Music mavens and pop historians love to wax rhapsodic about the secret history of this or the hidden mystery of that. I have a similar tale, one that will make you question everything you think you know about punk rock, and perhaps about American culture.
The legend of Bobby & the Bigots, the world's very first punk rock band -- formed in 1967, while Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were still watching cartoons -- is so arcane that it's barely remembered by the squad's own members!
It's understandable that Bobby "Sarge" Sardell, Peter "Apps" Applebome, Harris "Hef" Effron and me, Mike "Sig" Sigman -- the four upper middle class Jews from Great Neck, Lawn Guyland who comprised B&tB -- never became household names. We rehearsed only a handful of times and played even fewer gigs. We shunned publicity and recoiled from the soul-sucking tentacles of the record biz machine. We never released (or, indeed, made) any records. We wrote, I think, two songs. We had no sensational motorcycle accidents or tragic car crashes; after all, we'd barely learned to drive and had no cars. We lived with our parents, so there were no roach-infested sixth-floor walk-ups or seedy flophouses where we could stay up for days at a time drinking and drugging. The drinks and drugs that got us wired -- Coke (a-Cola) and Dr. Pepper -- were legal, so we never got rousted or arrested. And we had just one groupie, a pretty 10th-grade girl with whom sex was absolutely out of the question.
B&tB's entire oeuvre arose from a single emotion: rage. Our classic "No Present" eerily presaged the Sex Pistols' more famous "No Future." We answered Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" with our own "Hall of Hate"; in fact, our signature song was called, quite simply, "Hate." The lyrics, written on a ketchup-drenched napkin in 10 feverish minutes over chocolate malts at the Silver Moon Diner, were brief and bitter: "You gotta hate your father/You gotta hate your mother/You gotta hate ever'thin'/Hate Hate Hate Hate." There was no discernible melody.
Our seminal gig took place in the basement of the Lake Success home of our groupie, who has asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. We played a few covers, including "Louie Louie" (with the real lyrics) and, most memorably, a horrible cover of a horrible cover: "You Keep Me Hangin' On" was a terrific Supremes record, but we took our inspiration from the epically disastrous Vanilla Fudge version. We ended the show, and our careers, with "Hate," which showcased our four-part cacophony and featured a stunning one-minute drum solo by Apps, who played drums only because his brother, born without even the vaguest sense of rhythm, owned a drum set.
Thank God that night's glorious noise was recorded by our roadie, the only kid ever kicked out of the Great Neck South High School A/V club for being too nerdy. Tragically, the tapes -- which we dubbed the "Basement Tapes" -- disappeared immediately, and to this day no one knows their whereabouts.
For an explanation of how an unknown band could have had such a huge impact on punk, I reached out to Apps at his plush digs at the New York Times, where he's been a famous columnist for years. He said,
"Growing up on the mean streets of Great Neck, we were in revolt against the sugary 'Summer of Love' ethos of the time, and broke entirely new ground inspired by Jimi Hendrix, The Seeds and Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. Lombardo's iconic recording of the optimistic anthem 'Enjoy Yourself [It's Later Than You Think]' -- written by Mike's dad, penner of such other sunny standards as 'Pennsylvania 6-5000' and "It's All in the Game" -- served as an ironic counterpoint to B&tB's hopeless nihilism."
"Like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and other tormented young visionaries, we were responding in an inchoate way to something profound and still forming in the culture -- the soullessness of suburbia, the incipient decline of the American dream, the recognition, only vaguely grasped at the time, that one day someone named Snookie would be a best-selling author while we would be desperately trying to pay our kids' tuition bills. It is possible that Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and the Ramones never heard our music. But given what we know about the collective unconscious, it's a virtual certainty that the sonic breakthroughs we achieved in the '60s found their way into their music.''
Great Neck, the home at various times of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, Ring Lardner, and Charlie Chaplin, has an unusually rich artistic history. But scholars disagree violently on whether its most important legacy is Fitzgerald and Gatsby or Bobby & the Bigots and "Hate." What's indisputable is that just as The Beatles would have been impossible without Little Richard and that there had to be a Woody Guthrie before there could be a Bob Dylan -- punk's pioneers are unimaginable without B&tB.
Mere months after forming, Bobby & the Bigots imploded in a bloody display of internecine rage during a Sunday afternoon ping pong match in Sarge's rec room. We had no clue what we were fighting about, but we sensed that madness was about to consume us.
I'm speaking out now only because the recent drumbeat of blogs and tweets about a reunion tour for B&tB is approaching critical mass, nearly 45 years after we played our first (wrong) note. What happens next for the world's first punk band is up for grabs. Stay tuned to this space for the latest on B&tB's plans or, more likely, lack thereof.
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