The History of Proto-Punk

The history of punk rock begins with the story of proto-punk, a musical movement that preceded punk rocks arrival by more than a decade. Proto-punk, or pre-punk, laid the foundations of punk rock, yet it has not always been obvious which artists contributed as forerunners of the 1970s genre and many important bands have been forgotten.  

The genre now known as proto-punk is intimately linked with 1960s garage rock. In fact, some critics now refer to garage rock as 60s punk or garage punk. But can we consider all garage rock bands of the 1960s to be proto-punk? Or are there some bands that more clearly pioneered punk rock music during that time?

Origins and Meaning of Garage Rock

Garage rock was a genre of music that emerged in the middle of the 1960s, predominantly in the United States. Typically characterised as a raw and energetic form of rock music, garage rock featured simple song compositions, repetitive guitar riffs, distortion (either of the guitar or the vocals), and a generally aggressive feel. The use of the term ‘garage’ refers to the fact that many of the groups started out playing in their parents garage. Though in reality many of the groups were comprised of professional musicians. 

Initially, garage rock bands drew their inspiration from the American R&B scene, listening to artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley. The stripped back, simple recordings produced by these artists spoke to a generation on the verge of rebellion against the conservative society they inhabited. 

As a sub genre of rock music, garage rock also drew inspiration from the British Invasion wave of bands that included The Beatles, The Kinks, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, and others. The impact of these bands had been tremendous in the United States. An entire generation of young people were inspired to start playing music and to create a band. The result was a tidal wave of local bands appearing all over the country playing simple music with energy. 

Garage Rock Goes Mainstream (sort of)

The wave of garage rock bands that appeared in the United States began to achieve small-time, regional success thanks to airplay on local radio stations. As a result, the mid-60s became the time for garage band one-hit wonders. The Beau Brummels achieved chart success with two singles, The Castaways earned a top 10 hit, and in 1966, Question Mark and the Mysterians made it to number 1 with the song 96 Tears. 

Shortly after 96 Tears reached number 1, the group Machine Music entered the top 20 with their song, Talk Talk. In the music video the band can be seen wearing all black outfits, with each member sporting a single black glove on their right hand. In 1967, garage band Strawberry Alarm Clock had a number 1 hit single with the song, Incense and Peppermints.  

That said, it is hard to define any of the above mentioned artists, while the were certainly garage rock, as 100% proto-punk. Proto-punk is a little harder to pin down. It is not quite accurate to simply claim the entire genre of garage rock to be a forerunner of 1970s punk rock. Rather we need to pick and choose the particular artists, and in some cases particular songs, that clearly direct us towards pure punk rock. 

Proto-Punk Bands from the Garage Rock Scene

A good example of a band that clearly links garage rock to punk rock is The Sonics. Their song Have Love, Will Travel, clearly demonstrates an early punk vibe with its distorted vocals, simple compositions, repetitive guitar riff, and its overall upbeat and slightly aggressive vibe. The band are said to have inspired Nirvana and Bruce Springsteen, as well as bands from the punk rock movement. Equally, The Kingsmen’s 1964 version of Louie Louie, exemplifies that rough, raw feeling that punk rock music perfected a decade later. The incomprehensible singing that verges on screaming perfectly prepares the listening for hearing Johnny Rotten 11 years later. 

Probably the most well-known and influential proto-punk band to be linked with the garage rock scene is the Stooges. With Iggy Pop as frontman, the band gained notoriety for their raucous live shows that certainly anticipated the high-energy, live performances of later punk rock bands. Hailing from Michigan, the band formed in 1967 having been inspired by The Doors and all-girl group, Untouchable. 

The Stooges started playing gigs with MC5 – another proto-punk band – and gained popularity in the underground music scene. Their 1969 song, I Wanna Be Your Dog, is great example of a proto-punk song, with its repetitive, distorted guitar line and aggressive feel. In 1973, Iggy Pop and The Stooges released the album, Raw Power. It was highly influential and without a doubt proto-punk to the core. Although the album only reached 183 on the Billboard 200 and was criticised by fans and the music press, it is now considered a cult album. 

After releasing the most prominent proto-punk album ever made, Iggy Pop and the Stooges broke up in 1974, just a couple of years before the punk rock movement began in earnest. Their contribution to the creation of the punk rock genre, both in terms of musical style and aesthetics, along with other garage rock bands including the aforementioned Sonics, was astronomical. In fact, it is hard to see how punk rock could have happened without them. 

Other Proto-Punk Bands

Examples of proto-punk can also be found in the bands who inspired the garage rock movement. In particular, The Kinks, who were labelled “the original punks”, contributed much to the development of punk rock. Kinks’ guitarist, Dave Davies, spent days messing around with a small amp he had brought from a spare parts shop. After he cut around the cone with a razor blade he found that the amp made a distorted, jagged sound. The sound was reproduced in the studio on songs such as You Really Got Me, giving them an edgy, proto-punk sound. Incidentally, this sound also inspired the original heavy metal bands of the early 1970s. 

By the early 70s, new proto-punk bands were appearing inspired by the pioneering efforts of Iggy and The Stooges, among others. Ostensibly a glam rock band, the New York Dolls formed in 1971 and became an iconic proto-punk band, with some critics even claiming they were the first punk rock band. However, while the music was certainly pretty punk, the bands style was undeniably glam rock. That said, they were one of the most influential proto-punk bands, despite their short-lived existence. 

A third band often placed in the proto-punk category is The Velvet Underground. The bands primary focus was on art rock or experimental, avant-garde rock, but underneath they were proto-punk rebels. The subject matter of their music would prove especially influential on later punk rock acts, as would their musical experimentation. The bands debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, features many proto-punk elements, such as stomping drums and chaotic musical interludes.

A Final Word On Proto-Punk

The diversity of influences that created punk rock, form the garage rock scene, to the glam rock, to the British Invasion era rock bands, can all, at time, be considered proto-punk. But more than ever, it is not possible to generalise. Individual songs, as much as entire bands, contributed to the creation of a sound that would become the punk rock we know and love today. 

Only a year after the New York Dolls released their album Too Much Too Soon, and two years after the release of Raw Power, did the Sex Pistols form in London and punk rock exploded onto the music scene as a fully formed genre. 

Key Moments in the History of Proto-Punk

1964 – The Kinks released the single, You Really Go Me. 

1965 – The Sonics released their album, Here are the Sonics, featuring the song, Have Love, Will Travel. 

1967 – The Velvet Underground released their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. 

1969 – The Stooges released I Wanna Be Your Dog as a single from their self-titled debut album. 

1973 – Iggy and the Stooges released Raw Power, the definitive proto-punk album. 

1974 – The New York Dolls released Too Much Too Soon, considered a “priceless proto-punk” album. 

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