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10 Proto-Punk Albums Every Music Fan Should Own

on July 07, 2020, 10:13am
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Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about. As The Stooges’ Fun House turns 50 this week, we look back at 10 unruly albums that planted the seeds for punk’s raucous reign.

Released on July 7th, 1970, The StoogesFun House accomplished precisely what a sophomore LP should: it continued the foundational vibe of its predecessor while also adding more growth and variety to the band’s palette. In particular, it largely eschewed the more psychedelic and poppy elements of The Stooges in favor of a harsher, darker, and more investigative mindset (complete with bits of jazz). Although it wasn’t immediately successful, it has since achieved quite a legacy as not only one of The Stooges’ best outings, but as a quintessential blueprint for what would become punk half a decade later.

Fun House was created at Elektra Sound Recorders in Los Angeles (in May 1970) and produced by Don Gallucci of The Kingsmen, who aimed to capture the group’s live sound in a studio setting. To do this, they set up just as they would on stage and removed things like isolators and soundproof padding. Vocalist Iggy Pop has mentioned that blues singer Howlin’ Wolf was a specific inspiration, too. Unlike its predecessor and follow-up (1973’s Raw Power, which featured a different lineup), Fun House didn’t chart on the Billboard 200; nevertheless, countless critics have sung its praises in the years since it came out. Likewise, dozens of artists — like Henry Rollins, Radio Birdman, Jack White, The Damned, Joey Ramone, Rage Against the Machine, and Nick Cave — have cited it as a favorite album, if not also a direct influence.

The Stooges Fun House 50th Anniversary Box Set

The Stooges

Obviously, Fun House is just one of many deeply arresting and stimulating albums that, in hindsight, fit within the proto-punk classification. More of a retrospective term than its own subgenre, proto-punk refers to music made between the mid-’60s and mid-’70s that mixed styles — garage rock, Merseybeat, avant-garde, glam rock, R&B, jazz, etc. — to yield relatively chaotic and unpolished compositions brimming with outsider mentalities, uproarious attitudes, and taboo subject matter. It foreshadowed the anarchistic/anti-establishment accessibility and stripped-down arrangements of punk rock proper while also incorporating more nuanced, wide-ranging, and tuneful aspects. Naturally, The Stooges’ second full-length outing is a textbook example of that development.

To commemorate Fun House’s 50th anniversary and the movement as a whole, we’ve put together this list of 10 proto-punk albums every music fan should own. Going all the way back to 1964 and stopping at the precipice of punk itself (1975), the following picks pinpoint some of the most commanding, significant, and farsighted records to emerge from the era. Full of engrossing energy, raw views, and innovative sounds, they’re essential to understanding how punk began. (Of course, there are many other important acts whose albums didn’t make the cut — such as The Dictators, The Seeds, Pink Fairies, The Fugs, The Sonics, and Neu! — so feel free to share your thoughts on them and others below!)


The Kinks – Kinks (1964)

The Kinks - Kinks

Like the best British Invasion bands, The Kinks evolved as the zeitgeist demanded, so they eventually delved into poppier merriments, folkier nostalgia, and charming English symphonic odes. As such, the lean aggression of their debut is commendably jolting. Right away — via their take on Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah” — Dave Davies’ raspy croons blend with simple percussion and fiery guitar licks to yield one of the first punk rock cover songs. They take a similar approach to their renditions of J.D. Miller’s “I’m a Lover not a Fighter” and Abramson and Covay’s “Long Tall Shorty” (among others), while Kinks mastermind Ray Davies’ iconic “You Really Got Me” features emblematic modulations in the midst of popularizing power chords (a staple of punk, in addition to virtually every other kind of rock). Sure, there are lighter moments here (“So Mystifying”, “Just Can’t Go to Sleep”), but most of it feels significantly do-it-yourself and in-your-face.

Essential Track: “You Really Got Me”

Pick up the album here.


