All it takes is at least one functioning eyeball to know that black faces in punk scenes can be few and far between. So when an African-American punk band contributes heavily to the invention of a genre and goes on to have a compelling and storied career like hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, or is rescued from obscurity and discovered to have been uncannily ahead of its time like Detroit’s celebrated proto-punks Death, it’s worthy of notice.
One such band, however, has not attracted notice to equal its gifts. That’s Philadelphia’s Pure Hell. Rocktober mag’s 2002 roundup of black punk musicians had this to say:
Often referred to as the first Black punk rock group, Philly’s Pure Hell (Spider, Stinker, Chip Wreck and Lenny Still) played around the U.S. in whatever few venues were available from ‘77-‘79, but really had a “career” when they went to England. Their overseas “discovery” was credited to Curtis Knight, who claims Jimi Hendrix as a discovery and who apparently decided he was the reverse Sam Phillips (“If I could only find a Black boy that played like a cracker…” see also NIKKI BUZZ). Their sole single released was the UK only “These Boots Are Made For Walking” b/w “No Rules” (Golden Sphinx, 1978) and it’s a pretty straightforward punk record. However, at the time their live show was described as sounding like everything from the Sex Pistols to Stax to Reggae. Martin of Los Crudos traded the Mentally Ill’s “Gacey’s Place” single for the Pure Hell 7”, so you know it’s a collector scum treasure! As huge Black guys with genuinely fucked punk-out hair and makeup, it’s surprising these fellows didn’t make it bigger, at least as a novelty (their look was enough to get their picture printed in Rock Scene and other mags).
It IS surprising they didn’t make it any bigger—they were a really fucking awesome band, good enough to make plenty of their better-known contemporaries look like pikers. Their recordings boast all the unaffected grime of the Dead Boys, the far-sighted musicality of the Voidoids, the metallic heft of the Stooges, excellent guitar playing, powerful vocals, a propulsive rhythm section, everything you need from this kind of music. The Rocktober blurb above cites their UK single as their only release, which was true at the time, but they also recorded a full-length LP that didn’t see release until the Massachusetts label Welfare Records issued a CD in 2005. That disc, Noise Addiction, is still (or again?) in print, and it’s superb. No, ESSENTIAL. I want ALL ‘70s punk to be this good.
There have been intermittent reunions. A second album, Black Box, still remains unreleased, though it was recorded in the 1990s, and featured production and vocal contributions from one Mr. Lemmy Kilmister. And, despite the long-ago cancer death of drummer Michael “Spider” Sanders, there have been live appearances, including a 2010 WFMU in-studio appearance (preserved for your enjoyment on the Free Music Archive) and a 2012 reunion concert in the UK.
Here’s a great video with the band’s members talking about their origins and early days. The live footage is some killer stuff, and their recollections of the early punk years in NYC and London are priceless.
Major gratitude to Charles at My Mind’s Eye for turning me on to this band.