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Saturday, June 04, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Proto-Punk
Before there was punk, there was proto-punk, an ad-hoc genre designation that has come to represent a small cluster of late 60's/early 70's bands that set the groundwork; bands where energy, speed, noise, and attitude were the primary concerns; things like virtuosity, middle-brow artistic ambition, and pop hooks went flying out the window. These bands were few in number in the 1960's, when the record companies ruled with iron fists. But with each passing year there were more and more, especially during the early 70's, when they achieved enough critical mass to become scene setters. By late 1975 the first bands of the punk movement began forming, bringing an end to the proto-punk era.
It's hard to say where proto punk begins. It may go as far back as 1964, when the sloppy and defiantly long-haired garage band the Barbarians placed "Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?" on the lower reaches of the charts. Some would say The Seeds, emerging in 1966, were the original proto-punk band; specializing in roughshod two chord stompers delivered with a snarl. The Velvet Underground, whose noise experiments of 1967 stood in direct contrast to gentle hippie sentiment certainly qualify. The 1969 debut of the Stooges is now considered a landmark proto-punk release.
Proto punk was noisy, to be sure, and primitively delivered. But there was also the necessary punk attitude. While many of the bands retroactively tagged proto-punk had different backgrounds, styles, and influences, most also shared a jaded, cynical, anti-Utopianism that served as a turd in the punchbowl of flower power and early 70's domesticism. It was music created by outsiders under no illusion that they'd ever be considered insiders, nor did they want in; most saw the Aquarian trappings of the day as escapist and silly. A few of these bands, including Velvet Underground, had artistic ambitions, but their art was one of confrontation and context, as opposed to overly tricky music. The chords were simple; anyone with a guitar could bang them out.
The legacy of proto punk's influence is in its stripped-down, basic approach, usually matched by stripped-down no-frills production. Lyrically, the bands often aimed to shock, or provoke reaction. Topics included everything from hard drugs to s&m to gender-bending, to revolution, to the degeneration of society, and any number of seamy and tawdry topics. Most were of an in your face realistic noir variety; escapist dreamscapes were absent.
The Seeds coined the attitude, the Velvet Underground brought in the artistic vision and white noise and feedback attack, the Stooges and MC5 kick started an aggressive hard rock scene in Detroit. In New York, the New York Dolls emerged in 1972 as mascara wearing glam-rock sleazoids who had a rugged, Rolling Stones-on-speed sound. In England, proto punk was mainly an offshoot of glam-rock, which also stripped away unessential arrangement to get to the crunchy guitar at its heart.
By 1975, a whole punk scene had cropped up on a urine-smelling skid row sidestreet called The Bowery, home of CGBG, the New York showcase for what was becoming the New York Punk movement. Already commited to small-time singles were the work of quasi-street-poets Patti Smith and Richard Hell, who would become local heroes during the punk era. The Ramones' debut in 1976 would draw the dividing line between what was proto-punk and what became punk.
Some important/influential proto-punk artists/songs include:
1. The Velvet Underground: Heroin iTunes
The Velvet Underground's first album languished in the vaults while their record company, MGM, fretted about what to do with it. MGM was as Establishment as you could get in the 60's, and the Velvets, led by leather-clad hustler (and college grad) Lou Reed, had come up with an album's worth of avant-garde noise-rock, full of seamy reports from the sick underbelly of society, such as this clear-eyed account of heroin justification, accompanied by scraping viola and screeching guitars that mimic a drug rush. While the song cannot be construed as pro-heroin, it didn't matter to MGM. Finally, the album was released on MGM's jazz subsidiary, Verve, and it made history in the rock underground. The mainstream read about it in the paper, due to Andy Warhol's involvement in the project, but few of them dared to actually buy it.
2. The Stooges: I Wanna Be Your Dog
The Stooges were a major force in the thriving Detroit-rock scene. The group was formed in 1967 by Iggy Pop (James Osterberg) after witnessing a Doors concert in Chicago. They spent 1968 touring the midwest incessently, where they played their loud two-chord rock while Iggy caterwauled, dived the audience, self-mutilated himself, and generally made a lot of enemies. They were signed by an Elektra talent scout who had gone to Detroit to see the MC5; the Stooges opened for them, and the scout wound up signing both bands. "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is their anthem, from their 1969 self-titled debut, full of the rudeness and self-loathing that Iggy plied to rocket himself to underground stardom. Iggy Pop, now 58, is still capable of putting on a wild show; he has released albums right up to the present day.
3. Pere Ubu: 30 Seconds Over Tokyo iTunes
Pere Ubu toiled in the gritty bars of the rust-belt around Cleveland before gaining national attention as underground art-punk heroes. Formed from the ashes of local Cleveland proto-punk legends, Rocket From The Tombs, the band was led by the 300-lb. David Thomas (aka Crocus Behemoth) and guitarist Peter Laughner. "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" was their 1975 debut single, and it established their early sound. Ominious, dark, industrial, frightening, but also humanistic, it could be brutal and violent, but also darkly funny; they also were fairly ambitious in their arrangements, in an art-primitive fashion. Laughner died from a drug overdose in 1977; the band's sound changed under Thomas' sole leadership, resulting in their best work, The Modern Dance (1978) and Dub Housing (1979).
