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 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 classicLust 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
Listen to this track by punk-cum-pub rock BBC-baters The Stranglers. It’s their 1977 single “Peaches”, a lascivious tale of girl-watching (leching?) on a summer’s day, bolstered by one of my favourite musical elements – the tenacious bassline, this time courtesy of bassist JJ Burnel, who plays his instrument close to the bridge, and with a plectrum, for a rattling, trebly sound that makes that bassline one of his best contributions to the band’s oeuvre .
The song was released as a double-A-side with another song – “Go Buddy Go”. But, it’s this one that stands as one of the key tracks from this band, who mixed the snottiness of punk with ’60s garage rock during a time just before punk rock became fodder for the British tabloids at the end of the ’70s. Read more
Here’s a clip of Hamiltonian punkabilly-flavoured rock/pop punk rock trio The Barettas. It’s the video for their single ‘Touché”. You can currently download the single for FREE on their bandcamp page, good people. The single, with an equally excellent B-side in “Black Sheep” was released last month.
The band is made up of three women – Katie Bulley (guitar, vocals), Kate Kimberley (bass, vocals), and Carly Kilotta (drums) – who’s average age is currently 22, yet sound as though they’ve been at this game for twice that time at least. Since their formation in 2009, the trio has rubbed elbows in support slots for acts as critically acclaimed as the Diodes (!), The Fleshtones (!!), The New York Dolls (!!!) and A Flock of Seagulls (!!?) among others.
Among the references you’ll find about this band in the press are comparisons between their hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, and the soul music, blues, and garage rock mecca of Detroit Michigan. Sure, both are industrial, blue collar towns. Both are criminally left behind in comparison to other cities when it comes to accolades of cultural importance where pop music is concerned (although, KISS never wrote about Hamilton – or they haven’t yet). But, do the comparisons end there?
Well, I decided to ask Katie that question, among others including questions about dayjobs, about what a support band can learn from a headliner, and about what it is to be a woman in a 21st Century rock ‘n’ roll band.
Listen to this track by New York punk scenesters and Stooges disciples The Dead Boys, fronted by one Stiv Bators. It’s the bird-flipping anthem “Sonic Reducer”, as taken from the band’s 1977 album Young, Loud, and Snotty, a record that pretty much does what it says on the tin.
Chances are, when you think of punk rock in 1977, you’re thinking of images, attitudes, performance styles, and textures as modeled by this band, even if you’ve never heard of them. Along with Richard Hell and Voidoids, The Heartbreakers (featuring Johnny Thunders, that is), and the Ramones, The Dead Boys had a tremendous influence on the trajectory of punk rock.
The band started in New York City where they made their name after splintering from another band, Rocket From the Tombs. Later, they made an impact in England, where the Sex Pistols were just embarking on their media-frenzied concert appearances, and watching every move their New York counterparts, who shared billing with them in the UK and eventually in the US, were making.
It should be said of course that the band did not emerge from out of nowhere. Lead singer Stiv Bators was a dedicated fan of Iggy Pop, particularly during the Raw Power era of the Stooges. It is from Iggy that Bators’ onstage persona is based, complete with the tendency to self-mutilation, and self-exposure, both for which Iggy was known.
Musically, the Dead Boys’ ability to tap into a raw rock ‘n’ roll sound actually betrays quite a debt to the 1950s as much as it does to the late 60s and early 70s. There isn’t a great deal of difference between the sentiment here, and the one in Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”. Even the word ‘punk’ is derived from this 50s period, featured in the works of William S. Burroughs, who also was on the New York scene by the time the Dead Boys were playing CBGBs regularly. And as such, it’s important to remember that the bands on this scene like the Dead Boys, were not intending to create a new kind of music with punk. They were presenting rock ‘n’ roll as they understood it; visceral, raw, and short. The result was a new incarnation for their times.
Of course, with so much raw energy and intensity happening in such a narrow space and time, the New York punk scene burned twice as bright for half as long. The Dead Boys would put out a second album in 1978, We Have Come For Your Children, on which much pressure was put on them to make their sound more radio-friendly. The live document Night of the Living Dead Boys was to follow. But the involvement of the majors in the punk scene which exposed it to a wider audience, was also an influence in ending its golden age. That, and the drugs of course, which curtailed the ambitions (and in some cases, the lives) of many bands at the time.
By 1979, the Dead Boys fragmented. Stiv Bators formed the more commercially-minded The Lords of the New Church after having moved to England. That band is best known for their 1982 hit “Open Your Eyes”. And later, Bators also moved onto something of a punk supergroup (yes, there is such a thing) after the Lords, with The Whores of Babylon, a very temporary outfit that also featured Dee Dee Ramone on bass, and Johnny Thunders on lead guitar. That band imploded before any recordings were made.
The Dead Boys would reunite for some one off shows during the 80s. But, by 1990, Stiv Bators was dead, the victim of a blood clot to his brain due to an injury sustained by being hit by a car in Paris. But, Bators remains to be a key figure in the New York punk scene in the mid-to-late 70s, and with this tune as one of its strongest anthems.
