Early Punk Essentials
Before punk’s year zero in 1976, rock music was all too quickly morphing itno a club of overly technical, self-indulgent, and economically privileged showmen, far from rock n’roll’s original ethos. Prog was fully established, and although I am not completely dismissive of progressive rock, its most obnoxious tendencies needed to be rudely exposed. Meandering guitar solos, gaudy synth runs, and a pseudo intellectualism began to plague rock, originally intended to be fun and counter-cultural.
But then punk. It reinvented the identity of a rock band in the mid to late 70s. Untrained musicians with an unfiltered attitude played simple, no-nonsense, three-chord rock tunes emphasizing sheer raw energy.
The differing pockets of punk, in the UK, New York, and L.A., set the groundwork for numerous movements of independent rock: indie, new wave, post-punk, synthpop, and more. It also inspired other forms of expression. Rappers and electronic music ran with the idea that anyone, regardless of background, can and should make music if the ideas and inspiration are there.
The first few years of punk produced a wealth of classic records, and here I highlight a few of what I consider to be the most important.
You’ll get plenty of debate on who did it first, but The Ramones self-titled debut is most often cited as the original punk album. It was a wild contrast to every other rock record at the time. The Ramones stripped their take on rock bare in a radical de-evolution. The leather-clad garage band wrote fast, catchy tunes that still hold up today. From “Blitzkrieg Bop” to “I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” The Ramones is packed with memorable classic after another. It’s undeniably fun, even if the subject matter got deceptively dark at times.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Punk in the UK is most remembered by the quartet of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Paul Cook, and Steve Jones. Never Mind the Bollocks is nasty and irreverent. It just might be the most pure distillation of the punk attitude the genre gets stereotyped for. Johhny Rotten, with his snotty howls, pointed his finger to the British establishment and the privileged upper class. Angry and nihilistic as hell, Never Mind the Bollocks is a moment in rock music for which there is a clear before and after.
Wire stripped punk down to something even more minimalist and primal. The songs on Pink Flag are furiously short, 21 in less than 36 minutes, some not even lasting 60 seconds. All the excess fat is cut off. The lyrics require a close ear, but they are packed with intelligent sarcasm and social critique for those willing to do some mining. Varied in tone and texture, the noisier and more obtuse approach by Wire set the trajectory for the artsy post-punk movement that was just around the corner.
The Clash’s magnum opus, London Calling, wouldn’t make waves for a couple more years, but their debut is still an important milestone in punk’s formation. The Clash tried to instill some complexity in both the actual music itself and the lyrics, bringing in their snarling leftist ideas about classism and disaffection with the political establishment. Although not as pronounced as they would be on later albums, you can hear them play around with other musical styles. Their affinity for reggae and ska is well on display. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ guitars violently intertwine with each other for a classic sound that is equally catchy as it is angry and raucous.
The UK’s X-Ray Spex, led by vocalist Poly Styrene, wrote visceral anthems critiquing consumerism and the lack of authenticity and individuality they observed permeating British society. After witnessing a Sex Pistols gig, Styrene’s consensus was that anyone could play punk rock, so she did. She boldly asserted her female and multi-racial perspective into the conversation of disillusioned youth forming the punk movement. Rudi Thompson gave X-Ray Spex their edge with wailing saxophone runs. The Ramones reignited rock n’roll, and bands like X-Ray Spex very early on realized this new framework could be expounded on and pushed forward.
Damned Damned Damned
Damned Damned Damned was the first UK punk album, predating even Never Mind the Bollocks. The Damned weren’t overly concerned with starting a revolution like some of their peers; they just wanted to have a ton of fun. They played simple, energetic rock tunes reminiscent of the rock artists they adored growing up. The Damned’s music is rowdy, colorful, and glowing with humor. They are the most animated of the earliest punks bands and most likely a direct influence on The Misfits.