21 Aug Punk Before Punk
Punk Before Punk
The birthplace of punk rock is as contested as the proverbial chicken and egg. The UK, the US, Australia, amongst others, all have a deserved horse in the race, but the truth is a little less clear-cut.
What is generally termed “punk” refers to the artistic and musical movement of the mid-to-late 1970s that spilled through to the 1980s. As a movement in the 1970s, punk was heavily politicised. It was a nihilist expression of a lack of prospects for the working-class youth, but it extended beyond the realms of socioeconomic limitations to foster anyone with anti-establishment leanings in need of an aggressed artistic outlet. Punk was an art movement as much as a political one. If you were young and pissed off about something in the 1970s, punk would have surely been your acerbic filter.
Poetry, music, and art around the world were an often caustic and cutting expression of disenfranchised rebellion. Although the corners of the world each had their differing interpretations of punk, essentially, punk is and was a multi-faceted expression of the same thing: disillusionment.
Musically, 1970s punk opted for a stripped-back approach to song writing. The overly self-indulgent guitar and keyboard solos that dominated rock music at the time were replaced by something that could be achieved with three chords or fewer. That is not to say that punk music only favoured the musically non-virtuosos, even if they were looked on with a little distaste, rather, punk looked to uproot the traditions of music to create a visceral expression that anyone could do.
On the surface, punk was an exhibition of rejecting conformity to the preceding generation’s politics and philosophies, both internally and externally, in an attempt to carve out something fresh and new and, in many respects, it was. However, as with most movements, its roots had been fermenting far before what we know as definitive punk music.
Punk did not happen overnight. Both politically and musically, punk was in its infancy during the wave of Beat bands, British Invasion groups and US garage rockers of the 1960s, who were partly inspired by rock and roll and blues artists of the 1950s. The 1970s just gave punk a home—a broken home.
Music is cyclical and as a prerequisite needs inspiration from pre-existing artists. The ethos of punk can be traced back to time immemorial, but musically the precursors of punk are a little less abstract. Punk had its musical ancestors just as every music movement does. Without some of the following bands, groups like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Slits, the Saints, the Clash, amongst so many others, would have undoubtedly never arrived kicking and screaming into the 1970s and beyond.
Perhaps best known for their nigh ubiquitous cover of “Louie Louie,” the Oregon based the Kingsmen somewhat unwittingly became a blueprint for 1960s garage and British Invasion groups, which in turn would influence punk, after their release of said song in 1963.
The Kingsmen had humble intentions for the release of “Louie Louie,”; little did they know the impact it would have on future generations of musicians looking to feed their rambunctious souls with a pure and raw sound.
“Louie Louie” consists of only three chords, so the song quickly became a repertoire staple for many garage rock and British Invasion bands like the Kinks and Paul Revere and the Raiders, but it was the Kingsmen who shattered the earth with their version. Punk icons like the Clash and Iggy and the Stooges later covered the song too, cementing the song as a precursor to punk.
There’s nothing quite as quintessentially punk as having a song banned. The Kingsmen caused a minor controversy with their version of “Louie Louie” after teenagers, unable to adequately hear the slurred lyrics to the song, believed the words to be obscene. The false circulating lyrics subsequently caused a panic with the gatekeepers of US youth and led to the banning of the song in Indiana. After official inspection of the actual lyrics, the ban was lifted—ah, conservative ’60s America.
The Kingsmen didn’t stop there. The tracks “Money” and “Jolly Green Giant” further evinced their garage rock sublimity, though none were as influential as the aforementioned “Louie Louie.”
The Kinks epitomise the coarse, biting sounds of the 1960s British Invasion. As with many young, hopeful musicians of the British Invasion, The Kinks took influence from the often melancholic, often heavily sexualised music of blues and rock and roll and channelled it through their youthful unrest to produce a gnarled British rendition.
