Between KISS and the Ramones: Coventry and 5 bands you should know about

“Exuma, the Obeah Man.”

The Ramones all originated from Forest Hills [Queens,] and kids who grew up there either became musicians, degenerates or dentists,” Tommy Ramone wrote in an early press release. “The Ramones are a little of each. Their sound is not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar.”

Sure, Queens has never had the cachet of Manhattan or Brooklyn, but the borough’s role in promoting New York musicians shouldn’t be overlooked. Consider Coventry in Sunnyside, Queens: The erstwhile Popcorn Pub changed its name at the end of January 1973 — the same weekend it hosted KISS’ first-ever gigs — and went on to feature an eclectic assortment of musical acts.

“It was a big club, around 5,000 square feet, and it held around 700 people,” recalled owner Paul Sub in Ken Sharp’s Dressed to Kill. “Everyone from KISS, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Blondie, Sam & Dave, The Dictators, and Elephant’s Memory played there. I’d put on 10 acts a week, both local and national. The only act we turned down, because we didn’t want to spend $300, was Aerosmith (laughs). The New York Dolls were really the ones that kept Coventry going. They played once a month, and whenever they played, 700 people would show up. They had the main following of all the bands who played there.”

According to Dictators bassist Andy Shernoff, “The Coventry was one of the glitter-rock places in New York, and if you were doing original music, that was the ONLY place to play. If you were a cover band, you could play anywhere; that’s what people wanted to see.”

Many of the up-and-coming local acts to visit Coventry are now more closely associated with Manhattan clubs like Max’s Kansas City; the Mercer Arts Center; and CBGB, which would open later that year. (Before he switched noms de punk, Joey Ramone played at Coventry often as “Jeff Starship” with his first band, Sniper.) Others aren’t so well remembered, but they’re worth more than a casual listen. Here are five bands that played Coventry and you should know about: 

  1. Exuma. While a string of Coventry gigs is the most substantial surviving record of his performance history, this enigmatic Bahamian musician (born Tony McKay on Cat Island) made his bones in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, sharing stages with the likes of Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Richie Havens. In 1977, Exuma led a cast of 40 at Lincoln Center in a production of “Junkanoo Drums,” a musical that showcased his mystical, voodoo-tinged aesthetic.Before his death in 1997, he would go on to perform at the New Orleans Jazz Festival from 1978 to 1991; open for such diverse acts as Toots and the Maytals, Steppenwolf, Black Flag and X; and receive the British Empire Medal from Queen Elizabeth II. You can find selections from his dozen albums online, but this video produced in the Bahamas is the only sequence available that shows Exuma in action. 
  2. The Harlots of 42nd Street. New York Dolls frontman David Johansen recalls, “We used to compete with the Harlots of 42nd Street, which was a group of guys who looked like truck drivers but dressed like the Dolls and wore, like, fishnet stockings over these big, muscular, hairy legs. They were my favorite band.” The only known performance footage of The Harlots of 42nd Street is a silent Super8 home movie shot by a young father passing by the Central Park band shell in 1973 — and who years later misidentified the band as the Dolls. He can be forgiven, as you see from the footage below; vocalist Gene Harlot does bear an uncanny resemblance to Johansen himself.
    N.b.: David Johansen’s admiration for Gene Harlot doesn’t seem to be reciprocated. A visitor representing himself as “Gene Harlot” commented on a page containing unreleased Harlots’ acetates: “Even though we were only a footnote to a footnote of Rock N Roll history … we were a hot commodity at the time … and, of course, a lot better band than these show … and certainly better than the Dolls & others who killed the record label’s desire to sign more & better acts!”
  3. The Magic Tramps. Another set of Coventry regulars that staked out the New York glitter scene ahead of the New York Dolls, the Magic Tramps also had a solid connection to Andy Warhol’s Factory in the person of lead vocalist and Warhol Superstar Eric Emerson. The band, which started in Hollywood, California, as an experimental instrumental outfit called Messiah, added Emerson and moved to New York in 1971, where they played hot spots like the Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City.Shortly before KISS’ debut ushered in Coventry’s new moniker, the Magic Tramps played a string of dates opening for Link Wray at the Popcorn Pub in September 1972. “[W]e were asked to convert a club … called the ‘Popcorn’ into a Rock club called the ‘Coventry,’ ” recalls Magic Tramps drummer Sesu Coleman. “The bill was the Magic Tramps and Link Wray. We would perform a show with Eric Emerson, and then Eric would leave the stage and Link would come on and immediately turn his amp backwards towards the wall and start playing ‘RUMBLE’ … Music to my ears.” Like Gene Harlot, Sesu Coleman has a a bone to pick with David Johansen, although his assessment of the New York Dolls is far more favorable. In an interview with Punk Globe’s Ginger Coyote, Coleman says, “I would like to set the record straight on an interview I read about when the Dolls opened up for the Tramps at the Mercer Arts Center, David Jo. was quoted as saying everyone liked them so much they ‘hissed’ the Tramps off stage so the Dolls opened and closed. The fact is the Dolls did open for us and brought their fans with them. They played — we played — Then their fans wanted to hear more — so we let the “Dolls” go back on. (They were friends & it was no big deal.) … But NEVER were the Tramps ‘hissed’ off stage!”
  4. Isis. Another band that contributed to the eclectic bills at Coventry — opening for KISS’ final New York club dates in December 1973 — Isis was an all-female ensemble founded by Carol MacDonald and Gina Bianco of Goldie & the Gingerbreads, a groundbreaking band of women who toured with the Rolling Stones and Kinks. Like other Coventry acts such as Exuma, Isis was signed to the Buddah label. The band failed to achieve mainstream success, reportedly in part because of MacDonald’s pioneering decision to avow her sexuality in songs like “She Loves Me.”
    Isis would continue in a variety of incarnations through the ’70s, releasing three albums and opening for Blondie on a 1977 East Coast tour.
  5. Teenage Lust. Founded by Harold C. Black and Billy Joe White — the core of David Peel‘s original Lower East Side Band in the 1960s — Teenage Lust were glam-rock regulars at Coventry, accompanied by their female support act, the Lustettes.
    A Nov. 16, 1972, review in the Village Voice captures the band’s proto-punk DIY appeal: “Teenage Lust is a rock band that really isn’t very good. So why do I keep going back to hear them whenever I find out they have managed to wrangle another appearance someplace? … I guess it’s the total of what they do rather than what they simply play that signals my synapses and makes my heart go jangle. … They are raucous. They are too loud. They are an eyeful. They even become screamingly monotonous. Today, so much rock ‘n’ roll has become glitter and gestalt and maybe Teenage Lust can shout and screech and slither their way to the top of the fave rock pile. … Every time I see them perform, the audience catches the foot and mouth dance disease, stomping and shouting all over the place. Very anti-Quaalude. Ears actually ring for an hour afterward. Isn’t energy what it’s supposed to be all about? … But energy isn’t their only appeal. Teenage Lust is accessible. It’s clear that almost anyone can play as good, including yourself, so it’s easy to change places in your head.”

So why isn’t Coventry known as widely as other New York venues of the era, like CBGB? Probably for the same reason so many of its core acts have dropped away; the bills were such a mix of styles, it’s hard to curate a nice, clean narrative for the history books.

But one thing’s sure: Choosing five bands that deserve a bigger spot in history was not easy. Check out RagsMilk & Cookiesthe Brats (featuring Rick Rivets); and other bands listed on “Remember That One Time at Coventry?” for a deeper dive into the bands who churned through this joint.