‘The Stooges’ turns 50; a look back on the album that helped birth punk
There is a lot of argument about when and where punk started, and the real honest answer is probably just that it developed gradually thanks to a variety of artists from a variety of locations. But my hotter take of an answer is that punk as we know it started in the late 1960s in Detroit, when a band called The Stooges released their debut album which turns 50 today. The Stooges had clear predecessors -- Iggy Pop credits Jim Morrison with inspiring his unhinged performances, and singers with limited abilities like Mick Jagger and Lou Reed for giving him the courage to front a band (and it was Lou Reed's Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale that produced The Stooges' debut album) -- but the way everything came together on The Stooges still sounds like "punk" as we know it today. Fellow punk progenitors like The Sonics and the MC5 fall firmly into "proto-punk," but the dark, scuzzy power chord riff that fuels "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and Iggy's barked, amelodic vocals would still qualify as punk if they came out today. To an ever so slightly less extent, the same is true of fired-up album opener "1969" and the swaggering "No Fun." Later Stooges albums would see them getting even harder, faster, and more in line with today's definition of punk with songs like "TV Eye" and "Search and Destroy," and each of their first three albums are great and important in such different ways that it's always hard to pick a favorite, but their debut at least holds the title for most groundbreaking. Before The Stooges, there was almost nothing like it. Afterwards, there was tons.
Even 50 years later, it's still mindblowing to think of a song like "I Wanna Be Your Dog" coming virtually out of nowhere in 1969. The Velvet Underground were a clear influence on the song, and John Cale's pounding piano riff has become nearly as iconic as the song itself, but VU never sounded this outright filthy. The song marked a similar turning point for punk that Black Sabbath's eponymous song did for metal in 1970. The seeds for punk had already been sewn before "I Wanna Be Your Dog" came out, but they blossomed with that song. It's the first time (that I've heard at least, and I've looked pretty damn hard for an exception) where the volume, the grit, the attitude, the passion, and the brazen lack of musical training came together in the way that punk bands would bring those things together for decades. It's a true classic, and -- along with the rest of The Stooges -- it sounds as good today as it ever did.
But The Stooges is more than "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and it's also more than one of the earliest documents of punk music. (Really just that song, "1969," and "No Fun" count as punk anyway, which is why The Stooges doesn't necessarily count as an entire punk album.) Another massive standout is "We Will Fall," which sees The Stooges trekking through over ten minutes of extremely tripped-out psychedelia (aided in part by droning viola by John Cale, who already mastered this type of psychedelia with 1967’s "Venus In Furs"). At some point, a narrative began that punks and hippies were at odds with each other, but The Stooges were punks and hippies before the punk movement truly started and before the hippie movement died. "We Will Fall" is as much a masterclass in trippy music as the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd or Hendrix or Hawkwind or any band whose musical career has long been intrinsically tied to the influence of LSD. When you hear it as track three on The Stooges, right after the attack of "1969" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," it becomes clear that, not only were punks and hippies' counter-culture, anti-establishment mindsets more similar than they wanted to admit, but that their styles of music sounded pretty fucking great together too.
"We Will Fall" is the album's crowning achievement in psychedelia the way "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is its crowning achievement in punk, but it's not the album's only achievement in psychedelia. "Ann" is a tender psych nugget that sounds like a '50s ballad on a bad acid trip (and Iggy can even sorta sing on this one!), and the guitar fuzz-fest at the end has likely inspired thousands of jam- and noise-friendly garage rockers. (And that's not the only song on this album you can say that about; as much as the iconic Iggy Pop tends to dominate Stooges conversations, it should not be overlooked how singular and influential Ron Asheton is as a guitarist.) Sometimes, like with the wah-wah-drenched riffage and Iggy's sneering swagger of "Real Cool Time," The Stooges managed to sound both punk and psychedelic all at once. The same is true of album closer "Little Doll," which sounds like The Stooges trying to play "1969" after smoking too much weed. Because The Stooges went on to inspire so many punk bands, their legacy continues to be tied to that genre, but it's clear from The Stooges that the band could lock into borderline-aimless yet hypnotic jams as well as their contemporaries over in Haight-Ashbury.
It's The Stooges' refusal to ever back themselves into a corner that makes all three records from their early years -- including their debut -- continue to hold up as classics. They would go on to blend garage-punk and avant-garde jazz on 1970's Fun House and they would further shape punk, as well as grunge and metal, on 1973's David Bowie-produced Raw Power. Like I said earlier, each one is so crucial in its own way that it's hard to pick a favorite, and you could make a good argument that any of the three are their best. Not only is the debut the most groundbreaking, it remains so impressive how this often-sloppy-sounding band emerged fully formed with a highly unique, consistently great first album that only gets better with age. It's no surprise that Bowie -- and just about every person who ever started a punk band -- fell in love with this album. They may have written tighter and more complex songs on Fun House, and heavier songs on Raw Power, but there's an unparalleled thrill to hearing this mostly-inexperienced band powering through this inherently-flawed yet nearly-flawless batch of songs and figuring things out as they go. Listening to the timeless album 50 years later, it turns out they figured out even more than they probably knew.