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Remembering Philly's legendary, all-black punk pioneers

Pure Hell was all-black, decked in heels, leather, and the occasional swastika T-shirt in 1970s Philly, and known really only for its shredding, irreverent cover of a white American pop princess' tune.

So punk.

Dubbed punk's first all-black band, Pure Hell isn't remembered by the masses, but the band is rarely  forgotten by people who saw it. And it's still being discovered, thanks to the internet and some high-profile fans.

"We had some fun and dangerous times," lead singer Kenny "Stinker" Gordon said recently from his home in Middlesex County, N.J.

Gordon grew up in West Philly near Cobbs Creek Park and went to the former Lincoln College Prep on Rittenhouse Square.  He formed a band, first named Pretty Poison, with friend and drummer Michael  "Spider" Sanders around 1974, and the group became Pure Hell with Preston "Chip Wreck" Morris III on guitar and Kerry "Lenny Steel" Boles on bass.

"There weren't too many other bands around that were black," Gordon said.

People in the neighborhoods used to stare, he said. But in small, sweaty venues like the Hot Club on South Street, Pure Hell was judged by its music.

"Those guys were all excellent musicians," said Bobby Startup, a former DJ and booker at the club. "There's a lot of [stuff] going on in their music. Spider was one of the best drummers I've ever seen. He was like the Gene Krupa of rock."

Pure Hell didn't stay in Philly long. The band moved to New York City's iconic Chelsea Hotel and dove into a punk and glam-rock petri dish. The members played or partied with just about everyone on the scene there, Gordon said, including Sid Vicious, the Dead Boys, Richard Hell, and the New York Dolls, with whom they eventually lived in a city loft.

"That was just an automatic thing, a natural thing for us up there," Gordon said. "People looked at us like Sly and the Family Stone, but just something beyond. We were musicians and had our finger on what was actually happening."

Pure Hell was signed by Curtis Knight, who'd featured a young Jimi Hendrix in his R&B group the Squires. Pure Hell toured Europe and recorded one album, Noise Addiction, with Knight in 1978, but a fallout left the album in limbo, unreleased for decades.

One single, a cover of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," made the United Kingdom alternative charts.

"We separated from him after our first tour. He took the tapes with him," Gordon said of Knight.

Pure Hell split up in 1980.

"Everything was sort of over after that first tour," Gordon said. "The Dead Boys had broken up. Sid was dead. That kind of put a nail in the original punks, too many people burning the candle from both ends."

Gordon moved to England and eventually Los Angeles, where he teamed up again with Sanders. They worked with Lemmy Kilmister, the late and legendary front man of Motorhead, along with members of Nine Inch Nails.

Pure Hell's album still hadn't been released when the Inquirer wrote about the band's "new start" in 1990, but after Knight died in 1999, his widow sold the tapes. With little notice, Pure Hell's album was released in 2005. Gordon was terrified.

One reviewer described the album as "cheap, nasty, but irresistible."

"I mean, we had recorded it, I knew what was on it," he said. "I thought it might be outdated. Quite frankly, I thought, who in the heck is buying that? It was surprising to me that people even liked that stuff."

One fan was punk icon Henry Rollins, the former singer of Black Flag. In an email, Rollins said he picked up the "Boots" single in Maryland because the band looked cool.

"We had heard that there was a Pure Hell album and the tapes were just sitting somewhere. This rumor persisted for years," Rollins said. "If they released those songs in a timely manner after recording them, the perception of the band might be very different."

Gordon said Rollins helped get the band's name out, along with websites like Though Sanders has died of pancreatic cancer, Pure Hell still plays shows from time to time in Philly and beyond.

When Startup saw Pure Hell in the Hot Club, he figured the band was bound for stardom, making sounds he'd never heard before.

"They were around before punk started," Startup said. "They were playing speed metal before there was a Metallica and Slayer. Probably, because they were one of the first doing it, they are one of the least known. That happens a lot in this business."