The following list is a survey of various songs that were important to the genre of punk rock at different times in its development, from the early rumblings of the late 1960s through the year punk broke in 1991. What links these songs is the punk ethic that says you don’t have to be talented or good-looking to be in a great rock and roll band. Punk espoused DIY, anti-establishment ethos that put instruments into the hands of people who may never have gotten the opportunity to be in a band otherwise. Punk has been defined as freedom, anger, a fashion statement, youthful rebellion, and corrupting garbage. Whatever ‘punk’ may mean to you, here’s a list of some of the genre’s most important songs.
“Heroin,” The Velvet Underground
Lou Reed’s house band for Andy Warhol is frequently cited as one of the earliest punk bands, writing dark, twisted, dissonant songs almost a decade before the movement would really blossom in New York City. The Velvet Underground weren’t very popular when they were together in the 1960s, but the group was hugely influential to the punks that came after them. It has been said about the group that though not many bought their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, everyone who did formed a band. “Heroin” is one of Reed’s darkest and most twisted songs, an ode to the drug that makes him “feel just like Jesus’ son.”
“Kick Out the Jams,” The MC5
New York and London are the two cities that first come to mind when thinking about the important places where punk developed, but Detroit was hugely important when punk music was in its infancy. Motor City garage rockers the MC5 became well-known at the tail end of the 1960s for their raucous live performances and their association with political activist John Sinclair and the White Panther Party. Their first album, Kick Out the Jams, was recorded live at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on October 30 and 31, 1969. The record is considered one of the best live rock and roll albums of all time, as well as a key early influence on punk.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog,” The Stooges
The Stooges, with front man Iggy Pop, are frequently cited as the first punk band. The Stooges, like the MC5, were based out of Detroit and made abrasive, nasty music at a time when the hippies were still picking flowers and singing about peace. The Stooges sang about how boring it was to be alive in 1969, a year that is still romanticized as being one of the most important for art, music, and culture in general in the last century. Pop became legendary for his wild onstage antics and Ron Asheton’s fuzzed-out guitar laid the blueprint for how punk guitar would sound.
“Gloria,” Patti Smith
Patti Smith is one of the most iconic figures of the NYC punk movement, and her cover of Them’s “Gloria” from her seminal album Horses sees Smith screwing with the song’s gender dynamics and adding her signature spoken word poetry with the opening lines, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Punk was ideally supposed to be a form of music equally as accessible to women as to men, and although there were more female bands and musicians in punk than in previous iterations of rock and roll, it was far from equal (look at this list for evidence of that.) Still, no punk front man could hold a candle to Smith for charisma or her poetry.
“Blitzkrieg Bop,” The Ramones
The Ramones were a band of ugly New Yorkers, faux-brothers who dressed in a uniform of ripped jeans and leather jackets and made the music that most people think of when they hear the term “punk.” Johnny Ramone hammered out power chords as fast as he could, trying to push the band to complete their gigs as quickly as possible and granting their performances a manic vibe. The Ramones epitomized the punk ethos that you don’t have to look like a model or even be very good at your instrument to be in a rock band, though they were better musicians and songwriters than they’re often given credit for.
“Anarchy in the U.K.,” The Sex Pistols
Across the pond, punk got much more political than it was in New York. The Sex Pistols were London’s punk poster boys, and their one record, Never Mind the Bullocks, caused immense chaos as the band blasphemed everything that was important to Britain. Lead singer Johnny Rotten wrote lyrics that got the band banned from British radio, manager Malcolm McLaren manipulated their public image for maximum shock, and the tortured bassist Sid Vicious became the face of punk. The great documentary The Filth and the Fury is worth checking out to learn about the social and political forces that the Pistols and London punks were reacting to that made the music so much different from the genre in America.
“London Calling,” The Clash
The Clash were the Sex Pistols’ longer lasting peers in the London punk scene, who were just as critical of their home country, even going so far as to proclaim that “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” The 1979 album London Calling is frequently considered to be the best punk album of all time, and sees the band embracing a wide variety of influences outside the punk genre — reggae in particular. The record tells the stories of a variety of fictional characters negotiating life in Britain amidst economic unrest, racial prejudice, political corruption, and poverty. While the Pistols were like pissed off teenagers spitting on the Queen and going for shock value, the Clash were able to mature to make an album that handles Britain’s political issues with more sensitivity but no less anger.
“Holiday in Cambodia,” The Dead Kennedys
As the 1970s ended and the 1980s began, punk’s home base shifted to the West Coast hardcore scene, where it became more political than it had been in New York. The Dead Kennedys’ debut record Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is a seminal hardcore album that sees lead singer Jello Biafra making political statements with a heavy dose of satire in songs like “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” and “California Uber Alles.”
“Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” X
X was also based in the West Coast hardcore scene of the 1980s, but the band wasn’t as outwardly political as many of their peers and played with folk and country influences in addition to punk. On-and-off lovers Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted the group, with Exene becoming a feminist punk icon for her poetry, stage presence, and unique voice. The group was based in Los Angeles, named their first record after the city, and are seen as one of L.A.’s most important contributions to music. Their rockabilly influenced music featured bizarre harmonies from Exene and Doe, as well as lyrics influenced by serious poets like Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana
Kurt Cobain’s unique vision for punk music, fifteen years after many thought the genre was dead, finally brought punk popular recognition. Cobain’s biggest influences were bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, as well as punk-influenced 1980s alternative bands like the Pixies and the Vaselines. Much ink has been spilled speculating about why the Seattle-based Cobain was able to make punk popular in 1991 where New York and London punks in the 1970s couldn’t, but his contribution to the genre would be important even if Nirvana hadn’t become MTV darlings and Cobain dubbed the voice of a generation.
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