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May 2016

Guitarist Denise Mercedes Interviews
Kenny “Stinker” Gordon Founding member of legendary & groundbreaking punk band Pure Hell



The sensational Pure Hell at London’s Buckingham Palace 1978, photo by Bob Gruen

Kenny Gordon - guitarist, songwriter and lead singer, is a founding member of one of the most exciting and innovative bands of the mid-late 70’s NYC musical landscape. Pure Hell are best known for being unforgettable, groundbreaking rock/punk pioneers who first made their name and reputation in New York City starting in 1975 after leaving Philadelphia to storm NYC. They were contemporaries and friends of bands like the New York Dolls, Blondie, Television, and others, at the dawn of what Max’s Kansas City music impresario Peter Crowley has referred to as “a Golden Age of sorts” for New York rock music -- the early days of the emerging mid-70s downtown rock/glam/punk scene whose forceful and creative impact reverberates to this day! Upon their arrival in the city in 1975, the members of Pure Hell were taken under the wing of Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls lead guitarist, then fully embraced by, and ran with the “in crowd” of the city’s artistic illuminati. Many of these bands came to symbolize an entirely new movement and direction in music in the pre-Sex Pistols blitz of the slightly later UK ‘punk rock’ detonation that shook-up the entire planet. Pure Hell were quickly becoming noticeable on their own steam and fast-tracked their budding career by club dates, appearing in pop art king Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and performing alongside their friends in the Ramones, Blondie, Tom Verlaine/Television, Mink De Ville, Suicide, and many others who were beginning to achieve critical notice.


The band also had some interesting music business affiliations that took them to the UK and the Netherlands on tours, and they released a 1978 single “These Boots are Made for Walking” (Nancy Sinatra) and have two albums: “Noise Addiction” and “The Black Box” to their credit.




Pure Hell is also forever associated with Sid Vicious, the notorious former Sex Pistols bassist, having been musical contemporaries, scene makers together, and by performing on the historic 1978 bill of Vicious’ last ever shows - at Max’s Kansas City - before murder charges and death by OD in 1979 ended Sid’s short, explosive drug-fueled life. There is to this day, speculation on who else might really be responsible for his belligerent heroin-addicted

Pure Hell onstage with Sid at Max’s
girlfriend’s murder at the Chelsea Hotel. Sid Vicious’ classic and genuine rebel-rocker image remains as the iconic and eternal symbol of punk. Kenny Gordon can be seen in the film “Who Killed Nancy” and will be spotlighted in an upcoming 2016 documentary on the ill-fated lovers Sid & Nancy (Spungen) titled ” Sad Vacation.” He also appears in the film “Looking for Johnny – the Legend of Johnny Thunders” about the tragic and influential ‘live fast – die young’ New York Dolls guitarist, whose distinctive look and swagger was adopted and repackaged by many other rock musicians.


Pure Hell formed in Philadelphia in 1974, with Kenny Gordon on guitar and vocals along with his neighborhood friend “Spider”– Michael Anthony Sanders, on drums. They created a band and image that went on to achieve true underground ‘legend’ status. Amongst the many interesting groups that regularly played (circa 1975-80 during Pure Hell’s time together) at Max’s and other local venues, Pure Hell were recognized as the only all Black punk band performing in the large mix of music going on in town. Not only did they cut an undeniable cool downtown, spiked leather jacketed, rock star appearance at all times, but they were perfectly great musicians. Kenny Gordon had trained in gymnastics, and used those extraordinary skills to put on highly energetic and sweat-fueled stage shows that were singular to that band for some time.


My punk band The Stimulators were music associates, friends, and fans of Pure Hell early on. Kenny recently reminded me of the Stims show at the East Side Club in Philadelphia, where he and his wife met with us in his hometown before the gig. That was the big night: 11 year-old-punk rock drumming sensation Harley Flanagan had officially joined as our full-time drummer on the van ride there learning the rest of our set, when Johnny Blitz (Dead Boys drummer who had been working out with us) could not be located on the way to the Philly gig. We saw Pure Hell often at Max’s Kansas City, played with them, and they were always in the top tier of our favorite bands, along with The Mad and quite a few

others. They were definitely one of the most outstanding groups around. The presence of Pure Hell and their contributions foreshadowed important elements of the latter day, harder New York punk scene that would develop once Pure Hell were no longer around (1980) -- not only with their style of music and on-stage presentation of pure physical gymnast-inspired stage shows due to Kenny, but with the follow-up emergence of the influential Bad Brains from D.C. -- credited with reinventing punk rock to blistering hardcore -- a mighty and beloved band who have given their props to predecessors, Pure Hell.



