“Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.” – Jean Cocteau
Punk blew up in response to the bloated prog-rock, syrupy singer-songwriters, and “virtuoso” musicians of the early 70’s. As that decade progressed, musicians moved farther away from the sense of community that they had shared with their fans during the 60’s. This meant chartered planes and stadium concerts, gated mansions and lots of cocaine – in short, a lifestyle that very few music fans were able to share or appreciate. As musicians ceased to be merely entertainers and began to take on the trappings of royalty, a big-time backlash was brewing on 3 separate continents.
Punk was the musical version of the fountain of youth. By the mid-70s, many of the 60’s brightest stars had either burned out (Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Brian Jones, Otis Redding, and on & on) or faded into self-imposed obscurity (Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, John Lennon, Clapton, Van Morrison, John Phillips, etc). The music industry at this time was like an aging major league baseball team – losing ground quickly on the field of play, but reluctant to look for talent in the minor leagues.
The genre has been associated for so long with a stereotypical strain of itself (yeah, I’m looking at you Sid Vicious) that it is worth remembering that Punk’s tent initially had room for a wide variety of sounds and talents. The CBGB’s scene of the mid/late 70’s vividly illustrates this point. Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Blondie, Television and the Ramones have very little in common except that they all played in the same club and each made music that intentionally had no antecedent.
Thus, the question ‘What is Punk?’ isn’t easily answered. The genre is, quite frankly, filled with a lot of righteous, self-aggrandizing figures who are constantly trying to lay claim to some piece of its legacy. So whether you’re hearing John Lydon, Malcolm McLaren, Mick Jones, Tommy Ramone, David Johnansen, Richard Hell, or Henry Rollins (all of whom I repsect a great deal, by the way) speaking on Punk, each has their own version of the truth – and they’re all correct. Add to this the fact that the genre was meant, on inception, to deny easy categorization, and you can see that any map one draws of the genre will provide only the murkiest outline of its true intention and meaning.
Nirvana’s Nevermind was the checkered flag that signaled Punk’s ultimate victory and demise. Fittingly, this album was the gelignite under hair metal and the bloated sideshow that was 80’s rock in much the same way Punk blew up the self-important spectacle of 70’s shlock rock. But “Nevermind” was also the death knell for the genre because by 1991 Punk had become so embedded in the DNA of contemporary music that it had really ceased to exist as a distinct genre unto itself. Bands from Metallica to Sublime, Weezer to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Uncle Tupelo to Liz Phair – in fact almost any musician, including country folks like Steve Earle and Michelle Shocked – could legitimately and with a straight face claim Punk’s influence.
This was a full circle back to the genre’s earlier incarnation – when it was less about how you wore your hair, and more about how you walked the tightrope of performance with an instrument in your hands and very few rehearsals under your belt. The attitude and power in the music once again superceded its presentation.
Like the cover of Black Flag’s classic Damaged LP, Punk is a jagged, shattered mirror reflecting Rock back upon itself, and hurling it into dozens of sharply contrasting directions. The fact that we can so easily see its reflection in modern music says a lot for the genre, and the people who worked so hard to make it a viable form of expression. Whether Punk ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in the early 90’s, when it was subsumed by the corporate music machine is beside the point. By dumbing down its structure, the punks have brought a lot of smart people to music, and made it easier for them to get that special something off their chest.
The 20 Greatest Punk Albums Of All-Time…
#1 Ramones – NY Rockers were steeped in comics, horror movies, Phil Spector and multitudinous other pop culture iconography that they brought to Punk. They are of foremost importance in this genre because they planted the flag in the ground that so many thousands of other groups rallied around.
Ramones – For Punk music, this is the shot heard ‘round the world. This album not only set the tone, look, and manner of all things Punk, it’s loaded with killer songs to boot.
#2 Sex Pistols – British baddies infused all of music with a healthy shot of much-needed adrenaline. And then they heaped on righteous anger, label firings, Sid Vicious, and finally, an inglorious implosion.
Never Mind The Bollocks – It’s incredible to think that the Pistols could have lived up to the monster hype they generated in the media-miniaturized 70’s, but one listen to this album confirms just that. Bollocks… sounds better today than it possibly could have in ’77 – the times have finally caught up to the sound and fury of the Pistols.
