MOVE OVER, BAD BRAINS Pure Hell

Three decades later, a
band of black punks get their due.

 

BY JAMES GREENE, JR.

 

The strange, sad story of punk’s first and almost completely
forgotten all-black group began in Philadelphia in 1974 when four guys – Kenny
“Stinker” Gordon (vocals), Preston “Chip Wreck” Morris III (guitar), Kerry
“Lenny Steel” Boles (bass), and Michael “Spider” Sanders (drums) – came
together over a mutual love of acts like the Mothers of Invention and Alice
Cooper.  The teens christened themselves
Pure Hell and soon realized there was nothin’ doin’ in Philly.  Thus, they moved their act to Manhattan. 

 

Guitarist Johnny Thunders, who had befriended Sanders in Philadelphia, put Pure Hell up in his band’s New York loft.  Naturally, this location was advantageous for
networking, and the band soon found itself on bills with Patti Smith and
Television.  They also landed a manager, Curtis
Knight (who years earlier had employed a young Jimi Hendrix in his band the
Squires).

 

Like most NYC-based punks of the time, Pure Hell made quite
a splash in Europe when they traveled there
for a 1978 tour.  Around this time the
band released their snappy cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking” backed
with the original rave-up “No Rules.” 
The single charted in the U.K., prompting Knight to hurry Pure
Hell into the studio again to record their full-length debut, Noise Addiction

 

Unfortunately, before the album was completed, group and
manager had a major falling out over Knight’s increasingly nightmarish behavior
(including the molestation of an underage fan at a London party).  When it was time to fly back to the States,
the band members voluntarily disappeared. 
Knight, left high and dry, departed Europe
with the Noise Addiction master tapes
and Pure Hell’s chances of bigger, broader success.

 

PH nabbed a new manager and slugged it out for a couple more
years before finally calling it a day in 1980. 
In the decades that followed, while just about every other band from the
Bowery scene became lionized and hailed as true pioneers, Pure Hell faded into
obscurity.  They existed only in the
memories and on the lips of the few hundred or so people who had seen or known
them. 

 

One person aware of Pure Hell and their trailblazing efforts
was Mike Schneider, owner and operator of Welfare Records.  “A friend of mine
was playing in a band with an original member of Pure Hell and he told me about
the existence of the unreleased [Noise
Addiction
] recordings,” wrote Schneider in an e-mail to Blurt.  “I tried to contact Curtis Knight back then
and had no luck. Eventually I was able to contact his wife in 2005 because she
was looking to sell the reels, and I bought them off her then.” Knight passed
away in 1999.

 

Pure Hell’s front man Kenny Gordon was “shocked” to hear
Welfare had recovered his band’s long-lost tapes.  “Our history was vague and lost for sure in a
void,” the singer in a recent interview. 
After receiving the go-ahead from Gordon and the band’s other surviving
members (Sanders had died in 2002), Welfare Records remixed, re-mastered, and formally
introduced the world to Pure Hell’s Noise
Addiction
earlier this year.  And what an introduction it was.  

 

These guys pushed the histrionic sound of the Voidoids and
the Dolls to a strange, new extreme on Noise
Addiction
.  A few beats faster and Pure
Hell could have easily smoked most hardcore groups.  Still, you can’t deny the rawk rooted in the
nasty swagger of cuts like “Hard Action” and the fist-slamming title track.  Mike Sanders’ drumming pops like a freshly
starched collar while the guitars bleed a sharp river of wild notes.  Kenny Gordon sneers a nice Iggy impression on
the vocals, but he avoids sounding too derivative or hacky. 

 

In short, Pure Hell and their excavated album are really
pure joy, a literal blast from the past that will delight fans of the old
school and all us aging grumps who aren’t impressed by much anymore.  “If this album had
been released thirty years ago, it would have influenced so many people,”
speculates Schneider.  “Who knows how big
[Pure Hell] would have become as a band?”

 

 

 

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