10 best ’70s London punk bands, from Siouxsie And The Banshees to Sex Pistols
Featuring the Damned, Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex and moreDecember 21, 2021
As long as there’s been a punk scene, its denizens have argued as to which city invented it — New York or London? Truth be told, it was neither because history’s first proper punk band was the Stooges from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Which would make Detroit punk’s proper birthplace. But if much of the sound and attitude of punk came from the distorted guitar R&B of mid-’60s bands from The Big Smoke, such as the Kinks and the Who? Then maybe London can stake a proper claim after all.
Truth be told, London’s ‘70s punks owed much to some local sources from the early ‘70s as to the Stooges or New York Dolls. We’ve established in our previous punk genealogical excavations that glam rock is embedded deep in its DNA. Glam’s twin titans David Bowie and Marc Bolan of T. Rex were both London boys. Then there are the anarchist rock ‘n’ roll bands — essentially hardened, militant hippies — who all seemed to live in the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood. Those high-energy, R&B-based, guitar-driven records by the Pink Fairies or Third World War are as punk as “God Save The Queen.” Then there’s the tale of the Hollywood Brats, who seemed to shop in the same thrift store women’s departments and guitar and record shops as the Dolls. Truth be told, both bands formed and arrived at similar conclusions seemingly within minutes of one another, an ocean away from one another.
Then there’s the unrecorded, never-emergent-from-the-garage London SS. They wanted to blatantly be England’s answer to the Dolls, with some Stooges and MC5 mixed in. The brainchild of the pre-Clash Mick Jones and the pre-Generation X Tony James, they spent all of 1975 writing songs and auditioning a who’s who of early English punk responding to their music press classified ads. We’re talking half of the future Damned and the future Clash both. They never found the magical chemistry rock ‘n’ roll bands require, unfortunately. Hence, a pair of teenage kleptomaniacs, a Saturday shop assistant at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s deviant haberdashery Sex and an angry teenager with green hair and teeth and a handmade “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt arrived at similar ideas. They made it out of the rehearsal room.
From the moment they gatecrashed their first gigs at London art colleges in late 1975, lying that they were the opening act, to their 1978 implosion in San Francisco following the biggest gig of their career, the Sex Pistols created a rupture in rock. They played on stolen equipment, frontman Johnny Rotten refused to entertain (“Tell us, what’s it like to have bad taste?”), and they wrote songs about destroying the social order. They burned through three major-label deals in six months’ time, and got banned from the airwaves, the charts and nearly every venue in England. They were the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll band in years.
“And we don’t care!” the Pistols screamed on “Pretty Vacant.” The Clash cared deeply. The Pistols acted as a wrecking machine, then walked away, not one shit given. Ex-London SS guitarist Jones, singer Joe Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon walked in behind them, looked around at the wreckage left behind and planned what to build atop the ruins. This enabled the Clash to outlast the Pistols, create more than one album and expand upon the original slash-and-burn remit with lashings of reggae, rockabilly, hip–hop and other styles. Fused with their deep political consciousness, it’s easy to see the Clash as punk’s most important band.
The Damned are traditionally seen as the Number Three London Punk Band. But they beat the Pistols and Clash and everyone else at everything: First punk single (“New Rose”), first punk album (Damned Damned Damned) and first to tour the States. They were also the first to break up, first to reform just six months later and still exist to this day. And they were a supernaturally rowdy rock ‘n’ roll band with exceptional songwriting gifts. Original drummer Rat Scabies was one of ’70s punk’s most skilled drummers, found by guitarist Brian James at a London SS audition. Singer Dave Vanian was a cool rockin’ ghoul, while bassist (and later guitarist) Captain Sensible was a lunatic as likely to be in a tutu or nurse’s uniform as not. Over time, the Damned proved invaluable in stretching punk’s boundaries with psychedelic and progressive–rock touches, and key in creating goth.