4. MC5: Teenage Lust iTunes
Another Detroit-rock legend, the MC5 were all about guitar noise, speed, and revolution. They were the most political of the bands on this list, taking on unpopular stances on many of the issues of the day. Their inspiration came partly from svengali-like manager John Sinclair, founder of the White Panther Party, who would famously be imprisoned for two joints in the early 70's, bringing John Lennon to his defense. MC5 also celebrated drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll in a decadent roaring fashion that was an in-your-face kiss off to the hippies. Twin guitarists Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer provided them with their metallic barrage, they even gained street cred by having their debut album banned for language. Kick Out The Jams, from 1969, is their seminal album. Back In The USA, from 1970, isn't quite as good, but it does include this classic embittered look back at a teenhood gone wrong.
5. New York Dolls: Personality Crisis iTunes
If the Velvet Underground was the first real proto-punk group, then the New York Dolls were the first punk group. Formed in 1971 by guitarists Johnny Thunders and Rick Rivets, bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, drummer Billy Murcia, and vocalist David Johanson (who, many years later, would gain notoriety as Buster Poindexter), the Dolls virtually invented a new kind of hard rock that straddled a line between punk rock and heavy metal. This basic sound was glammed-up to bigger than life proportions. Rivets and Murcia were replaced by Syl Sylvian and Jerry Nolan, respectively, in 1972, in time for their debut album. New York Dolls is at once kitschy and menacing; it camps things up while it threatens you with a switchblade. "Personality Crisis" leads off the album, and remains their best known song.
6. Television: Little Johnny Jewel
Television were one of the very best of the New York punk-era bands. Their sound centered around the sometimes complex jams of guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Their music was as devoid of blues as could be; their jams were usually angular and abrasive, but could also emerge into shimmering, textured planes that were stunning in their beauty. They were particularly adept at taking a song down unexpected byways; nothing they recorded quite turned out the way it sounded at the outset. "Little Johnny Jewel" was the band's very first single, released in late 1974; it is a prime example of the New York school of proto-punk, which had a bohemian artiness ingrained in it, yet never stopped sounding raw and basic. Their 1977 album, Marquee Moon, is one of the indispensible recordings of the late 1970's.
7. Captain Beefheart: Abba Zaba
Captain Beefheart (Don Vliet) left a mark on the world in 1967 with his Safe As Milk album, heralded by John Lennon as one of his favorites. Not so much a punk as the consummate outsider, Beefheart grew up a desert rat in the Mojave. He had a fortuitous meeting with a young Frank Zappa who encouraged his jazz/blues/noise experiments. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1964 and formed The Magic Band. "Abba Zaba" is from Safe As Milk, and is an abstract delta blues, rough and loose, with an electric garage sound, featuring Beefheart's gravelly yips and yelps, and unhinged guitar from a 20-year-old Ry Cooder. Beefheart would pursue a noisy outsider's route through his career, which ended suddenly and without warning in 1982, when he announced his retirement after a string of challenging, acclaimed albums. He persued painting for awhile in retirement, with considerable success, but has been almost invisible for over a decade, due to multiple sclerosis.
8. The Modern Lovers: Roadrunner iTunes
Jonathan Richman was one of the New York underground's biggest cult figures of the 1970's. He got involved in the scene at the age of 18 after crashing on the Velvet Underground's manager's sofa a few times. However, his first attempts at performing were roundly rejected on the basis of his nasal voice and simple songs. He relocated to Boston, where he bounced around for awhile before forming the first incarnation of the Modern Lovers. The first Modern Lovers was a raw, punky outfit who cut an album in 1973 with help from ex-Velvet John Cale, but the album didn't get released until 1976. "Roadrunner" is a key cut from this disc, capturing the intense fury of the band's garage rock. Richman was dissatisfied with the band's sound, however, and quit the group. A new Modern Lovers was assembled by Richman in 1977, and eschewed a lot of the punk trappings in favor of strange doo-wop flavored pop.
9. Flamin' Groovies: Teenage Head
One of the all-time American cult bands, the Flamin Groovies are best known for their 1976 power-pop single "Shake Some Action", recorded in 1975 in England. This represented a major change in sound for the band, which was formed in San francisco as early as 1965. Unlike the other San Francisco bands of the day, the Flamin' Groovies weren't into psychedelic music or jams; instead, they specialized in a tough, Rolling Stones influenced hard rock. Teenage Head, their third album, was released in 1971 and was their best in their early incarnation; it has some blues influence on it, which they treat with respect, but mostly, it's straight ahead hard rock, without intricacy or frills. Frontman/freak Roy Loney would leave the band in the months following its release, resulting in the band's moving to England and changing its sound. There are those devoted fans who will swear this is their best album; it certainly is one of the best proto-punk moments of the early 70's.
10. The Dictators: (I Live For) Cars And Girls
The Dictators were formed in New York City in 1974, and remain one of the most influential of the proto-punk bands to this day. Their guiding lights were bassist/keyboardist/fanzine publisgher Andy (sometimes spelled Adny) Shernoff and underground rock critic/theorist Richard Meltzer. Scott "Top Ten" Kempner and Ross "the Boss" Funichello supplied the guitars, while the frontman was ex-roadie and wrestler Handsome Dick Manitoba. The band mixed the power of The Who with American garage band conventions, hints of British Invasion, and had a major influence on bands like The Ramones and The Dead Boys, among many others. "(I Live For) Cars And Girls" is from their raucous debut, capping off an entire albums' worth of junk culture celebration.
Sunday Morning Playlist appears weekly.
Listen to The Stooges: 1969 (1969)
Watch the New York Dolls: Personality Crisis [Beat Club] (1973)