Pure Hell's name may not ring a bell with those who only know the big names of '77-era punk -- but for anyone willing to dig deeper, their contribution is impossible to overlook. Their 1974 formation as "The First Original All-Black Punk Rock Band," as they're often billed, predated that of the Bad Brains -- who've cited Pure Hell's influence -- by a good two years.
Following Pure Hell's original breakup in 1980, the band's reputation remained that of a deeply underground legend -- one that rested on its lone single (see below), and the memories of those who saw them live. A more complete picture emerged in 2003, with the band's inclusion in James Spooner's critically acclaimed "Afro Punk" documentary, and the release of its original album, NOISE ADDICTION (2006) -- which came 28 years after the fact, due to a falling out with original manager Curtis Knight that effectively froze the tapes under lock and key during all that time.
Following news of the band's reformation, it seemed logical to track down lead vocalist/writer Kenny "Stinker" Gordon for a chat, via the magic of email -- since he also figures in Teddie Dahlin's recently-released memoir, A VICIOUS LOVE STORY -- and, at her suggestion, I fired off 15 questions for him...here's what came back!
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): So what made you want to become a musician, and who were influences when the band first got together?
KENNY GORDON (KG): I think I was enthusiastic about music because it invoked change. There used to be more imagination and mystery you know, with the merge of electronics before digital instantaneity. Recording artist and actors like James Brown, Marlon Brando, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, were all about necessary change that influenced the period I grew up in. It was like being on a quest to a better world where mind altering music of performers like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Sid Barrett early era Pink Floyd, the Last Poets and Miles Davis. You would not be of the original 'punk rock' genre if you weren’t the audience of bands like the Stooges, Mott the Hoople or Alice Cooper. R-n-B evolved to R-n-R to Psychedelic to Glam to Punk etc..
We all grew up in the same neighbourhood initially in Philadelphia, when at about the age of 16, my drummer and best friend Michael 'Spider' Sanders moved in with me. This was circa '72 when we began rehearsing at my house where Neon Leon and his bassist Kathy O'Rourke would visit as well. Michael and I were a bass and drum rhythm section and played with Leon, also a band called the Strangers, and another named Manray early on in NY 74. Around that time also maybe earlier we'd formed the 1st version of the band under the name I borrowed from the film 'Pretty Poison' (w/Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld). We'd played a talent show for my college prep school that only consisted of a couple of original and cover songs. There was only a handful of musicians and a clique as usual in places exposed to imported records and the scene of New York, London or L.A.. Chip Morris was a guitarist who'd previously played with Michael and had un-canny poise of Jimi Hendrix. As songs were composed as a three-piece combo, eventually navigated to my lead vocal main writing, with the addition of comrade Lenny Boles set on bass.
CR: No punk rock discussion is complete without a look at the social and political events of the era. What did you think of what was happening in Philadelphia, particularly since you grew up under Frank Rizzo's regime?
KG: Well, I remember watching Huey P. Newton - the Minister of Defence for the Black Panther Party - on the news in Philadelphia at the time of riots due to the murders frankly of JFK, MLK and Malcom X, and he referred to the Mayor Frank Rizzo as 'Bozo the Clown'. As I mentioned, times were in need of change, very turbulent times thru the 60's. You could say we strived as the results of the civil and social rights struggles. Lets say we lived on the crest or the edge of the more poverty affected areas, but the problems reverberated around the world. It'll be ashamed if politics and religion can't un-tangle itself with being futile. I was sort of too young to feel and understand what was really going on, more enchanted with that altered perception of other places than the mean streets of Philadelphia.
CR: Though this doesn't always get mentioned in punk rock histories, it's common knowledge that you were contemporaries of the New York Dolls. What did you see in them, and vice versa?
KG: We were on time with them, the chemistry of the streets -artist/musician thing that all the 'somebody’s' had to have. I mean, we were 'advanced' and black, like much of the music they'd based their persona on. They recognized that and put us up right away, initiating clout straight off the bat. Nolan was taking rest after being in the hospital, and them being idols. Spider knew their set like the back of his hand. We were staying in their loft with all of our equipment, so it worked out to help with everything. The Dolls were the hub of the NYC night club scene in 74. Everybody around you haven’t or heard of now famous, rubbed shoulders with people in that circle. I'd met Todd Rungren, Ace Frehley, Patti Smith, Earl "The Pearl Monroe", Television, Malcolm McLaren, BeBe Buell, Cyrinda Fox, all in the city at 18-20 yrs old. Blondie/Debbie Harry kissed me on the cheek at Max's one night, and I didn’t wanna wash my face for days... true!
CR: That brings up another unlikely connection in the Pure Hell story, of Curtis Knight...an early musical associate of Jimi Hendrix. What made the relationship so promising at the start, and so sour at the end?
KG: With that said about the New York Dolls' touch on Pure Hell, Curtis Knight's affiliation that came into play a bit later circa '76-'77, gave us a '1-2' punch. Being he brought along Hendrix's exploits and damnation, broadening the horizon on our canvas, on one hand accelerated our course to tour Europe, and on the other used in every way Jimi turned out to be. Curtis worked in ways like guiding us above having to routinely play places like CBGB, and basically any obstacles with less insight or connections than he had. It all went well until sources outside his realm, over us, came into play, that threatened his reign. I mean these included major record companies. In particular I recall one in Amsterdam. We severed when our debut in Britain was threatened to be cancelled.
CR: Another well-known name in Pure Hell's history is that of the late Sex Pistol, Sid Vicious. What was it like playing with him at Max's Kansas City, since his bass playing abilities are often dismissed?
