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20 songs that transformed punk, from “Raw Power” to “Rebel Girl”

Punk rock can take on many forms, so here's your starting point.

December 7, 2021
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There are a lot of people out there who know what punk rock is but have no idea how to explain it to a novice or an outsider. It would seem simple enough to define it as “three-chord teenage rebel music,” but what about all those songs that have four or more chords? Or all the practitioners who are over 50 years old, never mind over 20? Then there’s the matter of how few are actually in their teens…

Yes, there are chainsaw guitars, but what about those tunes that might have some jangly elements? Or such guitarless, synth-heavy punk outfits as the Screamers? You can always speak of how fast it is, but are we talking speedy like the Ramones? Or ripping 275 BPM a la hardcore? You can discuss how musicianship is not central to the music, but how do you explain virtuosos such as New York Dolls and Heartbreakers drummer Jerry Nolan? Or Rancid bassist Matt Freeman, whose chops could put the fear of God into any jazz player? You can speak of the inherent anger and nihilism, but what of the joyous pop of the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”?

Read more: 11 bands and genres that prove Black Flag are a continued influence

Perhaps any attempt to explain punk rock is akin to the remarks of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who — when asked to define what is/isn’t deemed obscene — offered that he didn’t know what it was, “[b]ut I know it when I see it.” It’s ultimately down to a fiercely independent spirit and a sense of outsiderness. But it can take on many forms from there. 

These 20 songs are selected to play to your friend who wants to know what punk is, as a starting point. It’s not meant to be complete. Instead, think of it as some good examples for the uninitiated.

The Saints – “(I’m) Stranded”

Many to this day would insist Australian firebrands the Saints’ 1976 debut single is The Ultimate Punk Record. Singer Chris Bailey, guitarist Ed Kuepper, bassist Kym Bradshaw and drummer Ivor Hay developed this speedy, angry racket unaware of the Ramones. But there’s the manic eighth-note drums, the sawtoothed guitar and Bailey’s laconic snarl expressing pure disaffection: “Livin’ in a world insane/They cut out some heart and some brain/Been filling it up with dirt/Yeah baby, dunno how it hurts/To be stranded on your own/Stranded far from home.” If one record defines punk rock, it’s “(I’m) Stranded.”

Iggy And The Stooges – “Raw Power”

No one will ever agree who was the first punk band. The Stooges, fronted by fearless blowtorch exhibitionist Iggy Pop, could certainly claim the trophy (though the next two bands had a large part in the music’s development). As Iggy And The Stooges, with whiplash guitarist James Williamson moving Ron Asheton to bass, they made music that perfected punk rock three years early. “Everybody always tryin’ to tell me what to do,” Pop snarls over Williamson’s rampaging Gibson. “Don’t you try, don’t you try to tell me what to do.” Then he dived face-first into the third row.

MC5 – “Looking At You”

Before the Stooges came the MC5. Formed in 1964, they represented ‘60s garage impulses mutating into something louder. They simultaneously discovered feedback-drenched English blast-rock a la the Who and the Yardbirds and the melodically and rhythmically radical free jazz of Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra. It created a driving sound as explosive as anything emanating from the neighborhood Ford automobile factory. This re-recording of 1968’s A-Square 45’s A-side disappointed those preferring the original’s looser feel. But this straight-ahead rendition from second LP Back In The USA earns pride of place for directly linking Detroit 1969 to early Ramones in feel.

New York Dolls – “Vietnamese Baby”

The shorthand on American glam renegades the New York Dolls: They invented the sound of punk rock and the look of the Sunset Strip in the ‘80s. But Mötley Crüe hardly possessed Johnny Thunders’ slashing Gibson abuse or singer David Johansen’s gobs of attitude. “Vietnamese Baby,” alongside Iggy And The Stooges’ “Search And Destroy,” is likely the roots of punk’s obsession with insurrectionist politics, likening the unabating conflict in Southeast Asia to a sour love affair: “Catch me your slaves, shot at/Every rifle on the way and I gotta/Show you more mustard gas than any girl ever seen…”

Ramones – “Cretin Hop”

The pride of Forest Hills, Queens, the Ramones are the point where everything preceding punk coalesces and distills into a cohesive beast. They are what most point to as The Prototype Punk Band: loud, fast, aggressive, simple, irreverent, full of attitude. Oh, and  black leather jackets. Other Ramones tunes such as “Blitzkrieg Bop” may be more recognizable. But Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy’s punk credentials are no more out on the table than on this ‘50s dance song parody opening the superb Rocket To Russia album. Johnny’s guitar is especially in-your-face here.

