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Music Blog – American Punk, the early years

American Punk

Dead Kennedys MC5 The Stooges the ramones







Punk Rock was first big in England. The hard driving, simple chord driven music was born out of the economic malaise of the ‘70s and took root with disaffected young white kids. The idealism and the promises of the ‘60’s slowly devolved into drugs and hopeless government policies. They saw the music of their parents, or older siblings, as stodgy, pretentious and commercial (the music we today call classic rock). Punk Rock was a rebellion against the culture, and against the previous rebellion against the culture. As with many things it crossed the ocean and mutated a bit.

The American economic situation was similar to the English one, but a bit less severe. The cultural situation was arguably worse. We had the disappointment at the failed promises of the ‘60s, but we also had something worse – Disco. Anti-disco sentiment turned to hard Rock as it’s salvation (eventually giving us Hair Bands, which made Disco seem like it wasn’t so bad), but Punk was there the whole time fighting the good fight against everything. Early American Punk resembled English Punk in it’s anger and ferocity, but it was flavored with surf rock and garage band influences. It is one of the few American music movements that happened on both coasts and the heartlands at the same time.

MC5 – MC5 might be the ur-American Punk band, ignoring for a moment all the surf bands. They had their time in the tainted sun from their first album in 1969 up until their dissolution in 1972. They only put out three albums, but they were as influential to American Music as the Velvet Underground. They were from Detroit and played music that was closer to rhythmic industrial noise than it was to any of the sugary pop or trippy hippy music of the day. They influences a generation of angry kids with guitars, maybe none more important than their neighbors from Ann Arbor, The Stooges.

The Stooges – Compared to MC5, the Stooges were a raging success story. Compared to the rest of the music industry, they were just raging. They played hard, experimental music that was influenced by the hippies, but rejected their peace and love message in favor of an expression of primal emotion. They were one part Velvet Underground, one part garage rock, four parts unidentifiable hazardous materials, and three parts Iggy Pop. They developed a reputation for wild, chaotic live shows involving nudity, raw meat, and self inflicted wounds. It can come as no surprise that the band’s story is one of chaos and abuse, but they held it together long enough to product some influential if challenging music.

Iggy Pop – Iggy is American Punk’s wild uncle who came back from the war a little off kilter, then shows up every few years and takes Dad for a three day adventure not unlike a Hangover movie. Iggy played in bands in high school, then he saw the Door live. He probably saw a kindred spirit in Jim Morrison, but one that just was not brave enough on stage. Iggy took it on himself to redefine what a stage show was (see the previous entry – the Stooges). When the Stooges came to one of their ends, he hooked up with David Bowie and made his two move acclaimed albums, one of which spawned the evergreen fun song “Lust for Life”.  He has spent the years floating from one style to the next, producing little hits every few years all the while making people say “He’s still alive?”.


Television – Dirty, dingy crime laden New York. Yes, this is the environment that spawns new music. Television was built around Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, who had been bandmates before. Their music was punk in attitude, but the playing owed as much to the folk scene as it did to any other type of music. They were one of the very early bands to play regular gigs at CBGBs, reportedly being the ones who built the first stage. They suffered from having to many cooks (writers) and eventually Richard Hell left to form the Heartbreakers, who later became Richard Hell & the Voidoids. Their first album, Marquee Moon,  sold moderately in the US, but cracked the top 30 in much of the rest of the world.

Richard Hell & the Voidoids –  There wasn’t enough room for Richard Hell in Television, and probably not enough room on any stage for him with any band. Richard Hell was as insightful as the Dead Kennedy’s but not nearly as militant. He was more aloof, in an east coast way. He wrote wry observational or humorous songs about growing up in America, about girls, or New York. Many in the music industry picked this band to be the break out band from CBGBs. They had some success, but were quickly overshadowed by the more polished sounds of Blondie and Talking Heads. The band made several forgettable albums after their first one, then drifted into irrelevance. Richard Hell wrote a couple of books, some poetry, then drifted away.

Black Flag – Possibly America’s first hard-core Punk bank. They created the script that so many other bands would follow, knowingly or unknowingly, in the punk world. They had an anti-authority anti-consumerism, anti-conformity message that played very well to the warm malaise of suburban California life. They built their reputation as much on biting lyrics and hammering beats as on notoriety. They left a legacy of energetic performances, violent crowds, and stunning concert posters/t-shirts. Their influence is felt equally in Punk music as well as in Hair/Speed Metal.

X – X was formed in the growing years of American Punk. While they looked like a punk band with their dyed hair and multiple piercings, they played with a bit of a twang. Somewhere along the line, some rockabilly DNA mixed into the Punk soup and a new strain was the result. The band went through many record labels, with their sound always evolving. Even so, you can always count on them to play it fast, loud, and with a bit of country.

Dead Kennedys – Only America’s musical crucible, California, could have produced the Dead Kennedys. As political as the hippies, as satirical as Frank Zappa, and about four-fifths as energetic as Dick Dale, they were for many, the prototype for an American Punk band. Their history is marked by biting every hand that ever fed them, and by biting each other. They serve as an object lesson in how bands with a strong political message are not above all the things that typically befall bands – drugs, creative squabbles, money bickering. They did produce one of the finest satirical songs ever, California Uber Alles. Given today’s political climate, this cynical biting indictment of conformity might actually be considered naïve.

The Ramones – They sound like a poorly tuned, poorly recorded garage band playing surf rock, must be another California band, right? Nope. The Ramones were as New York as a slice of flat greasy pizza, as a cabbie flipping off a tourist, and as a five pound rat. They had matching black shag haircuts, matching dirty jeans, and matching black leather jackets. They played hard, happy surf riffs while they sang about mental illness, drugs, and girls. The band had modest success, but built a fanatical following by touring constantly and always giving the fans a good show. They lasted long enough to be seen as elder statesmen, a tag that would probably make them puke. They are probably the most widely known of any American Punk band.

Monday –MC5 “Kick out the Jams”, The Stooges “Search and Destroy”, Iggy Popp “Lust for Life”
Tuesday – Television “See No Evil”, Richard Hell & the Voidoids “Blank Generation”
Wednesday -Black Flag “Rise Above”, X “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline”
Thursday – Dead Kennedys “California Uber Alles” & “Holiday in Cambodia”
Friday -The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated”, “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, “Blitzkrieg Pop”