Pure Hell Founding Members: 1974, Philadelphia, PA.
Kenny “Stinker” Gordon – writer/vocalist/guitar
Spider –Michael Anthony Sanders (RIP), Drummer
With Preston “Chip” Morris, Guitar
Lenny “Steal” Boles, Bass


MusicRealms:

I understand you started the band first under the name ‘Pretty Poison’ in Philly around 1974, with Spider on drums. What influenced you to form Pure Hell & where did that great name come from?


Kenny Gordon:

To most people of my era; during the early to mid 1970s, there was a sense of change in the air exceeding the turbulent 1960s. Recreation was television, am/fm transistor radio, science fiction and horror movies -- all soon coinciding with the emergence of glam rock and disco by 1974. We were inspired by anything from Memphis Stax artists to the British Invasion, MC5, Hendrix and the Stooges, to Ronnie Spector-type girl groups and earliest Sid Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Philadelphia was the original home of the American Band Stand when shows like Hulla Baloo and ShinDig kept a finger on the pulse. Spider and I rekindled a childhood friendship after meeting downtown in the Rittenhouse Square area where we attended separate private schools. He immediately moved into my house with his drums, and from a movie featuring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, I coined the first formation of our band from its title 'Pretty Poison.' We were about innovation and were into imported albums and styles from abroad. Initially he and I were a bass & drum combination, a rhythm section that recently saw Mott the Hoople and The New York Dolls at the Shubert Theatre in town. So we were part of a thread who was the audience descended of the stadium acts we'd go out to see. Like the bands Frankenstein and Sniper (earlier versions of the Dead Boys and Joey before the Ramones respectively). There are spectators and there are participators. You either drive or go for the ride. We were determined to go somewhere. After a X-mas semester break show at Lincoln College Preparatory, my school with accelerated courses, as Pretty Poison, I changed the band's name -- that now also included Preston 'Chipper' Morris III and Lenny (then 'Steal') Boles to Pure Hell before venturing up to Manhattan. I had been a racing fanatic and if you've ever been to a drag racing competition you'd experience extreme decibels of powerful noise the nitro fueled funny cars and dragsters create, and witness speed unbelievable! Devouring one quarter of a mile within 4 seconds. I thought the Pure Hell AA/fuel altered depicted the essence of what we were turning into.


MusicRealms:

Where did the band play its first gigs? What was the Philly scene like that made you decide to move to New York in 1975 instead? Was there a punk scene there?


Kenny Gordon:

There was no punk scene in Philadelphia before we went to New York. There was a scene similar to Greenwich Village on South Street and at 20th and Samson downtown. The first club we played was a spot called Artimis in the Samson Village, where Nancy Spungen, Neon Leon and his girlfriend Kathy used to hang out as well. In fact: Leon and Kathy would come over my place where we'd get stoned and jam and contemplate the move to New York some day. When we did, it was at the flashpoint of what eventually became labeled punk rock and new wave, mainly due to followers of people like Iggy, the Dolls and Andy Warhol. It was the sheer passion and desire in performing that drove our ambition to move where, what we had merely read about in Creem Magazine, was actually happening.


MusicRealms:

What were some of the inspirations for your songwriting?


Kenny Gordon:

Vengeance, selfishness, seek for truth, love, are a few. Philadelphia is comparable to just one of NYC's boroughs (e.g.) Queens or Brooklyn. Having a country retreat in rural Georgia helped broaden the sense of perception growing up. As with all major cities, the forces of good and evil were at large in Philadelphia. From the Benjamin Franklin Academy of Natural Science through the Badlands of North Philly, I was able to slip being killed or killing, and live life most of the way I intended.


