Punk rock’s origins are often the subject of debate. Depending on the source, it could have been a rebellion against the establishment, a reaction to the pompous bloat of prog-rock, a form of expression born of a kind of primal simplicity, or simply a way to annoy and antagonize a proper and civilized society. It’s all of these things, separately and simultaneously, and often varies depending upon the band. But how those bands sought to achieve those aims yielded even more vastly varied results.
In 2012, many important punk albums hit the 35th anniversary mark, particularly some of the best UK punk albums of the ’70s. In fact, while there was a lot going on musically that year, any music nerd will agree that 1977 belonged to punk rock. As the year comes to a close, there’s one highly important anniversary still yet to come, that being the 35th anniversary of Wire’s Pink Flag, which is sort of how this list came about. No doubt dozens upon dozens of records changed the landscape of punk, but that one paved an entirely new one for itself.
So, with Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday on the horizon, we give thanks to British punk. One! Two! Three! Four!
This is, admittedly, the oddest place to start with UK punk, but bear with me a minute. By the time The Stranglers had released their debut, Rattus Norvegicus, the band had already been together for a few years, and essentially pre-dated punk as we know it. Yet, they were also a part of it, albeit in their own idiosyncratic way. Rattus is a bit more progressive than many of their peers’ takes on punk, and that has a lot to do with the fact that organs and keyboards play such a prominent role in their sound, likening them more to art rock of the ’70s than punk in its purest sense. Not that this isn’t a punk album through and through — dig the rumble of bass on “Goodbye Toulouse,” the bopping rhythms of “London Lady,” the snotty sleaze of “Peaches” or the infectious, pint-hoisting stomp of “(Get a) Grip (On Yourself)“. It’s not just punk, it’s art.
Wire – Pink Flag
Wire made exactly one punk album in their career. But they got it so magnificently, jaw-droppingly perfect the first time, there was really no reason to ever replicate it. Pink Flag, released at the end of 1977, was not an early entry in the punk sweepstakes, but the band’s minimalist approach made it stand out for having so little interest in traditional ideas of what a song should be. “Reuters” is a dark and ominous dirge that ends with its narrator locked in a horrified chant of “Rape… rape… ” “Field Day for the Sundays” wraps up one verse and one chorus in less than 30 seconds. “Lowdown” makes funk kind of scary (in a way that Funkadelic hadn’t). And in a rare show of pop sensibility, “Ex-Lion Tamer” ends up as a perfect pop song, if for no other reason to show that the band could do that with effortless flair as well. Wire got more abstract on the equally stunning Chairs Missing and 154, which have their own arguments for being the band’s best. Pink Flag, however, is a unified statement of punk rock without boundaries.
You can’t really be a punk without having a sense of humor (well, you can, but it’s not necessarily advisable), and The Adverts had the most biting wit of the bunch. What’s more, they weren’t above turning self-deprecation into an even longer middle finger than anger alone could, kicking off debut album Crossing the Red Sea With the Adverts with a hearty answer to their own hecklers. In one of the genre’s most memorable tunes, TV Smith snarls “I wonder how we answer when you say, `We don’t like you, go away/ Come back when you know how to play.’” Of course, knowing how to play is entirely secondary to punk rock, but The Adverts got the hang of it, hammering out a raw but melodic classic that has just a little more jangle than your average punk LP. Later reissues of Red Sea included the band’s infamous single “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” written about convicted murderer Gary Gilmore’s odd request to have his eyes saved for transplantation after his execution. Certainly, The Adverts weren’t a typical punk rock band, and Red Sea is a unique gem in punk’s deep and expansive catalog.
We’ve already established that punk songs with saxophone are inherently awesome, and X-Ray Spex’s legendary single “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” is one of the strongest displays of this phenomenon in practice. It was not originally part of the UK band’s debut album Germfree Adolescents, which isn’t necessarily so odd for the era in which it was released. However, the band stacks the album with 12 other equally ripping tunes, each augmented by Lora Logic’s awesome sax work and, more importantly, frontwoman Poly Styrene’s fiery, charismatic vocals. One of a mighty league of ferocious punk rock women in British punk, along with Ari Up and Siouxsie Sioux to name a few, Styrene guides the Spex through a number of melodic and artfully written tunes that balance punk’s intensity with a melodic sensibility that eluded some of the more aggressive albums of the era, playfully chanting on “I Can’t Do Anything,” singing melodically with all the cool charm of Deborah Harry in “Warrior In Woolworths,” and basically just being badass everywhere else. Germfree Adolescents is everything a punk album should be, and then some.
Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady
(1979; United Artists)
OK, OK, this is cheating a little. A singles compilation isn’t an album — I’ve been doing this long enough to hear that argument thousands of times. But Singles Going Steady, guys. If there’s a more perfect collection of punk rock singles, I haven’t heard it. And that’s really because the Buzzcocks wrote all of the best punk rock singles. The most unapologetically “pop” of all the British punks, the Buzzcocks knew their way around a hook like nobody’s business, shooting forth onto the scene with a single about self-love (“Orgasm Addict”) and subsequently stretching into songs about alienation (“What Do I Get?”), bad decisions in love (“Ever Fallen In Love?”), taking solace in a tune (“Harmony In My Head”) and self-delusion (“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”). Punk did get more polished after the Buzzcocks made it so gloriously tuneful, but no band ever bested their pop-punk sound.
The Clash – London Calling
By the time they released London Calling, the extent to which The Clash were still “punk” was up for debate. No doubt, the spirit of punk rock still loomed large in their raucous anthems, but the music itself took on a much broader and fluid identity. As always, reggae rhythms crept into their toolbox, as did soul, rockabilly, pop and blues. More than simply a great punk album, London Calling is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll albums of the 20th Century, albeit played by a punk band. That’s enough to warrant its place here among the best UK punk albums, though beneath the vibrant production, vast stylistic palette and playful experimentation stands the same social critics that sneered at authority just two years prior. Only a band such as The Clash could make a note-perfect pop album that beckons the apocalypse, scoffs at stardom, thumbs its nose at religion, rewrites a murder ballad, satirizes a faceless urban society and then takes a victory lap with, what else, a love song!
Formed in London suburb Croydon, The Damned hold the distinction of having released the first British punk single in 1976’s “New Rose,” thus putting them ahead of the Sex Pistols at least in one regard, chronologically speaking. But even after their 1977 debut Damned Damned Damned, The Damned had plenty of growth ahead of them, reaching the peak of their powers two years later on third album Machine Gun Etiquette, an album that represented a new peak in punk rock artistry. While the often kitschy, frequently tongue-in-cheek punk pranksters made a wonderful mockery of banal love songs in the aptly titled “Love Song,” and celebrated the midnite movie cult of Ed Wood on “Plan 9 Channel 7,” there were plenty of moments of sublime musical versatility, nowhere more explicitly than on closing epic “Smash It Up,” which erupts from elegant dreamy pop instrumental into one of the band’s most uproarious rock anthems. There were punk bands with bolder political statements and more famous singles, but I’d venture to say none of them were ever quite this fun.
If musical proficiency wasn’t expected of punk rockers in the genre’s glory days, then it must have been a pleasant surprise when The Ruts arrived with chops to spare. The Crack, the one album the band released during its lifetime, is a whirlwind of taut rhythms, powerhouse hooks and dynamite guitar licks. Not that it’s stylistically miles apart from the other albums on this list. It merely has a bit more dazzle, and for that matter a more pronounced dub/reggae influence. “Babylon’s Burning” hits with all the impact of a blazing punk rock single, but cut with the atmosphere and rhythmic sputter of classic dub. The opening riff of “Something That I Said” predicts Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” by a few years, while the chilling epic “It Was Cold” is a bit more post-punk, shimmering in its sparse abrasiveness. Tragically, the band came to an end in 1980 when singer Malcolm Owen died of a heroin overdose, ending the career of a band that burned briefly, but brightly.
Rob Gordon probably ended up selling a few more than five copies of The Three E.P.s by the Beta Band after giving it a spin in High Fidelity, but it’s just as likely his shopmate Dick moved a few units of Stiff Little Fingers’ Inflammable Material, after he spun it for paramour Anna Moss. It’s about as powerful and infectious a punk album to ever be released in the ’70s UK punk scene, but in having hailed from Belfast, the Northern Ireland group applied their own experience in living through the “Troubles,” and the violent conflicts between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists. This focus on grim political realities actually caused a rift between them and Belfast peers The Undertones, who claimed the Fingers were sensationalizing the conflicts, while the Fingers countered that the Undertones were ignoring them. But, beyond that, Inflammable Material bears most of the marks of a good punk rock record — songs about boredom and the record industry, blazing power chord riffs and a singer, Jake Burns, whose rasp is among the most inimitable voices in punk history.
The bands that never fit into a particular scene are often those that come to be viewed retroactively as groundbreaking. So it was with Discharge, a hardcore punk band out of Britain with a decidedly more heavy sound. As it turns out, the group’s metallic take on punk rock, actually within striking distance of Mötörhead if a lot more angry and politically charged, played a huge influence on thrash metal acts like Slayer and Metallica, not to mention later American metal and noise rock pioneers like Helmet. The formula is pretty simple — loud guitars, blazing solos, power chords, angry political lyrics and the group’s trademark “d-beat” rhythms. The Sex Pistols had only scratched the surface of anarchy in the UK; Discharge turned it into a much more visceral threat.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.