Band name-dropping is a tried and true technique for making yourself appear knowledgeable and cool. The more obscure the band the better. The smaller their output the better. If one of the band members met an untimely end, even better. All good rules. However, unless your gravity-influenced band of everlasting unclaimed zeitgeist boasts a “proto” in its genre classification, forget it. The proto-punk/grunge/emo/shoegazer trailblazers of yesterday are your real ticket to the world of know-it-all hipsterness. In short, Proto Bands are the arbitrar of influence. And the ones from the 70s in particular exude an especially powerful intensitude (new word).
In the spirit of remedying this deficiency, I’ve compiled a Proto Primer. Learn these bands, learn to let them fly off your lips at parties. You will soon find yourself surrounded by interesting new friends. Don’t forget to shake your head and lament so-and-so’s “last good album.” Gripes about key members who later sold out will be appreciated too.
The Modern Lovers — Velvet Underground rip-off from the early 70s. Their eponymous first (and only) album came out long after the Boston rockers parted ways. Culled together from demos and tracks from an incomplete studio session, the album became an instant cult classic. They wrote the Repo Man signature “Pablo Picasso” (as made famous by The Circle Jerks ten years later) and even lent a tune to The Sex Pistols. Original members include the drummer from The Cars and the keyboardist for the Talking Heads. The lead-singer ended up crooning in There’s Something About Mary. Definitely a sell-out move.
Big Star — The best rock band you’ve never heard of. This power-pop quartet may have cursed themselves by calling their debut album “#1 Record”. It wasn’t. But hipsters from far and near never fail to drop this stellar outfit on the pile of bands deserving more stardom. Big stardom. It’s also the name of my favorite hole-in-the-wall bar in Houston (named in their honor, of course).
The Stooges — Iggy Pop’s highly-acclaimed proto-punk/grunge amalgam from the late 60s. The Sex Pistols and Sonic Youth (and many others) covered their classic angst anthem “I Wanna be Your Dog.” Very grunge punk, goes well with cigarettes.
Television — besides having a cool name, they sounded like early Talking Heads. Thus, they are proto-head.
Nick Drake — This soulful singer-songwriter had his comeuppance in the late 90’s when everybody and their mother discovered him again. His late 60s folksy sound was so ahead of his time that it’s difficult distinguishing Drake from his modern counterparts (Elliot Smith, et al). He (like Smith) committed suicide. Tragic.
Joy Division — proto-newwave, post-punk, certainly one of the most influential bands of the 70’s cited by everyone from U2 to LCD Soundsystem. Singer Ian Curtis killed himself right as “Love will tear us apart” started to climb the charts. The rest of the band went on to form New Order.
Can — Krautrock! A band so ahead of its time that I actually think they time-jumped into NYC @2005 to rip off some local bands doing the electro, post-80s thing. Once the acclimation was complete, they materialized back in 70s-era planet Kraut to document their journey. It’s also curious (once again) how much this band sounds like The Talking Heads before those heads were rolling.
Donny Hathaway (*)– Here was a singer, song-writer, and pianist of unimaginable talent who like several others on this list committed suicide–he jumped from a window at age 33. The entire generation calling itself Neo-Soul owes it all to this man. Get the live recordings on Rhino records.
Fela Kuti — No tragedies here. Just solid, very fun Afrobeat from the 70s. I hesitate to include Kuti since he’s now the subject of a major Broadway musical. Still, it’s immensely gratifying music. Personally, Kuti was my entree into the wonderful world of West African music.
Betty Davis — just funky: funky, funky, funky. The ex-wife of jazzer Miles Davis, Betty Mabry (a.k.a., Davis) released a series of grungy 70s funk albums that shocked religious groups while setting the stage for the antics of Prince and others a decade later. Anyone with an album called “Nasty Gal” is worth remembering.
So, there you have it kids. Get your Proto On! For the record — snarkitudes (another new word) aside — I actually really like these bands and think you will too. I also must thank the friends who introduced these groups to me over the years (or as recently as last week). That’s what it’s all about, right?