In the New York punk scene of the mid-Seventies, it was important to pick a side. “Some people were Max’s people, some were CBGB people,” explains transgender proto-punker Jayne (formerly Wayne) County.
Whereas East Village landmark CBGB famously launched the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads and Television, Max’s – located roughly a mile uptown at 213 Park Avenue South – was home to a freer, often campier strain of punk that was more Rocky Horror than Marquee Moon.
It was a distinctive sound that was immortalized on Max’s Kansas City: 1976, a studio compilation showcasing the grit and glitz of the club with a cross section of talent ranging from arty noisemakers like Pere Ubu and Suicide to more theatrical fare from such underrated acts as the Fast and County’s own Backstreet Boys.
England’s Jungle Records has revamped and generously expanded the original LP in the form of Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond. Released in May, the reissue adds 30 bonus tracks onto the initial LP, including rare studio cuts from such Max’s regulars as the New York Dolls, VON LMO, the Terrorists and the Stilettos along with exclusive live material by the likes of Iggy Pop; Nico; Sid Vicious with his short-lived group the Idols; and both of Johnny Thunders’ post-Dolls outfits, Gang War and the Heartbreakers.
Max’s Kansas City: 1976 was the brainchild of Peter Crowley, a New York punk impresario who booked Max’s during its mid-Seventies heyday. “Originally it was opened as a steakhouse and bar,” Crowley explains of the club, whose sign touted “steak, lobster, chick peas.”
“And, of course, those famous chickpeas, which we used to throw at each other.”
Opened in 1965, the original incarnation of Max’s closed in 1974, but was quickly reopened in 1975 under the ownership of Tommy Dean Mills. Crowley was hired as the music director, and helped usher in a new age for the club as a haven for the growing NYC punk movement. He also convinced the new owner to allow him the expense to produce an album that would serve as an advertisement for the venue – one that would be issued on the in-house RAM imprint and distributed across the region. Their direct competition on the Bowery was quick to retaliate.
“CB’s wound up rushing out a live album, which was that double Live at CBGB’s around the same time,” explains Jimi LaLumia, whose band, the Psychotic Frogs, was a Max’s regular and whose infamous song “Death to Disco” appears on Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond. “But Peter put out an actual studio documentation, which is why I call Max’s Kansas City: 1976 the first ever studio compilation documenting the scene during its infancy. There was no other.”
What Crowley created with Max’s Kansas City: 1976 was nothing short of a Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets for the early New York City punk scene, and a showcase for the way that movement and glam were intersecting . You can hear the glitter in the dirt on songs like “Cream in My Jeans” and the rowdy, name-dropping title cut, both by County and her Backstreet Boys; the Patti Smith–meets–Bette Midler fire of “Shake Your Ashes” by Cherry Vanilla and Her Staten Island Band; and the confrontational camp of tracks by the John Collins Band and Harry Toledo.
“It was all due to the Dolls,” proclaims Walter Lure – who co-led the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders and was a regular presence at Max’s as both a performer and a patron – of the signature Max’s sound. “I always consider the Dolls to be the grandmothers of punk, because they looked like glam but played like punk. They also came back to the three-minute song after rock had gotten so crazy with bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer 20-minute songs and shit. Rock had gotten so self-indulgent; it needed the Dolls to bring it back.”
The free mingling of glam and punk that thrived at Max’s wasn’t always so welcome elsewhere. “There was a lot of competition between Max’s and CBGB’s,” County states. “I got along fine with people in both scenes. Though there was definitely a bit of homophobia running through the CB’s crowd. More of the gay community hung out at Max’s, but it wasn’t a gay place: It was a place for artists, and was accepting of all types of people. But CBGB was a place where everybody was trying to prove how tough and rough they were, yet really underneath you could throw a bug at them and they’d scream like little girls.”
The schism reached a violent peak with an onstage altercation between County and Dictators frontman “Handsome” Dick Manitoba during a CBGB performance by County’s Electric Chairs. A heated Handsome Dick jumped onto the stage to confront County, who retaliated by smashing him with her microphone stand, breaking his collarbone in the process.
“Things took a turn after the Manitoba/County thing,” proclaims LaLumia. “At that point, the city had changed. And in addition to the racist undertone, there was also a homophobic undertone as well. Which was funny, because it was a parade of big queens on the scene suddenly turning their backs on Max’s, because Dick picked a fight and he lost and then he tried to sue, just because he got clobbered over the head. They both take the blame for it now, but back then it made Jayne the villain. And for those who hated the LGBT end of the scene, it gave them a target. It gave people who wanted an excuse to hate on Max’s as ‘the gay place’ to keep people away from the club and away from the artists associated with it.”
“It wasn’t a gay place: It was a place for artists, and was accepting of all types of people.” –Jayne County
One act who commanded respect from both scenes was Suicide, featured twice on Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond. The comp includes both an early demo of the synth-punk duo’s tune “Rocket USA” – found on the original issue of the album – and an embryonic take on “Ghostrider.”
“We had a basement, which was a cooperative art gallery called the Museum of Living Arts,” explains the group’s surviving member Martin Rev. “It was also where Alan [Vega] was at the time living. It was in a small, little storage part he used as a flat for something to sleep on and a place for his stuff. No roof on it or anything, it was just part of the basement. And we would rehearse there, and because he was staying there he said we could keep some of our equipment down there. Somewhere we found this 2-track tape recorder. And we started using these five-inch reels, so every time we’d do a rehearsal in his room we ran the tape recorder. So when Peter asked us to do a track, we just ran down there and cut those two songs and gave him the reel.”
Toward the end of the Seventies, as groups like Television, Blondie (whose singer Debbie Harry was once a waitress at Max’s), the Dead Boys and the Ramones would begin to grow too large for the CBGB stage and move on to larger rooms like the Ritz, the Palladium and Irving Plaza, that club would hit a serious lull in its booking before the local hardcore groups began taking over at the turn of the decade. Yet Max’s, which would remain open until 1981, continued to be a vital conduit for both veteran and emerging punk acts in the New York metro area.
For Crowley, the enduring nature of the scene he caught on wax with Max’s Kansas City: 1976 is a testament to the energy of the artists, famous and otherwise, who made the club a haven for an emerging movement.
“In the end the scene didn’t belong to Hilly Kristal or me,” he admits. “It belonged to the bands themselves. They needed places to keep doing what they were doing. We were just vessels.
“Although, I can say, rather immodestly, that I had more of a clue of what was good and what wasn’t.”