By Dave Thompson
In late June 1975, ads appeared in the New York locals Village Voice and Soho News, announcing auditions.
CBGBs had been open little more than 18 months at that point, but already it had established itself as the focal point of the city’s convolutions. The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and Mink DeVille were more than merely up and running by now, while the Patti Smith Group was so hot that, to many local critics, they were CBGBs, and that was the impetus behind the Festival — Hilly Kristal’s belief that Smith was just one of many deserving bands playing the club on a regular basis. “The [critics] were not paying attention to the other bands. They acted like there was nothing here.”
Scheduling the festival for what was traditionally a quiet period on the New York scene, the summer dog days immediately following the Newport Jazz festival, Kristal wasn’t expecting too much of a response; the ad for the auditions also carried a splash for an upcoming Ramones/Talking Heads show, and the total attendance was no more than 100.
But the auditions were the cue for every aspiring musician in metropolitan New York to swiftly lash something down on tape and mail it in, a barrage which Kristal painstakingly played through, trying to pick “ … what I thought were the most interesting bands, the bands that were playing pretty well at this point, and had a little bit of direction that was their own.”
By early July, a provisional running order for the event — now officially titled the “CBGBs Festival of Unsigned Bands” — saw 30 groups file onstage between 11:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. every night for 12 nights; by the time the whole thing was over, Kristal had added three further shows simply to meet the demand for repeat performances. And while not one of the acts would land a record deal as a direct consequence of the festival, most at least knew they’d made their mark.
“The papers wrote about it,” Kristal recalled. “It was a really big lift … [not] just to CBGBs but to this whole new scene in music, which you could call punk or new wave. We called it street rock.”
The Patti Smith Group would not be a part of the festival, however. By early April, they were no longer unsigned.
With The Patti Smith Group’s four nights with Television behind them, the two bands were offered the opportunity to replay the same engagement with a full-on CBGBs residency, every Thursday through Sunday night through until mid-April.
And it was just over midway through this run that the New York Times announced that the Patti Smith Group had finally signed a record deal with Arista.
“Since [Arista chief Clive] Davis is eager for star acts, and since Miss Smith is nothing if not a potential star, one can expect a massive promotional push on her,” John Rockwell wrote. “All of which means that anyone who wants to see Miss Smith in the ambiance in which she has heretofore flourished — the seedy little club — had better hurry down to CBGBs.”
There they would catch the last few shows in a run that remains one of the key events in the long history of CBGBs, the scene’s two most consistently intriguing performers side by side across a two-month (March/April 1975) weekend residency that made a legend of the club, and stars in waiting of the acts. Written reports of the shows that tore out of the Bowery that season were describing them as epochal before anyone even dreamed what the epoch might turn out to be; hindsight can only applaud those commentators’ foresight, and be grateful that, for one night at least, the tapes were rolling.
Across the three-CD bootleg that preserves the show for posterity, every song that subsequently accompanied Smith and Television to glory received a primal, and near-definitive rendering. Yes, “Marquee Moon” was a little clumsy in places; sure, “Space Monkey” could have been tighter. But you could sense the sweat pouring down the walls, the floor-to-ceiling congestion that packed the narrow bar, and the manic determination with which the two bands confronted the potential that everyone said they possessed before they transformed it into a tangible asset.
With three sets to play, both bands were forced to repeat and reprise themselves, but that was no obstacle for the audience. From an archaeological point of view, there was so much for the memory banks to treasure, with Television’s first set littered with titles that fell from view before most people got to hear the band, and Smith’s third an eccentric melding of down-tempo poetics and occasional originals.
But far more important was the mood that was conveyed across the discs. Like hearing an audience recording of a very early Sex Pistols show, or Syd’s Pink Floyd before Emily started playing, this was an experience, not a simple recording, a warts-and-all rendering which even captures the sound of the surreptitious taper, wondering whether his microphone is working.
Smith’s poetic interludes were spellbinding, Verlaine’s guitar was incendiary, and it really doesn’t matter that the intro to “Poor Circulation” would one day be grafted onto “Torn Curtain,” or that “Redondo Beach” was taken so fast that it almost out-discos “Heart Of Glass.” You can’t quite smell the toilets or taste the cheap beer, but the night was reborn regardless.