The British Invasion exploded in the 1960s and appeared to surmise a generation of teens who were intent on expressing their sense of freedom and upsetting their parents. As with punk, the British Invasion was youthful and angst-ridden. It stemmed from an attempt to claim a youthful identity in a world that seemed to want to marginalise it. Other worthy contributors to the British Invasion such as: the Yardbirds, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Creation, the Mickey Finn, amongst others, encapsulated an unforgiving, boisterous sound and became just some of the foundations of 1970s punk.
The British Invasion and Beat music struck a chord all around the world, spawning garage rock bands across the globe. The Monks, los Mockers, the Easybeats, los Saicos and so many others underpinned the far-reaching influence of early Beat and British Invasion music.
After guitarist Dave Davies, in a fit of rage slashed the speaker cone in his amplifier, the subsequent distorted guitar tones seemed to perfectly reflect the raucous energy of the group. The Kinks’ first single, “You Really Got Me”, paved the way for their explorations into aggressive rock and their sound quickly gathered momentum both in the UK and overseas.
The Kinks’ aggressive music was often mirrored by their aggressive temperament. They were renowned for their boorish and drunken antics that even landed them a four-year ban from playing in the US after a violent fracas with a TV worker for Dick Clark’s afternoon TV show, “Where the Action Is”.
The early British Invasion era Kinks’ songs are fast, upbeat and relatively easy to play, sharing the DIY ethos of punk. It’s no wonder then that the Kinks are heralded as an influence on punk rock.
Question Mark and the Mysterians
The anti-establishment ethos that permeated punk is self-evidently not endemic to punk in the 1970s, and, musically, the notion of “punk” began with the garage rock bands of the 1960s in the US. The term “punk” was first used to describe the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, by the writer and editor of CREEM magazine, Dave Marsh.
At first glance, Question Mark and the Mysterians seem far removed from what is generally termed “punk,” but the term became increasingly prevalent during the early 1970s to retroactively label many US garage rock bands of the 1960s. “Punk,” as a term, was derisorily used towards many of the young hopefuls playing in aggressive garage rock bands, but Marsh had the prescience to use it as an appellation—as in “punk kids” playing “punk rock.”
Partly taking influence from the British Invasion and Beat groups across the pond, garage rock quickly became an assertive force in the US. It was inherently brash and fast, favouring snarling vocals as opposed to anything too melodic. Fuzz guitar tones became the norm with accompanying swelling bass riffs whilst the use of organs became a staple of the garage rock sound.
Question Mark and the Mysterians were no exception, even if they were on the slightly lighter side of garage rock compared to some. “96 Tears” became their most well-known song, although “Girl (You Captivate Me)” is perhaps more in the vein of raucous garage rock.
The buck of early US garage rock certainly didn’t stop with Question Mark and the Mysterians. In fact, many more contributors to garage rock evoked a more characteristically punk prototype that were much heavier in sound though were stylistically attached to Question Mark and the Mysterians. The Count Five released the cornerstone of garage rock, “Psychotic Reaction” in 1966, and other bands within the genre such as the Music Machine, Teddy and his Patches, and the Sonics also resemble what would eventually become punk, and many garage rock bands are widely considered proto-punk.
The Michigan based proto-punk band, MC5, took the already energised British Invasion inspired garage rock of the United States, and gave it a shot in the arm.
MC5 were the disaffected electricity of politically entrenched proto-punk. Disillusioned by their often-riotous surroundings of Michigan, five disciples of rock and roll expanded on what garage rock had started—boosting its raw, unflinching sound with no small amount of help from distortion.
Renowned for their dynamic live performances, MC5 opted against recording in the traditional way, instead their first album Kick Out the Jams was recorded live in 1969. Intense beyond measure, MC5 thrust their simple, stripped-back sound into a heap of controversy. “Kick out the Jams,” from the album of the same name, opened up with the infamous lyric: “Kick out the jams motherfuckers!” Punk sensibilities had not yet caught up with the group, and their uncompromising approach to life in the music industry garnered them little support from record labels.
