If you were to ask yourself where punk-rock started, you’d think New York City or London, right? With punk-rock’s big contenders, the Ramones from the “Big Apple” and the Sex Pistols from across the pond, it’s no wonder these cities come to mind, but what if we’re wrong?
What if punk rock started in Motor City? Detroit’s 60s and 70s state might even be the very reason behind punk’s introduction. What is now considered “proto-punk ” — music that influenced what later became punk rock — from bands who started in the early 60’s into the mid-70’s best defines what MC5 and The Stooges were doing in Detroit.
Since Detroit was the biggest producer of automobiles in the world, and the Big Three were treating their employees poorly, the necessity for the people in, and around, Detroit to revolt against the establishment to regain their sense of self begun. The Big Three assembly lines shoved capitalism down workers’ throats and gave them little sense of individualism.
DIY, anti-establishment, anti-corporate, ans anti-capitalism was appealing to those drowning in industrialization. Cue the punk movement blossoming in big city.
Kick Out the Jams by MC5
MC5’s debut album Kick Out the Jams was released in 1969. The album’s title track aroused controversy with its opening lyric, “And right now/right now/right now/It’s time to/kick out the jams, m*****f******,” leading their record label to take offense.
Despite Elektra Records’ suggestion to edit out the vulgarity, MC5 refused. With similar derogatory language printed inside the album cover, stores sold the uncensored versions behind the counter — or in some cases, stores simply refused to carry it.
MC5 is known for their intense, radical politics, so it’s no shock their first single created the controversy that it did. This song is about self-importance, which was lacking for those spending long hours on the assembly lines, and being overpowered by corporate culture.
“Motor City is Burning” by MC5
Released alongside “Kick Out the Jams” was a cover of blues singer, John Lee Hooker’s, “Motor City is Burning,” a song about the 1967 Detroit riot — a.k.a the 12th Street Riot. When the punk movement fully hit Detroit, it was huge in raising awareness to the issues crippling Detroit, many of which were race related.
MC5 wanted to make a difference. They wanted to try and change the world with their music. Guitarist, Wayne Kramer, wanted MC5 to represent a new way of living and a new way of seeing the world. Most people were blind sheep following the traditional lifestyle. Punk fought to break away from this lifestyle, just as MC5 was in proto-punk times, to change to a progressive way of thinking.
“1969” by The Stooges
1969 — the year Led Zeppelin released their first and second album, the year of Woodstock, the year The Beatles released Abbey Road, and the year The Rolling Stones hosted the Altamont Free Concert.
In the midst of all of this, The Stooges released their self-titled debut album. One of the great things about punk-rock is its simplicity both lyrically and instrumentally. This song, and much of The Stooges music, is has both simple lyrics and simple sounds behind them. Most punk bands started by picking up instruments out of pure boredom, and having little to no idea how to play them — i.e. “Do-It Yourself.” The Stooges were no different, which is why they are best categorized in the proto-punk genre.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges
Lead singer, Iggy Pop, grew up in a trailer park in Ann Arbor in a low income family. Growing up in the lower, working-class, he found no appeal in working in a factory. He was aware of the hard, long hours people worked around him in Michigan and didn’t want any part of it. So instead he turned to making music. Punk-rock was distraction to the industrial, capitalist, and corporate world.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” has a simple three chord riff that plays through most of the song. This song is another example of The Stooges “punk-esque” sound and recorded out of boredom.
It can easily be debated where punk started, but what is important is that it did happen. Punk was as much a revolution as it was a revelation. Those who were being repressed, had a movement and a culture of their own making.
Punks were alienated from the rest of the world because they were revolting against traditional values. The movement was a form of expression, an out-let, the self-indulgence that was otherwise shamed by the rest of the world that was being brainwashed by corporate culture. Detroit during the 60s and 70s needed the punk movement. MC5 and The Stooges were the first to take a leap that fueled the punk movement.