Quick! Who was the first punk band? The Sex Pistols? The Ramones? The MC5? The Stooges? Suicide? That’s a parlor game lovers of rock music can play for hours and hours—or disdain entirely as irrelevant, if that’s your bent.
No matter where you stand on the issue, it might interest you to know that in December 1972, before three of those bands had so much as released a note of recorded music, the New Musical Express in England had its own idea of who the first punk was, and the answer—as well as the question itself—might surprise you.
Their proposition was that it was the Troggs. You know, the band that did “Wild Thing.” The Troggs were headed by Reg Presley, and by 1972 the group was truly struggling in an era dominated by funk, prog, and glam. Well, we’ll get to that.
The article, by Pete Phillips, highlighted an uptick in Troggs interest in the U.S. and posed the question why that was not happening in the U.K. as well. The article kicks off with an explicit frame of the Troggs as a much-needed antidote to the up-and-coming impulse of glam rock—er, “the Bowie-Bolan syndrome”—which is defined by “glitter, eye-shadow and platform heels.” It’s interesting that punk is so strongly identified as a conservative impulse, a “basic” reaction to the “fancy” stylings of the glam movement. When the real punk movement hit in the mid- to late 1970s, it was often placed in opposition to (a) overblown studio-oriented rock like the Eagles, and (b) disco. The Troggs were self-consciously presented as Neanderthals, a thudding, crude—and catchy—rebuke to fancy music of any stripe.
What’s fascinating about Phillips’ article is that anyone would have been asking the question in the first place—it implies an active debate on the question. What’s clear is that the term punk was of quite recent vintage. In March 1970 the Chicago Tribune quoted main Fug Ed Sanders to the effect that his solo album was “punk rock—redneck sentimentality”—this is widely regarded as the first use of the phrase. Such references are scattered all over the early 1970s. Suicide advertising a November 1970 gig with the phrase “punk music,” Lester Bangs calling Iggy Pop a punk, Lenny Kaye describing what we would today simply call garage rock bands as “classic garage-punk.” For Christ’s sake, Ellen Willis was using the term in the pages of The New Yorker. It was a thing, and everybody had a different take on what “punk music” was and what it meant. It was, in short, a moniker looking for a movement. A certain kind of music fan was looking for something, but didn’t quite know what it was.
Kaye’s “garage” association is clarifying here. Later years, with the addition of politics, safety pins, and breakneck (i.e. sloppy) guitar work, would render the designation of the Troggs as the world’s first punk band just a bit absurd, but they clearly did have a fuzzy, loud sound and they did have some hits. Phillips describes the Troggs as “that nasty, lumpy group with the parted thighs and the loud, dirty music.” It’s worth reading the item in full, which you can below.
I’ll never have as good a chance to tell this story, so here it goes: In the early 1990s I was living in Vienna and I DJ’d an event, a birthday party for a prominent Austrian journalist. I didn’t have many LPs at my disposal and what I had was mainly classic rock, but I did the best I could. As the hours passed and the revelers danced (and got drunker), eventually I heard this highly inebriated male voice bellowing “DIE TROGGS!! SPIEL DIE TROGGS!!” at me. I looked down from the booth and who should it be but the leader of Austria’s Green Party, the equivalent to Jill Stein, if you will, desperately wanting me to put on some Troggs—which I didn’t have with me. I guess the Greens are used to setbacks, huh.
I can’t think of the Troggs without remembering that moment.
Here’s the article, you can enlarge it for easier reading:
More Troggs after the jump…