The punk rock band Pure Hell.
retrieval / culture

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.
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.”
  …
View source