Happy New Year!
By now you’re probably sick of Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Barbara Streisand, and José Feliciano singing the traditional Christmas standards. And you’re probably also tired of arguing politics with your reactionary God Squad parents and progressive hippie relatives. So it’s time to liven things up with something completely (almost) apolitical … the 10 greatest punk songs of all time!
Let me preface this by saying I’m an old punk, though not as old as John Lydon (59), Marky Ramone (59), Mick Jones (60), or Siouxsie Sioux (58). Despite coming from a rural New York town that considered Styx, Kansas, and The Eagles to be the pinnacle of musical artistry, I managed to discover punk from a 60 Minutes program on the Sex Pistols’ 1978 US tour. As soon as I heard the opening chords of God Save the Queen I knew every other band I’d ever heard sucked. I was hooked.
But because I’m an old punk, this list is almost exclusively old stuff. In fact there’s only one song on it that was released after 1986. That doesn’t mean I don’t like newer music, in fact several songs by current bands like Bouncing Souls and The Interrupters barely missed the list. It just means I think the early stuff was better.
And don’t immediately write off the list – “Oh man, he probably has nothing but Pistols and Clash songs” – because you’d be wrong. The Pistols made the list but The Clash didn’t. Neither did The Ramones, X, Generation X, or PIL. Sure, there’s some songs that will prompt you to think “of course that one is there”, but you should find a couple of others that you’ve probably never heard before. Hopefully some of you will discover some new “old” punk classics.
On to the list, in chronological order (links to YouTube videos):
Pretty Vacant – The Sex Pistols (1977) – Put on your headphones, turn the volume up to 11, then hit play. Steve Jones’s crystal clear notes slowly begin their assault on your brain before being joined by the thunder of Paul Cook’s drums with the final shrill attack coming from Lydon. It’s the best track on the best rock n roll album ever made. Several more songs from this album could have made the list but I didn’t want this to be just about the Sex Pistols. Trivia: Jones not only played his usual lead guitar but also bass on every track but one of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Nominal bassist Sid Vicious was usually too stoned to play and only made it through recording Bodies.
Love Comes In Spurts – Richard Hell and the Voidoids (1977) – Hell, formerly of the band Television, spits out the eponymous refrain over the uproar of jangly guitars and you can’t stop yourself from singing along. Despite being a punk pioneer, Hell tired of the music scene and turned to writing poetry and novels by the mid 80s. Trivia: Hell played Madonna’s dead boyfriend in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Jigsaw Feelings – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978) – While Siouxsie’s wailing voice dominates all the band’s songs, guitarist John McKay’s playing comes to the fore on this one with a piercing sound. Originally groupies of the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and Steve Severin formed the band in 1976 and completed their final tour in 2003 making the Banshees one of the longest lived punk combos. Trivia: The Banshees played their first gig just 2 days after forming with not-yet-a-Sex-Pistol Sid Vicious on bass and not-yet-an-Ant Marco Pironi on lead guitar.
Interzone – Warsaw/Joy Division (1978) – Written in 1977 when Joy Division was still known as Warsaw, Interzone has the rawest sound of any of Joy Division’s many excellent songs. Had I made this list at another time I might have substituted Digital or Radio for this one, but I’m feeling in a rougher mood right now. If you haven’t heard this before then don’t let Love Will Tear Us Apart fool you, Interzone is a PUNK song. Trivia: Lead singer, and epileptic, Ian Curtis hanged himself the night before the band was scheduled to leave for their first US tour.
Holiday In Cambodia – The Dead Kennedys (1980) – OK, you knew this one was going to be here. Certainly the DKs’ most famous tune but the band churned out a cornucopia of punk classics – Police Truck, Let’s Lynch the Landlord, California Über Alles, Kill the Poor, Halloween, Rambozo the Clown, and of course Nazi Punks Fuck Off. They were a veritable punk factory. Trivia: As a satirical joke, anarchist lead singer Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979. By 2000 his politics completely changed and he ran for the Green Party Presidential nomination but lost badly to Ralph Nader.
What We All Want – Gang Of Four (1981) – This tune should be the theme music for a horror movie. GOF actually released two versions of this. The 1981 version has screeching guitars reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s theme for Psycho. In 2005 the band returned to the studio and redid a bunch of their old material giving us a more ominous version of What We All Want – the tune you will here in the final seconds before the Grim Reaper slices your head off. GOF is arguably the most underrated punk band, spitting out a bunch of classics that rarely get mentioned by aficionados. I Found That Essence Rare should also be on this list. Trivia: GOF is still active, releasing the album What Happens Next in 2015. However, guitarist Andy Gill is the only remaining member from the original 1977 quartet.
Rise Above – Black Flag (1981) – This song comes at you like a sledgehammer. I was lucky enough to see Black Flag at Atlanta’s 688 Club in the early 80s and it was certainly a night to remember. Henry Rollins looked like a long-haired cave man as he jumped around the stage wearing nothing but a pair of black nylon running shorts. The acoustic assault turned the dance floor into a sweaty pit of writhing and slamming humanity that was exhausting. When I left my neck was so tired I could barely hold my head up. This band is awesome. Trivia: Henry Rollins just endorsed Bernie Sanders for President. Henry what are you thinking?
Absolutely Sweet Marie – Jason and the (Nashville) Scorchers (1983) – The band that invented cowpunk, these guys were like hillbillies on speed. Absolutely Sweet Marie is a remake of a Bob Dylan song and sounds nothing like the original. Jason Ringenberg can actually sing, unusual for someone in a rock band, while Warner Hodges’s guitar playing would make Steve Jones proud, and the two combine to create a song that is both melodic and in-your-face at the same time. They were another 688 favorite who treated the throng to a punk version of Onward Christian Soldier. Trivia: These days Ringenberg performs as a solo act, incorporating much Scorcher’s material, and also as a kid-oriented act known as Farmer Jason.
Anything – The Damned (1986) – The original British punk band, the history of The Damned is like a Tolstoy novel – dozens of characters spread over decades with a constantly evolving story. While they certainly fit into punk’s DIY ethos, their music is often impossible to categorize, ranging from pure punk to goth to an almost classical symphonic style of rock. Anything straddles the punk/goth boundary with driving guitars and church choir backing vocals. Since 1977 the band has churned out ten albums and seen 24 musicians spin through the revolving door of its line-up, which briefly included Motorhead’s Lemmy (RIP). Trivia: The Damned were the first British punk band to release a single (1976), the first to release an album (1977), and the first to tour the US (1977).
Square One Here I Come – The Hives (2007) – Along with Holiday In Cambodia, this is the most political song to make the list. I think of it as the “Democrat” song, as The Hives ironically whine about not getting what the world owes them. Strange that it takes a band from Sweden to point out the absurdity of the gimme voters. But they do it in a very fun and loud way, making this a fantastic song even if you don’t get the lyrics. Trivia: The song Tick Tick Boom was used in a number of commercials, often sports related, and led to The Hives performing during the opening of the NHL All-Star Game in 2008.
Those are the 10. If I made this list again next week it would probably be much different, so I’ll list a few songs that just missed making it:
Dancing With Myself – Generation X
Teenage Lobotomy – The Ramones
The World’s A Mess It’s In My Kiss – X
The Clampdown – The Clash
Public Image Limited – Public Image Limited
¡Olé! – The Bouncing Souls
Take Back the Power – The Interrupters
Far Behind – Social Distortion
I usually get flamed on PRL’s Facebook page so I’m sure I’ll hear about how awful this list is. But it would be more interesting to learn what songs you would put in the top 10. So what are they?