10 Essential Proto-punk tracks

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Forty years ago, Patti Smith released her debut album Horses, an album that took the rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, infused it with poetry and fed it through a filter of chaos and pure energy. It helped launch what we now know as punk rock, and Smith earned her place in history as the Godmother of Punk. But Smith was just one of many important artists that helped shape punk, its origins going back at least a decade earlier with the rise of garage rock in Detroit and the Pacific Northwest, and in the cranked-up distortion of British invasion bands like The Kinks and The Creation. Here’s our look back at that brief but promising decade that molded punk rock into the sound that it became, with 10 essential proto-punk tracks.

monster songs SonicsThe Sonics – “Psycho”
from Here Are the Sonics!! (1965; )

The Pacific Northwest has proven to be an epicenter of guitar-driven noise time and time again, with each new generation finding a way to exorcise angst into something catchy and exploding with energy. Long before The Muder City Devils, Mudhoney or The Wipers put their own artful spin on high-BPM fuzz, The Sonics reigned as kings of American garage rock. Their debut album Here Are the Sonics!!! provided an early template for punk rock that hasn’t really changed all that much. “Psycho” is structured pretty much like the rock ‘n’ roll of the early ’60s and 1950s, but noisier, wilder and with a lot more screaming. And that’s more or less what punk is, when you get right down to it. Take out the saxophone, turn up the fuzz a little, and you’ve just about got The Ramones. – JT

essential garage rock MonksThe Monks – “Shut Up”
from Black Monk Time (1966; Polydor)

Like many of the songs on this list, it’s hard to believe “Shut Up” is from its respective decade, its energy channelling a raw power and aesthetic years ahead of its time. But while Washington-based contemporaries The Sonics did so with a loud, boisterous take on garage rock, playing the genre as aggressively and as fast as possible, The Monks were among the first to play with the dark, experimental vibes that would become central to many of punk’s subgenres. In fact, in many ways, “Shut Up” feels like a post-punk song, its dark energy and off-kilter, subdued vocals giving off more than a few gothic vibes. This is the attitude that, paired with the dynamic power of their faster-playing peers, would form the whole picture of punk rock. – ATB

essential proto-punk tracks LoveLove – “Seven & Seven Is”
from Da Capo (1967; Elektra)

The commonly accepted year in which punk broke was 1977, but the sound of it existed long before there was a name for it. Los Angeles’ Love, whose sound was eclectic well beyond any one particular style or genre, pretty much perfected a swinging, swaying, rollicking punk rock prototype with their 1967 single “Seven & Seven Is,” a highlight from their album Da Capo, released that same year. It’s all big riffs and bombast, Arthur Lee’s infectious nonsense refrain, “Boom-bip-bip, Boom-bip-bip/ YEAH!“, and a gigantic explosion to top it off. It’s raw and rebellious, and it arrived 10 years ahead of schedule. – JT

essential proto-punk tracks Velvet Underground - White Light/White HeatVelvet Underground – “White Light/White Heat”
from White Light/White Heat (1968; Verve)

Velvet Underground’s music straddled a pretty wide canyon of influences, but their influence on punk music becomes evident on any track that showed Lou Reed et al’s interest in gritty, honky-tonk rock. A song like “White Light/White Heat” is classic rock and roll through a bizarre, twisted filter, and the minute-long outro of noise would become a classic staple in punk music. The band’s record of the same name would also be the last to boast John Cale as a member. Cale would go on to become a noteworthy producer in the realm of proto-, post- and just plain old punk, with credits as wide-reaching as The Stooges, Patti Smith, Modern Lovers, Jesus Lizard and the Happy Mondays. – ATB

essential proto-punk tracks Kick out the JamsMC5 – “Kick Out the Jams”
from Kick Out the Jams (1969; Elektra)

The studio recordings of MC5 showcase a band that was aiming somewhere between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones—feelgood rock with a slight political edge. But the band’s live recordings, especially those from their 1969 debut, show the band’s intense stage performance in full view. “Kick Out The Jams” is an undeniable preview of the punk rock fury to come, showing exactly how devastating the typical rock format can be when the gloves are taken off. It’s three minutes of furious, ear-melting goodness. – ATB

