Iggy Pop circa 1970. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer (Getty Images)
Before punk, there was proto-punk, a musical genre comprised of a rag-tag bunch of garage rockers, avant-garde musicians, and artists too outrageous for categorization (we’re looking at you, Iggy). Proto-punk emerged in the late ’60s and continued into the early ’70s, but music fans and historians didn’t conceive of the genre until years after most proto-punk bands broke up and punk took over the sonic landscape.
Notable examples of proto-punk acts include Motor City 5, Iggy & the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and the Velvet Underground. If it weren’t for that last one, alternative rock might not exist at all. Occasionally, bands like the Patti Smith Group and Television get categorized under the proto-punk banner (though we prefer classifying them as NYC punk).
Here are six proto-punk songs that defined the era and changed music forever.
6. “Search and Destroy” by Iggy and the Stooges
Named after a Time magazine article about the Vietnam War, “Search and Destroy” sure is intense. The singer alternates between bragging, warning, and crying out for help. Iggy’s sometimes-nickname “the world’s forgotten boy” came from this song. Like “Gimme Danger,” it first appeared on the Raw Power album, but “Search and Destroy” is probably the most influential song on the album. London punk group the Sex Pistols often covered this song at their live shows. Henry Rollins has a tattoo of the title on his back. Countless artists, from Soundgarden to Skunk Anansie and Sid Vicious to the Dead Boys, have recorded covers of it. Kurt Cobain repeatedly referred to the Raw Power album in general as one of his favorites. Its impact on the artists that followed its release is evident.
5. “Personality Crisis” by the New York Dolls
This is the New York Dolls’ signature song. Outlandish and slightly deranged, this tune shocked people on both sides of the pond because its aggressive style and frankly awful musicianship weren’t yet popular. Interestingly, “Personality Crisis” includes cries of “no no no” instead of the usual “yeah yeah yeah,” which is unusual for 1971. These wild guys didn’t just influence punk rock groups. The New York Dolls inspired everyone from David Bowie and KISS to Guns N’ Roses and Morrissey. Vulgar, loud, and prone to vomiting, these obscene crossdressers sure did make history.
4. “Kick Out the Jams” by MC5
This fast, intense tune set the tempo for punk rock. It also helped define the attitude. Even by modern standards, it’s intense and wild and astoundingly catchy. It was the first song to use the expletive “motherf*ckers.” That’s pretty punk. As is the title. Apparently, that phrase is what MC5 members used to yell at their opening acts. “Kick Out the Jams” later came to mean something more anti-establishment.
3. “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground
If you listen closely, you’ll realize that “Sister Ray” consists almost entirely of the same riff played over and over. In an era of five-minute guitar solos, that was revolutionary. Songs like “Sister Ray” inspired the hyper-simplistic punk music of the following decades. It’s one of the extremely common songs people learn when they first pick up a guitar. Also, if it weren’t for this song, the Buzzcocks wouldn’t exist. They only got together because Howard Devoto put up an ad asking for fellow Sister Ray fans willing to jam. And if it weren’t for the Buzzcocks, would Green Day and other modern pop-punk bands exist? Perhaps not.
2. “Gimme Danger” by the Stooges
Though slower and more melodic than some Stooges songs, “Gimme Danger” still feels pretty fierce. It’s harsh, hypnotizing, and even seductive. The entrancing guitar riffs prove that crazed proto-punk music can also be elegant. There’s a reason Jim Jarmusch named his Stooges documentary after this song. Two mixes of this tune exist: the softer Bowie original and Iggy’s violent 1997 remix. In the case of this somewhat sedate song, the differences were even more obvious.
1. “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground
This song is a bit infamous, and not without reason. There’s something so rebellious, so “I don’t care” about a proto-punk song like this. The slow-then-fast-then-slow tempo simulates the nodding-then-alert-then-nodding cycle that follows a hit of smack. Sadly, the apathetic lyrics semi-glamorize drugs by neglecting to mention things like infections or withdrawal. The Velvet Underground stopped playing it live after fans began approaching them and saying they’d “shot up” to it.