Pure HellCourtesy of Pure Hell

The forgotten story of Pure Hell, America’s first black punk band

The four-piece lived with the New York Dolls and played with Sid Vicious, but they’ve been largely written out of cultural history

An essential part of learning history is questioning it, asking what has become part of our cultural memory and what might have been left out. When it comes to the history of punk music, there are few bands who have been as overlooked as Pure Hell.

The band’s story began in West Philadelphia in 1974, when four teenagers – lead vocalist Kenny ‘Stinker’ Gordon, bassist Lenny ‘Steel’ Boles, guitarist Preston ‘Chip Wreck’ Morris and drummer Michael ‘Spider’ Sanders, set out to follow in the footsteps of their musical idols. A shared obsession with the sounds of Iggy, Bowie, Cooper, and Hendrix inspired them to create music that was louder, faster and more provocative than even those artists’ most experimental records. Pure Hell’s unique sound led them to New York, where they became characters in a seminal subculture recognised today as punk. As musicians of colour, their contribution to a predominately white underground scene is all the more significant. “We were the first black punk band in the world,” says Boles. “We were the ones who paid the dues for it, we broke the doors down. We were genuinely the first. And we still get no credit for it.”

The title of the ‘first black punk band’ has, in recent years, been informally given to Detroit-based Death, whose music was mostly unheralded at the time but has since been rediscovered and praised for its progressive ideas. But while Death were creating proto-punk music in isolation in the early 1970s, Pure Hell was completely entrenched in the New York City underground scene, living and performing alongside the legends of American punk. Arriving the same month that Patti Smith and Television began their two-month residencies at CBGB and leaving just after Nancy Spungen’s murder, Pure Hell’s active years in the city aligned perfectly with the birth and death of a dynamic chapter of music history. “I don’t want to be remembered just because we were black,” says Kenny Gordon. “I want to be remembered for being a part of the first tier of punk in the 70s.”

Being just 155km from Greenwich Village, Philadelphia was somewhat of a pipeline of New York subculture – Gordon remembers his teenage years at the movie theatre watching John Waters films like Polyester and Pink Flamingos, and hanging out at Artemis, a spot frequented by Philly scenesters like Nancy Spungen and Neon Leon. “I heard (The Rolling Stones’) ‘Satisfaction’ and knew it was the kind of music I wanted to play,” recalls bassist Lenny Boles. “I was too poor to afford instruments, so if someone had one, I would befriend them.”

The quad quickly gained notoriety on their home turf. “Growing up in West Philadelphia, which was all black, we were some of the craziest guys you could have possibly seen walking the streets back then,” says Gordon. “We dressed in drag and wore wigs, basically daring people to bother us. People in the neighbourhood would say, ‘Don’t go into houses with those guys, you may not come out!’”

Pure Hell swan dove into the New York underground scene in 1975, in pursuit of the people, places, and sounds they’d read about for years in the pages of Rock Scene and Cream magazine. The band moved into the Chelsea Hotel, the temporary home of a long list of influential characters, including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Edie Sedgwick, Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Their first gig in the city was hosted at Frenzy’s thrift, a storefront on St. Marks place, where guitarist Preston Morris “rather memorably caught the amplifier on fire due to a combination of maximum volume and faulty wires”, says Gordon. Drummer Michael Sanders’ friendship with Neon Leon led the band to the New York Dolls, who were acting as mentors for younger artists like Debbie Harry and Richard Hell at the time. Pure Hell was soon invited to perform for the Dolls in their loft.

“We were the first black punk band in the world... and we still get no credit for it” – Lenny Boles, Pure Hell bassist

“Honestly, we were scared to death of them,” Boles says. “When we walked in, they were all dressed up, smoking joints and watching The Untouchables on TV. Fortunately, we played and blew them away.” Gordon adds: “Underneath their outer appearance, they were just a bunch of guys from Queens. We had the same lingo. We were both really street and really genuine. It’s like, they were white but playing black, and we were just the opposite. We were innovative and they definitely appreciated us for it.”