MC5’s political exploits seemingly pre-empted the spit-washed anti-establishment anger found in the UK punk movement in the late 1970s. Politically propped up by their activist manager, John Sinclair, MC5 were the grit of outspoken leftist ideals, but unfortunately became more and more of a mouthpiece for Sinclair’s philosophies.
Manager, John Sinclair eventually reached a crossroads with the group when MC5 wanted more of a light-hearted approach to the politics that Sinclair so desperately wanted to communicate through them. Much to Sinclair’s chagrin, MC5 were happy just being a rock and roll band
The momentum of MC5 came to a quick halt after Kick Out the Jams. They had lost their Sinclair backed political crowd and were dropped from both of their record labels Atlantic and Elektra. Subsequently, MC5 disbanded in 1974 but later became a significant short-lived star of proto-punk.
The godfather of punk, Iggy Pop didn’t attain his title undeservedly. Exhibitions of self-described Dionysian art characterised the half-naked, visceral frontman, whereby Iggy would cut himself and bleed on the audience or vomit on the audience if he felt so inclined to do so. But musically too, the Stooges were busy setting the stage for definitive punk rock as far back as 1969 with the release of their first self-titled album.
The Stooges seemed to predate the disaffected philosophies that pervaded the punk ethos in the mid to late 1970s. With often nihilist lyrics screamed by Iggy and noisy repetitive guitar riffs, the Stooges cast the hippie mentalities of the late 1960s aside for their own bleak realities of the United States.
The melodically floral hippie movement was fast becoming a parody of itself. Losing its momentum as a positive force, the hippie movement no longer seemed to reflect any reality other than its own. It had become passé — a commercialised husk of its former self. Therefore, it took bands like MC5 and the Stooges to usher in something new even though it wasn’t picked up on right away. Nor did they know the significance of what they were doing.
Of the three Stooges’ albums released in the ’60s and ’70s, The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power, none elevated the group beyond nominal commercial success. The Stooges went through a host of breakups and reunions during their tenure. Various members battled with drug addiction and the band seemed resigned to annals of obscurity. Fortunately however, Pop caught the attention of David Bowie who went on to help produce Iggy’s successful solo career.
Iggy Pop floated in and around the punk scene, but he was never shackled by it musically. After punk too lost its steam, Iggy continued to produce solo material and reformed with the Stooges in later years.
The Velvet Underground
The influential artists of New York during the late ’60s into the 1970s that helped punk along when it was in its infancy are undeniably plentiful and many played a pivotal role in the artistic movement of punk. Suicide, the Dictators, the Magic Tramps, Television, the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, amongst countless others, provided a framework of punk that was somewhat distinct from the UK punk scene and which gained popularity a few years down the line.
Of those New York bands playing disaffected chimes of sordid passion and abandonment, none were arguably as influential on New York and the punk scene as the multi-faceted the Velvet Underground.
Surfacing in the 1960s, the Warhol-endorsed Velvet Underground were in a world of their own. When so many bands of the 1960s were speaking hope and perceived enlightenment, the Velvet Underground were singing of scoring heroin, sadism, masochism, prostitution and sexually deviant themes—communicating the bowels of urban life rather than florally Arcadian ideals.
Lyricist and frontman Lou Reed sought to emulate the Beat poets within his words— appalling audiences rather than uplifting them. Musically, the Velvet Underground mixed atonalism with harsh energy. They used the guitar as an instrument to capture inharmonic sounds like feedback and atonal guitar solos as if to mirror the pace and disunion extant within their lyrical themes.
John Cale played no small role, initially, in the construction of Velvet Underground’s sound too. Cale experimented with sound rather than communicating pre-established musical tropes. He used distorted drones and detuned instruments to boldly engender something akin to sound rather than music.
On their debut 1967 The Velvet Underground and Nico, “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Run Run Run” had all the animation of punk before punk had really started its tenure. It’s no mystery as to why “I’m Waiting for the Man” became familiar in the repertoire of the later-year punks. “White Light/ White Heat,” from the album of the same name, also garnered all the energy that punk would later exemplify, however the Velvet Underground had a tendency to strip all back down, so to speak, and create tranquil songs dissimilar from punk like “Sunday Morning” and “Sweet Jane.”
