Up the Hudson
by Kevin Cowl
I was a suburban kid from the suburbs. Latham, NY- a bedroom community of Albany, the state capital. It was the late '70's and in our little town, classic rock reigned supreme. Everyone liked some form of it hard or soft, but that was about it. Prog rock got you beat up, and everyone had pretty much forgotten about the '60's. Nobody knew much about punk, other than to hate it with a seething passion formerly reserved for disco. I was sitting in my 9th grade English class in early September 1979. There was a new kid in our school and he was right in front of me. He was skinny and quiet with pretty serious hair and wearing - a Sex Pistols t-shirt? What?? In Latham? Who would have the balls to wear that? And who actually liked punk rock enough to wear the t-shirt? He was weird, new, and slightly dangerous, which immediately made him very cool. That kid and I became friends, and through him I met more kids who shared his tastes. I found out that people actually did like punk rock, some of it was pretty good, and after a few listens, I realized I liked it too. I also found out that sometimes, these new friends of mine even went to see punk bands play live in . downtown Albany? Albany! That was where your dad went to work, and then came home from in his car. No one actually went there for anything else. Why would they?
Albany in the late '70's was pretty grim. In addition to the generally cold, gray, upstate climate, it wasn't too pretty. The city's central core had been ripped out by the construction of the Empire State Plaza (popularly known as the South Mall). A Nelson Rockefeller project, it was '60's international style behemoth that had been erected on the bones of the ethnic neighborhoods that had stood for a century. Dumpy, crime-ridden and forgotten, it was just like most of America's cities at the time. But colder and greyer.
For me, the whole experience started one winter night in 1981 when my new friends brought me to a show at a record store in Albany called LarkBeat to hear a band called The Verge. It was a school night, we were out too late, I got in trouble, but I didn't care. The band was great and there were all these people who knew each other, and liked this kind of music, and bought these records, and this was their record store, on their street, and the whole thing was on their terms. Because my life at the time was comprised of school, a bad job at the mall, my bike (no car) and Friday night keg parties in the woods with a soundtrack by Rush, this was by far the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Albany is about three hours north of New York City. Bands playing New York would drive the Thruway up the Hudson and play Albany before heading toward the college towns of western NY and into Ohio and the Midwest. Before they went on to be stadium-fillers (or big theater fillers), bands like The Police, U2, The Pretenders, The Violent Femmes, Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Jam, and many, many more played Albany's few but vibrant small venues, and at the time, Albany had a solid stable of local talent available to open. More than just openers, Albany's bands were original and held their own in front of these new national acts. And out of these bands, a vibrant local scene was evolving. I was a little too young and arrived a little too late, but did have a chance to enjoy some of the now legendary shows that formed the "golden age" of Albany's music scene from about 1980-84. The early bands that formed in the late '70's broke the ground for the rich and varied but ultimately short-lived scene that followed. The success of it all was due to a dedicated inner core of people that were members of these bands, went to each others' shows, produced and distributed photocopied fanzines and flyers, owned and operated the record stores, worked at the college radio stations, the music stores, videotaped shows and broadcast them on public access TV, made music videos, booked bands at clubs, served the drinks, had the parties, gave each other support and just generally lived to share it all and make it work. This is the DIY ethic that became the stuff of legend with more well-known scenes in Washington DC, Seattle and elsewhere. But Albany was there too- it was one of the first and one of the best.
Perhaps because no national act ever came out of Albany though, it never got its due, and has never had its story told. I don't have the knowledge or perspective to do the full "tell-all" but I do remember a few things. Hopefully someone who was also there will do a better and fuller job giving the story on the excellent Albany scene. Fortunately, in the early '90's, an actual set of bubble gum cards was produced that had pictures of most of the bands, complete with biographical info - and gum! In addition to the bands, the card set highlighted the venues and supporting characters that made the scene great. This set is an invaluable resource and the most complete (and perhaps the only) written chronicle that exists. In addition to this, there are videos of some Albany bands on YouTube, websites, a couple of Wikipedia entries and a growing (but private) Facebook group. There could (and should) be more information available. Maybe someday there will be. Here are the highlights from the card series:
Blotto - Active from about 1977-88, Blotto had an early MTV hit with "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard." Good solid rock with humorous lyrics.
The A.D.'s - 1980-? Had an area hit single with "Livin' Downtown."
The Morons Their hit "Suburbanite" had a good power-punk pop hook.
The Extras Incredible power trio with biting lyrics, they were a local favorite. Known for "This Generation Doesn't Judge Anybody."
Capitle Excellent hardcore that rivals some of the best of the genre. Active '82-'85. A few videos exist on YouTube and they are featured on the Hudson Rock compilation.
The Verge Probably Albany's best-remembered band, they released the 4-song Habitual EP in '83. Opened for many bands in Albany and beyond Ramones, etc. Very powerful and unique. Can also be found on the Hudson Rock compilation. Active '80-'84 with various line-up changes.
The Crude Another one of the best bands from Albany, active '78-'82, they were a driving 5-piece whose hit "Vacation" is a blistering track. Featured on Hudson Rock and stars of the original Scumfest '82.
Sadistic Gerbils Mixed punk, hardcore and great '60's covers.
Outpatients, Operation Pluto, Dronez All bands featuring the great Billy Harrigan, a singular frontman overflowing with presence and insanity. Much loved, always controversial, sometimes banned. You had to be there. I was lucky to be a couple times, but missed some of the truly legendary shows, such as the one where they scared U2 back on to their tour bus after opening for them at JB Scotts in 1981.
