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Protopunk is a term used retrospectively to describe a number of music artists who were important precursors of the punk rock movement of the mid-1970s and later, or who have been cited by early punk musicians as influential.

Typically, protopunk bands were not considered punk themselves; the typification is, furthermore, not widely regarded to have been the result of a distinct musical genre as the precursors of punk rock came from a wide array of backgrounds, styles, and influences.

American acts like The Velvet Underground, MC5, The Stooges, The Sonics, New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart,The Runaways, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and from Britain David Bowie, The Kinks, The Who, Roxy Music, Doctors of Madness and Hawkwind[1] are commonly cited as the most noteworthy protopunk artists that would ultimately influence punk musicians.[2][3][4]



The invention of the term "punk rock" is generally credited to critic Dave Marsh who used it in 1970 to describe the group Question Mark & the Mysterians, who scored a major hit with their song "96 Tears."[5] Over the next few years, the term was used occasionally to describe a number of American bands, mostly active in the mid-to-late '60s, playing music that today would be classified as garage rock: a ragged, highly energetic and often amateurish form of rock and roll.

In 1976 and '77, punk rock became a worldwide phenomenon, with centers of activity first in New York City, then London and the Los Angeles area; though pockets of similarly-minded musicians could be found worldwide.

In later years, historians and critics began exploring the roots of the early punk movement, and the term "proto-punk" was coined to describe early, pre-punk influences.


The term "protopunk" is of uncertain origins, and has proven difficult to define, and many widely different groups have been so dubbed. Most had a certain attitude or appearance seen as important, as opposed to any specific musical tendencies. According to the Allmusic guide:[6]

Protopunk was never a cohesive movement, nor was there a readily identifiable proto-punk sound that made its artists seem related at the time. What ties proto-punk together is a certain provocative sensibility that didn't fit the prevailing counterculture of the time ... It was consciously subversive and fully aware of its outsider status ... In terms of its lasting influence, much proto-punk was primitive and stripped-down, even when it wasn't aggressive, and its production was usually just as unpolished. It also frequently dealt with taboo subject matter, depicting society's grimy underbelly in great detail, and venting alienation that was more intense and personal than ever before.

However, most musicians that are classified under the protopunk genre are rock and roll performers of the 1960s and early-1970s, with garage rock often cited as a foundational influence. Many such garage rock artists can be found on the Nuggets compilations and one of them, Los Saicos, came even from an unusual place like Peru. Some protopunk bands, particularly in the United Kingdom, also fall into the categories of glam, pub or even prog rock (such as Roxy Music, for instance, who straddled the line between glam and prog rock, and Peter Hammill, of Van der Graaf Generator, whose solo album Nadir's Big Chance was cited by John Lydon as an influence[7]). German artists like Ton Steine Scherben who influenced punk were sometimes part of a subgenre of prog rock called Krautrock, though this was more an influence on post-punk.

Songs such as "I'm Eighteen" and "Paranoid" by heavy metal groups like the Alice Cooper band and Black Sabbath have been put under the label protopunk.[8][9][10]

Though of lesser importance, influence has come from outside rock and roll. Genres such as classical music, the avant garde, outsider music, reggae (especially influential on English punk), traditional Irish music (especially Rebel songs) and free jazz influenced punk rock and later post-punk bands like Wire, Crass and Public Image Ltd. In an interview with Trackmarx, a punk and indie webzine, Penny Rimbaud of the anarcho-punk band Crass said that they were more influenced by the classical composers Benjamin Britten, John Cage and the avant garde than rock 'n' roll.[11] This, however, does not make John Cage, for example, a proto-punk artist.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of bands would hearken back to the early garage rock sound, creating the garage rock revival and garage punk movement.

Book references

  • Buckley, Peter (2003). The Rough Guide to Rock. London: Rough Guides. ISBN 1-85828-201-2. 

Other References

  1. ^ Buckley 2003, p. 403, "The addition of Simon House(violin/keyboards) in 1974 mellowed the musical assault without damaging the fabric, but with proto-punk Lemmy on the bass the demands of heavy rock would always be satisfied."
  2. ^ "Proto punk", All Music Guides,, retrieved 24/06/09.
  3. ^ D. Hebdige, Subculture, the meaning of style (London: Taylor & Francis, 1979), p. 25.
  4. ^ Jack B. Moore, Skinheads shaved for battle: a cultural history of American skinheads (Popular Press, 1993), p. 41.
  5. ^ Taylor (2003), p. 16; Woods, Scott, "A Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy Interview with Dave Marsh". Retrieved on July 31, 2007.
  6. ^ "Protopunk" from
  7. ^ Capital Radio, Tommy Vance Show, July 16th 1977
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ [ Where Penny Rimbaud talks about their origins in the Fluxus Movement and the hippie counterculture.

See also



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