Protopunk: How New York changed music — again

Peter Rossi in hat.

Peter Rossi today.

Peter Rossi is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker — but in the ‘70s, under the name Peter Ashley, he played guitar in Street Punk, one of the forgotten stalwarts of the New York music scene that rose alongside the New York Dolls and presaged the Ramones.

Now Rossi is combining his professional passions with a film project aimed at documenting and celebrating the bands, street artists and poets of New York’s protopunk scene. (The working title is Protopunk.) Rossi describes the style — which is in pre-production through his company Tantamount Productions — as “cinéma vérité meets ‘The Last Waltz,’ and he’s networking with Hollywood and investors to raise the money to bring the project to a screen near you. (As actor and veteran New York musician Fenton Lawless remarked in a Facebook discussion, the project is “what Vinyl promised but failed sooo miserably. … It needed a Peter Rossi.”)

"PROTOPUNK" – The Movement that rocked the world and the artists that inspired Punk Rock! from Sean Stanek on Vimeo.

The Rogues on stage

Peter Rossi with The Rogues at Copperfield’s, Greenwich Village.

While many bands that powered the scene have expressed excitement about gathering for a live event, Rossi emphasizes that he’s not looking to document a reunion that simply retreads the participants’ back catalogs. “This is about catching up with the artists who still have the fire in their souls,” he says.

Rossi is rallying some of the top acts of the era to top the bill again and demonstrate the chemistry that made New York a catalyst for a new generation of music.

In addition the chart-toppers, the event will provide an opportunity to hear other, worthy bands that played Coventry, Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City, including the Magic Tramps, the Harlots of 42nd Street and Teenage Lust (all of whom we’ve profiled here).

And the rich history of the scene extends beyond Patti Smith, the Dolls, KISS and other New York legends to include a wealth of bands that influenced them:

1. Street Punk. Early adopters of the “punk” sobriquet, Street Punk — which included Rossi, vocalist Jon Montgomery, guitarist Nicky Martin, pianist Bobby Blaine, bassist Donny Nossov and drummer Charlie Davidman — were regulars at all the coolest joints in town. “We were street kids,” Rossi says, “but we were better musicians than the next generation. We still had that street grit, but we could play — we studied music.” They were favorites of KISS, with whom they gigged and who bought rights to Street Punk’s “Master of Flash.” (According to Rossi, Street Punk’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Appetite” was the basis for KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.”) After Street Punk, Rossi would go on to play in the Rogues with Street Punk colleague Nicky Martin.

2. The Miamis. “The Miamis may have been the first punk band in the sense of what the package of what punk was,” Rossi says. “They were doing two-minute songs before the Ramones.” Led by brothers Tom and James Wynbrandt, the Miamis were staples on New York stages throughout the mid-’70s, sharing bills with Blondie, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Television and the New York Dolls. (Check out the Miamis’ retrospective 2016 CD: “We Deliver: The Lost Band of the CBGB Era (1974-1979).”)

3. The Planets. Speaking of CBGB pioneers, Binky Philips‘ band was among the first bands to play at that legendary club. In his book My Life in the Ghost of Planets: The Story of a CBGB Almost-WasBinky recalls the Planets’ first encounter with CBGB: “So, now, it was early December, 1974. The Planets had been thrown out of Coventry, the only club that would book us (one of the bouncers took offense when I tried to clock him with a mic stand in front of the whole audience). We basically had nowhere to perform. Now what? … Then, one day, it suddenly occurred to me that CBGB was the joint where those two bands, advertising with those postage-stamp-sized ads in the Clubs section of the Village Voice, were performing regularly: Television. The Ramones. CBGB. Oh, right!”

4. The Werewolves. “The Werewolves came out of Texas,” Rossi recalls. “They weren’t that big on the scene, but they were really good. When they landed, they came right in at the top of the pack.” The band featured vocalist/guitarist Seab Meador (an underground legend in Texas) and bassist Jimmie Randall, both veterans of Dallas band the Gentlemen. Another historical note: The Werewolves were managed by Andrew Loog Oldham of Rolling Stones fame.

3. Queen Elizabeth/Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys. Jayne County is a rock-‘n’-roll legend and transgender pioneer. As Wayne County, she played in a variety of New York bands — starting with Queen Elizabeth, which featured future Miamis Tom and James Wynbrandt. No audio or video of Queen Elizabeth is available online (yet). While we wait for it to drop, check out this single from Jayne’s next band, Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, which also featured drummer Marc Bell (soon to be known as Marky Ramone). The lyrics of “Max’s Kansas City” comprise a who’s who of New York bands of the era … And suggest some more of the acts Peter Rossi hopes to bring to the big screen.

“It was a bunch of people having a lot of fun,” Rossi says. “A lot of fun being created. It was also about what was going on around it — a very desolate, gray, dark period in New York, from blackouts to Berkowitz.”

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