Published March 30, 2017 in Warp & Woof
Proto-Punk and The Stooges
Rock ‘n Roll started this way in the 1950s. You had poor, unknown, young musicians who had a desire to make music for other young people … especially, at the beginning, for dancing. But, since it became apparent, early, that many of the young fans weren’t just interested in dancing, but also listening to the music (with or without physical movement), records starting being pressed. Then, radio stations began playing the music.
People started making money! Eventually, the raw power, the African inspired beat, and traditional song lyrics, was deemed by some entertainment conglomerates as a marketable commodity. Singles, recorded cheaply on 45 rpm vinyl discs, sold for a price low enough that teenagers could easily buy them without much budgetary notice from even hard-pressed families. Once they were “promoted” on corporate radio stations (supported by advertising), big business resulted. Some bands gained national reputations, and could tour … drawing large crowds in concert venues. 33 1/3 rpm albums, comprising 10 or more “tracks” began to replace the inexpensive singles. The appeal for the music soon came primarily from listening, not dancing.
Jazz and Folk Become Rock ‘n Roll
Jazz and folk music, from the late forties on into the 1950s, had established different audiences. Jazz buffs were older, college plus for the better educated; or, if not, they had grown up with the Big Band jazz of the thirties and forties, which represented their own youth. Folk music also had pre-war origins; but, unlike popular jazz, it centered around experiences of a poor, oppressed, people. It may have been a rural white experience, in Appalachia, or a black experience, also mainly rural Southern, in those days. By the 1950s, there was beginning to be a clash between the demographic groups who favored jazz versus those favoring folk. Jazz was considered, by this time, to be authorized by the middle class norms of American society. In short, it became bland. Folk music, thanks to people like Woody Guthrie, became associated with a left-wing alternative (clearly NOT authorized by a HUAC-dominated American political environment!).
Into this arena burst that early youth-centered dance music, amplifying African-American beats and blues lyrics. It was named “Rock-and-Roll” by Billboard magazine, and was associated with popular dance music by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed. It came from black gospel and folk, from jazz dance music, and from country ballads (generally called “rockabilly”). It was simple, primitive, and mostly without commercial motivation. It was music intended for the enjoyment of the audience. Soon, it became music that an entire generation could associate with its own identity. These were white kids now living in suburban communities. Why they chose an identity celebrated previously by black folks must have had something to do with social power structures in mid-century America. The kids were the “havenots,” aspiring to become “haves.” But, to get to that status, the young fans needed to overcome much resistance, especially from their elders. Their music was the vehicle that could inspire them to keep fighting, fighting for themselves, to gain something unknown to their parents.
But, things began to change, as rock ‘n roll became more widespread, and commercially successful. As it entered its second decade, rock ‘n roll (now starting to be called simply “rock”) was attracting a different audience. They were more upscale, college students (previously followers of modern jazz), a demographic now rather far removed from the baser origins of dance music. They also preferred to listen to more melodious, pleasant, sounds … like those from the Beach Boys, or the Beatles.
The Revolt Against “Rock”
The commercial market for popular music was becoming far more lucrative. Record labels were now giving big contracts to bands who managed to sound like what the executives of those labels thought would “sell.” As always seems to happen in the dialectical world in which we live, a counterculture emerged. Just as the original rock-and-roll fans were a counterculture to their parents, a new counterculture was setting itself up in opposition to those contemporaries who seemed to have lost touch with the real roots of their art. The original rough, even sexually inspired, beat, the brazen saxophones, the black-sounding vocals, were being replaced by complex melodies, possibly two guitars with background keyboard, and generally more “soothing” vocals.
Something new, or perhaps, retro, was needed. It had to return to simplicity. It had to communicate some primitive passion … even anger. Where the dominant singing style had become “crooning”, the new paradigm needed to sound more like “snarling.” In some ways, it was like evolving tastes in automobiles, at least in the U.S. The old tastes were for ostentation …. chrome and tail fins. The new taste was for power and speed, smaller in size, lighter, but much faster!
