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Cool Shit: Proto-Punk

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It’s completely cliche to be obsessed with punk and the 70’s but!!!!! That is who I am — cliche and uninteresting. Anyways I’ve been in enough situations where I talk mindlessly about this before realizing that the people around me are a) bored out of their minds b) have no idea what I’m droning on about or c) hate me. So this is essentially an introduction, refresher course etc on proto-punk. An easy jump off point in the very unlikely case that you’re not familiar.

Proto-punk is in and of itself an anachronistic name for the genre. It’s not what it was being called then and honestly I’m not sure when the phrase started being used but it was probably around the time that the Met put the final nail in the coffin of punk by making it the subject of a couture exhibition. But basically it’s used to refer to the bands and albums that were too early to be thought of as Punk but are very much the roots of punk — stuff that was so unlike the rock music of it’s time that it’s really got nowhere else to go. 

New York Dolls 

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The New York Dolls formation story is emblematic of the reason Punk could only ever crash and burn. The first drummer, Billy Murcia, died from an accidental overdose turned fatal because a bunch of kids stuck him in a bathtub instead of getting him real help. Later, after the band split Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders formed Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers with Richard Hell before that too ended in disarray. 

But before their split (and middle aged reunion bizarrely brought about by Dolls-fan boy Morrissey) the Dolls were the shining modicum of counterculture in New York City. During their first performance at the Mercer Art Center the band showed up dressed in drag (wild for the 1970s). They became known locally for their captivating and life-changing performances — although at the time this failed to translate to their live recordings (which begs the question — how fucking good were they live?). Since then they’ve become one of those bands with cultish following long after their heyday but at least some of them were alive to see it. Also an important side note: right before their split the Dolls were briefly managed and dressed by Malcolm McLaren who is known for y’know, putting the Sex Pistols together.

The Stooges

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By the time The Stooges had formed, broken up, gotten back together and broken up again it was 1974 — three years before Richard Hell & the Voidoids released Blank Generation. What I’m trying to tell you is that they were so far ahead of their time that Coachella 2003 became the moment they finally reached fame. The Stooges came to define the ethos that early Punk would come to espouse —nihilism, self mutilation and a type of self destruction brought on by a refusal to grow up. Iggy Pop is Peter Pan and the Stooges were the Lost Boys if they’d had access to heroin and dog collars.

The Velvet Underground & Nico

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In starting to write this I tried to do the math to figure out how long ago exactly The Velvet Underground & Nico came out and I guess 2017 makes it fifty years which is the most confusing display of the passage of time I’ve ever experienced. Somehow 50 years ago the Velvet Underground made an album that would struggle to find a place today, too far ahead in the future, too knowledgable of the limits of music and too insistent on breaking them. This is the album that changed the trajectory of contemporary rock (things might be bleak now but imagine how much worse off we would be without this).

P.S. The vocals on “Sunday Morning” are actually Lou Reed (I always assumed they were Nico). The track was written after the album was done in response to the label requiring at least one song that could be marketed towards the masses. That’s why the track is one of the more mundane ones although Lou Reed compensates with venomous and paranoid “watch out / the world’s behind you.”

The Modern Lovers

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Not to be confused with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, this was his first foray into the music world and in my opinion the best. It’s got all of the makings of a Punk album — the mundanity of it’s thematic scope, produced by John Cale and performed while opening for the New York Dolls before the band crashed and burned.

Television

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It can be hard to tell in retrospect, but Television was one of the first bands to truly be almost Punk. Richard Hell as an original founding member wrote songs like “Love Comes in Spurts” while originally calling themselves the Neon Boys before rebranding into Television and ultimately splitting. Marquee Moon is still usually referred to as a defining record of Punk — although stylistically and even lyrically it falls a little outside of the spectrum.

For further reading check out Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, anything by Lester Bangs (although especially Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) and the first few chapters of Please Kill Me.

Watch: Gimme Danger (if only to watch a worn and leathered Iggy Pop play with his toes for an hour and a half) and if you really HAVE TO the HBO series, Vinyl (borderline blasphemous and boring as hell even for someone who really cares about seeing a person you’re supposed to assume is Iggy Pop covered in glitter and carried on a stretcher).



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