What precipitated punk rock? Frustration with pop music’s drift from relevance and sonic innovation to prog-rock bloat, Golden AM complacency, and disco; the unresolved paranoia coursing through America after Watergate; a sharp economic downturn that disproportionately affected New York City at the tail end of the 1970s. All these things point towards a need for a new subgenre with a pared-down aesthetic that gave voice to the fears and fatalism of the direction the culture had taken. In short, the New York Times’ argument that “without Danny Fields, punk rock wouldn’t have happened” seems a little overblown. However, a quick glimpse at Fields’s CV – which includes signing Iggy Pop and the MC5, editing the notorious teen magazine Datebook, and managing the Ramones – suggests that punk may have been a flash in the pan without his enthusiastic support.
Filmmaker Brendan Toller describes Fields as “the father of punk rock” on the film’s official website. How does one claim paternity for a new genre of music and a seismic youth subculture? To use a cliché, Fields was in the right place at the right time with the right credentials. A child prodigy who entered college at the age of 15, Fields dropped out of Harvard Law School and hightailed it to New York City before he was old enough to vote. His friendship with Edie Sedgwick opened him up to Andy Warhol’s crowd at the old Factory, where he had the honor of introducing Nico to her short-lived, ill-fated paramour Jim Morrison.
Meanwhile, a series of dead-end day jobs at specialty publications like Liquor Store and Outdoor Advertiser eventually led to a position as an editor at Datebook, a music magazine aimed at teenage girls. In his capacity as an editor, Fields showed his first signs of provocation when he ran the Beatles’ interview with John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” interview. (Fields teased the article with a cover quote from Paul McCartney that used the N-slur, a far more shocking move that got little press.) Later on, Fields ran extensive articles on Alice Cooper, going so far as to pit the horror-glam frontman against teen dream singer David Cassidy.
However, Fields’s position also granted him great power with industry executives. He parlayed his position at Datebook into a job at Elektra Records. As the “company freak“at Elektra , Fields publicized the Doors, prepared David Peel’s album Have a Marijuana for release, and convinced the higher-ups to sign Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the MC5. His love of music and the countercultural social scene continued off the clock. Alice Cooper anointed Fields “the king of Max’s Kansas City” for his presence at the notorious pre-punk bar. Fields’s investment in music and art that reflected the seedier side of New York City – both as an executive and as a fan – led to his next job: managing a fraternal quartet of street toughs who made waves at a new dive bar on the Bowery.
For many punk fans, Danny Fields is best known for his work with the Ramones. Alongside Linda Stein of Sire Records, Fields managed the band for their first three albums, and his time with the band overlapped with preproduction for their first big-screen jaunt, ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. The movie, a slapstick musical about a California high-school girl’s explosive love of the Ramones, is one of the most perfect films to hit celluloid. Director Alan Arkush and his cast and crew know the kind of movie they’re making, the film has a look and a tone that balances the Ramones’ gritty background with their cartoonish aesthetic, and the steady pacing and smartass, pun-heavy screenplay make punk accessible to a wider audience while staying true to its brutal, apocalyptic imagery. While the film has a campy, playful tone, the screenplay takes protagonist Riff Randell’s fangirl perspective just seriously enough, and shows what a teenage girl gets out of being a fan of rock bands without making girls seem like passive bimbos.
ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL also made the Ramones – well, Joey, at least – seem endearing and almost cuddly, no mean feat considering their songs “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “Loudmouth”. After the release of Rocket to Russia, the Ramones parted ways with Fields, looking for management that was better able to support the poppy direction in which the band wanted to take their music.
Nearly forty years after the Ramones’ formation, their albums have found a wider audience among both kids and their parents; the band’s logo has graced baby onesies and skateboards alike. However, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky probably wouldn’t recognize the world in which their music has gained popularity. Max’s Kansas City has been razed, CBGB is now a John Varvatos store, and all four Ramones have died at sadly young ages. Meanwhile, Danny Fields will be celebrating his 75th birthday in 2016.
As Fields prepares his archives for their eventual home in the archives at Yale University, he looks back on his life with slight self-deprecation. “I never put my stamp on anything,” he said. “I’ve tried, but never succeeded. I was just a witness.” An inaccurate, if characteristic, shrug from the Father of Punk Rock.