MusicRealms:

Pure Hell arrived in NYC in 1975. You mentioned that Johnny Thunders had been instrumental in helping you get settled into the city after relocating from Philly. Were you living or hanging out at the NY Dolls rehearsal studio near the Chelsea Hotel? That was during the time the Patti Smith Group and Television played a month’s residence at CBGB’s every weekend for the first time. Can you fill our readers in on how you guys first met Johnny Thunders?


Kenny Gordon:

Right; I first met Johnny person-to-person at Harold C. Black's (of Teenage Lust) Suite 210 private after-hours club on 5th Avenue in the midtown Flat Iron district.

Photo Courtesy of
Harold C. Black
We were staying at the Chelsea Hotel when we arrived in Manhattan during the beginning months of 1975. The Dolls suggested we move with our equipment into their rehearsal loft space a couple of doors up from the Hotel. Hell--it was like the Latin phrase that 'one hand washes the other' as they needed a temporary fill in drummer for Jerry Nolan and invited us into their circle. I would ride along and help out Michael Sticca and Frenchy while Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne were attempting to refurbish their (NY Dolls) image. Soon to be Heartbreakers, Walter Lure of the Demons with Elliot Kidd and Richard Meyers of Television, were part of their clique around in there too. The Patti Smith Group and Television had taken residency for a month every weekend at CBGBs during that May. It was the month Thunders and Nolan left the Dolls in Florida and initially formed the Heartbreakers.


***Editor’s note: Malcolm McLaren (RIP) became the Sex Pistols manager; Vivienne Westwood is the fashion designer responsible for designing and outfitting the Sex Pistols outrageous and shocking style. McLaren and Westwood are also both known for their King’s Road boutique SEX (fetish & bondage i.e .leather, chains, spikes) & Seditionaries -- that featured Westwood’s subversive punk counter-culture clothing line still popular today. She remains an active and important contemporary fashion designer.


MusicRealms:

Your band Pure Hell played numerous shows in the city with many different bands … at Max’s, Hurrah’s, Mother’s and other venues. Where and when did you play your first NYC gigs? What are some of your fondest recollections of that time?


Kenny Gordon:

The first actual appearances we made was at Frenchy's thrift clothing shop called The Late Show on St. Marks Place, when Spider and I jammed on a couple of tunes with Johnny Thunders and then Pure Hell took over the stage. Not to forget: because of Chip's guitar volume or his faulty wires, it caught the amplifier speaker on fire. We'd play a place on 8th street between MacDougal and the Electric Lady Land Studio called the Rock Bottom, Curtis Knight brought up. Actually we didn't play CBGBs for two reasons as it was during a period we were traveling back and forth from Philadelphia. Horsing around with Thunders (and pun intended for those who know what horse is slang for) had gone to Spider's head. He once pawned drum parts that belonged to Schebo Pampillonia of The Stillettos and Elda didn't like it. So there was an Angel out there trying to earn his wings looking for Spider to redeem what he did. The other reason was that Knight had us aiming to go to Europe without spreading ourselves too thin. We had a double punch in clout from the Dolls and Curtis' affiliation with Jimi (Hendrix), be it good or bad. There were tons of bands that never got further than playing the club circuit. These kinds of perils weren’t limited to only the Pure Hell band. Mothers was another early place we played that Peter Crowley and Wayne County were handling, where once I was with a juiced up Thunders when we were met at the top of the stairs inside by a bartender. He began ranting at Johnny about his overdue tab and knocked him back down the steps! All I could do was pick him up as I had no idea how much money Johnny had ran up.


MusicRealms:

Can you share some of your experiences with bands that you hung out and played with at that early time in your career?


Kenny Gordon:

For one there were the Stimulators we shared the bill with at Max's on several occasions whose precision and speed of their execution was always impressing … highlighted with Denise Mercedes' furious guitar riffing and the fact that they were predominately a female band. To me, that relates to the innovation referred to at the beginning of the conversation. I felt like they were a compatible band for Pure Hell to play with. The Nuns from San Francisco were another band we played Max's several times with. And when they'd come to Philadelphia they'd crash at my house. Alejandro Escovedo of The Nuns wrote about the times in a song called Chelsea Hotel '78 on his REAL ANIMAL album, 2008.


