10 punk vocalists from the ’70s who upended mainstream rock standards
They rendered beautiful what the outside world saw as ugliness.May 28, 2021
Nashville songwriting great Harlan Howard once defined country music as “three chords and the truth.” Many have said that definition could also be applied to punk rock. Therefore, it stands to reason that the figure writhing behind the mic stand might be the most essential member of any punk band. After all, it isn’t the guitar player who will be delivering that truth, unless he or she also happens to be the singer.
Because punk rock is essentially social protest music, even at its least political, the most significant weapon in the ‘70s punk singer’s arsenal was conviction. You didn’t need to be Luciano Pavarotti. In fact, that may have worked against you! But if you can deliver your message in as ferocious a manner as the human voice will allow? Then you’re practically Elvis!
Also, remember that punk was meant to shatter rock ‘n’ roll’s cliches. This was especially true in the case of your band’s vocalist. Forget every classic manner of seizing and arresting an audience’s attention. Disregard having all the balletic grace of, say, Mick Jagger. These factors might actually be detrimental to your presentation. It’s almost better displaying how scared you are to be up there. That can create a great sympathy with your audience, most of whom are probably as big a bunch of misfits as you are. If you’re brave enough, invert all the posturing and preening of your regulation rock frontman. That would be miles more entertaining! For that matter, how arrogant is the concept of the “frontman?” Wouldn’t being a woman in front of the band be the most subversive act of all?
The idea of punk rock was to disrupt the ‘70s rock party and replace it with something more vibrant and subversive. Therefore, you must have the most off-kilter, gripping singer you can find. Here are 10 of the finest vocalists ‘70s punk rock ever produced.
CLAIM TO FAME: The Stooges, solo
SIGNATURE MOVE: If the story of punk begins with the Stooges, it stands to reason that Iggy Pop is history’s first official punk singer. And unlike many who gripped the SM57, the former Jim Osterberg could really sing. He was capable of a subterranean croon worthy of Frank Sinatra, which was a clear influence on David Bowie. (It also got Pop his 1971 Columbia Records contract: Manager Tony DeFries reportedly brought him to Clive Davis’ office, where Pop crawled across his desk singing Tony Bennett’s “The Shadow Of Your Smile” until the label head uncomfortably agreed to sign him.) But he also possessed a tonsil-shredding shriek that proved most influential upon every punk vocalist since. Possibly more important was his off-center showmanship: James Brown or Mick Jagger turned kamikaze pilot, beginning with torso-twisting tribal dancing, mostly shirtless, then launching into human missile forays into the fifth row. Or walking on the hands of the audience and anointing them with peanut butter. Or diving onto broken bottles, emerging with his chest shredded to ribbons, pumping Type O. Pop definitely took his own song “Open Up And Bleed” to heart.
BEST HEARD ON: Raw Power
CLAIM TO FAME: Ramones
SIGNATURE MOVE: Joey Ramone was born for punk rock. Awkward, gangly, a social outcast, struggling with OCD in a day when such conditions were misunderstood and penalized, the former Jeffrey Hyman took what many would have seen as handicaps and turned them into his strengths. By donning that black leather jacket and locking a death grip onto a mic stand, he rendered beautiful what the outside world saw as ugliness. Then, there’s that voice. Ramone really could sing. Though he later developed an effective growl, his main move upon opening his larynx was a baritone croon wrapped in the distinctive phrasing of Ronettes legend Ronnie Spector: “Ah cyant stahp thinkin’ ‘bat chew.” Bold, especially in an era where chest-baring macho rock singers didn’t dare betray feminine qualities.
BEST HEARD ON: Rocket To Russia
CLAIM TO FAME: Patti Smith Group
SIGNATURE MOVE: When she entered public consciousness as New York punk’s first poet, Patti Smith was inventing the form. No one had done this before, let alone imagine what a new-breed female performer would do or be. Her role models appeared to be mostly male: There was something of Jim Morrison’s hypersexualized, poetic shaman in Smith’s presentation. Yet, there was also the teenage Jersey girl who grew up in the ‘60s, singing into her hairbrush in her bedroom and aping what she saw Jagger doing on Shindig! last night. But her biggest role model was Bob Dylan, rock’s first and greatest poet-cum-highly-expressive-nonsinger. What most heard as pitchy became her phrasing. That warble could drench “Because The Night”’s lyric in every drop of sweat left in the sheets from last night’s love-making or turn “Gloria”’s opening shot—“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”—into a weapon, destroying Roman Catholicism. Smith’s voice, lyrical or vocal, was an eloquent instrument.
BEST HEARD ON: Horses
CLAIM TO FAME: Television, Heartbreakers, Richard Hell And The Voidoids
SIGNATURE MOVE: Richard Hell, alongside Smith, imbued NYC punk with poetry and romance. He also set the precedent of creating a new punk identity for one’s self and invented much of the culture’s original sartorial (cruelly slashed yet stylish clothing, held together with safety pins) and tonsorial (cruelly slashed yet stylish hair, spiked up with grease and dirt) chic. Early band Television built the stage at CBGB and initially set punk’s classic musical mode: noisy, high-energy, angry garage rock. Hell writhed about onstage like an exposed nerve, raw and throbbing, perfectly illustrating his angular warble of a singing voice and his unnerving lyrics. He may sit alongside Pop as the prototype punk-rock singer.
