"Well, do you want me to tell you how so-and-so still owes me a hundred bucks, or do you want me to tell you how Apollinian it all was, and how exciting it was, and how it was all really just about the music?"
The above is a response I got when first calling around for interviews for the oral history on the Philadelphia punk era you're about to read. My question was a simple one, and over the last few weeks, I've posed it many, many times:
What kind of place was Philadelphia at the end of the '70s?
I wasn't asking this of cops, or of people who worked for the Chamber of Commerce, or of politicians, or even of the baby boomers who were flooding the discos and bamboo-laden restaurants of that era. I was asking the punk rockers themselves--or at least people who used to be punk rockers.
And that simple fact changed the context more than you could imagine.
Philadelphia, at least according to history, has always been a tough town. But in 1977--when the rumblings of punk rock and New Wave started to filter down from 90 miles to our north--Philly was tougher than it is at this particular moment: Rizzo reigned, and whole sections of town--many of which are now regarded as gentrified--were completely blighted.
The late-'70s economic slump created a down-and-out attitude in this city that we're still trying to get over. Pretty much everything we have since come to take for granted about Center City back then was either a distant idea in a young entrepreneur's head or just plain inconceivable.
The state of live music was just as depressed. By the end of the 1970s, disco and corporate rock had a virtual tyranny over the city, and few cared or dared to look beyond whoever showed up at clubs to entertain on the weekend. This set the stage for a renegade sound.
What follows is an oral history of those first brave days of the punk and New Wave scene in Philadelphia. The testimony comes courtesy of a select group of players who were there, saw the future, and figured it's a lot more fun to ride the tide than run out of the way.
"What was it like? It was all right. I don't know what to say. I mean, it was Philly."
"What was it like? Oh God. If you looked different, people tried to intimidate you all the time. It was the same kind of crap you had to put up with as a hippie, when people started growing long hair. Only now it was the guys with the long hair yelling at you. You think they would have learned something. I had this extreme parrot red hair and I got hassled so much I carried a sign that said 'FUCK YOU ASSHOLE'. I got so tired of yelling it, I would just hold up the sign."
"There was a clothing store called Amarcord on Walnut Street. I remember the guy in there had New Wave and punk tapes. He'd be trying to close and no one would leave because it was the only place you could hear this music."
"South Street was blighted with stores that were remnants of the '40s. I don't know that it was that safe, either. But people were starting to open up all these shops and restaurants. So it was an exciting time, and the music scene was exciting. Rock 'n' roll--I still call it rock 'n' roll, but I guess it was New Wave or punk--was alive. There was new energy and it had an almost Beatles-esque feeling, even filtering down from New York. You could feel it."