The Music Machine – (Turn On) The Music Machine (1966)

The Music Machine - Turn on the Music Machine

Born from the ashes of folk-rock group the Raggamuffins, Los Angeles’ The Music Machine quickly became known for their fuzzy sound, purposefully messy drumming, defiant songwriting, and black attire. Their introductory sequence, (Turn On) The Music Machine, exemplifies all of that quite well, specifically in regards to lead single “Talk Talk”, which reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was aptly described by music critic Ritch Unterberger as a “rally cry to social alienation with a mixture of sarcasm, rebellion, self-pity, and paranoia.” Later, “Masculine Intuition” incorporates a male-centric “me against the world” ethos, whereas “Come on In” is simultaneously harmonious and dissonant. Like Kinks before it — and The New York Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon afterward, it housed a few covers, too, with “See See Rider”, “Hey Joe”, and “96 Tears” ranking as the most piercing and rambunctious. Thus, the LP broke new ground in several respects.

Essential Track: “Talk Talk”

Pick up the album here.


The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat (1968)

The Velvet Underground - White Light White Heat

The Velvet Underground & Nico is likely more popular, but White Light / White Heat is more focused, noisy, and daring. Noticeably, it’s missing Nico’s softer touch, veering closer to what founder John Cale later called a “ very rabid record” with a “consciously anti-beauty” template. 1970’s punk rock was known for its raucous rejection of popular sights, sounds, and sentiments, so the LP’s mission to be an antithesis to the floweriness of the “Summer of Love” is no surprise. Its starting title track juxtaposes a gentle, if disruptive, evocation of doo-wop with lyrics about methamphetamine. Next, “The Gift” is a slightly playful spoken-word jam concerning infidelity and murder; “Lady Godiva’s Operation” discusses the failed lobotomy of a transsexual woman; and the scruffily avant-garde seventeen-minute closer, “Sister Ray”, tells of smack-dealing drag queens and explicit sexual promiscuity. Both lyrically and musically, then, White Light / White Heat showed how far boundaries could be pushed.

Essential Track: “Lady Godiva’s Operation”

Pick up the album here.


The Stooges – Fun House (1970)

The Stooges - Fun House

“Down on the Street” instantly accosts you with the circular rhythms, sharp guitar licks, and effectively animalistic singing — regarding urban chaos, lust, and disillusionment — of punk. From there, “Loose” (which the band wanted to be the opener) and “T.V. Eye” mix The Rolling Stones’ charisma and melodic poise with dirtier dispositions, while its most eminent track, “1970”, is a pleasantly anthemic celebration about youthful exuberance and fatalism (“Out of my mind on Saturday night/ 1970 rollin’ in sight/ Radio burnin’ up above/ Beautiful baby, feed my love”) that also hearkens back to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” in a few ways. As for the final two tunes — “Fun House” and “L.A. Blues” — their juxtaposition of high-spirited horns and ample disarray certainly laid the DNA for acts like The Clash and the Sex Pistols.

Essential Track: “1970”

Pick up the album here.


Alice Cooper – Love It to Death (1971)

Alice Cooper - Love It to Death

The cover exudes glam rock boldness and outcast indifference, and frontman Vincent Damon Furnier’s (aka Alice Cooper) famous look — a gothic alternative to the colorful cosmetics of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel — inspired countless punk and metal protégés (namely, Marilyn Manson). As for this third studio LP, its glam rock/heavy metal emphasis made it their commercial breakthrough, with the scratchy, angsty, and self-reflective “I’m Eighteen” — perhaps Cooper’s biggest song ever, and a direct influence on Joey Ramone and Johnny “Rotten” Lydon — alone solidifying Love It to Death as a proto-punk gem. Elsewhere, “Long Way to Go”, “Is It My Body”, and “Hallowed Be My Name” are delightfully dingy, catchy, and hostile while the penultimate “Ballad of Dwight Fry” mixes riotous rejection with poignant melodies and instrumentation. Although relative tame in hindsight, the band’s risqué elements can clearly be felt in the excesses of at least a few late 1970s punk outfits.

Essential Track: “Ballad of Dwight Frye”

Pick up the album here.

Click ahead for more essential proto-punk albums.


MC5 – High Time (1971)

MC5 - High Time

The unrestrained freak-outs, political messaging, and illicit lifestyles of MC5 foresaw what punk would become. While High Time was the least commercially successful of their original trilogy, it received the best critical reception and granted the members the most creative control. Right away, “Sister Anne” comes off like the biting offspring of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll, The Guess Who, and CCR; thankfully, MC5 uphold that edge on the urgently empowering “Gotta Keep Movin’.” Meanwhile, the radical “Future/Now” and the screechy “Poison” invoke social consciousness and mutiny with admissions such as “The power crazy leaders/ Who control your very fate/ They would twist your will/ Steal your life and sell your soul away” and “The partisans not the artisans/ Are doing their dirty show,” respectively. As its name suggests, closer “Skunk (Sonically Speaking)” is fast and wild, with invigorating horns leaving you fired up and ready for action.