Listen to this track, a proto-punk explosion by a band started by former Television founder and bassist Richard Hell. It’s the era-defining “Blank Generation” by Richard Hell & the Voidoids, a flagship song of the 70s New York punk scene, even before the word punk was applied to it. It is taken from the group’s 1977 album of the same name, Blank Generation.
Richard Hell was a key mover and shaker in the New York club scene, a regular at Max’s Kansas City with the New York Dolls and Patti Smith, and later at CBGBs with Blondie, the Ramones, and Talking Heads. Hell, born Richard Meyers, inspired a look and a sound that helped to kick off a punk scene across the pond in England, while adding a kind of literacy and fierce intelligence to rock music that would transcend any one scene.
When Malcolm McClaren visited New York City on an extended trip that had him briefly managing the New York Dolls, Hell’s fashion sense and general presence was the model on which McClaren would base his line of clothing back in London as sold in his and wife Vivienne Westwood’s boutique Sex, and his next music management project, the Sex Pistols. Having said this, Hell’s band the Voidoids, formed after he’d played with a pre-recordings Television and Johnny Thunders’ The Heartbreakers, offered something that the Pistols were not generally known for – lyricism.
While with Television, Hell had taken a different approach to rock ‘n’ roll, compared to his bandmate Tom Verlaine’s. Hell wanted to be in a gritty rock ‘n’ roll band, even if Verlaine wanted to take the group in an artier, and more “serious”, direction. The tension between the two eventually inspired Hell to stretch out on his own and leave Television, who would later go on to record a classic of their own – Marquee Moon. Yet despite the differences in opinion about what rock ‘n’ roll should be, the two were both fans of Bob Dylan, and of Dylan’s skill at infusing rock music with a sense of poetry as well as sheer attack.
You can hear it in this song; a barrage of words that fall into each other, yet push the song along while they’re doing it. Guitarist Robert Quine’s irregular chording at the beginning of the song, and the chaotic shards of sound that pull together some classic rock ‘n’ roll soloing bordering on a kind of rockabilly feel are real stand outs too. The result is a tune that stands as a cornerstone of back-to-basics rock ‘n’roll, inspiring the Sex Pistols ‘Pretty Vacant’ and the Stray Cats ‘Stray Cat Strut’ all in one explosion of sound.
But, it’s also a song that demonstrates that even if you’re playing basic rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t mean you have to write basic, just-functional lyrics. Hell, like Patti Smith, was interested in putting across lyrical imagery, as well as visceral energy on a musical level. And this song has both, a veritable microcosm of what was going on in the minds of the audiences of those sweaty clubs out of which Hell and his contemporaries made their names. Despite high-profile appearances at CBGBs, and later in England opening for the Clash, the group would never be a household name. Yet, this song, and also Hell’s “Love Comes in Spurts” would be immortalized as punk classics among the bands coming up behind them.
Richard Hell’s career turned to more literary concerns by the end of the 1980s. You can visit the official Richard Hell website to get a list of his literary works, and of his subsquent musical projects.
Listen to this song by mid-70s proto-new wave giants Television. It’s ‘Marquee Moon’, an epic length slice of alternative rock before there was such a thing as alternative rock. This song is an achievement in sound, and unique in its placement in the pantheon of biggest songs in the world. The song is the title track to the 1977 album, Marquee Moon, a record that stands for many as a rosetta stone for multiple strains of rock music from the end of the 70s to the present day.
In some ways, the song and the band that created it both epitomized and undercut the shift rock music made in the mid-70s. The rock scenes on the east coast at the time were going through a sea change. New voices like Patti Smith and Richard Hell & the Voidoids were adding angular textures and unglamourized presentation that drew attention to the music in a way that stadium rock was too big to deliver. And Television stood among them.
Yet, at the same time, Television wasn’t a band to be found on a small scale either. In this song alone, you can hear the sheer size of what they were building up, and committing the possibly unexpected move of including long instrumental passages even if it was in a new paradigm.
Here’s the thing about the solos on this song; they are not in place for the musician playing them, but rather for the song itself, the overall atmosphere. Somehow, it pulls from a tradition of rock soloing, yet stands as something new, too. The instrumental passages here are all about the song, not the playing. It is a subtle achievement, but a vital one. And it would go on to effect how all rock soloing would evolve, from Gang of Four, to Joy Division, to the Smiths.
Guitarist, songwriter, and leader Tom Verlaine, along with guitarist Richard Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith, and drummer Billy Ficca added virtuosity into the CBGB punk scene, and made something new, although the seeds were only just being sown. The band released singles in Britain where they were championed by NME writer Nick Kent, and where they had a direct effect on bands coming out of British scenes. The fruits of their labours would become most apparent by the late 70s and early 80s, after Television themselves would be overshadowed by their followers and relegated to cult status.
The enormity of this song, and album off of which it comes cannot be underestimated. Not only does it burn just as bright as any historically important document, it also stands as the river’s source for punk, post-punk, modern progressive rock, and indie-guitar rock that would follow it from the mid-70s to the present day. If this is the first time you’re hearing it, I envy you.