KG: Playing with Sid at Max's in 78 honed us up for our Netherlands/UK debut tour that autumn. Actually I didn’t watch their set being in the dressing room courting a photo shoot and squandering in the chaos after our own. But people relayed that he received some jeering from the crowd likely out of envy and his reputation. I don't recall if the show took place before or after he'd stuck Patti Smith's brother with a bottle, but he was under the influence of a substance, bleak in coherence at times to the audience's dismay. Overall the people came to see what they wanted, their idols in Sid backed with Nolan, Kane and Dior that Thursday night.
CR: Do you find the scenario in Alex Cox's film, "Sid & Nancy" -- of her egging him on with the knife -- a plausible one, given what you remember of them, and how did you react when the story of her murder broke?
KG: I'm not familiar with Alex Cox's film but my experience with Nancy at Max's reeked of her infamous attitude. I think she was thrown out for breaking a door downstairs and I'd bet she was the reason Sid kicked an upstairs dressing room door due to anger. It was about a week after our show at Max's when Spider and I heard the news on the radio back in Philadelphia. We were anxious about preparing for Europe and couldn’t believe what we had just heard. This amplified our press in the British tabloids boasting second or third page articles with the photos of Pure Hell with Sid and Jerry Nolan. But it was the saddest gloomiest thing to watch his case play out on TV while we were over there. Finally ending with his overdose after we'd returned back to the states.
CR: How did the European audiences and press compare to what you were used to seeing back home, once you finally made it over?
KG: It's true what they say, that British press can be harsh as hell. One article read that we were posted over to 'us' suckers one year late, when they had no idea of our origin with Malcolm McLaren and the Dolls, before he'd sprung the Sex Pistols. Besides the critically un-correct here and there, the British were more authentic than the Americans. This was due to their living under a monarchy where they actually 'squatted' in vacant buildings. They had a realer cause I felt and belief in the spirit. We were at our peak and successful there being on ITB booking agency with Dolly Parton and the Ramones etc.. We should have stayed and got a house in the country to write, instead of prematurely returning for Christmas that year 1978, in my eyes.
CR: The European tour should have been the ideal way of breaking Pure Hell open, and yet -- you only managed the one single ("These Boots Are Made For Walking"/"No Rules"). What led to the band's demise in 1980?
KG: That, what I just previously described, and the fact that punk's original tier sort of died by 1980. The Pistols, the Dead Boys, the Damned all had broke up, and major record companies finally caught up and signed radio friendly acts they could push to the common market.
CR: I've read about you pursuing some interesting collaborations during the band's downtime, such as with Bruce Woolley. Any chance of these efforts seeing the light of day?
KG: No, nothing during the period I returned alone to London and met a previous writer of my agent's - Bruce Woolley - will ever come to fruition. It was a steep attempt at something new and different for me at the time, being Woolley was affiliated with Thomas Dolby, Geoff Downs and Trevor Horn etc..
CR: Not many bands can say they've recorded with members of LA Guns and Nine Inch Nails, but you have...what led up to the band's reformation in 1987?
10.) Yes, after I'd gotten married in 1980 during the time we split up and I'd gone back to London alone, when I'd divorced by 1987 Spider asked me to come out to West Hollywood Ca., where we resurfaced the band and began recordings with LA Guns (guitarist) Mick Cripps, his neighbour out there. My bassist Lenny had moved there also and we gathered a guitarist and played a few places. One was at 'The Club with No Name' with Steve Jones’ 'Fantasy 7' group. We played with the 'Ultras' at English Acid and continued to record with Mick in Santa Monica. Actually the '80s bands like Motley Crue and LA Guns and Guns-n-Roses were influenced by the New York Dolls, Pistols and Dead Boys. Around early thru mid 90's we'd ran into Lemmy of MotorHead and reminisced about London 1978. He then produced some tracks at the Santa Monica studio between Mick Cripps and Charley Clouser (NIN) travelling and producing our tracks in Long Island NY. Spider died of cancer before our full 1978 album 'Noise Addiction' was released in 2006.
CR: As mentioned, you also recorded some tracks with Lemmy -- any chance that we'll ever get to hear this material?
KG: I've had a couple of proposals from indie labels to put out the tracks. Most recently I spoke with STP Records surrounding our attempt to return and perform in the UK this year. I'm in the course of re-evaluating what to release or record old and new.
CR: Nowadays, the music scene seems more fragmented than ever. How do you feel about the coining of the term "Afro-Punk," and your inclusion in the documentary of the same name?
KG: Fragmented is a good term, and I feel natural with the horse I rode in on. I can't change what I was a part of, since 1974, nor change what exceeds that. I think it's good Afro Punk presents a whole new genre of music fitting for this century and generation.
CR: More recently, the press announced Pure Hell's reformation for the Rebellion Festival, which you didn't play -- what happened, and what w can look forward to hearing from the band next?
KG: I am re-evaluating the best package to muster in response to any interest in the future. Mainly for a fun experience.
CR: Looking back on the material that has appeared -- specifically, the NOISE ADDICTION album -- what are your favorite Pure Hell songs?
KG: Well there’s two that doesn’t make me automatically cringe when I hear them, judging the lack of age and experience in their content; 'Noise Addiction' and 'I Feel Bad.'
CR: The thirty-fifth anniversary since punk's self-declared Year Zero (1977) seems a bittersweet one, since all the things that it aimed to destroy -- bad governments, corporatized music, and the rich-poor income divide -- seem more entrenched than ever. What can we do, as people or musicians, to break through these things?
KG: Keep true vision and spirit in the midst of the fact that religion and politics have to come to light. Positive solutions, in avoidance of negative problems, pretty much sums up the way we ought to live and die.
Pure Hell - The Legendary Classic Punk Band - Since 1974
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