These are the 20 best English punk songs
To the outside world, punk rock was initially believed to be an English invention. Blame this on the Sex Pistols’ precocious ability to garner national and international headlines mere months after forming. The truth was, punk began in the early ‘70s with the off-center, jagged rock ‘n’ roll efforts of bands such as the New York Dolls and Detroit’s Iggy And The Stooges. Then some axis-jarring ‘70s garage outfits on New York City’s Lower East Side followed in their footsteps, in 1974-75. And the world toppled like dominoes in its wake.
The other overly simplified myth is that the Ramones introduced punk to Great Britain when they played London’s Roundhouse July 4, 1976. This is as erroneous a notion as England inventing punk, or that the Pistols were the first U.K. punk band. In fact, the night the Ramones celebrated America’s Bicentennial at the Roundhouse, the Pistols were playing Sheffield’s Black Swan pub. The opening act? The Clash, in their first public appearance. What the Ramones actually introduced to Britain were 150 MPH ramalama grooves and black leather jackets. Bands such as the Stranglers and the Jam had been playing on the pub rock circuit for a few years prior to the Pistols’ formation, alongside the aggressive R&B stylings of Dr. Feelgood. Then there was the never-emergent-from-the-garage London SS, whose revolving-door membership birthed the Clash, the Damned and Generation X.
What the Pistols did for their native land was introduce this aggressive, angry rock, loaded with street poetry about English society’s decay. Then they popularized it, spreading it across the land, as they jumped in a clapped-out transit van and fell out in distant locales so guitarist Steve Jones could damage listeners' eardrums and Johnny Rotten could wind them up with nonstop verbal abuse. They were here to destroy, not entertain. And local kids would see and hear this, feeling their lives transformed.
England, in the long run, gave the punk-rock canon some of its most definitive music. It continues to, to this day, even if there aren’t 50 great new singles released weekly, as seemed to occur in its heyday. Here, we're presenting 20 of English punk’s greatest tracks.
The Pink Fairies – “City Kids”
Punk is the eternal spirit of rebellion, independence and iconoclasticism that permeates every revolution, be it artistic, musical or social/political. Mid-’60s English rock produced plenty of angry, noisy, high-energy combos who are direct punk forebears — the Who, the Kinks and the Pretty Things all immediately come to mind. But in the early ‘70s, a group of anarchistic leftover hippie outfits, all seemingly living in London’s Ladbroke Grove neighborhood, were kicking out the jams in high style. Notice how comfortably "City Kids," by guitarist Larry Wallis’ chain-drive trio the Pink Fairies, sits right alongside the Pistols and the Damned on our custom playlist? Proof that the revolution is in the beat.
The Damned – “New Rose”
“Is she really going out with him?” You can hear Dave Vanian’s eyebrow arch as he introduces England’s first proper punk single, issued Oct. 22, 1976 on Stiff Records. (For their BBC John Peel Sessions debut, Vanian altered it to, “Are we really 65 on the charts?”) Once Rat Scabies detonates his Gene Krupa-esque drum intro, ramrodding into Brian James’ scything Gibson SG chords, the battle’s won. “New Rose” is the perfect opening shot, throbbing with the thrill of invention, the shock of the new. It sounds like a love song for punk itself, fresh as morning dew on U.K. soil. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting song committed to magnetic tape in 1976.
Sex Pistols – “Anarchy In The UK”
Then you hear this. "Anarchy In The UK," the Pistols’ introduction to the world, wasn’t suffused with the shock of the new a la “New Rose.” But it was the sound of a young English rock band stripping down the Who’s vintage hard-rock blueprint and plugging it directly into Battersea Power Station. Despite what their peers did, the Pistols didn’t play particularly fast. Drummer Paul Cook steadily held them down to midtempo, adding extra power and majesty to Steve Jones’ massed guitar overdubs. Surfing it all: Johnny Rotten, the loudest, angriest sneer that rock had heard yet. English society trembled at this young threat.
The Clash – “Complete Control”
By the time the Clash released their third proper single in 1977, "Complete Control," they’d already established themselves as punk’s great political conscience. CBS Records, their American-run label, completely undermined their contractually stipulated creative control by releasing a single they hadn’t approved from their debut album, “Remote Control.” Joe Strummer and co.’s response? They wrote and recorded a song listing every way their label betrayed them, titling it after a misguided phrase manager Bernie Rhodes used in a band meeting. Then they got the label to issue it as a 45. Over one of Mick Jones’ most iron-fisted riffs, Strummer bawled his contempt: “I don’t trust you/So why should you trust me?” Not just one of the Clash’s finest works, but one of the best punk singles ever released.