BEST HEARD ON: Destiny Street
Johnny Rotten/John Lydon
CLAIM TO FAME: Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd.
SIGNATURE MOVE: Who spiked his hair and tore and safety-pinned his T-shirt first? Hell? Or Johnny Rotten? Cynics believe Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren returned from presiding over the last-gasp New York Dolls’ affairs and gave John Lydon a Hellish makeover, thus creating Johnny Rotten. Even half a glance at the timeline suggests Rotten more likely arrived at some of the same stylistic conclusions on his own, in that odd international synchronicity that pervades early punk. But aiming his tonsils at the audience like an Uzi and firing off some of the most ringing verses rock had heard, before or since? That’s Rotten’s alone, along with clinging bug-eyed to a mic stand like Quasimodo, dancing like a white ragamuffin Bob Marley, completely dismantling every established mode of fronting a rock band. It was highly inspirational, watching this surly 20-year-old kid flick two fingers at the world, refusing to entertain.
BEST HEARD ON: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
CLAIM TO FAME: The Clash
SIGNATURE MOVE: Joe Strummer, lynchpin for English punk’s first people’s band, the Clash, was less a singer than a beautiful ranter. He possessed a gruff, guttural voice capable of vast expressiveness, and his lyrics were street poetry of the highest order. He felt a deep connection to American roots music—honky-tonk country, gutbucket Chicago blues, rockabilly, the rollicking R&B of New Orleans—which the Clash eventually absorbed, after they got over their initial Year Zero indictment, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977.” And while he channeled punk’s vast reservoirs of rage, Strummer’s ultimate gift was his empathy, generosity and love for humanity. It added depth to his contempt for the corporate and destructive. Strummer and the Clash humanized punk.
BEST HEARD ON: London Calling
CLAIM TO FAME: The Damned
SIGNATURE MOVE: The Damned’s Dave Vanian was also the rare punk vocalist who could really sing. Like Iggy, Vanian could croon. We’re talking Bing Crosby-level, baritone warmth. Contrast that with Rat Scabies’ chaotic, Keith Moon-esque drumming and the crashing guitar chords of Brian James, and then Captain Sensible. That tension helped make the Damned one of the most musically exciting bands of the Blank Generation. Plus, his interests extended to 1920s tango records, as well as early Hollywood. Hence, he brought all the high drama of film noir and German Expressionist cinema to his stage persona, not just Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. In fact, there was much Rudolph Valentino to the way Vanian handled a mic as anything else.
BEST HEARD ON: Machine Gun Etiquette
CLAIM TO FAME: Pretenders
SIGNATURE MOVE: Let’s face it: Chrissie Hynde is the Pretenders. True, the original lineup was a world-beater rock ‘n’ roll band, bringing punk’s edges/drive/aesthetic to the mainstream without losing credibility on either side of the fence. But it’s always been about Hynde’s brilliant songs and that exquisite voice. Her seductive purr—clearly rooted in girl groups of her ‘60s youth, as well as the emotive power of Dusty Springfield—can express great vulnerability or lash out biker tough. Hers is an extraordinary instrument, filled with great emotional depth. Factor in her no-nonsense rocker persona and solid rhythm guitar work and it’s obvious she should enjoy the same reverence by modern women rockers that Joan Jett enjoys.
BEST HEARD ON: Pretenders I and II
CLAIM TO FAME: X-Ray Spex
SIGNATURE MOVE: Poly Styrene may have been the least likely member of British rock royalty ever, but Styrene saw freedom in the Sex Pistols, including the freedom to be exactly who she was, reinventing punk in her own image. (Which really was the initial idea.) Hence, it didn’t matter that she wasn’t exactly Beverly Sills. Her lyrical critique of a plastic, consumerist Britain that worshipped television advertising and synthetic materials was delivered by a high-pitched yelp capable of both excoriating power and great warmth. It made her one of the most celebrated figures in punk history.
BEST HEARD ON: Germfree Adolescents
CLAIM TO FAME: The Avengers
SIGNATURE MOVE: The howling consciousness of San Francisco’s Avengers, Penelope Houston possessed a snarl that could cut diamonds. Yet, it remained tuneful and in key at all times. Which leant a moral authority to rebel couplets such as, “Ask not what you can do for your country/What’s your country been doing to you?” Or, “You say, ‘Don’t go! Don’t go!/Don’t go to Babylon’/Well, hey Joe, I’m already there!” That this vicious verbiage spewed from a not-unattractive teenager was supremely threatening to traditional rock machismo, as well as a society that felt “little girls should be seen and not heard.” Houston should be as iconic as Johnny Rotten, for all these reasons alone.