By the late 70s punk was inevitable, but it owed its distinctive sound and attitude to the influence of a number of (primarily American) bands, many of whom went on to build the American punk scene that in turn inspired the British punk scene.
The earliest of these protopunk bands were the MC5. Their far-left political ties and anti-establishment views together with their back-to-basics rock and roll and raw aggression collectively prefigured the punk aesthetic from within the countercultural movement of the mid-late 60s. At the time of their debut album Kick Out The Jams (1969) they were managed by John Sinclair, leader of militant countercultural group the White Panther Party. The manifesto of the White Panther Party called for a “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets” and Sinclair evidently envisioned the MC5 as playing a pivotal role in the realisation of his ten-point program.
Kick Out The Jams documents a ferocious live performance at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom recorded over Devil’s Night (a night associated with acts of vandalism and arson in Detroit’s inner-city neighbourhoods) and Halloween of 1968. It included the incendiary title track with its infamous opening rallying cry, the hard-hitting rock and roll of Ramblin’ Rose and Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa), and an extended cover of John Lee Hooker’s Motor City Is Burning wherein lead vocalist Rob Tyner praises the role of Black Panther snipers during the 1967 Detroit Riots. Throughout the record the band sounds like it’s stumbling over itself, propelled by a manic ferocity intended to energize the youth to the point where they would spill out onto the streets and begin tearing down society.
The MC5 followed their debut with Back In The USA (1970). Bookended by a pair of covers – Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and a sarcastic interpretation of Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA – the record provided a more subtle statement than its predecessor with a stripped-down take on rock and roll. Its celebration of youthful rebellion with songs mainly below the three minute mark projected the MC5’s core sound and manifesto with punchy clarity.
Following on the heels of the MC5 were legendary Detroit rock band The Stooges. Formed by Iggy Pop, brothers Ron and Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander, The Stooges were a freak show from hell who wilfully outraged every square who ever stood in their way. Renowned for their confrontational live performances, Iggy was known to expose himself to his audience, smear himself with meat and peanut butter (reportedly provided by Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys on at least one occasion) and cut himself with shards of broken glass.
Their debut album The Stooges (1969) was originally produced by former Velvet Underground bassist John Cale, although the mixes were later redone by Iggy and Elektra records president Jac Holzman. More subdued than The Stooges live performances and their subsequent albums, The Stooges’ debut nonetheless conveyed a snarling apathy which influenced a number of subsequent punk bands. No Fun would later be covered by the Sex Pistols to close their infamous final performance at the San Francisco Winterland Ballroom.
The Stooges followed up with Fun House (1970). On this occasion, former member of The Kingsmen and keyboardist on Louie Louie Don Gallucci produced. Gallucci aimed at capturing the ferocity of The Stooges live performance in the studio and the result was one of the most visceral releases in the history of rock music. Iggy’s sneer on the debut had become the wailing howls, yelps and screams of a caged animal. The album was an expression of possessed mania and raw sexuality – rock and roll in its purest, most emotive form played with unrestrained fury by nihilistic white trash.
Following the release of Fun House Alexander was fired from the band after showing up to a festival too drunk to play – he was replaced by James Williamson, but The Stooges had slipped into heroin addiction (with the exception of Ron Asheton) and were promptly dropped by Elektra. Iggy went on to meet David Bowie in 1971, who, perceptive as ever and realizing The Stooges were something singular and unique, brought Iggy and Williamson back to the UK where he was able to get them a deal with Columbia Records. Ron And Scott Asheton were brought back into the band and the newly reformed group was rechristened Iggy And The Stooges. This new line-up went on to record Raw Power (1973) – now regarded as one of the cornerstones of punk rock.
The initial mix of Raw Power, however, was a disaster – Iggy had mixed the album himself and botched it. It was left to Bowie to remix Iggy’s failed attempt, and his production job ended up sounding anaemic and fragile. Nevertheless, the intensity of the music shone through and it developed a cult following among those who would go on to play a role in the burgeoning punk scene. The album was later remixed by Iggy for a 1997 re-release in which the entire mix was pushed into the red. Although equally controversial, the remix nevertheless brought the ferocity of the album to the fore and provided a more authentic representation of The Stooges’ vision.
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, another important protopunk band was recording their first (and only) album. Formed by childhood friends Jonathan Richman and John Felice, The Modern Lovers were a popular live act who in 1972 had shared a bill with early punks the New York Dolls, Suicide and transsexual performer Wayne County. Richman was an obsessive Velvet Underground fan – he had travelled to New York and become personally acquainted with the band, even opening for them on one occasion. On his return to Boston he formed The Modern Lovers, adding drummer David Robinson (later of The Cars) and keyboardist Jerry Harrison (later of The Talking Heads) to his roster. Together they recorded a series of demos with John Cale in 1971 which would later be released as The Modern Lovers (1976).