Essential Track: “Gotta Keep Movin’”

Pick up the album here.


David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

david bowie ziggy stardust

David Bowie’s chameleonic artistry paved the way for myriad musical changes, and while he’d previously tapped into rowdy showmanship on pieces like “Running Gun Blues” and “Queen Bitch”, Ziggy Stardust is the full realization of it. For one thing, it’s a dystopic and pensive concept album, which is significant in and of itself considering how many more emerged in its wake (such as The Clash’s London Calling, Green Day’s American Idiot, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, and at least some of The Jam’s Setting Sons). Likewise, its flamboyant and androgynous UK glam rock look and feel unapologetically shook up the status quo. Of course, the album is considerably multifaceted and sophisticated, but there’s no denying that “Hang on to Yourself” — whose Ramones-esque riffs saw guitarist Mick Ronson “strap[ping] the guitar on and thrash[ing] it to death” — “Ziggy Stardust”, and “Suffragette City” ooze the sing-along brashness that punk rock radiates.

Essential Track: “Suffragette City”

Pick up the album here.


New York Dolls – Too Much Too Soon (1974)

 New York Dolls - Too Much Too Soon

With arguably the most androgynous and untamable frontman in glam rock — David Johansen — the New York Dolls oozed counterculture inclusivity and self-assurance. Their debut may be more beloved, but Too Much Too Soon earns favor as possibly the most salient example yet of prophetic punk rock covers. Indeed, their take on “Stranded in the Jungle”, “Don’t Start Me Talkin”, and “(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown” are faithful while also incorporating triumphant recklessness and uninhibited theatrical bravado. Guitarist Johnny Thunders makes his lead vocal introduction on the relentless “Chatterbox”, and obviously, it’s all bookended by two important inclusions: “Babylon” and “Human Being”. The former is a smoothly rerecorded older demo that sees Johansen almost retching his observations about late-night decadence, whereas the latter is a proud tell-off to listeners who don’t like what the New York Dolls are doing. Really, there’s nothing more punk than that.

Essential Track: “Human Being”

Pick up the album here.


Patti Smith – Horses (1975)

 10 Proto Punk Albums Every Music Fan Should Own

Commonly known as the “punk poet laureate,” Patti Smith spent the previous couple of years breaking new ground in terms of philosophy, aesthetics, and gender within garage rock. As such, she set a precedent for not only the power and necessity of women within punk rock — leading to standouts like Blondie, The Runaways, The Pretenders, and Siouxsie and the Banshees — but also its openness to intellectualism and performance art in general. In many ways, Horses was the catalyst, and fortunately, it’s still remarkable. Multipart suites “Gloria” and “Land” are ambitious and meticulously constructed, yet they also convey gritty Dylan-esque slice-of-life narrations. In between, “Birdland” is at once lovely and wholly desolate; “Free Money” is a driving plea for betterment; and “Kimberly” is steadfast and personal. Despite its comparably luscious and urbane structures, the heart of Horses is sobering in its everyman earnestness, inciting listeners to find themselves in its stories.

Essential Track: “Free Money”

Pick up the album here.


Death – …For the Whole World to See (1975)

Death - For the Whole World to See

This black ensemble — led by brothers Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney, alongside Bobbie Duncan — was crucial to opening the doors for countless people of color in punk, including Bad Brains, Living Colour, Meet Me at the Altar, and Pleasure Venom. Initially a funk group, they went down a feistier path before leading to the cutting statement that is …For the Whole World to See. From the jump — via “Keep on Knocking” — it possesses the same no-holds-barred liveliness as fellow Michigan insurgents The Stooges and MC5. Likewise, “Rock-N-Roll Victim” is as confidently noxious as can be, “Let the World Turn” seems like a direct precursor to “Blitzkrieg Bop” (but with a surprising prog rock tilt), and finale “Politicians in My Eyes” predicts the speediness of Voivod in the midst of issuing highly melodic and heartfelt decrees. As Jack White rightly avowed, Death were “ahead of punk, and ahead of their time.”

Essential Track: “Politicians in My Eyes”

Pick up the album here.

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