up, and Gildersleeves was another one. But by that time it had already become a commercial thing. People were coming from everywhere to get involved in the scene. Bands that you never heard of were coming out of the woodwork, from London, San Francisco, LA.
The Ramones were one of the first punk rock bands. They were there when I first went into the club, and they had a big following. They were the epitome of three-chord rock 'n' roll. They played one beat, every song was the same. DADADADA! And that's what all the die-hard fans liked. When you hear punk rock today, it's basically a copy of that.
Punk rock is raw, and it provides an access without having to be a technically great musician. You can be a punk and just know three chords, and express yourself. You don't even have to know how to sing. You can just scream. But you have to act like you hate everything.
Mostly the bands got people dancing in the place. The Ramones played a bunch of really quick short songs. From my point of view, you couldn't tell one from the next. They all sounded like "1,2,3,4!" and then you would go into the next one. But the bands were all different. Some played long songs. One band, the Steel Tips, had a lead singer who would break beer bottles over his head, and explode firecrackers off his chest.
If you weren't in a punk rock band at that time, you were embarking on a career playing disco music. Disco was heavy in the Top 40, so if you wanted to play in a club, you had to play the Top 40, and it was disco. So you might as well play punk rock. Anything but disco. For all you disco lovers, I guess that was a disco slur.
Our music was more melodic than many of the other bands. I was the lead guitar player. Ronny Carle was my songwriting partner, and he is the bass player. Also Carter Cathcart played the piano, and he was really good. We had two drummers. Skip Reed was the original drummer, and Moe Potts was the second drummer. He went on to play with Johnny Winter and others.
One of the most commercial, poppy sounds we played was "Reason for Love". That was on our first album, in 1979. Our most punkish cut was "I Need a Million". We toured with Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, John Hiatt, Pat Benatar, Nils Lofgren, all those groups. We also toured backing up Mickey Dolenz and Davey Jones of The Monkees. An act that opened for us a lot was The Fabulous Kojacks.
We get together with most of the original band members and record something every once in a while, and put something together. We still write songs, and the only difference is we put out our own music now. We go back to New York every couple of years and hang out by the docks, you know, and we record an album. We aren't doing it for the money. We like to put out a good album.