The musicians who felt this way did not have a club of their own at first, they didn’t even know what to call themselves, but they did have common influences on their musical style. They all liked Chuck Berry, but despised The Platters. They may have admired early Rolling Stones songs, and stage presence, but had only disdain for the clean-cut Beatles personas of the mid-sixties (Ed Sullivan vintage).
Rock commentary has become obsessed with stylistic labels over the last thirty years or so (since “rock” has been deemed worthy of serious cultural and artistic critique). A style of rock music which most historians of the genre associate with the mid-seventies to early-eighties is called “punk.” It was created simultaneously in the U.S. and U.K. The biggest name bands of this genre were on both sides of the Atlantic, The New York Dolls and The Clash are probably the first that come to mind. The Sex Pistols, in Britain, may have reached similar acclaim in the early eighties. These bands all seemed to be saying similar things about their social and artistic milieu. The dominant popular music of the day, according to them, had become far too burdened with technical matters, and divorced from real feelings.
But, these well-known bands had precursors, starting in the late sixties. The revolt against the homogenization of rock, and the desire to return to a simpler, more primitive, beat may have begun solely in the United States. There has been a new label assigned by rock historians to a group of artists personified by three American bands, one from New York, and two from Detroit. The original “proto-punk” band, as the three are now known, was the one from New York, first promoted by Andy Warhol —The Velvet Underground. It was formed by Lou Reed and John Cale. Reed was an English Lit major at Syracuse University, with a penchant for the beat generation American authors. Cale, somewhat older, had been a devotee of John Cage and Sun Ra (avant garde electronic classical and jazz, respectively), but had prodigious musical talent, himself, playing several instruments. He was a Welsh immigrant to New York, while Reed was a middle class kid from Westchester County, who had suffered a traumatic childhood. Together with a bass player and a female drummer, they put together what today would be called a “garage rock” band, in the mid-sixties. They were discovered by Warhol, who was looking for a vehicle to promote his traveling show of films, “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” He probably had a vision of the kind of music he wanted for his show, and VU matched it. Cale’s penchant for the avant garde, and cacophonous dissonance, often with unusual instruments, made great counterpoint to Reed’s flair for language, as the songwriter/storyteller of the group. After a few years, however, the resulting artistic tension between the two led Cale to leave. Reed carried on with the others for a while, then decided to launch a solo career.
What did John Cale do when he left The Velvet Underground? He began looking for struggling young bands that might be receptive to his outrageous, experimental, avant garde predilections. One such band, located in Ann Arbor, was The Stooges. They had just been signed by Elektra Records, the same label that did The Doors, and other big name rock acts, but they had yet to produce their first album. Another Detroit band, the MC5 (for “Motor City 5”), was signed at the same time by Elektra, but was already well known locally. They were offered $20K to The Stooges $5K. Cale agreed to produce The Stooges first album. Front man Iggy Pop had been experimenting early with avant garde sounds. and unusual souding non-instruments, that would clearly draw Cale’s interest.
MC5 had created some buzz in the fledgling rock media, mostly for their own outrageous brand of anger, raw rock ‘n roll beat, and strong anti-establishment viewpoint — in the late sixties, this took the form of actual political advocacy for left-wing groups like the Black Panther Party. They were clearly mentors for Iggy, and his band members, the Asheton brothers (Ron and Scott), and Dave Alexander. The musical style of both bands was similar, harking back to early rock and roll sounds: simple guitar chords, now heavily amplified, with feedback, bass rhythm guitar, and drums. MC5’s songs used rather traditional blues lyrics, but Iggy Pop had more affinity for teen-age alienation, and in some noteworthy cases, a real sense of the malaise of industrial America, befitting his Michigan background. He was born in 1947, in Muskegon, as James Osterberg. Iggy Pop was a stage name he invented for the band, after attending an early MC5 concert in Detroit. Rob Tyner, of MC5, eventually starting using Iggy, and his band, as openers for them. Hence, the two bands were discovered simultaneously by Elektra, in 1968.