In contrast to The Velvet Underground, Richman was a wide-eyed optimist who wrote songs about his love of living in the modern world with its “neon lights” and “suburban rain” and the simple joy of driving through the city at night listening to AM radio. Roadrunner, the opening track, was in many ways a rewriting of Sister Ray, albeit with the perverse themes of the original substituted for an infectious celebration of hypersensitive euphoria. The album also contained the droning art-punk standard Pablo Picasso, a song later covered by John Cale on his solo album Helen Of Troy (released before The Modern Lovers’ album was released) and by David Bowie on his most recent album Reality. The line-up dissolved in 1974 and Richman would go on to a prolific solo career while Felice formed Boston punk band The Real Kids.
While the MC5, The Stooges and The Modern Lovers all prefigured punk in their own way, none of them sounded quite like the bands they later influenced. Perhaps the most “punk-sounding” of all protopunk bands were the New York Dolls, who, in combining the rhythm and blues of the early Rolling Stones and the hard rock of The Stooges with the campiness of American girl groups and early 70s glam rock, forged a distinctive “punk” sound and laid the foundations for what would later become the New York punk scene. Their debut album New York Dolls (1973) was a sleazy celebration of urban kitsch played by macho guys smeared in make-up looking as if they’d recently raided their girlfriends’ wardrobes. Bob Harris once described them as “mock rock” after their performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and he wasn’t far off. The New York Dolls subverted mainstream rock conventions with a self-conscious wit and ambiguous sexuality; most importantly though, their trashy racket was fun – a notion which seemed lost on the record-buying public of the time. In many ways we have the New York Dolls to thank for punk rock – their classification as “protopunk” is mainly down to timing. Nobody was playing this kind of music in 1973, but for all intents and purposes the New York Dolls didn’t just prefigure punk, they were punks. (We also have them to blame for the hair metal bullshit of the 80s, but that one can be put down to a misunderstanding.) The New York Dolls also gave us Johnny Thunders, who after leaving the Dolls would go on to form The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell (later replaced by Billy Rath) and Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan. After releasing the punk classic L.A.M.F. (1977) Johnny Thunders would go on to a successful solo career and a tragic end at the hands of his long-term drug-addiction problems.
Another key figure in the development of punk was Patti Smith. Frequently referred to as “the godmother of punk” Patti Smith was a beat poet who fused the spoken word with loose, punchy rock and roll and who introduced a revolutionary, liberated femininity and androgynous sexuality into rock music which inspired a number of all-girl punk bands including The Raincoats and The Slits. Her debut album Horses (1975) was produced by John Cale and included guest musicians Tom Verlaine of Television and Allen Lanier of Blue Öyster Cult. Its reworking of Them’s rock-standard Gloria, with its celebrated line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” was a powerful statement of Patti Smith’s free-spirited, defiant individualism.
Prior to the release of Horses the Patti Smith Group made their debut performance at CBGBs – the birthplace of American punk in the mid-late 70s. CBGBs was home to a number of early punk bands who straddled the line between protopunk and punk. Bands such as Television and its former member Richard Hell (whose image would directly influence the Sex Pistol’s own image) along with synth-punk band Suicide and smart-ass Jewish punks The Dictators – all built up a scene which would later epitomise American punk.
This New York scene was a unique product of the city which gave birth to it. A decade earlier, in a 1966 essay on popular music, Lou Reed had written that “California is full of meaningful causes [...] New York filled with meaningless noises, which could be its redeeming grace”. In New York you had to make it on your own and struggle to prevail in a city which was hostile and indifferent. It was no accident that the early CBGB scene had no particular coherence to it – no overarching philosophy. The majority of CBGB bands were highly-individualistic art-punks striving for originality and to stand above the crowd. Listening to Television’s Little Johnny Jewel (1975), Richard Hell’s Blank Generation (1977), Suicide’s Rocket U.S.A. (1977), and The Dictators’ (I Live For) Cars And Girls (1975), it’s difficult to see what any of them had in common other than a certain confrontational authenticity. This has led some to argue that the American scene wasn’t punk at all, and that until the Brits had absorbed all these influences and spat out the Sex Pistols “punk” was an empty label (even if The Ramones had recorded Judy Is A Punk back in 1975).
Where to draw the line between protopunk and punk is debatable, but the New York scene undoubtedly laid down the blueprint for punk rock. Where precisely the starting point lies depends on whether punk is primarily a sound, an approach to music, or a system of values – depending on whichever definition is accepted, punk could be said to have begun with the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, the New York Dolls, The Stooges, the MC5, The Velvet Underground, or back with Gloria and Louie Louie in the mid 60s.
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