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20 Years Later, CBGB Ain't No Disco : Clubs: A look back as the Bowery bar concludes a monthlong celebration of its commitment to underground rock's trends.

December 31, 1993|IRA ROBBINS | NEWSDAY

Blondie played CBGB a lot in those days. "We were living on the Bowery, a few blocks away," recalls Valentine. In those days "we would open up for practically anybody; we were usually third on the bill and got paid next to nothing." By 1976, the group "started collecting a big crowd" and became a headliner, soon--like other bands on the one-club Bowery circuit--to snare a record deal.

So many bands--Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Dictators--were being snapped up by record labels that CBGB had trouble rounding up a strong roster for the two-disc (soon to be reissued as a single CD) "Live at CBGB's," recorded in June and released that fall. The album's biggest names, now largely forgotten, were Tuff Darts (caught just before the departure of singer Robert Gordon for a '50s retro-rock career), the middle-of-the-road Shirts and Mink DeVille.

As the initial bands moved on, CBGB hit a lull, but it didn't last long. The underground rock fire was spreading all over the world.

When England began sending over its contingent in '77, the first to arrive was the adrenalized Damned, followed by X-Ray Spex, the Police and the Jam, who drew such a huge crowd that the fire marshal shut the club down for a night.

Through much of the '80s, CBGB's Sunday hard-core matinees attracted the city's young skinhead population to see local groups: Token Entry, Agnostic Front, Gorilla Biscuits, Cro-Mags, Sick of It All and Murphy's Law. But the rest of the week still featured a wide variety of not-yet-household names, like the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Black Flag, Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Lemonheads and Living Colour.

Meanwhile, Kristal--whose first ambitious misstep, in 1977, was the disastrous CBGB Theater on Second Avenue--undertook a number of promising but ultimately unsuccessful side projects: the CBGB Record Canteen (the next-door retail store that transmuted into the Pizza Boutique) and a record label. He also continued managing bands.

In 1979, Talking Heads--already on the road to serious stardom--memorialized their humble beginnings in the song "Life During Wartime." "This ain't the Mudd Club," David Byrne sang, "or CBGB," but added, "I ain't got time for that now." (A decade later, journalist Roman Kozak borrowed another lyric from that number for his biography of CBGB, "This Ain't No Disco.")

But Byrne, now a highly regarded world culture star, has not forsaken CBGB. In October he did a couple of surprise shows there to try out new material; the Tom Tom Club--more Heads' alumni--played two weeks to packed houses there in June '92. Deborah Harry, the blonde of Blondie, has returned to do occasional surprise shows at CBGB; Living Colour and Helmet have never forgotten the stage of their early home base. Even Spinal Tap did a special acoustic show at CBGB last year.

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