No Michigan, No Sex Pistols

Mohawks and shaved heads. Rough-hewn patches that say “I don’t give a fuck” painstakingly sowed onto jackets and jeans. Chains and leather and black, lots of black – black dye, black eye-liner, black souls.

Punk rock. It started here, in Michigan.

Yeah, you could try to say that The Kinks made the first punk song with “You Really Got Me”, but if you want to hear the first true punk albums, you’ve got to play MC5’s (Motor City 5) Kick Out the Jams and The Stooges’ The Stooges, both of which came out in 1969, way before the Sex Pistols or The Ramones. You might catch a few whiffs of patchouli, but make no mistake – this is punk music, boldly confronting the saucer-eyed sentiments of peace and love that had formerly dominated the rock scene with a laser-like focus and violent, pure energy.

Kick Out the Jams was MC5’s debut album, recorded live in Detroit’s now abandoned Grande Ballroom over two days. No one knew what to make of it, this strange, almost appalling sound. Rolling Stone rock critic God and cough syrup connoisseur Lester Bangs famously wrote that it was just a bunch of “primitive two-chord structures … scrapyard vistas of clichés and ugly noise.” And yeah, he’s probably right.

But punk music is all about energy, and MC5 was like a tornado of teenage revolution, unleashing all the pent-up angst and rage of garage bands across the USA in a maelstrom of poorly played instruments. I mean, if you’re going to a punk show to dissect the finer intricacies of the bass playing, you’re doing it wrong. The music should make you want to punch someone in the face, kind of like how the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” practically incited a riot back in 1913. MC5 basically pulled off the same feat in ’69.

That’s a big deal.

Now The Stooges were a little more polished than MC5. On their self-titled debut album, you can hear tinges of acid rock, especially in the wah-wahs of Ron Asheton’s guitar and droning ambiance of the Jim Morrison-inspired “We Will Fall”. Hell, the super artsy John Cale even helped produce a couple of the songs. Hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan – the home base of the liberal-minded University of Michigan – The Stooges probably couldn’t help but catch a little case of the hippies through osmosis.

Still, The Stooges were definitely punking it up in ’69. The raw, dirty guitar playing, the references to sex, drugs, destruction, and apathy, the out of control shows and emotions… – this was the blueprint for punk rock. Lead singer Iggy Pop refused to wear shirts on stage, for God’s sake! On their next album, Fun House, they had obviously traded in whatever acid they had left over for more cocaine, and the resulting sound was unquestionably 100% punk, although it still retained a few more rhythm and blues influences than we’d see later.

So the next time punk music is brought up, let ’em know: punk rock was made in Michigan. And if you really want to be punk, plug this blog at the same time. It might even get you laid.

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