The Heartbreakers – “Chinese Rocks”

In 1975, Dee Dee Ramone teamed up with Richard Hell, then in New York Dolls-offshoot the Heartbreakers, determined to write a better ode to drug misuse than Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground-era dirge “Heroin.” The rocker they crafted made smack addiction sound as cheery as doing the Twist, pinned to a big, greasy R&B guitar riff. The Heartbreakers, centered around the Dolls’ junkie contingent of Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan, took “Chinese Rocks” after the Ramones rejected its “negativity.” The song practically screamed, sardonically, “Aren’t we living such lovely lives?” Which helped establish punk’s reputation for irony and sarcasm. 

Dead Boys – “Sonic Reducer”

Punk was hardly exclusive to New York or England. By 1975, most cities across the globe had their own local Stooges/Dolls-style band, playing stripped-down/sped-up/aggressive ‘70s rock. Cleveland had the Dead Boys, led by Iggy-gone-slapstick vocalist Stiv Bators and metallic whiz-bang guitarist Cheetah Chrome. “Sonic Reducer,” from Chrome’s protopunk outfit Rocket From The Tombs, is every bit as potent a punk statement of intent as “Blitzkrieg Bop”: “I don’t need anyone/Don’t need no mom and dad,” Bators screams over Chrome’s four-chord firestorm. “Don’t need no pretty face/Don’t need no human race.” Nihilism was never so danceable.

Sex Pistols – “Pretty Vacant”

Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock and lead snarler Johnny Rotten intended “Pretty Vacant” to poke fun of manager Malcolm McLaren’s obsession with Richard Hell. “Blank Generation,” anyone? “Don’t ask us to attend/’Cause we’re not all there,” Rotten sneers over a guitar hook Matlock claims was borrowed from Swedish pop perfectionists ABBA’s “SOS.” “Oh don’t pretend ’cause I don’t care/I don’t believe illusions ’cause too much is real/So stop your cheap comment/’Cause we know what we feel.” No single Sex Pistols tune can’t ignite a roomful of sweaty, pogoing punks like this one.

The Damned – “New Rose”

“Is she really going out with him?” wonders the Damned’s cool-rockin’ vampire Dave Vanian, prior to Rat Scabies igniting a monstrous Gene Krupa-esque drumbeat. Punk was rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed destruction. Yet touches such as Vanian’s adlib — half-inched from the Shangri-Las“Leader Of The Pack” — proved punk musicians were rock fans in spite of themselves. The Damned were more honest about it than most. England’s first punk single was gloriously rock ‘n’ roll. Leader Brian James created not only a deathless rock guitar riff in “New Rose” but a joyous celebration of punk’s emergence disguised as a love song. 

The Clash – “Complete Control”

The ultimate punk move ever? The Sex Pistols’ crosstown rivals the Clash writing a song detailing every way their major label violated their contract…then having the company release it as a single. “They said we’d be artistically free/When we signed that bit of paper,” Joe Strummer barked over Mick Jones’ rampaging guitar figure. “They meant, ‘Let’s make lots of money/And worry about it later!’” Reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry added a smoky density to the production, as Strummer wails against his oppressors: “I don’t trust you/So why should you trust me?”

Buzzcocks – “Time’s Up”

After initial singer Howard Devoto left Buzzcocks, Pete Shelley redesigned them into an outlet for his gender-nonspecific pop songs, filled with his wounded romanticism. “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?),” anyone? But Shelley and Devoto’s Buzzcocks Mk. 1 songs were arguably more definitively punk. “Time’s Up,” from England’s first independently released punk record Spiral Scratch, particularly sounds like Rotten growling several existentialist verses: “And I’ll be standing in the standing room/And I’ll be smoking in the smoking room/And now I’m dying in the living room/I’m gonna forget what I came for here real soon.”

Bad Brains – “Banned In D.C.”

Here’s where hardcore enters the punk timeline. Orange County’s the Middle Class and Motörhead got there first. But D.C.’s Bad Brains — singer H.R., guitarist Dr. Know, bassist Darryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson — are where hardcore’s sound, speed and ethos all coalesced and got a name. Their intensity — sonically, spiritually, mentally — whipped up audiences to a furious degree. It scared club owners, leading to Bad Brains’ bookings drying up. Undaunted, they played in NYC, boiling blood up there. The band responded with this tune: “Ooh, ooh you can’t afford/To close your doors/So soon no more.”