After being kicked out of the Chelsea for not paying rent, Pure Hell moved into the Dolls’ loft. “Everybody hated us at first. We had a bad reputation because of our association with the New York Dolls, who were doing a lot of dope at the time,” says Boles. “The way we looked, everybody thought we were in a gang. Actually, we used to live in gang territory in West Philly, and people were always trying to get us to join. We never did. And with a name like Pure Hell, people thought we were devil worshippers.”

Gordon adds: “This was New York City, this was punk. People don’t realise it was ruthlessly competitive. It was dog eat dog.” Although they felt that few people were on their side, their kinship with Johnny Thunders led to numerous gigs at Andy Warhol’s haunt, Max’s Kansas City, and Mother’s, a Chelsea gay bar turned punk club, where Blondie first performed. The band was featured in a number of publications, namely Warhol’s own Interview magazine, marking their ‘place’ in a scene cultural influencers.

Despite their growing presence in the underground, Pure Hell still didn’t have a manager. After reading a biography of Jimi Hendrix by Curtis Knight, the singer and frontman of Hendrix’s first band The Squires, Lenny Boles chased down the author’s address and arrived on his doorstep. Boles’ bold act of promotion earned them management from the man credited with Hendrix’s discovery. Kathy Knight, Curtis’s then-partner in life and business, recalls her ex-husband’s first impressions of Pure Hell. “He loved them immediately,” she says. “After Lenny knocked on the door, Curtis brought me to one of the clubs where they were performing on Bleecker Street. Stinker (Kenny Gordon) almost landed in my lap when he did a backflip off the stage. We were so blown away that we put everything we had into them at the time.”

Those who saw Pure Hell in action describe their shows similarly. Gordon’s background in gymnastics gave them an unparalleled stage presence, with choreography that he says he performed “crash dummy style”. Pure Hell’s sound was harsher than their peers and predecessors and is today recognised as proto-hardcore. “We were like four Jimi Hendrixes, and Curtis knew it,” Gordon says. “We aimed for impact, just because we could. A lot of people at the time couldn’t play like Chip, doing Hennessy licks and everything. Not everyone could copy that.”

Curtis and Kathy Knight were so enthusiastic about Pure Hell that they sacrificed three months of rent money for studio sessions. Knight organised Pure Hell’s first European tour in 1978, which resulted in their single “These Boots are Made for Walking” reaching number four in the UK alternative charts. Later, they opened for Sid Vicious at Max’s during his New York residency. It would end up being his last public appearance, and Pure Hell found themselves looped into the media circus surrounding Nancy Spungen’s death. “We were on the second page of the majority of the tabloids, like New Musical Express, Sounds, and Melody Maker,” says Gordon.

But beyond their association with Vicious, Pure Hell’s European tour was a major success in part due to Curtis Knight’s strategic marketing campaign, which sensationalised their race. After arriving, Knight created a big poster with an image of the band taken by legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen in front of Buckingham Palace with the slogan: “From the United States of America, the world’s only black punk band”. Boles was angry at the time. “I said to Curtis, ‘Why do you have to call us a black band?’ Of course, that’s what we were, but we really didn’t think in those terms at the time. People in Europe were curious about the band before we even arrived. They were looking at it like a novelty. They didn’t believe we really existed.”

Boles says the band was “plastered by this campaign”, but were able to reap its fruits while touring Holland and the UK. Landing smack dab in the middle of the London punk scene, Pure Hell were welcomed by a parallel movement that had clearer political convictions and more dynamic cross-cultural discourse. “All the punks listened to reggae,” says Boles. “It was about all rebel music.” Gordon adds that “people, incorrectly, view punk as this angry, white, urban, male genre. Black culture is really the source of punk, and a lot of people don’t recognise it – or don’t want to recognise it.”

Although they eventually felt accepted in New York, and even celebrated in Europe, the legacy of Jim Crow still haunted the industry, where genres remained segregated. “We experienced racism, but didn’t know it at the time,” says Lenny Boles. “We were watching all of these bands around us, with far less talent, get signed. It had us second guessing ourselves, thinking we weren’t good enough. Obviously we were. It was a while before we realised we were getting snubbed.” While their white peers were being cut cheques, Pure Hell found themselves courted by a number of record labels, all of whom insisted they change their music in order to align with racial stereotypes. “Everybody was trying to make us do this Motown thing, saying like, ‘You guys are black so you’ve gotta do something that’s danceable,’” Boles adds. “They kept trying to make us more ‘funky’. Everything we liked had nothing to do with dance music. We were not having it. So we opted not to get signed.”

