Listen to this track by Deptford punk rock inheritors and comic geeks Art Brut. It’s “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes” an anthemic cut off of their self-referential 2009 LP Art Brut vs Satan, their third.
By the time the band came to record this album, they had hit their stride and were free enough financially in their personal lives to all take the time to record while in the same studio together. On previous records, they’d had to stagger the sessions to make room for their straight jobs, with each member coming to lay down parts at different times. With Art Brut vs Satan, they could play like the punk band they were; in a room at the same time bashing out the tunes. It helped that Frank Black, himself no stranger to recording his own bands live off of the floor, was steering the ship as producer.
And what of this song, a tale of a twenty-eight-year-old boy who still reads comics and drinks milkshakes? Well, the arrested development angle plays somewhat into what it means to be in a rock n’ roll group where staying forever young, or at least with a teenage mindset, is actively encouraged. Even if there is a more than a whiff of self-deprecation to be found here, I think this song has a few things to say about age and our perceptions of maturity that actually shows wisdom beyond its years. Read more
Listen to this track by Bostonian post-punk noise architects Mission of Burma. It’s “Secrets”, the opening track of their influential 1982 full-length debut record Vs. The record followed up the Signals, Calls, and Marches EP from the previous year, creating what many critics at the time considered to be a full realization of their sound and potential.
Forming in 1979, the group pulled together a sound that drew from punk rock and British post-punk, with a smattering of American avant garde influences in the form of tape loops and sound manipulation. Like many bands in the age when the term “alternative” as applied to rock music was just a twinkle in the eye of the mainstream music press, Mission of Burma was championed by college rock radio stations, in their case in the Boston area. This opener is emblematic of their approach, which affects a kind of barely contained chaos, with traditional rock grooves being taken on in one instant and then discarded in the next.
This is in line with the song’s subject matter, which is concerned with small moments in time that precede more widely encompassing changes ahead, with human connections becoming less reliable and more frightening all the while. Read more
Listen to this track by British punk outliers and anti-boyband upstarts The Sex Pistols. It’s “Anarchy In The U.K”, a late 1976 single that would appear on the band’s sole studio album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. That album was released in the fall of 1977, which was a banner year for British punk. This song would mark the time when music and the culture out of which it came in Britain would change forever, with new costuming, and a new banner under which to rally.
A lot of the classic elements of rock music are found in the music of The Sex Pistols. On that level, it’s not really all that revolutionary. But, as with the first generation of rock n’ roll that appeared twenty years previously, musical innovation wasn’t really the point. What was the point was the visuals, the presentation, the personalities involved, and a fundamental perception shift from the audience’s point of view. By the mid-to-late 1970s, something was needed to inject new life into the rock millieu. By then, rock music had grown dangerously close to respectability. The Sex Pistols would certainly prove to be a tide in the opposite direction on that score.
What made this song, and this band so compelling within that? Well, I think the reason was this: they lived the lyrics of the song outright when it came to the gap between their generation and mainstream culture. Read more
Listen to this track by Massachusetts quartet tagged by many as “proto-punk” and fronted by one Jonathan Richman, The Modern Lovers. It’s “Roadrunner”, a song about driving with the radio on featured on the band’s 1976 eponymous debut record. It was released as a single, and would be recorded over Richman’s career a few times with the band and without. There are a few versions floating around, but this one is my favourite, produced by John Cale in 1972.
Besides that, the song is pure magic to the point that it is amazing to me that it even exists. In some ways, it’s totally amateurish. But, that’s a big part of its charm. When Richman counts off “1,2,,3,4,5,6 …” you know you’re in for something eccentric and cool all at once. Unlike a lot of Jonathan Richman songs, this one is aligned with an expected rock ‘n’ roll subject; driving at night with the radio on, in love with rock ‘n’ roll and being out all night. But, it’s also about being in love with the place you’re from. In Richman’s case, that’s the state of Massachusetts, and the scenery along the way.
This is a song that’s been hailed by many as the first punk song. Where I don’t think I can agree with that (I personally think it was “Louie Louie” myself …), I can understand why people think that. This song has roots that are well known. Read more
Listen to this track by class of ’77 London punk band and shouty social commentators, X-Ray Spex. It’s “Plastic Bag” as taken from 1978’s Germ Free Adolescents, their debut full-length which would have no US release until the early ’90s, but helped to document their place in the UK punk pantheon.
The band forming at all was down to inspiration that came out of their regular attendance at shows by the Sex Pistols. But, unlike that band, X-Ray Spex incorporated a few changes to the British punk template by the time they’d put out their first single (“Oh Bondage, Up Yours”), and eventually this song and album.
One was the use of a saxophone, played here on this tune by one Rudi Thompson, giving their sound something of an R&B sort of feel. Another was a more ambitious approach to arrangements that includes changes in tempo and in tone, even if the rawness of punk is very much in place.
And perhaps the most important ingredient sprung from its lead singer, who was also the primary songwriter, Poly Styrene (neé Marianne Joan Elliott-Said).
