The Road to Punk: Five proto-punk masterpieces you need in your vinyl collection

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New York City is widely recognised as the artistic capital of the world. It achieved this status in the early 20th century when artists from around the world would flock to the modern metropolis as a safe haven for wartime exhibitions. When Andy Warhol arrived in New York City in 1949, he founded the culturally referential pop art movement, which, alongside the emergence of rock and roll music, aligned the tracks to punk.

What on Earth has Andy Warhol got to do with punk? Indeed, Warhol wasn’t much of a punk rocker himself. However, had he not endorsed and managed The Velvet Underground, the punk wave may never have occurred and certainly wouldn’t have unfurled as it did. In addition to his work with The Velvet Underground, Warhol’s pop art heavily influenced the punk aesthetic, as impressed by CBGB bands in New York and Sex Pistols in the UK.

Aesthetics aside, punk emerged from the melting pot of 1960s rock music. When Ramones released their first single, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, in February 1976, they lifted a middle finger to prog-rock bands like Yes, Genesis and Rush, who had dragged rock in an overly complicated and pretentious direction.

In the mid-1970s, punk did seem to emerge as a necessary adversary to the compositional complexity that had distracted musicians from the raw urgency at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll. Led Zeppelin, associated with heavy metal and prog-rock, became particularly enamoured with The Damned during the UK punk wave. “It had so much drive about it. That was where things needed to go,” frontman Robert Plant once appraised. “I quite understand that ‘Close to the Edge’ by Yes might be difficult for a 17-year-old kid in a bedroom to deal with or even a 77-year-old kid, but The Damned’ Fan Club’ was just amazing.”

All of the above is undoubtedly true. Still, punk didn’t arrive out of thin air. Musicologists often like to trace punk back to 1963, the year The Kingsmen released their garage rock version of ‘Louie Louie’. This single and other garage rock classics became a pivotal influence on proto-punk groups like The Modern Lovers and The Stooges.

Today, we’re celebrating some of the most influential bands on the road to punk with a selection of five proto-punk albums that deserve a space in your record collection.

Five proto-punk masterpieces:

5. The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

The Velvet Underground is undoubtedly among the most important and influential rock bands of all time. With the classical and avant-garde influences of John Cale, Lou Reed’s urban grit, and Andy Warhol’s creative endorsement, the band released its masterpiece in 1967. The Velvet Underground and Nico weren’t immediate hits but proved to be a slow-releasing carb that left no subsequent rock musician untouched.

The debut is a record collection essential, and with songs like ‘Waiting For The Man’ and ‘Heroin’, was a crucial milestone on the road to punk. Still, today, I draw your attention to the 1968 follow-up White Light/White Heat. The album was the last to feature Cale before his departure and is by far the most esoteric of The Velvet Underground’s records. From the pacey title track to the epic closer, ‘Sister Ray’, White Light/White Heat bleeds with urban decadence, sexual depravity and a lack of refinement that would later define the punk wave.

The Velvet Underground - White Light - White Heat - 1968

(Credits: UMG Recordings)

4. The Stooges – Raw Power

The Stooges’ debut album, produced by John Cale, was another pivotal moment for punk. ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, with its simple three-chord progression and Iggy Pop’s salacious lyrics, was a notable highlight. Frankly, all three of The Stooges’ classic era studio albums are essential proto-punk releases, but I feel 1973’s Raw Power was the closest thing to the punk sound it inspired.

Iggy Pop is often called ‘The Godfather of Punk’ thanks to his onstage persona and fashion choices, which became a blueprint for bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols. He could also write some mean lyrics like, “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm / I’m a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb”. Both in content and delivery, Raw Power can be regarded as one of the first punk albums. The original mix was co-produced by David Bowie, but if you want the most punky version of the album, I recommend going for the 1997 “Iggy Mix”.

Iggy and The Stooges - Raw Power - 1973

(Credits CBS / Columbia Records)

3. The Who – My Generation

The Who is a strange entry to this list, given that, as a bassist, John Entwistle was the Everest to Sid Vcious’s Mariana Trench. Indeed, with Pete Townshend’s convoluted rock operas and innovative compositions in albums like Tommy and Who’s Next, The Who became associated with the prog rock wave. However, thanks to destructive onstage antics and plenty of amplification, they also strongly influenced the heavy metal and punk waves.

Entwistle’s 1966 song ‘Boris the Spider’ is often regarded as the first-ever metal song. Two years prior, the band created one of the first punk songs, ‘My Generation’. The album had a raw, riotous garage rock sound throughout, but the eponymous single was the focal point and a blueprint for the punks with its immortal line, “I hope I die before I get old”.

The Who - My Generation - 1965

(Credits: Geffen Records)

2. The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers

Led by Velvet Underground fanatic Jonathan Richman, The Modern Lovers found a stable lineup in 1971 featuring future Talking Heads keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison, David Robinson and Ernie Brooks. The band recorded Richman’s early material during several sessions between 1971 and 1973, one of which was produced by John Cale.

Despite signing to Warner Brothers in 1973, The Modern Lovers endured several setbacks in completing their debut album, including disputes over song selection and the death of Richman’s close friend Gram Parsons. This early iteration of the band broke up in 1974. Fortunately, Richman finally released The Modern Lovers debut in 1976 with his new label boss, Matthew Kaufman. Although Ramones were on the scene by this point, it is hard to deny the influence of proto-punk classics like ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘Pablo Picasso’.

Jonathan Richman - The Modern Lovers - 1970

(Credits: Sanctuary Records)

1. New York Dolls New York Dolls

New York Dolls released their seminal debut album in 1973, emblazoned with a monochrome shot of the band dressed in drag. This image intended to cause a stir among conservative onlookers in keeping with the group’s rebellious nature. On stage, the Dolls were as raucous and vulgar as Iggy Pop, but in the studio, they meant business.

Though the band’s fashion choices aligned them with the contemporary glam-rock wave, their sound was a tad heavier than recent releases like Roxy Music or David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. With punchy singles like ‘Trash’ and ‘Personality Crisis’, New York Dolls was heavily influential on the punk and metal waves, with plenty of shocking content to inspire the likes of Glenn Danzig, Joey Ramone and, oddly enough, Morrissey.

New York Dolls - New York Dolls - 1971

(Credits: UMG Recordings)

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