Experimental rock influenced punk in the form of a handful of bands who intentionally subverted mainstream rock conventions and the prevailing counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s out of an essentially provocative approach to rock music.
The most important of these groups was The Velvet Underground. Born and bred in New York, The Velvet Underground wrote about the dark underbelly of their city in cool, unrepentant detail. Formed by Lou Reed and John Cale (who, prior to The Velvet Underground, had played with experimental composers John Cage and La Monte Young) and later joined by guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, The Velvet Underground wrote songs about mainlining heroin and getting blown by drag queens while the hippies in California sang about peace and love. They were street-savvy realists who revelled in perversity, decadence and cynicism at a time when music was dominated by a naïve, nauseating idealism. Their taboo lyrical content, fearless experimentation, use of feedback, distortion and white noise, along with their amateurish technique and unpolished production, set a precedent for the punk and new wave movements and has had an enduring influence on alternative music up until the present day.
The defining documents of The Velvet Underground insofar as they contributed to the punk aesthetic were The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) and White Light/White Heat (1968). The former was produced by iconic artist Andy Warhol, who managed The Velvet Underground from 1965-1967 and introduced the band to German-born model and actress Nico, who sang lead on three of the album’s eleven tracks. Aside from providing the artwork (the now iconic banana print which adorns the cover) Warhol’s contribution amounted to little more than paying for studio time, but his hands-off approach allowed the band to fully explore their sonic ambitions without compromise. The resulting album ranged from the gentle, ethereal beauty of Sunday Morning and the seductive allure of Femme Fatale, to the droning menace of Venus In Furs, the orgasmic catharsis of Heroin and the frantic cacophony of European Son. Its seething danger, daring experimentalism and uncalculated authenticity were an inspiration for punks and countless other musicians across multiple genres in the decades since its release. Brian Eno’s quote that “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band” may be somewhat of a cliché by now, but the album’s monumental importance in the history of rock music is undeniable.
The band subsequently parted ways with both Andy Warhol and Nico and went on to record White Light/White Heat, one of the most extreme, uncompromising albums ever released. The title track is the most conventional song on the record – a tribute to speed with an outro mimicking the throbbing, ear-ringing rush of methamphetamine played on a heavily distorted electric bass. The rest of the album is a brutal assault on aesthetic and cultural standards of decency concluding with the epic Sister Ray – a savage, primitive war of noise of Dionysian intensity. For seventeen-and-a-half minutes Reed and Morrison pound out a basic chord progression, occasionally veering off into frantic, atonal solos while Tucker relentlessly beats out a thumping pulse on the drums and Cale attempts to drown out the rest of the band with his Vox organ routed through a heavily distorted amp. Above the aural chaos Reed reels off a scene of debauchery and decay, depicting a violent, drug-fuelled orgy overseen by a transvestite smack dealer. During its recording the engineer is rumoured to have walked out, remarking that he didn’t have to listen to this and to come get him when they were done. The aural hurricane of enraged anguish and unrestrained liberation of primordial instincts on White Light/White Heat made flesh the spirit of rock and roll in all its threatening hedonism and raw physicality, and for this reason it had a substantial and enduring influence on punk rock.
While few bands were as influential as The Velvet Underground, a small number of experimental groups happened to play “punk-before-punk” even if their subsequent influence was comparatively minimal. One of the most fascinating of these groups was the Monks. Formed in 1964 by five American G.I.s stationed in West Germany, the Monks started off playing covers of Chuck Berry and English beat groups, but their experimentalist tendencies drew the attention of ad executives and visionary existentialists Walther Niemann and Karl Remy, who redesigned the Monks as “anti-Beatles”. The group shaved their heads into monks’ tonsures, dressed in black cassocks and wore nooses round their necks. They stripped their music of melody, substituted it for dissonance and feedback and focused solely on the rhythm. Their first and only studio album, Black Monk Time (1966) was a series of frenzied, abrasive garage rockers with rhythm guitarist Dave Day playing a clanking, horse-gut strung electrified banjo over which lead vocalist Gary Burger yelped demented, nonsensical verses laced with aggression and irony.
Audience reaction was a mixture of confusion and occasional hostility. Their music, however, wasn’t as difficult as many of their experimentalist contemporaries – its focus on beat made it oddly catchy and the songs were short and to the point. The Monks also had a sense of humour – their music was fun even if it was also nihilistic and angry. For these reasons its appeal to punks (Jello Biafra, Krist Novoselic, Henry Rollins, and Mark E. Smith among others) is easily understood, along with the band’s insistence on playing what they wanted to on their own terms without regard for commercial viability.
Another, somewhat indirect influence on punk but especially on post-punk was Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, in particular the album Trout Mask Replica (1969). The group originally scored a regional hit in 1966 with their version of Diddy Wah Diddy (later included on the expanded Nuggets reissue) but, contrary to convention, Captain Beefheart got rawer and rawer with each successive album.
