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Overlooked and Over Simplified; Why The Stooges are Rock and Roll Cultural Icons

Overlooked and Over Simplified; Why The Stooges are Rock and Roll Cultural Icons

In the late 1960s there was a change in rock music occurring that would alter the course for the next 40 years. With the dawn of punk music, the face of rock and roll and the artistic community would be forever changed. The Stooges, appearing in the late 1960s, represent the pinnacle of this change. Often overlooked and over simplified their work represents not only the epitome of the budding punk genre of its time, but also its driving force and it remains the driving force behind much of rock and roll to this day.

The Stooges debuted in the late 60s following the trend of rock and roll artists at the time. Harder rock sounds being developed at the same time by Led Zeppelin, the Who, Cream and Jimi Hendrix, were becoming popular as were fuzzed out guitars, and outrageous stage antics. The Stooges took these elements and combined them for the first time with raw aggression and avant-guard ideas. Similar artists of the time included The Velvet Underground, the MC5 and The Doors but none match what the Stooges possess. “The Velvets” are more intellectual, philosophical and rooted in the east cost drug scene while the Doors present the same emotions as the Stooges at times but had a more typical rock and roll exterior to wrap it up in. The MC5 are the closest relative of the Stooges musically and in fact both bands were signed at the same time when the Stooges opened for the MC5. The MC5 though, has a distinct political slant that would separate them. The Stooges are a unique act that for their brief stint and little popular success would change rock and roll’s future.

The Music:

The music of the Stooges is hard to describe as they are one of those bands that has to be heard to be understood. It’s raw, aggressive, honest and artistic. Unlike the psychedelic scene of the west coast where drug references were more often covered with imagery and subtly, the Stooges were honest and raw. Lyrics are realism based like The Velvet Underground but where the “Velvets” tend to be more journalistic, the Stooges tend to be more direct. The guitar work is rough and raunchy in both sound and playing style and lacks the subtly of the hard rock blues artists like Cream, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. The focus of any given song is on immediacy and the particular emotion of that song. Its an aggressive style that can be grating if you’re used to the more polished sounds of modern music, or even typical 60s and 70s records. The music does have a lasting impact though. The first Stooges song I ever heard was off their second album: 1970s “Fun House”. “Down on the Street”, a slow starting rocker that has a simple but effective riff that builds into a fuzzed out, pounding chorus, only to pull back and build again before fizzling out. A great song that immediately sparked my interest for this band.

This song seemed to represent them in a nut shell; loud, aggressive, emotional, and on the edge at all times. Although having the same sound and song style, the Stooges first album seems to lack some of the intensity made them an amazing live act. Still, both give good representations. I think that the only band of that time to come close to what the Stooges were doing emotionally is the Doors. The Doors, however, had a more mainstream and psychedelic sound and so received significantly more recognition. They relate to some of the Door’s more artistic ventures as well but not the psychedelic movement.

With songs on “Fun House” that border on progressive rock (the title track especially) and the noise rock of “L.A. Blues” the Stooges took art rock in new directions but still remaining firmly rooted in reality. This art rock is not the psychedelic movement of the west coast at all. Instead its more rooted in the east coast drug scene of bands like the Velvet Underground but without the high intellect and with a far more primal feel. A kind of hybrid of art scenes that coincides with new movements in performance art, and shock art. Its also a perfect picture of a band living on the edge. Plagued by hard drug problems and internal strife for their short career their music is an accurate and honest portrayal of a band on the brink of self destruction on any given day. This is part of what makes the music great. Its almost like listening to a machine shake itself to pieces and collapse as its parts give way.