Listen to this track by seminal Toronto punk rock scene starters and once nominated “best Toronto band ever”, The Diodes. It’s “Tired of Waking Up Tired” as taken from their 1979 record Released. It would appear on compilation records to follow, and became something of a signature track for the band, enduring even after they’d faded away.
Like many bands from this country of mine, the Diodes were brimming over with talent and potential, yet largely unknown to the mainstream in the rest of the world. This is not to say that they didn’t hit the road to put themselves across. They’d associated themselves with east coast punk rock, playing bills with the Ramones, the Runaways, the Dead Boys, and others. They’d also have something of a connection with UK scenes in the 1980s after transplanting the band there.
They’d formed at a time when punk was being recognized by major labels for its radio play potential, and were signed to Columbia records (in Canada, mind you). They’d move on to other labels, with the title of the album off of which this song comes possibly relating to a changeover to Epic.
But, like a lot of the best punk, this tune has miles of pop appeal rooted in rock n’ roll traditions of the previous decade.
Listen to this track by leather-jacketed punk rock architects from Queens, New York, The Ramones (or simply ‘Ramones’). It’s “Rock N’ Roll High School” a song that served as a title track to the Roger Corman-produced movie of the same name, and appearing on the soundtrack album, and later in a Phil Spectre-produced version on End Of The Century.
By the time this song, and the movie, came out, the Ramones was an institution. Founded in 1974, they took to writing songs for the simple reason that they didn’t have the confidence to play other people’s songs as well as ones they could come up with on their own. The four guys from Forest Hill in Queens New York would craft a sound, and a look, that would solidify what many acts had reached for over the decades since rock n’ roll as a social phenomenon was established.
Their music is basic, visceral, and appealing to the teenaged mind no matter how old that teenager gets. Maybe this is why they were incorporated into the plot of the film which is all about teenagers. In many ways, the movie is much like a Ramones song in cinematic form; it concerns itself with the pursuit of kicks, chicks, and resistance to oppressive authority. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Only Band That Mattered, the one and only The Clash. It’s “Safe European Home” as taken from the band’s second record Give ‘Em Enough Rope, released in November of 1978. The song recounts the return of an English tourist from “the land of Bluebeat“, that being Jamaica, and the change in perspective that the trip has created.
The whole thing is delivered by what is now known as the classic Clash line-up; Joe Strummer singing and playing rhythm guitar, Mick Jones singing and playing lead guitar, Paul Simonon on bass, and joining them for the first time, Topper Headon on drums. This is also the classic punk rock sound on which they built their reputation, although it’s filtered through the growing expectations of CBS, and their producer Sandy Pearlman. The sessions were strained, by some accounts. Yet, The Clash had a voice like no other band at the time, which shows through gloriously here.
They would expand their sound greatly in short order beyond this bedrock set of musical aesthetics established here. But, the core sound of the Clash is solidified here in any case; call and response oriented vocal dynamics, bluntly effective guitarwork, and an impressive, almost R&B feel between bassist Simonon and drummer Headon.
This song also touches on a classic Clash theme, specifically that of authenticity, although in a way that works against many of their other songs that deal with that same theme.
Listen to this track by Belfast, Northern Ireland punk-pop forefathers Stiff Little Fingers. It’s “Barbed Wire Love” as taken from their celebrated 1979 Inflammable Material album, which was something of a flagship record to the emerging Rough Trade label, and almost certainly an early example of that popular genre as it exists today – punk-pop.
The band are not often spoken of when it comes to arguing about the most influential U.K punk rock outfit. But, when it comes to being snotty, political, and tuneful all at the same time, SLF make a pretty good package.
This tune is a prime example of that. It’s a love story set in a war torn environment, center of the Troubles, referring to severe religious intolerance and the violence associated with it in that part of the world. But, instead of grief and misery, which was surely a big part of what was happening around the time of Bloody Sunday, the Birmingham Six, The Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the IRA hunger strikes of a few years later, we get something of a self-deprecating send up of the classic love during wartime story.
Talk about your punk rock! But, what else is here? Read more
Listen to this track by punk rock founding father and pharmaceutical adventurer James Osterberg, better known to the world as Iggy Pop. It’s “The Passenger”, actually a B-side to his single “Success”. The song appears on a record he produced with David Bowie and engineer/bandmate Colin Thurston; the classic Lust For Life.
The record was written, recorded, and mixed in eight days in Hansa studio in Berlin, a city in which Bowie himself would be associated through his own “Berlin trilogy” of albums – Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Yet this album is all about Iggy, with his growling lead voice over a style of music that in many ways runs contrary to what Bowie was doing on his Berlin albums. This is stripped down, and almost minimalist rock ‘n’ roll, compared to Bowie’s layered art-rock approach.
And indeed, in addition to co-producing the record, Bowie plays sideman on this just as he did on the previous Iggy album, The Idiot. But, what of this song? With lyrics by Iggy, and music by guitarist Ricky Gardiner, the tune was bashed out in the studio, with the words strung together on the fly. With this method of songwriting, a lot comes out in the subtext. But, what is the subtext here? Read more