Before Punk

Punk’s Unruly Antecedents

“1969,” Iggy sings, “it’s another year for me and you / another year with nothing to do,” thus voicing his boredom with what rock music and youth culture had become by that year: the hippie pablum of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” the self-indulgent artiness of the Beatles, the self-righteous earnestness of folky protest music, and the narcissism of Mick Jagger. Iggy’s heroes were the antithesis of peace and love: the wildly unpredictable Jim Morrison of the Doors, baiting the audience with insults; the MC5’s radical left activism and “total assault” rock; and the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed singing through a low-fi haze of distorted riffs and drones about the street life of the urban demimonde—the grind of hard drugs, hustling, rough trade, and marginal identities.

The Situationist International

The Situationist International (SI) was an organization of European intellectuals, artists and writers (1956-1972). Many of the SI's core principles—a belief that advanced capitalism bred human dissatisfaction; that avant-garde art could provide alternatives to capitalist society; that an existing work of art or literature could be recontextualized to radically shift its meaning (detournment)— would be expressed through punk's primal scream in the face of power structures and social conventionalities. Situationist thought exerted a strong influence on 1970s popular culture, and on punk in particular. The U.K.'s punk impresario Malcolm McLaren, for example, was a conscious and committed Situationist, and the Situationist artist Jamie Reid would create punk's most recognizable aesthetic.

Velvet Underground

Velvet Underground Famed artist and underground filmmaker Andy Warhol provided a model for punk's irreverent attitude. His early promotion of the Velvet Underground through the multi-media Exploding Plastic Inevitable “happenings,” and the jacket design and financing of their first album The Velvet Underground and Nico, exposed new possibilities for revitalizing rock 'n' roll as rebellious outsider art.

Patti Smith

Patti Smith's 1971 poetry reading at St. Mark's Church with Warhol acolyte Gerard Malanga launched her career as an exciting new voice of the underground. Accompanied by guitarist Lenny Kaye, Smith's poetic explorations of life on the edge of madness and destruction (inspired by Arthur Rimbaud) soon took more musical forms. With her unconventional look and voice, and gritty surreal lyrics, Smith's first album Horses, released in 1975, signaled a new creative vitality emerging from the rock scene in the Lower East Side of New York City.

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