Starting Five: Proto-Punk

More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, movements, and writers that we love. Today we look at five essential albums that define the genre of “proto-punk.

Starting Five: Proto-Punk
by Chad Jewett

1.) The Sonics – Here Are The Sonics (1965)
The Sonics didn’t just break ground by taking the supercharged rhythm-and-blues of The Beatles and turning it into something rowdier, more bombastic, more biting. They also lent the whole aesthetic a kick of indefinable weirdness that gave punk its outsider aura long before the genre had a name or an anti-establishment mission. It’s the only way to explain the bizarre likes of “The Witch” and its haunted house organs, or the Tacoma quintet’s hopped-up take on “Do You Love Me?” and “Money” (a lot of mid-60s bands covered Motown; only The Sonics added some sort of value in the process) or the raving howl of singer-organist Gerry Roslie on “Psycho” (the band’s cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” also manages to clarify the ways in which Little Richard’s rapturous shout might have been punk’s inception). There was a B-movie outré quality to The Sonics – so many of their songs referenced ghouls, manias, poison, mysterious strangers – a stylistic tick that anticipated everything from the retro-chic art of The Clash to the grindhouse aesthetic of The Misfits. But strip away all of that added context and you still have an album in Here Are The Sonics that offered its two-minute soul punk rave-ups with manic, slashing intensity.

2.) MC5 – Kick Out The Jams (1969)
Recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom on Devil’s Night and Halloween of 1968 — a fitting choice for the band’s persona as leftist rebels of the mischievous variety — Kick Out The Jams ended up being a distillation of the MC5 that the Motor City quintet would never quite repeat in more traditional studio settings. It turns out the band needed the livewire energy, the in-the-moment electricity, the ability to hear hundreds of people roar back to cues like “Are you ready to testify!” and “It’s time to kick out the jams motherfuckas!”. Punctuated by the pseudo-religious fervor of singer Rob Tyner, whose shouts to the crowd are a self-renewing rocket fuel throughout the album, Kick Out The Jams is a sweaty thrill that has aged beautifully, full of the elemental power chords and snotty swagger that punk would codify into a movement a few years later. But few records in punk’s 45-year history have matched the revolutionary energy of the MC5’s debut, a classic and a counterculture tour de force.

3.) Iggy & The Stooges – Raw Power (1973)
Blessed, like Kick Out The Jams, with a title that so indicative of its contents that it’s essentially onomatopoeia, Raw Power served as the closing statement of The Stooges’ first run, and the magnum opus of the band’s whole career. Different versions proliferate – an original mix helmed by David Bowie, an explosively loud 1997 mix via Iggy Pop himself – but what unites every version of Raw Power is the oxidized blast of James Williamson’s feral guitars, Iggy’s wooly yelps, the Asheton brothers’ heavy, heaving rhythm section. As with every album on this list, Raw Power is full of moments that have matured into the iconic – those yelps of “Forgotten boy!”, the sudden rogue wave of overdriven guitar that interrupts “Search and Destroy”, the way “Shake Appeal” bashes rock-and-roll’s 12-bar roots into something nervy and risqué. When the band simmers down to a relative hush — as with the still-hypnotic “Gimme Danger” — you can hear Iggy & the Stooges anticipating post-punk before punk itself was even fully hatched, evidence of just how prescient Raw Power really was.

4.) New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)
If the piano-led boogie-woogie of “Personality Crisis” and “Looking For A Kiss” hewed closer than history tends to recognize to the most electrified moments of contemporary records like The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, there was still no parallel to the sheer exuberance, attitude, and subversive élan that defined New York Dolls and their self-titled debut. Rock’s establishment also had no answer for David Johansen’s wild howl, the combination of winking sneer and manic shout with which he could deliver a line like “Personality crisis / You got it while it was hot” – codifying the rowdy ecstasy that punk would take in flouting expectation and normativity. Iggy Pop’s version of “outsider” was all about a kind of stylized detonation in the direction of conservative hegemony. The New York Dolls added joy to the equation. New York Dolls found the glam-rock quintet basically inventing the language with which punk would turn defiance into fun while also carving out a space in rock that rejected the macho posturing of the Led Zeppelins and Aerosmiths of the era.

5.) Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” So begins one of the greatest songs in the history of American music, a declaration of independence and a statement of individuality made all the more subversive for the way it steadily pivots with rebellious relish into a British Invasion standard from a previous generation’s version of punk. The song is “Gloria”, the album is Patti Smith’s Horses, an LP that managed to stitch together all of punk’s contributing streams – the art-rock cacophony of The Velvet Underground; the blues-poetry weirdness of electric Dylan; the brusque, brash thump of post-Beatles/pre-Stooges garage rock – into one deep, cerebral delta. Horses is full of nods to rock-and-roll’s past turned into chopped-up poetry of the William Burroughs variety, which explains why “Gloria” begins as a tense prologue before bursting into a serrated take on the Them classic of the same name. That kind of graffiti collage would come to serve as a pillar of punk’s first wave, to be found every time The Ramones borrowed melodies from 60s girl groups or The Clash tried on the swagger of mythic bluesmen – but no one did it with kind the same mythic, operatic significance that swirls throughout Horses.

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