The Velvet Underground captured the artistry of punk as well as its tendency to portray the world as it is rather an idyllic version.
The Modern Lovers
Wanting to be thoroughly un-British Invasion, the Modern Lovers sought their musical inspirations elsewhere—notably from 1950s rock and roll, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground.
By all accounts, frontman Jonathan Richman had an ego the size of the Modern Lovers’ breeding ground: New York. Richman held a tight grip over the band’s output. Despite proto-punk classics like “Roadrunner” and “She Cracked” being the obvious musical direction for the group, Richman eventually refused to go down that increasingly heavy path and wanted to do away with electricity for heartfelt acoustic songs. Therefore, the Modern Lovers produced very little during their original incarnation, only releasing one album in 1976, which was released after the original line-up had disbanded, though the songs were recorded between 1971–72.
For a man who’d often cry on stage at his own emotional lyrical content, had an internal crusade against drug-usage, and would often halt the bands live performances if he thought the audience wasn’t listening closely enough, Richman was hardly the Vitruvian Man of punk rock. However, what the Modern Lovers did was fuse Richman’s unrelenting lyrical and onstage contrariness with harsh, repetitive music that outwardly shunned the safe ’70s rock of the time.
When the part-John Cale-produced aforementioned album was released in the UK it became an obligatory purchase for the quickly growing British punk scene despite the songs being mostly unendorsed by Richman and having been recorded a few years prior.
The Modern Lovers were a prescient piece of New York proto-punk. Richman carried on with a different version of the band as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, but they quite purposefully left the proto-punk qualities behind.
New York Dolls
The androgynous bunch of ragtag musicians, New York Dolls were an archetype of drug-induced rock and roll belligerents. Fighting on stage, screaming at audiences, the New York Dolls were wilfully anarchic and predated punk with their unobtrusive attitude and strident music, yet preferred the glam aesthetic rather than the unpretentious street look of their proto-punk counterparts.
New York Dolls would often sport dresses, makeup and platform shoes almost as to mirror their subversive temperaments and music. Taking influence from the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls ramped up their fellow New Yorkers’ outlook on music of producing an electric sound without much care for traditional musicianship, and with it conceived something of their own.
After the release of their first self-titled album in 1973, New York Dolls were on a path of internal destruction, and artistic differences and drug-abuse sowed the seeds of friction amongst the proto-punkers. Drummer and a founding member, Billy Murcia had died one year prior so the Dolls appeared to be a band that could never sustain itself, and indeed it didn’t.
By their second album, Too Much Too Soon the punk icon, Malcolm McLaren took to managing the band and decided that they should wear all red and feature the communist flag as an onstage backdrop. Strangely enough, that didn’t sit too well with 1970s conservative America, and with the growing alcohol and drug abuse of many of the band’s members, waning public interest and internal artistic differences, the New York Dolls imploded and subsequently disbanded.
Malcolm McLaren went back to the UK to later influence punk in the UK beyond measure, most notably as the manager of the Sex Pistols. Undoubtedly, McLaren had no small amount of influence from the punk ethos, in sound and disposition, that the New York Dolls had unwittingly foresighted.
* * *
The eternal question of the birthplace of punk is a question that is so loaded it becomes almost moot. Music takes influence from the unlikeliest places—it develops laterally not linearly and so too did punk.
Punk is an ethos more than it is sound. Punk is an attempt to castrate oppressive control, both socially and politically. It is a reality check—an exertion of freedom both in music and idea. Above all, punk is an unapologetic affirmation of self-identity.
The notion of what “punk” is continued past its golden era of the 1970s and can be found in succeeding genres like grunge and indeed the hopeful new age punk rockers of today. Beyond the music though, punk is fundamentally a philosophy shared by many as outward expression of self-liberty.
This article was originally published on Medium
Zach Davison is a freelance writer and musician from Manchester, England. Currently, Zach plays in the neo-psychedelic band, Sioux. He also studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Salford.