MusicRealms:

You were then managed for a while by Curtis Knight (RIP). He is closely associated with Jimi Hendrix, who in his early days was guitarist for Knight’s group, The Squires. I’ve read that Knight would not release your 1978 album “Noise Addiction.” It came out on Cherry Red 27 years later in 2016!! Can you explain how the relationship with Curtis Knight affected Pure Hell?



Kenny Gordon:

Well the full 1978 album sessions was released by Welfare Records in Boston during 2006, now reissued by Cherry Red Records in London 2016 …. who go back to 1978 themselves and named their company after a song by Tony McPhee of the Ground Hogs …. who also produced and engineered the three London sessions on the 'Noise Addiction' album that year. Everything was great with Knight until we got to Europe. We owe him getting us there, along with others. But when things started picking up and taking shape, the bottom line is it was 'our' time, it was about the band. Offers from labels and companies began to roll around and he wanted to restrain everything to his independent label. That's the problem Hendrix had with him and record producer Ed Chalpin. The infrastructure in our relationship began to crack and an incident involving a teenage fan in London led to obtaining a lawyer. But after his departure with the master tape of the 1978 New York recordings -- the 45' single ‘These Boots are made for Walking b/w No Rules -- were then the only tracks released on his label. Then, we had the option to get a cottage in the country side and continue recording. It was the fault of members in the band who wanted to go home for X-mas and back to Curtis -- and that wasn't Spider or me! It was crucial to seize the moment at our peak -- even though the original spirit of 1977 died with John Simone Richie (Sid Vicious) and Nancy Spungen.


MusicRealms:

Pure Hell did some UK/Europe tours in 1978 and 1979. How did that happen and how did it work out? Who did you play with? What was England’s reaction to you?


Kenny Gordon:

As also mentioned earlier it's really a circle where everyone in it recognizes another, and people like Phil Lynott and Gary Moore – both RIP - (Thin Lizzy guitarist), the Boomtown Rats, Billy Idol, probably Bon Scott (AC DC) before he died and Poly Styrene (RIP), Chrissie Hynde -- I've met, or were at our debut in London. Of course outside of the circle you had columnists who didn't want to believe that things started for us in the states in 1975 -- before they started in England (led by Malcolm) in 1976. How dare they stare our notorious Sex Pistols down! But overall the people were glad to see us. Their cause was serious living under a monarchy. Rastafarian and punk culture went hand-in-hand for the most over there. Those tours began in Amsterdam at the Paradiso with Wilco Johnson in autumn, 1978 and ended at the Lyceum with the UK Subs summer, 1979.


MusicRealms:

Your band later went to California with Stiv Bators (RIP) and Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys between your European tour dates in 1978-1979. Can you tell our readers something about the experience playing at the Masque with the Cramps and the Germs?


Kenny Gordon:

Living on the edge had taken its toll on most bands by 1979 and they were breaking down looking for new life. Cheetah Chrome and Stiv Bators without the other Dead Boys, were in L.A. when they had us come out there. We were in between touring and they considered Spider to play drums with them, then instead, added their whole band on the venue to close the Masque - which was L.A.'s version of CBGBs, ran by Brendan Muller (RIP) that had been closed by ordinance more than once. Others on the venue were Darby Crash (before he died later that year) with the Germs, the Cramps, Wall of Voodoo and the Extremes. Afterwards the French financial backer that set up a camp of trailers to have everybody out there (Angie Bowie was even around at sometime, and Joan Jett, Cynthia Ross), took the circus to the Mojave' desert in an attempt to record a compilation under the slogan 'Words Can Organize without War'. By the time Bryan Gregory (Cramps guitarist RIP) was whacked out drawing skulls in the sand on LSD, or Nick Knox (Cramps drummer) had one of the older Frenchmen in his wheel chair jesting to me that he was gonna push him down the rocky cactus speckled hilly terrain, I was ready to return to Philadelphia and get ready to tour England jolly ole' again.


MusicRealms:

What was the difference between East Coast/West Coast/UK punk from your perspective –as you guys were in the thick of it all, which many did not get to experience first-hand?