The Adverts – “One Chord Wonders”
Fronted by TV Smith and featuring the darkly brooding bass guitar of Gaye Advert, London’s Adverts were among the first signifiers that the Pistols were having an effect. Smith, one of first-wave Britpunk’s most advanced songwriters, displayed his skills with debut single "One Chord Wonders," a Stiff Records one-off. Over a deliberately crude racket from the other musicians who made the Troggs sound like prog-rock musos, the singer laid a sophisticated lyric skewering the audience/performer divide, completely rejecting rock star notions: “I wonder how we’ll answer when you say/‘We don’t like you, go away/Come back when you’ve learned to play.’” Smith’s songs were a lot more clever than his bandmates’ musicianship, or the audiences spitting on him at the Roxy.
X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”
Punk was liberating — anyone could do it. Race and gender no longer precluded people from climbing a stage or entering a recording studio and having a bash, especially if you had something to say. X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, being part Somalian and completely unconcerned with pop music beauty standards, was feminism and anti-racism in action. She shattered every -ism each time she gripped the mic. With debut single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!,” her spoken introduction alone could’ve incited an insurrection: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard/But I think/'Oh bondage! Up yours!'” The music being a brilliant marriage of two-chord Pistols-style crash guitar with cocktail jazz saxophone simply iced the cake.
The Slits – “Number One Enemy”
Styrene was one woman fronting an otherwise all-male band. The Slits were a girl gang of the highest, most vicious order. Fronted by German teenager Ari Up, this quartet didn’t give one fuck about propriety or musical ability. Irreverent in all they did, they took punk’s DIY ethos to heart by literally learning to play their instruments onstage. They still wrote some of the catchiest, most inventive songs of the punk canon at that point, partly because they knew none of the rules. "Number One Enemy" remained untracked until their 2006 Revenge Of The Killer Slits comeback EP. With its contrarian lyric seemingly outlining in a practical manner the resistance that “Anarchy In The UK” merely suggested, it could have given Queen Elizabeth a coronary had it been issued in 1977.
Generation X – “Your Generation”
For the debut single by future ‘80s MTV star Billy Idol’s punk band, Generation X turned the rebel rock anthem of one generation into a weapon against itself: the Who’s “My Generation.” Revving Pete Townshend’s two-chord riff into a Ramones-speed glam racket, bassist Tony James’ inversion of the lyric proved equally ingenious: “Your generation don’t mean a thing to me.” Generation X’s version of the uprising would be as awash in glitter as black leather, and have hooks galore and big choruses. But that didn’t make it any less punk rock.
Buzzcocks – “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)”
Manchester’s Buzzcocks completely reinvented the love song. This is mostly due to singer/guitarist/songwriter Pete Shelley’s state-of-the-art compositional skills. He took two key left-turns: One, never identifying his songs’ protagonists’ genders and two, denying the object of love/lust to the one who pines. He may have peaked with July 1978’s “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?),” their fifth single. Over a rampaging minor-key riff, he struggles with the idea of revealing his love for a friend, thus complicating the friendship. It rose to No. 12 on the UK Singles Chart, and grew into a standard covered by everyone from Fine Young Cannibals to Thursday.
Siouxsie And The Banshees – “Love In A Void”
Proto-goths Siouxsie And The Banshees emerged from the “Bromley Contingent,” the clique of original Pistols fans arising from the clientele of Sex, the Kings Road haberdashery owned by Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood. Some charter members followed their favorite band’s example and formed their own angry ‘70s rock bands. Started by Steve Severin and Siouxsie Sioux to humorously fill McLaren’s 100 Club Punk Festival bill, they eventually became serious. Hinging on Kenny Morris’ virtually cymbal-less drumming and John McKay’s glass-shards guitar playing, they reimagined glam-punk as a sort of dark, pounding pop noise. “Love In A Void” was one of their best early bashers, presented here in its pre-record contract Peel Session version.
The Only Ones – “Another Girl, Another Planet”
Libertine singer/songwriter Peter Perrett hung around from the early ‘70s London underground to strip down his louche, Lou Reed-cum-Bob Dylan glam snarlings for spiky-headed consumption in the Only Ones. He hit the jackpot with this swaggering love song, equating romance with both space travel and narcotics abuse. Pop music hadn’t sounded so drug-drenched since the psychedelic era, nor so Marquis De Sade. Perrett’s bandmates, especially lead guitarist John Perry, helped by grafting his subversively poetic lyrics to the slinky six-string interplay that was NYC’s Television’s specialty. It’s not for nothing that "Another Girl, Another Planet" is an oft-covered gem, essayed by everyone from the Replacements to blink-182.
Sham 69 – “If The Kids Are United”
Slaughter And The Dogs asked in a 1977 single "Where Have All The Boot Boys Gone?" Apparently, they were awaiting Sham 69’s arrival. Fronted by earnest-to-a-fault everyman Jimmy Pursey, Sham’s battering-ram dole queue rock inadvertently reignited the thuggish early ‘70s skinhead cult, now sadly given a racist cast by the right-wing National Front. The band’s own ideology differed wildly from the hooligans now disrupting their shows. Their response? Crafting this boot-stomping cry for working-class unity, a No. 9 U.K. single in July 1978. With its gut-simple, near-AC/DC riff, chunky midtempo groove, and stirring lyrics, it’s an instant classic, covered by everyone from Rancid to Jarvis Cocker.