Black Flag – “Rise Above”

Black Flag became the greatest hardcore band ever without breaking past Ramones speed — they were midtempo, compared to Bad Brains. Rather, they were “hardcore” in the Oxford Dictionary sense: “The most active, committed or strict members of a group or movement” or “highly committed in one’s support for or dedication to something.” That sonic/philosophical intensity scared the Los Angeles Police Department, who battled with the band and their fans constantly. Hence guitarist Greg Ginn writing anthems of defiance as ferocious as “Rise Above”: “We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us/It’s no use!”

Circle Jerks – “Wild In The Streets”

Originally recorded by singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys in 1973, “Wild In The Streets” was a tough, nasty R&B rocker fairly similar to some of his friend Lou Reed’s work, or that of rising New Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen. Brought eight years later by former Black Flag singer Keith Morris to his new hardcore band Circle Jerks, “Wild In The Streets” became a rampaging punk anthem. The band poured so much piled-up energy and desperation into Jeffreys’ song, it was unrecognizable.

Minor Threat – “Filler”

D.C. hardcore became the most ferocious anywhere. It was partially due to Bad Brains’ abiding influence, minus their reggae side. Which also meant harDCore bands could play their instruments exceptionally well, if not with Bad Brains’ insane funk– and jazz-derived chops. There was also a prevalent moral authority in the scene, stemming from Minor Threat’s rapid ascendance to D.C.’s top dogs. Singer Ian MacKaye’s straightedge philosophy provided an example of sobriety and clear-thinking as an insurrectionist act. “Filler” decried the early ‘80s rise of the religious right: “You call it religion/You’re full of shit!”

The Lazy Cowgirls – “Lose’n Your Mind”

By the mid-’80s, hardcore became formulaic and rote. It had lost its excitement and the shock of the new, as scores of bands barely able to play their instruments played increasingly faster anti-Reagan rants nowhere near as clever as Dead Kennedys. Some of us longed for the old jacked-up rock ‘n’ roll of punk’s first wave, or its predecessors. The Lazy Cowgirls moved to Los Angeles from Vincennes, Indiana, to kick punk’s rotting corpse awake, installing the Ramones’ drivetrain inside a chassis built from choice parts nicked from the Dolls and Stooges. “Lose’n Your Mind” is definitive Lazy Cowgirls.

Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick”

Grunge was another answer to hardcore stasis. Instead of getting speedier until the music’s a blur, why not slow down? Why not pile on so much fuzz and distortion, the music becomes the consistency of mud? Mudhoney issued grunge’s definitive opening volley in “Touch Me I’m Sick,” their debut single and one of Sub Pop Records’ flagship releases. Dan Peters beat nine shades of tar out of his drum kit, as Steve Turner and Mark Arm back the latter’s yowling verse about the AIDS crisis: “I won’t live long/And I’m full of rot/Gonna give you, girl/Everything I got.”

Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl”

Riot grrrl was the ultimate rebuke to hardcore, which got increasingly macho. The football players who may have previously beaten up punks shaved their heads, donned Black Flag T-shirts and turned the mosh pit into a bloodbath. Much retrograde sexism and homophobia came in with these meatheads, chasing away many of the women and LGBTQIA+ community initially involved in early punk. Riot grrrl reversed this trend, bringing women back to punk’s creative and political heart. Bikini Kill, led by the charismatic Kathleen Hanna, were the best of the bunch. “Rebel Girl,” featuring Joan Jett on guitar, was their most potent song.

Green Day – “American Idiot”

Grunge, of course, decimated mainstream music and culture with Nirvana’s massive commercial success. Suddenly, punk disaffection was everywhere. When grunge’s downbeat aesthetic grew too wearying, Green Day’s shiny, high-energy old-school punk a la Ramones or Generation X became the new sound. Ten years later, with George W. Bush war-drumming for a new conservatism, Green Day injected Clash-like leftist politics into the conversation. “American Idiot” became a radio and MTV monster while addressing some of the same things riot grrrl decried: “I’m not a part of a redneck agenda/Now everybody do the propaganda/And sing along to the age of paranoia.”

The White Stripes – “Let’s Shake Hands”

Just prior to “American Idiot,” the White Stripes brought basic ‘60s garage bashing back to the pop charts. Jack White and former wife Meg White, being from Detroit, naturally had the MC5 and the Stooges in their blood. But there was also plenty of Ramones in there, beneath the layers of red-and-white fuzz. It was as obvious in their debut single “Let’s Shake Hands” as on their 2002 breakthrough hit “Fell In Love With A Girl.” But “Hands” was a classic opening shot, clearly displaying every element that defined the White Stripes over time. It was classic punk rock, too.

Written by Tim Stegall