Siouxsie And The Banshees
They began as a joke, created out of original Pistols followers the Bromley Contingent when McLaren needed bands to round out the two-night 100 Club Punk Festival in September 1976. But singer Siouxsie Sioux and bassist Steve Severin so enjoyed improvising noisescapes with future Adam And The Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni and a pre-Pistols Sid Vicious on drums, they formed a more permanent Siouxsie And The Banshees lineup. Their dark, sinister Velvet Underground-ish vibe, combined with Kenny Morris’ cymbal-less drumming, immediately set them apart. As they grew more pop, they joined the Damned in helping usher in goth culture, mostly due to Siouxsie’s funereal charisma.
Bromley Contingent member Billy Idol met London SS’s James when both served in Chelsea’s original lineup. Both tired of singer Gene October’s high-handedness, they split off with drummer John Towe, moving Idol from guitar to vocals when they found Bob “Derwood” Andrews in a heavy-metal band. Once Keith Moon-esque Mark Laff replaced Towe and they signed with Chrysalis Records, Generation X set about revving glam basics to Ramones-oid specs. They roundly received sneers for the members’ teen pinup looks, especially Idol’s, as they racked up such U.K. hits as “Ready Steady Go” and “Your Generation.” Idol, of course, became a global solo superstar in the ‘80s, while James moved on to synth-punk heroes Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
Much of the first generation of London punk bands, including the Pistols’ Glen Matlock and the Clash’s Simonon, matriculated at various art colleges. Wire may’ve been the first art school band to sound like they’d been to art school. They played at Ramones-ian velocity on cheap equipment, but their material, such as “12XU” and “Mr. Suit,” featured these Dada-ist lyrics. And when the words ran out, the song ended — cold. This resulted in these one-minute-or-less songs that became quite influential on the development of hardcore, especially on more experimentalist bands such as Minutemen. Wire eventually got more electronic, creating some catchy-if-unsettling tunes such as “I Am The Fly.”
Meet history’s first riot grrrls. The initial hype on punk rock was that no talent or skill was required to play it. The four teenage women comprising the Slits took that at face value, essentially learning their instruments and how to write songs on the job. They were irreverent in all aspects of their lives, be it toward the conventions of society or song structure. This resulted in this delightfully ramshackle tribal rock, mostly punk by dint of attitude and the sheer gusto with which singer Ari Up, drummer Palmolive, guitarist Viv Albertine and bassist Tessa Pollitt attacked it. As they developed actual chops, they grew into an edgy reggae outfit, best showcased on debut album Cut.
Poly Styrene had been Mari Elliott, a mixed-race teen with braces who had been following the hippie trail with a failed pop-reggae single called “Silly Billy” to her name. A chance exposure to the Sex Pistols at a venue on a pier changed her life. X-Ray Spex formed from respondents to her music paper classified ad seeking “young punx who want to stick it together.” The band set Styrene’s mocking critique of an artificial society to a rough, post-Pistols sound, differentiated by Lora Logic’s piercing saxophone solos. No one who’s heard the extraordinary debut single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” has soon forgotten it.
Sham 69, fronted by the hyper-earnest Jimmy Pursey, heralded the arrival of punk’s second wave. They stripped the basic sound down to the Sex Pistols’ roaring guitar chords set to the Ramones’ freight-train rhythms, and a streetwise singer barking working-class concerns. They unfortunately gained the devotion of the newest generation of racist skinheads, who set about harassing the band and violently disrupting their gigs when Pursey vehemently disavowed them. Sham 69 nevertheless managed to create some of the most passionate youth anthems of ‘70s punk before they were done, including such stompers as “Borstal Breakout” and “If The Kids Are United.”
Led through various lineups by irrepressible lead growler Charlie Harper, UK Subs outlived the Sex Pistols, the Clash and virtually every first-wave London punk outfit, save for the Damned and 999. They kept to a basic meat-and-potatoes sound that could be the punk equivalent of AC/DC: chunky guitars, a slamming rhythm section and Harper’s Cockney roar celebrating life on the streets among the down-and-out. The first four of the 26 alphabetically titled albums they released yielded some British hits that got the Subs on Top Of The Pops — crunching ravers such as “Stranglehold,” “Teenage” and “Party In Paris.” UK Subs are a wonderfully consistent example to the world of punk rock’s potency.