Kenny Gordon:

You can see the magnitude of unrest in Eastern Europe (etc.) as it is today. From my perspective: Europe would be the grandparents, New York the grandson, and L.A. the daughter, crying for change. As I think that was the main message.


MusicRealms:

In the 1990’s, what made you relocate to California? While there you began some recording sessions with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister (RIP) and Mick Cripps of LA Guns as producers for your album “The Black Box.” I understand Lemmy played bass on the tune “Wild One” and did some singing at your sessions. Fill us in!!!!


Kenny Gordon:

Lemmy was a spirit of having a good time! He got on his horse one day and rode like hell until he died. We met him way back in 1978-79 when the Road Rats MC London informed us that Motorhead wanted to do a venue with us at the Greyhound. This came about because he had seen our debut performance at the Music Machine when we got over there, and the fact that his then guitarist 'Fast' Eddie Clark had previously played in Curtis Knight's band Zeus. The circle don't stop there - as our agent Roy Fisher previously managed the Ground Hogs who regularly did gigs with Hawkwind. So after Pure Hell broke up circa 1980 and I got married for a few years, Spider contacted me in 1987 and asked me to join him in West Hollywood to rekindle Pure Hell again. We lived near the Whiskey A Go Go on Holloway Drive in an apartment complex next to ex-NY Doll Arthur Kane (and his wife) and Mick Cripps' brother Robert of Gore Galore. The L.A. Guns were hanging around and we began rehearsing and recording sessions before long.

By 1992 when the riots happened on the other side of town, Ernie C. of Body Count (guitarist for Ice T's band) set us up to do an independent cable TV show appearance where Lemmy joined in the interview segment. Over a span of about 5 years of recording sessions coast-to-coast, individually produced by Lemmy Kilmister and Mick Cripps (he brought Charlie Clouser of NIN along for a Long Island, New York session) the Black Box album was done.


MusicRealms:

After the band’s break-up (1980) Pure Hell reformed in 2012 to do a big British punk festival in Blackpool , England, playing with the Buzzcocks, Public Image Ltd. (Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols) & Social Distortion. Can you tell us about how that happened?


Kenny Gordon:

My publisher was promoting one of her books (A Vicious Love Story) at the Rebillion Festival 2012 and she and John Rob of ‘Louder Than War’ magazine suggested to the promoters they should sign us on. Not being able to extend the trip with a string of venues for finance to cover expenses, we had no choice in canceling.


MusicRealms:

What is Kenny Gordon up to these days? I hear that a rock & roll memoir is possibly in the works?


Kenny Gordon:

I'm totally caught up in the process of completing chapters before editing, aiming to be published before the end of the year. What I touched on here and further more - what I didn't - will be thoroughly revealed. It’s a very 'rare' look into and behind-the-scene of an era that influenced generations.


MusicRealms:

For a final question to wrap things up: as someone who has had such a fascinating career in rock & roll, what words of advice do you have for musicians trying to navigate and find their own place in the confusing music world of today?


Kenny Gordon:

Frankly my advice would be for them to look back into 20th century rock & roll when there was culture and spirit. And, people actually lived more of a social scene among each other, rather virtually via videos and social media. People don't put their life into it as they did before the millennium, though they're going back to re-find it captured on vinyl records and even cassette tapes.



Discography

Single: These Boots Are Made for Walking (b/w No Rules) 1978
Album: Noise Addiction, circa 1977; 2016 reissue on Cherry Red Records.
2 disc set with live-in-the-studio circa1978 DVD included*
Album: The Black Box (Kenny & Spider) 1990’s – produced by former members LA Guns, Nine Inch Nails and Lemmy Kilmister (Motorhead). Lemmy is featured playing bass on the track “Wild One”. The Black Box recordings have not been released to the public as an album yet.


MusicRealms graciously thanks Kenny Gordon for his time and recollections for this fantastic interview and preserving some important punk rock history.

***Photo credits given when know***


This interview conducted by:
Denise Mercedes: Founder/guitarist The Stimulators
Artist Endorsed by Hagstrom Guitars of Sweden
Guitarist of Girls Girls Girls and Bible Black NYC
** An original music project is in the works 2016 **
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