#3 The Clash – Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon, et al upped the ante on what a Punk band could be. They not only brought a much-needed political and world view to the party, they also proved that you could play your instruments well and still retain credibility as punkers.
London Calling – One of the finest albums in all of music, this genre-crossing, non-stop rocking blast of energy fused the group’s love of rock-n-roll, reggae, political awareness, and general thunder in a way few groups have ever approached, let alone surpassed.
#4 Minutemen – This San Pedro, California trio generally stayed true to their name, constructing one minute blasts of Punk influenced by all manner of musical, cultural, and political influences. From 1980 until lead singer D. Boon’s untimely death in December 1985, Minutemen shaped a sound that was inherently Punk but uniquely their own.
Double Nickels On The Dime – Comprising – count ‘em – 44 songs over the original 4 vinyl sides, Double Nickels… (the title is trucker-speak for driving 55mph) is bursting at the seams with quirky influences, big ideas, gifted playing, and one quick shot after another of D. Boon’s greatness.
#5 Buzzcocks – The closest that Punk came to producing a group like The Beatles was this band. Formed after its future members attended a February ‘76 Sex Pistols show, Buzzocks brought an uncanny sense of songwriting ability to a genre that prided itself on simplicity and simple-minded lyrical exclamation.
Singles Going Steady – Sixteen songs from 8 singles just shouldn’t be this good. It’s possible to argue in many cases that the B-sides are superior to the A’s, but there’s no denying that this is one of those rare albums without a discernible ounce of filler.
#6 The Stooges – Ann Arbor, Michigan’s favorite sons were a prime influence on punk. From their blast furnace sound to frontman Iggy Pop’s insane yelping, yowling and physical confrontation with audiences, The Stooges used their muscle to create the space where punk could, and would, grow.
Fun House – The archetypal pre-punk album, Fun House compresses madness, chaos, urgency, violence and sinew into a squanking bouillabaisse of tension and release.
#7 Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – This Boston bred pre-punk super group had future members of The Cars and Talking Heads, as well as JR. Unfortunately, when their label didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with their self-titled debut and shelved it, the group split to separate paths of musical greatness.
The Modern Lovers – By the time it was released in 1975 – it was recorded a full two years earlier – this clever, catchy, and deceptively simple sounding album wasn’t really in step with the times. It’s one of those rare albums that continues to sound outside of time, living in a parallel universe of its own, where cartoons are fun, and you like to dance.
#8 The Undertones – Northern Ireland’s Undertones sported one of punk’s most distinctive vocal stylists in Feargal Sharkey. The fact that they were legendary BBC DJ John Peel’s favorite group of all-time doesn’t hurt either.
The Undertones – The album that allegedly reduced Peel to tears of joy upon his first listening, this album still has the ability to pull goodtime goosebumps. This is Punk at its most joyous, uplifting and fun.
#9 Monks – Once upon a time, 4 GI’s stationed in Germany during the Vietnam war decided to display their displeasure with the world and their lot in it by shaving their heads into monks’ tonsures, dressing up in full monk regalia, and firing off the angriest, bluntest music anyone could possibly have imagined at that time.
Black Monk Time – Listening to this album and trying to place it in 1966 is disorienting. It’s almost as if these freaks jumped into a time machine and went back 10 years to give the world a glimpse of what was yet to come. Song titles like “Shut Up” “I Hate You” and “Cuckoo” make it fun to contemplate how long slack-jawed, gawking audiences (the lucky few dozen, probably) waited before hurling a shit storm of boos, curses and flying bottles upon our heroes. Not unlike the scenes their bastard stepchildren would wreck a mere 10 years later.
#10 Radio Birdman – In 1976 New York City, Cleveland, and London weren’t the only ports fomenting Punk unrest. Sydney, Australia had its own completely autonomous – and generally unpopular – Punk scene. Headed by Radio Birdman and The Saints, these bands were reviled in their homeland for creating music that was without precedent in its intensity.
Radios Appear – Like many albums on this list, Radios Appear sounds as fresh today as it was grating and unlistenable to its intended audiences. The album is underpinned with a manic surf guitar twang that nobody this side of X touched within Punk. ‘Aloha Steve & Danno’ and ‘Murder City Nights’ are two of the greatest Punk songs ever, and unfortunately ‘New Race’ was sensitively misinterpreted as racist.
