Love Goes To Buildings on Fire – Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

In January 1975 in New York City a bomb went off in the name of Puerto Rican liberation; a young man named Soulski was gunned down by the police, inspiring his cousin to leave gangbanging behind, rename himself Afrika Bambaataa and take his DJing efforts more seriously; An established DJ named Hollywood was riffing on adapted Isaac Hayes lyrics to rhyme over records at his next gig; a near-riot hit ticket outlets as thousands of kids trying to see Led Zeppelin were met by armed police; Blood on the Tracks came out, the result of Dylan’s intensive secret studies in visual art; a band named Television was planning a Friday night gig at CBGB’s, confident they were close to being signed by Island, but unsure whether they’d remain intact; on the same bill a band named Blondie had just found a new drummer, having narrowly avoided losing him to Patti Smith; Watergate revelations were rumbling on, and The Jeffersons debuted on TV.

That was just January. In February Malcolm McLaren arrived in town, Mingus played at The Bottom Line, Talking Heads double-billed with The Ramones, Springsteen was recording ‘Born to Run’ in Times Square, and Billy Cobham’s ‘Funky Kind of Thing’ with its nine-minute drum solo arrived in the collection of Joseph Saddler, giving him the perfect raw material to perfect his quick-mix DJing technique, a skill he’d make famous under the new name of Grandmaster Flash.

Everything everywhere, all at once. Only not everywhere, just New York City.

It’s an epic crime chart, with a thick web of red string connecting hundreds of musical innovators and every kind of music. Even a world as incestuous as the downtown punk scene had fibres leading to and from every other style – from avant-classical, loft-based jazz, street-level Latin, blue-collar rock, disco, hip hop. The joy of this book is seeing chance inspiration and unlikely influence, as scenes cross-pollinate each other and wildly different imaginations drop grains of sand into each others’ oysters. It’s an epic job of cross-referencing, mapping scores of biographies and genre histories into an all-encompassing soap opera.

New York 1973-77 was a wasteland of crime and cheap rents, the city abandoned by the federal government to go broke as an example of liberal profligacy. New waves of heroin washed its shores, cryptic serial killers stalked its streets. And in this exciting breakdown, human minds had the time and space to create so much.  

Will Hermes makes it all sing; he sketches everyone so they feel real, and he immerses you in the wide creative life of the city like never before. Travelling chronologically, but with an aerial view, is a new kind of omniscience. If you can juggle enough plates in your mind, the experience is like living it. Or at least a whole lot closer than a traditional music history. There’s a fashion for this kind of storytelling, and this book joins Stuart Cosgrove’s masterful soul trilogy at the top table.

The only downside is that it makes you nostalgic for a time when so many fundamental genres were new enough to take your breath away, and when there was a deep revolutionary spirit in every kind of music. Or, to put it another way, for a time when city centre rents were cheap and New York was on fire.
Frank Broughton

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton