six years that almost changed the world…
New York City in the 1970s was a place and time of new possibilities—a Renaissance of sorts. A natural extension of the artists, writers, and musicians that came to fruition around Andy Warhol in the 1960s, the decade brought together a group of like-minded individuals aiming for something new. “Let me dream if I want to,” sang Mink DeVille, leader of one of the original house bands at CBGB’s . It was a call shared by many of those who gathered at the nightclub—a group that included future legends the Ramones, Television and Pure Hell. Pure Hell?
“We were always there, doing the same thing as all those guys,” remembers Kenny “Stinker” Gordon, singer of Pure Hell. As the first all black band in the white-dominated punk scene, they are now noted, if at all, merely for their skin color. It was never the band’s intentions to make social change with politics of race. Rather, it was their brand of music—and attitude—that made them notables alongside the myriad of characters in the scene.
Formed in 1974 in Philadelphia, the band consisted of Gordon on vocals, Preston “Chip Wreck” Morris III on guitar, Kerry “Lenny Steel” Boles on bass and Michael “Spider” Sanders on drums. “We were all downtown kids, listening to bands like Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper,” Gordon says. “[We] had similar influences that created good chemistry.”
Bashing out in a style that was miles away from the smooth, predisco sounds of Philly Soul, the band felt a closer affinity to the rawer, “street-smart” sounds from its neighbors to the north. “Philly was like a suburb in New York City,” Gordon remembers. “It was like sharing the same underground scene.” So it was not long before the lure of the cit y convinced the band, still in their teens, to make the 95-mile move to NYC.
Soon after arriving, the band found a supporter in Johnny Thunders who, having met Spider in Philadelphia, offered to put them up at the New York Dolls’ loft. Managed at the time by future Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren, the Dolls in 1975 held a mentorly presence over many of the young groups in the scene. Patti Smith and bands like Television and Blondie often gathered at the loft, where they met and eventually shared bills with Pure Hell. Says Gordon, “The Dolls helped us out a lot. We were a popular item to share the bill at their Max’s Kansas City appearances.”
While their peers aligned themselves with major labels like Sire and Arista, Pure Hell signed on to a management deal with Curtis Knight, a former bandleader who claimed to have discovered Jimi Hendrix a decade earlier. He soon branded them with the tagline “The World’s First All Black Punk Band.” Says Gordon, “I never liked that moniker. It made us seem like a novelty act.” In late 1978, just before Pure Hell departed for a European tour, the scene suffered a dramatic blow: Nancy Spungen died, and Sid Vicious, who had been backed on several occasions by Pure Hell during his New York residency, was arrested. Much like how Altamont and the Manson murders brought a close to the freewheeling idealism of the hippie era, the Sid and Nancy case put an end to the idealized anarchism of the punk scene. “A lot of things died with it,” Gordon says.
Once in Europe, Gordon says, Pure Hell was greeted with excitement “on the same level as the Clash.” This was in part due to Knight, who had helped generate media buzz prior to their arrival. Typical in his efforts was a fabricated quote printed in the U.K.’s Sounds magazine: “Hi we’re Pure Hell—we’re an all Black punk rock group from Philadelphia, and we’ve been playing punk for five years.” The band’s name was spread across giant London subway posters alongside such disparate acts as Dolly Parton, WAR and the Kinks, with whom they shared the same PR firm.
While in Holland, the relationship between Pure Hell and Curtis Knight began to sour. Knight began to wield too much control over the band. “He wanted to rein us in,” Gordon says. At the end of their tour of the Netherlands, Gordon recalls, “[Knight] threatened to interrupt the remainder of our show dates. This was due to me screwing him out of a Dutch girl that he wanted.”
Before continuing on to the U.K., the band squeezed in a gig in California. Gordon remembers, “We played a show in L.A. at a place called the Masque with the Dead Boys, the Cramps, the Germs and a host of others. Stiv Bators hung himself from the lights in order to top us as part of the act. Luckily, they got him down in time!”
Back in the U.K., the papers called them “a minor triumph,” comparing “Stinker ” Gordon’s stage act to that of David Johansen and Mick Jagger and guitarist “Chip Wreck ” Morris’ skills to that of Knight’s old band mate Jimi Hendrix. It was during this tour that their one single w as released on Knight’s own Golden Sphinx label: a cover of the Nancy Sinatra classic “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’,” backed with an original “No Rules.” When the single made the charts in several publications, Knight took the band into a studio to record their full length album, Noise Addiction. A s with the single, Knight had hoped to release the album on his own label—a move that, Gordon now believes, may have hindered Pure Hell’s chances of success on a wider scale.
At a party thrown for the band in London, Knight molested an under aged fan. This was enough to put the already strained relationship to an end. On the day they were due to fly back to the U. S., the band went into hiding. Knight was left alone at the airport, forced to fly back on his own. He took the Noise Addiction master tapes with him.
Roy Fisher, who had helped arrange Pure Hell’s European tour, took over management, and immediately sent the band back into the studio. Produced by Tony McPhee of underground legends the Groundhogs— whom Fisher had once managed—the three new songs did not attempt to recapture the recordings they had made with Knight. “[That] was old stuff,” Gordon says. “We were so young when we recorded them.” Despite their efforts for a fresh, new start, these tracks failed to capture interest. Upon their return to New York City, they played one of their final gigs at the famed Max’s Kansas City with old cohort Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys joining them on stage. By 1980, the band w as finished.
“It wasn’t until 1986 that Spider and I started to reform Pure Hell,” rues Kenny Gordon. While Gordon had moved on to new projects— collaborating with the Buggles’ Bruce Woolley, among others— Spider had tried to keep Pure Hell ’s name alive, at one point getting an offer from Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy to manage the band. When Spider relocated to California and urged Gordon to join him, Pure Hell was reborn. Initially joined by original members Chip Wreck and Lenny Steel, they have since made recordings with musicians like Lemmy from Motorhead, Mick Cripps of L.A. Guns and Charlie Clouser, formerly of Nine Inch Nails.
Mike Schneider, owner of the Connecticut-based label Welfare Records, had heard of Pure Hell via punk’s vernacular history and a small handful of articles. In 2004, he caught word that Curtis Knight had passed away and that his widow was having an estate sale. Schneider quickly drove down from his base in Haverhill, Massachusetts, to the Bronx, where he scooped up Pure Hell’s original master tapes. Schneider then had to track down the band members, who had never heard the album, to discuss its release.
“I was totally shocked and surprised that people would still be interested in a recording that took place over 20 years ago,” says Gordon. It was not the first time there had been talks of releasing the album, however. Gordon recalls a time when Spider ran into Curtis Knight, shortly before his death. Knight asked for Spider’s help in releasing the tapes he had run away with all those years before. Spider refused.
Now released for the first time, 28 years after it was originally recorded, Pure Hell’s Noise Addiction can be heard in all of its young, loud and snotty glory on Welfare Records. It will never be known what Spider, who passed away in 2002, would have thought of the album’s release, but Gordon is much appreciative: “Mike has done a great thing by making us known to the new generation of fans.”
But more so than the release of the record, Gordon is excited about new possibilities that have opened up with the renewed interest in Pure Hell. “I don’t want to be flogging a dead horse,” he says, refer ring to the old recordings. “I’ve got all these people getting in contact with me now—Syl Sylvain [of the New York Dolls], [ex-Misfit] Jeff O’Hara, [Sid Vicious biographer] Alan Parker—they all want to do something with me.”
“Anything can happen in my world!” “Stinker” Gordon had once sung on Pure Hell’s anthemic scorcher “No Rules.” Almost 30 years later, it seems this phrase rings truer than ever.