#11 The Velvet Underground – Lou Reed, John Cale and company took on subject matter that was anathema to music at the time. Their detatched attitude and utter cool was of utmost influence to punks of all stripes.
White Light/White Heat – An album of pure guitar intensity, it stripped music to its most basic elements and then built them back up into a gigantic storm of angry guitar. ‘Sister Ray’ is nothing less than the Rosetta Stone of the Punk movement.
#12 The Saints – They came out of nowhere (literally the middle of Australia) to drop one of the first Punk singles to hit the UK. The Saints eventually relocated to London, but weren’t able to replicate their early success, and after just two albums moved beyond Punk.
(I’m) Stranded – The title track from this album caught fire in England in 1976 and gave the Punk movement there a huge shot in the arm. This album was actually a collection of rough demos that the band had no intention of releasing, but you’d never know by the sound.
#13 Bad Brains – Washington DC’s Bad Brains combined the militant undertones of Bob Marley’s reggae with the blistering intensity of Black Flag to create a truly unique sound. Although they never broke through to a wider audience, they were a primary influence on many musicians throughout the 80’s and 90’s – like the Beastie Boys – who you’d never suspect of coming under their spell.
Bad Brains – The group’s self-titled 1982 debut has been called “The best punk/hardcore album of all-time” by none other than Beastie Boy Adam Yauch.
#14 Black Flag – These Los Angeles hardcore punks took the raw aggression of their music to levels previously unthinkable. Frontman Henry Rollins was one of the most convincing singers in the history of the genre (he obviously believed in what he was singing) and remains one of the most outspoken ambassadors of the genre. Group founder Greg Ginn also started SST Records, which brought the ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic to a whole new generation of punks.
Damaged – In 15 songs and less than 35 minutes, Black Flag lays out a surprisingly far-reaching vision of what loud music could mean. ‘Rise Above’ just might be the greatest anthem to come out of the genre; ‘TV Party’ and ‘Six Pack’ showed a deft sense of humor; and ‘Police Story’ was NWA’s ‘F*ck Tha Police’ ten years before the fact. A deranged, brilliant classic.
#15 X – With the best vocal harmonizing this side of the Beach Boys, John Doe and Exene Cervenka sang their hearts out about surivival in the urban jungle. Billy Zoom was one of the most talented and skilled guitarists to work in the genre, and was able to easily shift from power chords to surf music and beyond. Genre aside, X is one of the great bands of all-time.
Wild Gift – X made a series of landmark albums during the early 80’s, and all of them are excellent. On their second album they run a gamut of styles and speeds, but the results are never less than intense, conflicted poetry.
#16 Joy Division – Ian Curtis was all doom and gloom, and he wasn’t faking it. Depressed, epileptic, and extremely talented, Curtis wrote songs that felt like they came from a crypt. He hung himself in 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour. The remaining members of the band would carry on as New Order, but without Curtis they were a totally different (albeit quite excellent) group.
Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division’s debut found the group fully formed on arrival. Distance is at the heart of these songs – both in their subject matter and sound quality. Producer Martin Hannett created an aural landscape that is as stark and cold as a graveyard, while songs like ‘She’s Lost Control’ and ‘New Dawn Fades’ filled that expanse with eerie, gothic dread.
#17 Talking Heads – The genre’s unlikliest stars became one of the very few punk bands to crossover into mainstream success. David Byrne’s professor nerdboy look and jittery vocal delivery did much to set the group apart from their ‘three chords and a cloud of dust’ contemporaries.
The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads – An excellent live document that captures the band during two different great eras of their lifespan. The first LP (or first half of the disc) features material recorded between 1977 and ’79, while sides 3 & 4 feature a beefed up version of the group (accompanied by backup singers, additional percussionists, and Bernie Worrell on keyboards) crunching through material from 1980 & 81’s ‘Remain In Light’ tour. For reasons unclear, this great album wasn’t available on compact disc until 2004.
#18 Gang Of Four – The group set out to challenge the form and function of music by paring their songs down to skeletal, twitchy grooves, and filling in the cracks with monotone political manifesto. The results are chaotic, hypnotic and have continued to influence bands well beyond the pale of Punk.
Entertainment! – Generally described in terms like skittery, jittery, etc that ignore the stone groove that drives this album. At its heart, this is a funk album, albeit one that channels political theory and references Kafka. Punk didn’t get much smarter – or more out there – than this.