A fascinating and eccentric individual, Captain Beefheart (born Don Glen Vliet and later Don Van Vliet) claimed, among other things, to remember being born; to have been a lecturer at the Barnsdall Art Park at the age of eleven; to have never attended public school and only half a day of kindergarten; to have gone without sleep for a year and a half; to be a descendent of a Dutch painter who knew Rembrandt; to have sold a vacuum-cleaner to Aldous Huxley; and to have personally been invited to visit Igor Stravinsky, whom Beefheart regarded as the only individual capable of producing sounds more beautiful than those in nature (he turned down the invite, claiming he was working on Trout Mask Replica at the time).
Indicative of his punk credentials, it is notable that despite having fans in both The Beatles (especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney) and Johnny Rotten, it was towards Johnny Rotten, and not The Beatles, that the feeling was mutual. However, the album’s influence on punk and new wave was due almost entirely to its fearless, non-commercial experimentation – nobody since has even attempted to imitate it stylistically.
Produced by Beefheart’s high school friend and frequent collaborator Frank Zappa, the record was composed in a small, rented house in the woods in which Beefheart and his musicians lived communally for a period of eight months. During this period Beefheart exerted complete dictatorial control over his band. The band was made to practice for fourteen or more hours a day and forbidden to leave the house. Occasionally a band member would be “put in the barrel”, during which they would be berated relentlessly, sometimes for days, until they broke down and collapsed in total submission to Van Vliet. With no substantial income the band scraped by on a subsistence diet, at one time consisting of no more than a small cup of soybeans each day over a period of a month.
It was from this Manson-esque environment that Trout Mask Replica emerged, fully-formed, into the hands of a limited but passionately dedicated audience. Influenced equally by the Chicago blues and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, Trout Mask Replica was a remarkably original album. Commonly regarded as the greatest white blues singer who ever lived, with a voice reminiscent of the great Howlin’ Wolf, Beefheart growls out surreal verbal wordplay which is at times disturbing and at others poetic. Lines like “a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous” and “lucid tentacles test ‘n sleeved, ‘n joined ‘n jointed jade pointed, diamond back patterns, neon meate dream of a octafish” permeate the record. The music itself is a jagged, disjointed, atonal, jarring, bluesy, avant-garde amalgamation of freeform Dadaist rock. Trout Mask Replica demonstrated, to those who knew it, that anything was now possible in rock music.
A further contribution was made by out-there avant-garde multimedia art collective The Residents. The primary contribution made by The Residents was their trashing of the sacred – while other experimental groups subverted mainstream rock conventions as a means to an end, The Residents attacked those conventions head-on as an end in itself. Their debut album Meet The Residents (1974) had as its cover a mutilated parody of Meet The Beatles! (1964) with The Residents listed on reverse as Paul McCrawfish, John Crawfish, George Crawfish and Ringo Starfish – here The Residents were trashing the most sacred act in the history of popular music. Prior to this they released a tape entitled Baby Sex (1971) which included We Stole This Riff – a song consisting of nothing more than two minutes of a riff taken from Tim Buckley’s Down By The Borderline with the repeated lyric “we stole this riff from Tim Buckley” and “we’ll steal from you, fuck you, if you ever do anything”.
As with Captain Beefheart – an inspiration for The Residents (they reportedly sent a reel-to-reel tape to Hal Halverstadt for review at Warner Brothers because he had previously worked with Van Vliet) – The Residents were influenced by Dadaism. But while Beefheart seemed more influenced by the stylistic aspects of Dadaism, The Residents were influenced predominantly by the philosophy of Dadaism – that of a rejection of prevailing standards and the production of works of anti-art in order to ridicule the essential meaninglessness of modernity. Their records were the assorted fragments of popular culture smashed together and reassembled into junk noise. This included deconstructions of popular music, epitomised on their “third” album (the second, Not Available, was intentionally shelved after its recording as the fulfilment of a “theory of obscurity” attributed to Bavarian composer and music theorist N. Senada – a mysterious figure who in reality may have been Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, or an invention of The Residents who never existed) The Third Reich ‘N Roll (1976) on which they “covered”, among others, songs such as Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Light My Fire and Hey Jude, along with (tellingly) a number of garage rock songs (Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love, Psychotic Reaction, Talk Talk, 96 Tears, Gloria). The Residents mangled, tore apart and spat out the garbled remnants of these songs into two long suites entitled Swastikas On Parade and Hitler Was A Vegetarian. This was an impenetrable statement, but at the very least it demonstrated that rock and roll wasn’t some stale “institution” to be taken too seriously – a sentiment which punk later epitomised.
A final mention should be given to The Red Crayola (later The Red Krayola). Essentially a vehicle for Mayo Thompson, The Red Crayola released music in the late 60s that sounded remarkably like the no wave scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Their first album The Parable Of Arable Land (1967) was halfway between psychedelia and noise rock and characterised by a number of self-described “free form freak-outs”. It was also notable for featuring Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, who played organ on Hurricane Fighter Plane and harmonica on Transparent Radiation. Thompson went on to roles within the burgeoning punk scene through his involvement with Rough Trade Records – he is credited as a producer on early releases by bands such as The Fall, The Raincoats and Stiff Little Fingers. Furthermore, the evolving line-up of The Red Crayola featured musicians such as Kevin Paul Godfrey (“Epic Soundtracks”) of Swell Maps, Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex and the entirety of Pere Ubu, whom Thompson would later join for the albums The Art Of Walking (1980) and Song Of The Bailing Man (1982).