Cockney Rejects – “I’m Not A Fool”
Led by brothers Jeff "Stinky Turner" Geggus on vocals and Mickey Geggus on cranium-smashing guitar, Cockney Rejects simplified the Pistols’ enormous riff-rock to its essential elements, excising Rotten’s intellectual anger for lyrics about street fighting and football hooliganism. More than Sham, the Rejects paved the way for the skinhead punk subgenre Oi!, accidentally naming it via their 1980 single "Oi! Oi! Oi!" Unlike Sham, they actually smashed down gig disruptions from bald racists, at times fighting entire audiences outnumbering the quartet. Their ultimate statement of purpose? "I'm Not A Fool," from their cheekily-titled 1980 debut album Greatest Hits Volume 1: “I’m not so ignorant/I’m not a fool.”
The Jam – “Going Underground”
Mod-inspired punks the Jam already had one of the scene’s most precociously talented songwriters in Paul Weller. He frequently cast a wary eye and vicious tongue upon British society in his Who/Kinks-inspired rave-ups, inspired by the Clash. But he truly hit his stride with March 1980’s "Going Underground," their first number one chart single, and also the first of three Jam singles to debut at the top spot. One wonders how much the general British public may have embraced the 45, given its scathing assessment of the recently elected Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the voter apathy and political corruption leading to her election.
UK Subs – “Teenage”
Singer Charlie Harper was a London fixture since the mid-’60s R&B scene, even busking with a pre-fame Rod Stewart. Seeing the Pistols-inspired action in 1976, he was moved to jump aboard with UK Subs, a Britpunk institution still fronted by the Septuagenarian Harper. In a late ‘70s devoid of the Pistols and seemingly abandoned by the Clash, the Subs’ doggedly basic punk became surprise chart fodder. "Teenage," with its updated Eddie Cochran lyrics and feel, is the best of their six Top 40 entries, ensuring UK Subs were a near-permanent Top Of The Pops fixture in ‘79-’80.
Angelic Upstarts – “Lust For Glory”
Angelic Upstarts, led by former coal miner Mensi on vocals, were yet another Clash-inspired Northern outfit who felt betrayed when the first-wave bands seemingly abandoned punk, musically. They doggedly held fast to the 1977 imprint, wedding big Steve Jones block-chords to Ramones-ish velocity and bellowing working-class socialist lyrics atop. "Lust For Glory" was a 1982 B-side, arriving a few years past their hit-making heyday. Too bad: It’s better than any of their A-sides and chart singles, and is the Upstarts’ apex song.
Manic Street Preachers – “Motown Junk”
Punk seemingly disappeared from British consciousness for several, driven underground by the advent of synth-pop, ironically a punk byproduct. It took a Welsh quartet inspired by 10th anniversary televised punk retrospectives to bring it back screaming into the U.K. mainstream. Flying-scissor-kicking onto the scene in white Levis and spraypainted XL women’s tops like a glam rock Clash, Manic Street Preachers were exactly the shot of sex/style/subversion needed to destroy acid house and shoegaze. "Motown Junk" was the first single to make a significant dent aboveground, an attack on then-popular watered-down love songs set to faux-’60s soul grooves featuring a clever "You Can't Hurry Love" bass quote. It may be the track that defines their early days, and is certainly a modern punk classic.
Elastica – “Stutter”
In the prelude to the mid-’90s Britpop moment, a clutch of bands who seemed to be inspired by Manic Street Preachers to reignite ‘70s punk spewed forth. For their trouble, the U.K. rock press sneeringly called them the New Wave Of New Wave, though were all more inspired by the Clash and the poppier side of late ‘70s Britpunk. Elastica, featuring the untutored feminist songwriting of charismatic singer/guitarist Justine Frischmann, were the one NWONW band who managed to transition into the Britpop era. Debut single "Stutter," with its withering dissection of erectile dysfunction set to an immaculate Clash-meets-Buzzcocks riff, may be their definitive track.
Supergrass – “Caught By The Fuzz”
Oxford’s Supergrass, however, were a proper Britpop band. But their 1994 debut single "Caught By The Fuzz" could have been the tail end of the NWONW. Singer/guitarist Gaz Coombes set his embarrassment and frustration at being busted for marijuana possession to a propulsive Buzzcocks-ian power-chord raver. They never again sounded so punk.
The Libertines – “Up The Bracket”
The Libertines were the most ‘70s Britpunk of early ‘00s garage bands. But their devotion to the era’s most singer-songwriterly figures — Weller, Perrett, Elvis Costello — wed to a shambolic, devil-may-care version of that Clash/Buzzcocks sound almost single-handedly ignited a Britpop revival 20 years ago. Second single "Up The Bracket," produced by Clash guitarist Mick Jones, sounds like a poetic outtake from the first Clash album. If they’d never recorded another note, “Bracket” would still hold its place among U.K. punk classics.