“I don’t want to be remembered just because we were black. I want to be remembered for being a part of the first tier of punk in the 70s” – Kenny Gordon, Pure Hell vocalist

Integrity and profitability don’t often go hand-in-hand, and Pure Hell’s refusal to comply with the industry’s limitations meant they sacrificed career opportunities. After a second European tour in 1979, the band suffered a fall-out with Knight. A messy legal conflict resulted in Knight flying back to the US alone, with the band’s master tapes in tow. Pure Hell remained in Europe without any of the rights, or access, to their recordings, which Kathy Knight salvaged after her husband attempted to destroy them.

Pure Hell eventually finagled their way back to the US, where they settled in Los Angeles. Although they played historic bills at the Masque (LA’s equivalent to CBGB) with iconic groups like the Germs, the Cramps, and the Dead Boys, Pure Hell lost their momentum. With no management, no record deal, and no access to their recorded output, the band felt the flames of Pure Hell die out. “It was all totally over by 1980,” says Kenny Gordon. “Really, punk died with Nancy’s murder. Everyone was burning the candle from both ends. You had to be extreme to be in those kinds of circles.” Bad Brains’ explosion onto the music scene in the early 80s also left Pure Hell feeling robbed of their title of ‘the first black punk band’. “You know, we took the blow for being black, so why didn’t they give it to us in the end?” Boles asks.  

As decades passed and history books were written, Pure Hell’s memory faded to legend. But in the early 2000s, Kathy Knight fatefully decided to auction off Pure Hell’s master tapes on eBay. Their unreleased album Noise Addiction was purchased by an enthusiastic Mike Schneider of Welfare Records. “Mike wanted them so badly he came himself to pick them up,” Knight recalls. Pure Hell’s legacy has also been promoted and protected by hardcore legend Henry Rollins of Black Flag, who tracked down the original acetate of the band’s first single and reissued it on his label 2.13.61, in collaboration with In the Red Records, last year. Rollins first learned of the band’s existence in 1979, after seeing their single at Yesterday & Today Records in Rockville, Maryland, with his friend Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. He remained on the lookout for traces of the band for over 30 years.

“At auction time, I was able to secure the record,” Rollins says. “I listened to it and was amazed at how good it sounded. I checked in with Kenny (Gordon) and he confirmed it was the only source for the two songs.” Beyond simply highlighting and celebrating the rare black punk bands of the time, Pure Hell held particular significance to Rollins because their urban myth was real. “The rumour was that they had made an album and that it was sitting in a closet,” he says. “Noise Addiction, released in 2006, decades after it had been recorded, is really great. If the album had come out when they made it, that would have been a game changer. I believe (it) would have had a tremendous impact. It’s one of those missed opportunity stories.”

In addition to Rollins, indie talent rep Gina Parker-Lawton ranks as one of Pure Hell’s greatest advocates. Parker-Lawton met drummer Michael Sanders on Sunset Boulevard in the 80s, and counted him as a friend during their overlapping years in LA. It was after she learned of Sanders’ death in 2003 that Parker-Lawton made contact with the other band members and became their publicist. “They were just kind of overlooked in all of the punk history books,” she says. “After learning their story and what they had actually accomplished, by being the first truly all-black punk band, I wanted to ensure they were remembered.” Parker-Lawton has since been advocating for their deserved place in music history, and recently helped secure their induction into the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture. Their induction will be marked by the donation of Sanders’ leather jacket, which he wore on tour in Europe and around LA.

Pure Hell’s story beckons essential questions about the integrity of our cultural memory, reminding us that “history” is written within the constructs of unjust society. “It’s just so important to me that history be correct,” says Parker-Lawton. “Taking the risks that they took, daring to be so different, they were outlaws and true pioneers. When people are that true to their art and that brave, it has to be recognised.” Although their musical careers didn’t necessarily bring wealth or fame, Boles and Gordon describe their years in Pure Hell as paramount. “I had so much fun, it doesn’t matter that I never saw a penny for it,” he says. “For us, it wasn’t about making money. It was about following our hearts and doing exactly what we wanted to do.”

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