CFB (later CFG) Flipper-inspired drone grunge. I was actually in the later incarnation of this band (CFG) for a couple gigs.
The Plague Great garage punks active '81-'89. Fun and great shows.
Grim Surprise Damaged garage dirges. Loud and demented, but fantastic.
Misfits/Tragics Great classic punk with attitude and chops. Opened for Iggy and the members of the NY Dolls in NYC at Max's and the Mudd Club. Active '80-'84,
Joypop Excellent vocal harmonies, dark lyrics and well crafted songs.
Killtech A personal favorite. They had 2 CDs Inc. and Meet the Friendly Natives. Well crafted and played, with fantastic political lyrics. Active '87-'88 and had a few lineup changes.
Iwa / Vampire Large reggae band featuring many members of other Albany punk bands
Vertebrae Power trio reminiscent of the early Am-Rep bands. Tight and hard driving. Opened for Rollins Band. Active '89-'93(?)
1313 Mockingbird Lane Classic '60's inspired garage punk.
Condemek Industrial, noise. '86-?
Love Zombies Solid garage punk. '87-'89
Young Reptiles Rockabilly.
Below are listed other major Albany bands, but I don't have much information about them. Don't take the lack of information as any kind of slight some of these bands were pretty big (I just didn't see them myself and could not find a lot of info).
- E Plemnista
- Thy Sons of God
- Lethal Lipstick
- Lumpen Proles
- Real Danger
- Joey Lupin
- Standing Offer
- Interior Farmers
- Rhythm Method
- Solomon's Ramada
JB Scott's Albany's leading club hosted future stadium-fillers U2, and others (Bono can be seen wearing a JB Scotts shirt in an early MTV video). Now closed.
The Chateau Lounge Hosted Violent Femmes, Flipper, Mission of Burma, countless others, as well as all of Albany's early bands. Unfortunately, it was paved over to make way for an arena.
The Madison Theater Old movie theater sometimes used for shows. Notable early gigs included Talking Heads (1978). Still open, but it's just a movie theater now.
Page Hall - SUNY Albany's downtown campus auditorium also hosted Talking Heads and many others. Still active, run by the university; bands are booked by the SUNY concert board.
Albany Art Gallery Small weird gallery space that became the site of shows in the late '80's and early '90's of Albany bands, noise bands like Merzbow and others. Now closed.
288 Lark A leading host venue for Albany bands and touring acts. Small stage, long and thin, three story club. Many classic performances took place there. Plus $5 bottles of champagne on Sunday nights. Now closed.
QE2 Opened in mid 1980's in an old White Castle hamburger joint, QE2 became the main venue for touring acts and local bands. Legendary performances by Alice Donut, Lydia Lunch, the Feelies, Mojo Nixon, Mo Tucker, Dinosaur, Sonic Youth, others. Now closed.
EBA Chapterhouse The site of weekend all-ages gigs. Large open hall with a stage and high ceilings. Not the best acoustics, but lots of room for slam dancing. Still open but it's a dance theater now, with no punk shows.
Albany's college radio promoted events, but like good college radio stations should, offered the best selection of new music. WVCR Siena College. Still on the air but seems to be more talk radio now.
WRPI Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute. Champions of noise. Where else were you gonna hear Negativland and Elliot Sharp on the radio? Still on air, and seems to be doing the same underground thing.
WCBD State University of NY at Albany. Still on the air.
WQBK Q104. Not a college station, but operated like one. They promoted what they liked, championed new artists, and took requests. They got away with it for longer than most, ultimately succumbing to "the suits" who run the business now.
Scumfest The Albany scene's Woodstock. Held at a camp on the Mohawk River in '82, The Verge, The Crude, the Lumpen Proles, The Extras, Capitle, and Interior Farmers played a memorable all-day outdoor party overlooking the meandering algae-covered toxic river that gave the event its name. There was a 30 year reunion Scumfest II this past summer with some of the same bands, different location. It was kind of a private party - not really a public event.
Larkfest Annual street festival on Lark Street, Albany's one-street East Village equivalent, that gave many Albany bands a chance to play to large, sometimes bewildered suburban families munching on fried dough. This is still going strong, but none of the old bands are around anymore. Probably nothing like it used to be.
Real George's Backroom TV Real George taped many of the early Albany shows and broadcast them on public access TV. There are a few videos of old shows on YouTube.
Buzz Magazine Another Real George initiative a great source for reviews of local shows, band news, record reviews of local and national acts, ads, photos. Now defunct.
Day and Age An early fanzine that was a labor of love by the early supporters of the scene. Poetry, pix, reviews, interviews, more. Started '82 and ran for a dozen issues.
ERL Records Open from late '80's mid '90's, they had an huge selection of used and new punk, new wave, hardcore, noise, and featured in-store performances. ERL was also a band and a label. Closed in the mid '80's.
Larkbeat An early bastion of record store cool. They stuck to punk and new wave and had great in-store performances.
World's Record A classic used record store in the best sense. Oldies, new releases, imports, picture discs, posters, t-shirts, you name it. Closed around the early 2000's.
Hudson Rock the primary compendium of Albany bands, featured The Verge, Capitle, the Crude and others.
Many of the bands listed above put out singles, EPs, cassettes and CDs, some of which may be still available if you do a web search.
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