Iggy and the Stooges Raw PowerIggy and the Stooges – “Search and Destroy”
from Raw Power (1973; Epic)

The Stooges were punk before punk was punk. We could argue about this point if need be, but it warrants little debate. Fronted by Iggy Pop, a manic figure driven by sexual energy and pure nihilism, The Stooges created a sound loud and intense enough to launch a movement of its own. It’s encapsulated wonderfully in their 1973 track “Search and Destroy,” which is so raw and furious that it pretty much trumped any other music at the time in terms of sheer decibels. “I’m a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm,” sneers Pop, echoing a sort of self-destructive, directionless perspective of youth at the time. It feels dangerous, as much now as it did then, but it feels good. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of pure catharsis. – JT

New York Dolls essential proto-punk tracksNew York Dolls – “Trash”
from New York Dolls (1973; Mercury)

Just one step away from straight up being The Ramones, New York Dolls played a loose, trashy take on classic rock ’n’ roll, often while cross-dressing. What’s probably the most punk rock about New York Dolls is that they refused to behave in a way that was suitable for record studios at the time, even though it’s quite possible their music would have been accessible to a more mainstream rock audience at the time. “Trash” is, in some ways, an ode to this quality of the band. They might be a little trashy, but don’t expect them to change that any time soon. – ATB

essential proto-punk tracks Patti Smith HorsesPatti Smith – “Free Money”
from Horses (1975; Arista)

Patti Smith’s early work straddled the burgeoning punk scene of New York City and the world of beat poetry, swirling together to create something that was delightfully difficult to put a finger on. “Free Money” is one of the original cuts from her debut Horses, and it boasts some of the record’s most purely intense instrumentals alongside some of Smith’s more loose, stream-of-consciousness vocal work. It’s a reckless abandon that would become synonymous with the hardcore scene, and its commentary on greed are just a few steps away from the critiques of capitalism that her more explicitly political followers would later pen. – ATB

essential Boston albums Modern LoversThe Modern Lovers – “Roadrunner”
from The Modern Lovers (1976; Berserkley)

I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll, and I’ll be out all night.” It’s hard to find a statement that more succinctly captures the joy of being young, having a car and just enough autonomy to feel more alive than you ever have. Boston’s The Modern Lovers played rock ‘n’ roll; that’s what proto-punk, or even simply punk, really is when you get down to it. And on a purely lyrical level, “Roadrunner” might as well be Springsteen, Jonathan Richman’s verses focused on nothing more than the pure joy of “going faster miles an hour… with the radio on.” There’s a streamlined, raw repetition about it that sets it apart, however, the sheer momentum of it seemingly mimicking the feel of speeding down the highway. It’s almost zen. – JT

essential proto-punk tracks Pere UbuPere Ubu – “Final Solution”
(1976; Hearpen)

The real national anthem of Cleveland. “Final Solution” was co-written by Peter Laughner, the firebrand of Cleveland’s unusually revolutionary ‘70s scene who consumed the exhaust of rock and roll and spit it back out until his death at 24. Originally performed by Laughner’s primal punk band Rocket From the Tombs, he brought it over to Pere Ubu, which he formed with David Thomas in the wake of RFTT’s breakup. Their 1975 recording became their second single. Essentially a more contaminated “Summertime Blues” down to its lyrical pulse, “Final Solution” is an almost necromantic song without peer or resemblance. Maybe it’s because Pere Ubu were physically quarantined in a city the 1970s were not especially kind to, or maybe because they were temporarily stranded between the bloat of prog rock and the outbreak of punk. Thomas’ depiction of a disaffected teen is truly gawky saga with wittily awkward complaints (“The girls won’t touch me ‘cause I’ve got a misdirection/Living at night isn’t helping my complexion”). Scott Krauss’ lumbering drums conspire with Allen Ravenstine’s rubber robot synths to suggest that the singer’s a victim of applied science, but Laughner’s unexpectedly blithe melodies in his closing guitar solo gives the hero a brighter way out than Laughner eventually got. – PP

View Comment (1)
  • Nice list, but missing possibly *the* best one: The Neon Boys – That’s All I know (Right Now.)


    This track is a blueprint for punk and alternative music. The band featured Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, and Billy Ficca. Although their time period was brief their legend and influence continues to inspire bands and fans of this genre.

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