The year was 1977, and the first generation of New York City punk and alternative bands had moved on to larger venues and the international touring circuit. The thrash of hardcore was still a few years down the pike. Yet the storied music venues of Manhattan were alive and aloud with excited, underage patrons.
They passed their days at Stuyvesant High School. They came from the High School of Performing Arts and Murrow. They went to Friends Seminary, Walden and Dalton, and to Brooklyn Friends, too. Some were dropouts and runaways; some were even from the suburbs. Almost all of them were under 18.
Over the next four years, they spent their nights creating their own rock scene, playing aggressive, witty, sophisticated and intense pop and punk for fellow teenagers in places like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, Hurrah and TR3. These weren’t the all-ages shows that would become commonplace in the city a few years later. This was a unique moment in the city’s musical history that changed the lives of many of the artists and audience members who were there, though their stories have gone largely untold. Imagine an upbeat “Lord of the Flies,” styled by Manic Panic and Trash & Vaudeville.
Their ranks included Eric Hoffert, who did four hours of homework from Bronx Science each weekday, then practiced his guitar for four hours; weekends belonged to his band, the Speedies. Arthur Brennan, a 16-year-old from Groton, Conn., who regularly hitchhiked 20 miles to the only newsstand where he could buy magazines that covered new music; he renamed himself Darvon Stagger and ran away to New York City to join a band. And Kate Schellenbach, a ninth grader at Stuyvesant who had heard a rumor that groups her age were playing the most famous music clubs in the world, just blocks from where she lived.
In September 1979, Schellenbach was 13 and starting high school in an outfit assembled to express her interest in new wave music: overdyed painters’ pants from Unique Clothing Warehouse, white go-go boots from Reminiscence in the West Village, a bowling shirt and an Elvis Costello pin.
“I remember going into the girls’ bathroom,” she said cheerfully, speaking via video chat, “and this girl, Nancy Hall, who was the coolest, was sitting on the sink.” Nancy suggested that Kate go see a band playing at CBGB later that week called the Student Teachers. The arty pop combo included a female rhythm section featuring some kids from Friends Seminary and, somewhat improbably, the rather distant Mamaroneck High School.
“If I hadn’t seen the Student Teachers that fateful night, I might never have been a drummer,” said Schellenbach, who helped found the Beastie Boys in 1981 and went on to form Luscious Jackson. “Seeing Laura Davis play drums, seeing Lori Reese play bass and how exciting the whole scene was, everything about it made me think, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I can do,’” she added. “These people were still in high school — it seemed attainable.”
The timing was perfect: This was the first generation to grow up with punk as the status quo, not the exceptional rebellion. “Part of the call of history was that you weren’t supposed to just listen and take it in, you were supposed to listen to the conversation and form a band yourself,” the Student Teachers’ keyboardist, Bill Arning, now a prominent gallery owner and curator, said via video chat. “Of course you were supposed to form a band; it didn’t even seem like it was an ‘out there’ idea.”
The key groups in the movement were the glam bubble gum Speedies, a high-concept bunch of overachieving teens (plus two very slightly older members) who “wanted to be the fusion of the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and the Bay City Rollers,” according to the founding guitarist Gregory Crewdson; the Student Teachers, who played art pop with elegiac touches reminiscent of Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground; the Blessed, who were the first, sloppiest and most fashionable…