Enter, The Stooges
It was The Stooges more adventurous musical content, however, that drew the attention of both John Cale, and later rock music critics. MC5 built a counterculture following, especially after an obscenity flack around their signature song, “Kick Out the Jams.” (Detroit’s premier department store chain, J. L. Hudson Co., refused to stock any Elektra records as fallout … down went Hudson’s!). But, it was Iggy Pop and The Stooges who blazed the path which later led to what rock commentators would label “punk.” In a very real way, they were the first punks! The avant garde style of Cale did not last past their first, self-titled, album, however.
By the time their third album was released, in 1973, they had attracted the attention of yet another rock music star with an interest in finding new, raw talent … that album, “Raw Power,” was produced by David Bowie. Pop and Bowie had become friends since the two had met at Max’s Kansas City in New York, two years earlier. It was primarily Pop’s outrageous concert demeanor that most of his fans grabbed. Performing bare chested, he was known to have allowed himself to be hoisted overhead on the hands of the audience, smearing peanut butter on his chest, or walking barefoot over broken glass on stage.
But, from the viewpoint of a rock historian, perhaps the most significant feature of The Stooges was the simple, primitive, retro rock ‘n roll beat of their songs, and the banal … even boring … nature of the lyrics. None of the poetic flourish of many Bob Dylan-inspired songwriters, or of a Lou Reed. No, Iggy Pop songs weren’t fancy, but they remind some of us of just what it was like growing up in places like a typical Detroit suburb, or Flint. The sameness of the routine, the drabness of daily life, in that industrial flatland. Here are some examples:
No Fun (by Scott Asheton) —
No fun, my babe
No fun to hang around
Feelin’ that same old way
No fun to hang around
For another day …
put it together with the minimalist music: No Fun
Or, 1969 —
It’s 1969 OK all across the USA
It’s another year for me and you
Last year I was twenty one I didn’t have a lot of fun
And now I’m gonna be twenty two I say oh my and a boo-hoo
It’s 1969 OK all across the USA …
with similar chords: 1969
Not much to stir the imagination here. It seemed the very repetitiveness, the drone, especially at loud volume, that was the message. One song from the John Cale produced debut album stands out as the signature, however: “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. More than any of the others, this song manages to muster some urgency, perhaps inspired by Cale, with a stabbing pain from keyboard throughout, and the crescendo fuzzed guitar chords at the close. The lyrics suggest that happiness may come only by descending to the level of a pet … as he lays “right down in my favorite place”, where he can close his eyes and close his mind. Listen here.
Raw Power, and the Decline of Punk
The David Bowie produced third album, Raw Power, is generally even darker than the debut album. While the Cale produced work emphasizes monotony, a theme in Raw Power is aggression. An example:
Search & Destroy —
And I’m the world’s forgotten boy
The one who’s searchin’, searchin’ to destroy
And honey I’m the world’s forgotten boy
The one who’s searchin’, only to destroy, hey
Look out honey, ’cause I’m using technology
Ain’t got time to make no apology
Soul radiation in the dead of night
Love in the middle of a fire fight
Honey, gotta strike me blind
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby, penetrate my mind …
It moves at a faster tempo, more frenetic, than most of the tracks on the first album, but with conventional rock guitar, bass, drums. Here it is: Search & Destroy .
Some tracks, like “Gimme Danger” are slower, but much more menacing, than anything on their self-titled first album. Here’s Gimme Danger . In 2016, Jim Jarmusch made a documentary film of the same name, about Iggy Pop and The Stooges. It artfully skims over the outrageous stage antics (and personal lives of the band members), focusing more on the music … an appropriate emphasis, I would submit.
The Stooges struggled for the rest of their career, losing members of the band to drug addiction, and generally finding that Iggy Pop’s stage persona started getting old, as the original fan base from the early seventies aged out of the target audience. The next generation apparently had different sensibilities. Gen-X did not have the same frame of reference as their older, boomer, siblings. Also, “punk” itself, evolved into metal, then alternative rock. The rock aficionados had no time for yesterday’s stylistic labels … as long as there were always new bands to write about. It remained material only for the rock historians. Nevertheless, The Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. This honor, as intended, allows them (the survivors, at least) to claim the well-deserved mantle of “icon” with the rock commentariat.