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

The late 1960s saw a shift in rock music that changed its direction for the next 40 years. With the dawn of punk music, the face of rock and roll and the artistic community would change forever. The Stooges of the late 1960s represent the pinnacle of this change. Their often overlooked and oversimplified work not only epitomized the emerging punk genre of the time, but also its driving force, and continues to drive much of rock and roll to this day.

The Stooges debuted in the late 60s, following the trend of rock and roll artists of the time. The harder rock sounds developed at the same time by Led Zeppelin, the Who, Cream and Jimi Hendrix became increasingly popular, as did fuzzy guitars and outrageous stage antics. The Stooges took these elements and combined them for the first time with raw aggression and avant-garde ideas. Similar artists of the time included The Velvet Underground, MC5 and The Doors, but none of them matched the Stooges. “The Velvets” is more intellectual, philosophical, and rooted in the Eastern cost drug scene, while the Doors at times display the same sentiments as the Stooges, but closed with a more typical rock and roll exterior. The MC5 are the closest relatives to the Stooges musically and in fact both bands were signed at the same time the Stooges opened for the MC5. However, the MC5 have a distinct political bent that would separate them. The Stooges were a unique act that changed the future of rock and roll due to their short run and low popularity.

The music:

The Stooges’ music is hard to describe, as they are one of those bands that you have to hear to understand. Raw, aggressive, honest and artistic. Unlike the West Coast psychedelic scene, where drug references were more often covered with imagery and subtlety, the Stooges were honest and raw. The lyrics are based in realism, like The Velvet Underground, but where the Velvets are more publicist, the Stooges are more direct. The guitar work is rough and tumble in both sound and playing style, and lacks the finesse of hard rock blues artists such as Cream, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. The focus of a particular song is immediacy and the specific emotion of the song. It has an aggressive style that can hit you if you’re used to the more polished sound of modern music, or even typical records from the 60s and 70s. However, music has a lasting effect. The first Stooges song I ever heard was from their second album: 1970’s “Fun House.” “Down on the Street” is a slow-starting rocker with a simple but effective riff that builds to a fuzzed-out booming chorus, only to pull back and build again before petering out. A great song that immediately piqued my interest in the band.

This song seemed to picture them in a nutshell; loud, aggressive, emotional and always on edge. Although the sound and song style are the same, the Stooges’ first album seems to lack the intensity that made them such a wonderful live act. Still, both give a good representation. I think the only band at the time that came close to what the Stooges did emotionally was the Doors. The Doors, however, had a more mainstream and psychedelic sound, thus gaining significantly more recognition. They are also associated with some of Door’s more artistic ventures, but not with the psychedelic movement.

With songs like “Fun House” that straddle the line between progressive rock (especially the title track) and noise rock like “LA Blues,” the Stooges took art rock in new directions, but remained firmly rooted in reality. This art rock is by no means a West Coast psychedelic movement. Instead, it’s more rooted in the East Coast drug scene in bands like the Velvet Underground, but lacks high intellect and a much more ancient feel. A kind of hybrid of art scenes that coincides with the new trends of performance art and shock art. It’s also a perfect picture of the band living on the edge. Plagued by severe drug problems and internal strife over their short career, their music is an accurate and honest portrayal of a band on the brink of self-destruction on any given day. That’s part of what makes music great. It’s almost like listening to a machine shake itself to pieces and collapse as its parts give way.

Influence on music:

Over a year ago, when I first heard “Down on the Street,” I immediately knew the impact the song and album had on rock and roll. This is a song that could have easily been written by the punk movement of the late 70s, early 80s, or the garage rock bands of the 2000s. One of the first rock and roll songs to strip away almost all elements of the blues, leaving only the subdued hard rock that would become a staple of punk and heavy metal for years to come. A song written and recorded in 1970 was certainly ahead of its time. Black Sabbath debuts the same year, but their peak “Paranoid” album didn’t arrive until 1971, further establishing heavy metal, although still retaining some bluesy elements. Considered the first completely metal band, Judas Priest did not arrive until 1974. The punk movement primarily started with the Ramones, but they didn’t arrive until 1976. Although the album does not reflect the same intensity, the first Stooges album was released. In 1969, he really pioneered this sound. In the 1960s, rock and roll always retained elements of the blues, even in its psychedelic phase, with blues beats, back beats and blues shuffles. The Stooges let loose and did away with a lot of the blues feel. Whether this is due to a minimalist point of view, a lack of technical playing skills or a lack of ability to play drugs is debatable, but the results have been astounding. This beat and style is the beginning of many 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 closer to the Stooges than ever before. The White Stripes certainly draw on the Stooges for their sound, and bands like the Kills capture their raw intensity almost perfectly.

Impact on performance:

Although musically, the Stooges should receive far more credit than they do, their most noticeable influence is in their performance of rock and roll. Some of the performance art elements during the Stooges were more of an experience than a stage show. Although the psychedelic scene did interesting things with light and color, and the Velvet Underground had previously pioneered the multimedia show with Andy Warhol and “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” the Stooges did something completely different. These shows were the forerunners of the modern mosh pit, and Iggy Pop (lead singer of the Stooges) is often credited with inventing the stage dive. Rock and roll shows changed with the advent of harder rock, and Led Zeppelin certainly pioneered the hard rock show, but they didn’t deliver the aggression of the Stooges in a live setting. Having never seen the Stooges live, it’s hard to say exactly what a show is like, but I imagine it’s like an animal unleashed to run amok to attack and pounce, or stop and lean back at will.

A pure primal release of aggression and emotion in music. This, combined with their performance art and shock tactics (Iggy Pop famously smeared himself with peanut butter and blood, cut himself on stage, uttered ancient screams, and played a vacuum cleaner as an instrument) developed the modern aggressive stage show, performance atmosphere. After listening to the Stooges, I find it hard to associate modern rock concerts with anything other than this period. The music is perfectly suited to a high-energy, extremely aggressive show that, although I’m not sure if it’s ever happened, would be perfectly capped off with instrumentation, hardcore mosh pits and shouting. This may sound bad, but it paved the way for heavier artists and new concert ideas, with much more interaction between audience members and the band and audience. It also allowed the audience and the band to let their emotions sink in. A kind of primal scream therapy set to music.

The influence of these acts can be seen in today’s hard rock and metal shows, which feature huge mosh pits, stage diving and ancient scream vocals. These shows represent the same channel of emotional release pioneered by the Stooges in 1969-1970.

There was also a budding ancient trend in the art community. It is arguable that the idea was developed in the art community and translated to music by the Stooges, or that it was adopted into art from the increased aggression of music. Either way, each side definitely influenced the other and helped bring these new ideas to the mainstream, or at least to a wider audience (the Stooges were never considered mainstream).

Unfortunately, the shows were also linked to the hard drug scene, and hard drugs would ultimately be the downfall of the Stooges. This problem persists to this day, as hard rock, metal and aggressive music are often associated with the hard drug scene.

Remembering the Stooges:

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

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

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

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