6 Punk Rock Pioneers
Great music sometimes feels as though it emerges from nothing, but no band exists in a vacuum. Even within punk rock, the hard-edged genre that continues to thrive today despite what the “punk is dead” crowd might have you believe, many of the greats drew influence in style and sound from the bands that predated them by a few years or even a few decades. Though punks like The Sex Pistols often took pride in eschewing all music that came before, these bands had a recognizable impact on the enduring genre.
1. The Sonics
The British Invasion produced plenty of sanitized pop rock as well as harder-edged bands that informed the creation of the U.S. garage rock scene, wherein bands with little experience played rough-and-tough guitar music with muddled production values. These early garage rock bands made no secret of their inexperience and instead wore their outsider status like a badge of honor, valuing authenticity and rawness over polished production values. Similar values would later become the core of the punk rock movement’s stated ethos. The Sonics from Washington state played garage rock classics like “Louie Louie” and originals like “Strychnine,” featuring simple chord structures played with compelling speed and intensity, throat-shredding vocals, and darkly humorous lyrics about ’60s youth culture and murderous psychopaths. The widespread influence of their jagged sound and their menacing attitude is felt in punk rock and grunge alike.
2. The Kinks
The Kinks enjoyed a long career that often toed the line between mainstream recognition and obscurity, but in their early days, the band turned from R&B influences to a harder rock sound informed by the Kingsmen nonsense-fun hit “Louie, Louie.” Several of their earliest hits, including “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” both released in 1964, were among the first mainstream songs to include guitar distortion, due to guitarist Dave Davies’s tiring of the traditional clean guitar sound and choosing to cut the speaker cone of his amplifier with a razor blade. These short, sharp, and simple songs, though different from much of the band’s later output, were among the first songs within the simplified “three chord” style of guitar playing that became a mainstay of the stripped-down punk genre. The early albums of The Ramones, in particular, sound like an updated version of early Kinks, based around bubblegum pop melodies played fast and fun with plenty of distortion.
3. The Stooges
After an original seven-year run wherein they were often reviled by disgusted critics and shocked audiences alike, The Stooges were only gradually recognized for their especially influential brand of “protopunk” some years after their 1974 breakup. Their original run of three albums pioneered the fearless, defiant lyrical themes of many punk bands while borrowing the fuzzy, assaultive guitar noise of ’60s garage rock and turning it up to 11 for maximum impact. The band was plagued by heroin use, making its live performances increasingly erratic and unpredictable, especially for the onstage antics of frontman Iggy Pop, who frequently flashed the audience, cut himself with glass, and may have even pioneered the stage dive. His onstage presence is often cited as the inspiration for the purposely aggressive onstage antics of many punk rockers who came after, and their songs have been recorded by bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Damned.
Not far from the Michigan town of Ann Arbor that birthed The Stooges, Detroit produced yet another influential protopunk act in the purposely threatening lineup of MC5. Despite an initial run that only lasted three years, the band stirred up plenty of buzz and controversy for its blend of early rock and roll, garage rock, and psychedelia, while infusing songs with a rebellious attitude that refused to shy away from political and even radical beliefs. The band members were influenced by Marxism and involved with the White Panther party, and they played an eight-hour performance in protest of the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Even beyond its chaotic, fast-paced songs, MC5 became a touchstone for the controversial ethos of many punk and hardcore bands that followed.
5. The New York Dolls
The art rock scene in New York in the mid-’70s was centered around the famous CBGB club, and one of the most unique acts among a roster of fearlessly unique acts were The New York Dolls, who might today be described as glam punk, though they predated the popularity of both the glam and punk genres. They revived the simplicity of early rock and roll while introducing a love of untamed noise and disregard for convention. They embraced androgynous fashions as well as chaotic sounds and onstage performances that later influenced the likes of The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Damned. Before the band’s breakup in 1977, it was briefly managed by Malcolm McLaren, who attempted to use shock value to boost awareness of the Dolls. That was shortly before McLaren returned to his native England and began managing yet another band who sought fame through shock appeal — The Sex Pistols.
Before punk rock exploded in the late ’70s, bands across the world were already beginning to embrace the same sounds and ethics that would soon make the hard-edged genre a major cultural phenomenon. Even in Germany, which enjoyed a renaissance of interesting, experimental genres throughout the decade, the ambient tones of the style now known as krautrock produced yet another pioneering punk act in the form of Neu! While still dabbling in ambient soundscapes and electronic synthesizers, many of the band’s songs, like “Super 78,” plodded along with the relentless sort of simplified, single-chord momentum that became a fixture of the punk rock sound. Neu! ’75, the group’s final album of the 1970s, is easily split into two distinct styles, with the second half consisting of protopunk tracks by way of krautrock, with Klaus Dinger’s snarling vocal style serving as clear inspiration for many U.K. punk bands.
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