#19 Dead Kennedys – A raving lunatic and standup comedian rolled into one, Dead Kennedys’ frontman Jello Biafra delivered some of the most incediary and/or hilarious lyrics ever recorded. Songs like ‘Kill The Poor’ ‘California Uber Alles’ and ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ are shrouded in sarcasm, but beneath the veneer of Biafra’s humor lurks some serious messages.
Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables – A whirlwind of political frustration, Fresh Fruit… is so start-to-finish great that it could easily serve as the group’s best of. In fact it was just their debut.
#20 Patti Smith – A professional writer long before she became the ‘high priestess of Punk’, Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye developed a simple sound that slightly anticipated the savage aggression and taboo-smashing delight of Punk. Gigging at churches and bookstores around NYC in the early/mid 70’s, they spread the gospel for a different kind of music, and brought a genuinely artistic attitude to a genre that prided itself on artlessness.
Horses – Perhaps more than any other musical release of the decade, Patti Smith’s debut album signaled that the prevailing notions of gender in music would never be accepted at face value again. Her twisted, transcendent reading of Van Morrison’s classic ‘Gloria’ provided a perfect introduction to the album (and the genre): “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
The Next 20…
New York Dolls – New York Dolls
Wire – Pink Flag
MC5 – Back In The USA
Various Artists – Rat Music For Rat People
Fear – The Record
The Jam – Beat Surrender
Nirvana – Bleach
XTC – Drums & Wires
Pixies – Doolittle
The Ramones – Rocket To Russia
Various Artists – Repo Man Soundtrack
Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade
Richard Hell & The Voidoids – Blank Generation
Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers – L.A.M.F.
Mission Of Burma – Vs.
The Germs – MIA: The Complete Anthology
Rocket From The Tombs – The Day The Earth Met…
The Seeds – The Seeds
Various Artists – 24 Hour Party People Soundtrack†
Devo – Greatest Hits
†This album does a nice job of tracing Punk’s influence on Electronica and the rave scene of the early 90’s.
Ten True Punks Who Didn’t Play Punk Music…
1 – Johnny Cash – Gobbled pills by the handful, kicked out the footlights at the Grand Ol’ Opry – and was told to never come back – and generally wrecked a wide swath of havoc wherever he went. In his pre-June Carter days the Man In Black was as scary and unpredictable as Sid Vicious on a bender.
2 – Jerry Lee Lewis – Married his 13 year-old cousin, earned the nickname “Killer”, had his own bouts with pills and booze, and played his piano with an unhinged intensity that was exponentially more athletic than any of his contemporaries.
3 – William S. Burroughs – Killed his first wife while trying to shoot an apple off her head – a la William Tell – in a drunken haze and fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution. Proceeded to chronicle life’s nasty side and give voice to junkies, queers, and weirdos of every stripe.
4 – Bob Dylan – Until the Stooges came around, Dylan’s controversial “plugging in” at the Newport folk festival and subsequent touring with The Band produced the most fierce confrontation between audience and performer in the annals of rock history.
5 – Dennis Hopper – Is he even acting? Who knows?!?
6 – Miles Davis – Re-invented jazz 3 times over, didn’t mind blowing his audiences off by playing exclusively with his back to them, and often took unpopular stands on black issues of the day. Was also incredibly difficult to deal with and unpopular with his fellow musicians.
7 – Lenny Bruce – Got jailed repeatedly for using the F word, he raised (or lowered, depending on your perspective) the public discourse above “dirty” and “clean” and set the table for every potty mouthed free thinker to follow. He also OD’d on smack – so punky!
8 – George Clinton – Stood so far outside music’s mainstream in the ‘70s that he needed the Mothership to get back within the atmosphere. His repeated drug bust/mug shot press cycle is well beyond the combined efforts of dozens of punks’ finest nihilists.
9 – Woody Guthrie – Virtually invented the protest song, and wrote about the devastation and anti-heroes of his time with an honesty that was an influence in itself.
10 – Malcolm X – No matter what Malcolm X said or did, he generated controversy. In his time, people (especially white folk) didn’t hear the words and were focused instead on a pre-generated media image of what the man was all about. They often reacted badly. Hmmmm, sounds familiar…