When he opened CBGB in 1973, owner Hilly Kristal originally envisioned a music club hosting country, bluegrass, and blues music. But CBGB quickly grew beyond his original vision, becoming a cultural mecca that helped foster a new generation of artists whose influence would echo through the music world for decades.
The venue was integral to the development of punk and new wave music in the 1970s, with bands like the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and Talking Heads playing some of their first shows on CBGB’s stage.
Hilly Kristal had only two rules for bands that wanted to play at CBGB: they had to move their own equipment, and they had to play original songs. One of Hilly’s first regular bookings was Television, who were critical in defining the early punk sound. From ’74 to ’75, Television became a regular act at CBGB, quickly establishing a significant cult following. One of Patti Smith’s earliest recordings was captured in 1975 by two fans in the audience at a Television show.
Blondie and The Ramones both started performing regularly in 1974. The Ramones’ first set was allegedly only twelve minutes long. “They were all wearing these black leather jackets,” explained journalist Legs McNeil in a retrospective on the band. “They counted off this song… and it was just this wall of noise… They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.”
Showcasing completely new acts became CBGB’s specialty, and its growing reputation led to bands from outside NYC flocking to the club to make a name for themselves. In 1978 both Elvis Costello and The Police played some of their first American shows on the CBGB stage. The roster of iconic bands that grew out of CBGB during this era also includes the Misfits, Mink DeVille, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys, the Cramps, the B-52’s, Joan Jett, and the Shirts.
In the 1980s and into the club’s later years, CBGB continued to thrive as a hub for hardcore and alternative bands. Agnostic Front, Sick of It All, and Cro-Mags all developed on CBGB’s stage in the 1980s, while the 90s brought in Sum 41, Korn, Green Day, and Guns n Roses.
In 2005, after a rental dispute with the Bowery Residents’ Committee, Hilly Kristal decided to shut the club down. He planned to move CBGB to Las Vegas, “We’re going to take the urinals,” Hilly said. “I’ll take whatever I can. The movers said, ‘You ought to take everything, and auction off what you don’t want on eBay.’ Why not? Somebody will.”
The final show at CBGB took place on October 15, 2006. Patti Smith closed the night singing Van Morrison’s “Gloria” intertwined with the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” as a final elegy. Kristal passed away the following year, and the building at 315 Bowery became a clothing store shortly after.