Playlist to accompany- https://open.spotify.com/playlist/169oIfuoRJ1HVBo0AxE8lN
With its blaring power chords, anti-establishment overtones and do-it-yourself fashion, the early punk scene is the last place you’d expect to find angsty Jews. Yet from Sylvian Mizrahi and Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls to Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, often referred to as the “Godfather of Punk,” Jews were at the forefront of punk rock’s evolution.
Punk rock is a subgenre of rock ‘n’ roll, which began as a crude form of self-expression and rebellion against overly-produced, profit-driven music in the 60s. Before punk became mainstream, the word “punk” literally meant outcast. The genre has branched into different avenues, and goes beyond rigid classification. Joey Ramone, Jewish frontman of the Ramones, once said: “To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am.’”
Indeed, punk reflects the Jewish diaspora struggle between assimilation and retaining traditionalism. Steve Lee Bebeer, author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, wrote that “punk reflects the whole Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging, always being divided, being in and out, good and bad, part and apart.”
Goldie and the Gingerbreads were the first group to break rock’s glass ceiling as the first ever all-girl rock band to be signed to a record label. Lead singer Goldie Zelkowitz was a holocaust survior. After being persecuted for her Judaism, she sought countercultural expression by exclusively dating goyim (non-Jews) and not keeping kosher.
Goldie gradually came to terms with her Judaism during her career, wearing a Star of David ring at early shows. Today, she fully embraces her Jewishness, saying “The Jewish part of my life is probably more important now than it’s ever been. I love being Jewish. I love the DNA that’s in me.”
The Gingerbreads made their mark on the scene, opening for the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. Even today they are regarded as heavy influences on the modern Riot Grrl genre, a subgenre of punk rock associated with third-wave feminism.
The Velvet Underground remains one of the most influential bands of all time, inspiring sonic revolutions with their dynamic range and streetwise transience. Frontman Lou Reed grew up in an extremely Jewish household and Jewish fraternities in Syracuse were a large part of the audience for his early musical endeavors.
In the rather preppy society, The Velvet Underground’s willingness to talk about taboo subjects, such as in the song “Heroin” from their debut album, was groundbreaking. Their sound applied the openness of jazz to rock riffs in a way that hadn’t been done before. The Velvet Underground was the first to defy genre-confining stereotypes and venture into the alternative. Musicians like David Bowie, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and Patti Smith (who is also Jewish) cite the Velvet Underground as an inspiration for their work.
CBGB’s, a club in New York City, served as a springboard for American punk. The club itself was Jewish owned and run. Acts such as the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, and The Dictators all got their start there. Astonishingly, many of CBGB’s regulars and all of the previously listed artists have Jewish roots. Norman Lebrecht, host of the series “Music and the Jews,” explains this by saying, “There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that pop music begins in a conversation on a hot day in New York between the sons of people who fled the pogroms in Russia and the sons of others who’d fled from the horrors of the slave field in the Deep South.”
Though the Velvet Underground are considered the progenitors of punk, The Ramones are hailed as the first “true”American punk band. Ridiculously fast, loud music, palpable dynamism, and black leather jackets with denim jeans are emblematic of their band. While melodious instrumentals, syrupy choruses, and self-indulgent guitar solos defined the rock and jazz of their age, The Ramones defied the mainstream and defined a new sound, punctuated by crude beats, trashy feasibility, distorted power chords, and heavy bass lines in place of guitar solos. The future of punk rock followed their lead and notable bands from Black Flag to Green Day cite The Ramones as one of their influences.
Known by their stage names Joey Ramone and Tommy Ramone, their given names were Jeffery Ross Hyman and Tamás Erdélyi, respectively. lthough Judaism was not a focal point of their artistry, just as it was not for Reed and Zelkowitz, it was a huge part of their upbringing and Jewish influence seeped into their craft, especially for Tommy, as the son of disillusioned Holocaust survivors (Stratton).
The Ramones’ self-titled album demonstrated their cognizance of the war with songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop.” “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” describes a satirical fascination with Nazi paraphenalia and being pushed around by Germans.
Like Joey and Tommy Ramone, Richard Lester Meyers changed his Jewish sounding name. Meyers chose the stage name of Richard Hell. Hell was played in Television, the first band to ever play at CBGB’s. For Hell, Judaism was not a part of his adolescence. Hell told The Independent that the first time he attended synagogue was for a friend’s Bat Mitzvah. On his website, Hell responded to a question about his Judaism saying “I am definitely a Jew to an anti-Semite” and that though “I don’t know anything about the religion/culture to speak of. Someday I’m going to do something about that.” In his book, “Massive Pissed Love,” Hell affirms his identity by saying “I’ve concluded that a Jew is anyone whom anyone else calls a Jew” in reference to antisemitism and his inclusion in The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s.
Another band to emerge from CBGB’s was The Dictators. Star-of-David wearing frontman Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba and hits like “Master Race Rock” made the Dictators visibly Jewish. By their name alone, The Dictators convey their association with World War II.
“Master Race Rock” is a song off the album, Go Girl Crazy!, The Dictator’s first full album, which is a violently funny, politically incorrect commentary on facism with lyrics like: “We are members of the master race, we got no tact and we got no taste.” The final track on their first album, “The Next Big Thing,” is a direct assertion of their Jewishness with the lyrics: “Yeah I knocked them dead in Dallas/They didn’t know we were Jews.”
The Dictators were major players in the development of proto-punk style and riffs. Their fast, deliberate music continues to serve as a blueprint for underground groups today and 80s stalwarts such as Black Flag and the Dead Kennedy’s.
On the other side of the pond, the British Punk Invasion was in full effect. With it, came beats and potency that reflected the polarized politics of UK society.
Jews were not as pivotal in the emergence of English punk rock, especially with many fleeing Europe after World War II. Still, musicians like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash remained major players.
However, Jews did take major managerial positions in UK punk. Seymour Stein of Sire Records, who signed The Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna, was Jewish. The Stooges’ manager Jimmy Silverman, affectionately dubbed Jimmy Silvers, was Jewish as well (Stratton).
Of course, antisemitism persisted, especially in the UK. Jewish punk rockers had to choose between assimilation, which is antithetical to punk rock, and preserving their cultural heritage, in a genre that promotes rebellion. For the post-war generation in England, the cultural trauma of the Holocaust remained salient (Stratton).
The extreme nature of punk rock often exhausted its Jewish players, as the first genre to openly flirt with fascist symbols. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols often sported a shirt of a swastika and exaggerated makeup as an attempt to emasculate the symbol. “Too many Jews for my liking” was a lyric in an early version of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Love in a Void.” The band’s lead singer Siouxsie Sioux regards the lyric as a metaphor for “too many fat businessmen waiting to pounce,” which feeds the stereotype of Jewish greed. Punk’s display of Nazi symbols for shock value was particulary alienating. Despite this, Jews remained unabashed pioneers of the genre.
Dee Dee Ramone described punk as “ not that civilized [of] an art form. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.” In a post-Nazi globe, punk rock proved the perfect outlet for proto-punk teenagers struggling with internalized judeocide and the chutzpah of the turn of the century. Even today, they maintain heavy influence on modern music and UCLA teenagers brandish their albums on t-shirts.
Like The Dictators said, Jewish punks knocked them dead from CBGB’s to London. People just did not realize these stars were Jewish.