The Impact on Music:

Back when I first heard “Down on the Street” just a year ago at most, I knew immediately what impact that song and album had made on rock and roll. It is a song that could easily have been written by the late 70s early 80s punk movement, or the garage rock revival bands of the 2000s. One of the first rock and roll songs to strip away nearly all elements of the blues and leave only the stomping hard rock that would become the staple of punk and heavy metal for years to come. For a song that was written and recorded in 1970 it surely was ahead of its time. Black Sabbath would debut the same year but their pinnacle “Paranoid” album wouldn’t arrive until 1971 further laying the groundwork for heavy metal although they still retains some blues elements. Considered to be the first completely metal band, Judas Priest would not arrive until 1974. The punk movement would begin primarily with the Ramones but they would not arrive until 1976. Although the album doesn’t reflect the same intensity, the first Stooges album released in 1969 really pioneered this sound. Through the 1960s rock and roll always retained elements of blues even through its psychedelic phase, with blues beats, back beats and blues shuffles. The Stooges let loose and eliminated a lot of the blues feel. Whether this was because minimalistic viewpoints, lack of technical playing skills, or lack of being able to play while on drugs is debatable but the results were staggering. This beat and this style is the beginnings of multiple rock and roll movements to come including heavy metal, punk, grunge, garage rock, thrash, hardcore and more. More recent garage rock movements have spawned bands that are closer to the Stooges than ever. The White Stripes certainly draw on the Stooges for their sound and bands like the Kills capture their raw intensity nearly perfectly.

The Impact on Performance:

Although musically the Stooges should be receiving far more credit than they receive, their most visible impact is on the performance of rock and roll. Taking some of the performance art elements that were occurring at the time the Stooges produced more of an experience than a stage show. Although the psychedelic scene was doing interesting things with lights and color, and the Velvet Underground was pioneering the multimedia show earlier with Andy Warhol and the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable”, the Stooges were doing something entirely different. These shows were the forerunners of the modern mosh pit and Iggy Pop (lead singer of the Stooges) is often credited as inventing the stage dive. Rock and roll shows were changing with harder rock coming around and Led Zeppelin was certainly pioneering the hard rock show, but they didn’t offer the same aggression as the Stooges did in a live setting. Having never seen the Stooges live its hard for me to say exactly what a show would be like but I imagine it was like an animal let loose to run wild to attack and pounce, or pause and recline at will.

A pure primal release of aggression and emotion to music. This combined with their performance art and shock tactics (Iggy Pop was known to smear himself with peanut butter and blood as well as cut himself on stage, release primal screams and play a vacuum cleaner as an instrument) they developed the modern aggressive stage show and performance atmosphere. After listening to the Stooges I find it hard to not relate modern rock concerts directly to this period. The music lends itself perfectly to a high energy highly aggressive show that, although I don’t know for sure if it ever happened, would be capped off perfectly with instrument smashing, hardcore mosh pits, and rioting. This might sound like a bad thing, but it paved the way for heavier artists and new concert ideas with far more interaction between the audience members and between the band and the audience. It also allowed the audience and the band an outlet for emotions that may be bottled up. A kind of primal scream therapy set to music.

The impact of these shows can be seen in the hard rock and metal shows of today that have huge mosh pits, stage diving and primal scream vocals. These shows represent the same outlet for emotion that was pioneered in 1969-1970 by the Stooges.

There was also a budding primal trend in the art community. Whether the idea was developed in the art community and the Stooges translated it to music or was taken from the increased aggression in music and translated to art is debatable. Either way both sides certainly impacted the other and helped bring these new ideas to the mainstream or at least a wider audience (the Stooges were never considered mainstream).

Unfortunately the shows also related themselves to the hard drug scene and hard drugs would eventually spell the downfall for the Stooges. This is a problem that exists to this day with hard rock, metal and aggressive music often having a relation to the hard drug scene.

Remembering the Stooges:

Whether you listen to their music or not it is important to acknowledge this band for their work in only a few short years. Serving as one of the starting points for so many rock and roll movements and for the aggressive, primal stage shows of modern metal, hard rock and punk, the Stooges have spread their influence everywhere in rock history. A band should not only be measured by their commercial or popular success but by their influence on future musicians and artists. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin made great music, but their work is timeless because of how many people they have influenced. The Stooges work has the same timeless quality and if you know rock and roll you can hear that influence from the very first listen.

If you’re interested in the Stooges check out http://www.allmusic.com as well as their second album “Fun House” as it is my favorite.

References include http://www.allmusic.com for dates and timelines and my personal music collection.