Punk festered the entire ’70s: The Stooges and New York Dolls cleared the field as all the misfits on the margins waited their turn, marinating in a stew of poverty, filth, midnight John Waters screenings, scratchy thrift-store garage and rockabilly 45s, ancient dimestore William S. Burroughs paperbacks and clothes stolen out of Goodwill dumpsters, then ripped apart and reassembled with safety pins. 1975 and 1976 may have been when it ripened, rising on rock and popular cultures’ face like an angry zit. But 1977 is when it burst, splattering like newly freed pus all over the mirror.
The commercial effect in America was initially negligible, eventually trickling on to radio via Blondie, Joan Jett and the Clash, finally decimating the charts in the ’90s through Nirvana and the ’94 Green Day/Offspring/Rancid pop-based wave. But 1977 U.K. bands couldn’t work unless going punk. Acts such as the Jam, Buzzcocks and Generation X became Top Of The Pops regulars. Other countries’ commercial spaces were similarly hijacked by spiky-headed acts. Witness France’s occupation by bouncing Belgian snarler Plastic Bertrand and his silly yet infectious “Ca Plane Pour Moi.”
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The 45 RPM record was punk’s perfect medium. Singles fit a style favoring energy, brevity and immediacy: Say it all in three minutes or less. The faster playing speed means more volume (guitars sound hot. But some classic, gauntlet-laying full-lengths emerged in 1977. And not everything’s a Ramones or Sex Pistols Xerox. Each band brought individual influences and approaches. There wasn’t a punk rulebook yet. It initially meant something aggressive, economical, angry and energetic, ill-fitting elsewhere. Welcome to Year Zero.
1. Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks
Punk existed, pre-Sex Pistols. But every musical revolution requires some kamikaze shock troop embodying the values and crystalizing the sound/stance to kick down the door, allowing everyone else entrance and reflected glory. Paul Cook’s punk-Bonham drums, Steve Jones’ enormous chords/lockstep bass (blame Sid Vicious’ uselessness) and Johnny Rotten’s vocal shrapnel subverted (mis-)manager Malcolm McLaren’s ridiculous boy-band vision. Bollocks remains one of rock history’s most dangerous, thrilling LPs. It’s still all the Pistols you need: Everything else is a vault scraper.
2. Ramones – Rocket To Russia
Conventional wisdom holds Ramones LPs I-IV as the crucial ones. Leave Home‘s production smoothed the ’76 debut’s rawness. But Rocket To Russia sounds more sympathetic—full and rich but ballsy frequencies, featuring Johnny Ramone’s most crushing guitar sound—and features some of Da Brudders’ most deathless songs (“Cretin Hop,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker”). If you need only one Ramones album capturing everything great about them, this is it.
3. The Clash – The Clash
Clash guitarist Mick Jones favors their first LP—their most definitive punk statement—above the rest. It was created in the same studio the Stooges cut Raw Power, their Ramonic velocity combined with power chords barked as hoarsely as Joe Strummer’s vocals in a 14-song encapsulation of a London burning with boredom and class rage. After realizing their entire live set proved six minutes shy of a standard LP length, Junior Murvin’s reggae hit “Police & Thieves” received a rockin’ upgrade, giving punk a new rebel-rock direction.
4. The Damned – Damned Damned Damned
The Damned beat the rest of Britpunk at everything: first single, first tour, first LP, first U.S. invasion, first breakup and reformation. Nick Lowe recorded them exactly as producing legend Shel Talmy cut the Kinks and Who: live in one room on a ’60s eight-track machine, tube compressors maxed, amps blasting beside Rat Scabies’ crazed drums. Tunes such as “So Messed Up” snapshot life in the margins over a loud, speedy mashup of garage/Stooges/Dolls riffarama.
5. Dead Boys – Young, Loud And Snotty
Like the Sex Pistols, Cleveland’s Dead Boys factored strong doses of Midwestern hard-rock bombast into their Stooges/MC5/Dolls worship. Alice Cooper’s a guiding spirit: He’s audible in Stiv Bators’ kamikaze vocals, and Glen Buxton seems to have flavored Cheetah Chrome’s blitzkrieg leads as much as James Williamson or Johnny Thunders. Factor in anthems such as “Sonic Reducer” and “Ain’t Nothin’ To Do,” and you have the perfect soundtrack for middle-American teenage boredom and juvenile delinquency. This is arguably the definitive non-Ramones American punk statement.
6. Richard Hell And The Voidoids – Blank Generation
Richard Hell was Patti Smith’s chief competition in the NYC gutter-poet stakes. Besides perfecting the early punk look and aesthetic in Television and the Heartbreakers, it took his emerging as a solo artist fronting the Voidoids for the world to get a full-length peek inside Hell’s mind. Owing as much to free-jazz icon Ornette Coleman as the Velvet Underground, Hell exposes a raw nerve atop Robert Quine’s abstract expressionist guitar and Marc Bell pounding more complex beats than he would as a Ramone. Punk as beatnik jazz, beret unnecessary.
7. Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers – L.A.M.F.
One theory, seemingly expired in the millennium except among garage-istas, has punk to be rock ‘n’ roll stripped to its primal core. No band more exemplified this theory more potently than Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan’s post-New York Dolls outfit. Despite a poor mastering job in its initial release, the music accurately showcased the Heartbreakers’ molotov Chuck Berry-isms and gutter charisma. Drenched in now-standards such as “Chinese Rocks” and “Born To Lose,” it’s remained a blueprint for narcotized rock ‘n’ roll, from the Replacements to Guns N’ Roses.
8. The Saints – (I’m) Stranded
Had there not been a Ramones, the Saints would have done quite nicely. Their noisy, high-speed, homemade 1976 45 “(I’m) Stranded” seemingly shocked the entire planet: Another three-chord chainsaw-guitar band had developed Down Under, oblivious to the hey-ho-let’s-go battle cry emanating from CBGBs. Ed Kuepper’s filthy blur-action chording had the back of history’s most bored-sounding singer, Chris Bailey, and they got bored with punk quickly. But “(I’m) Stranded” is as definitive a punk statement as anyone’s made, ever.
9. Wire – Pink Flag
Meet punk’s first conceptual artists and post-modernists. If punk guitars were meant to be distorted, Wire’s would be more distorted than anyone’s. If the songs were supposed to be short and stripped down, theirs would be even more of a reducto ad absurdum—a lyric was written, then read over the hurtling music. Once the text ran out, the song stopped. In slamming out 21 songs in just over 35 minutes, Pink Flag has endured as a major influence on hardcore’s brutal early ’80s advent.
10. Radio Birdman – Radios Appear
Led by blistering guitarist/songwriter/future fighter pilot/surgeon Deniz Tek (an Ann Arbor native single-handedly responsible for making Detroit the musical capital of Australia), Birdman spread the MC5/Stooges gospel far and wide. Mixing it with a dash of the Doors and a dose of Blue Oyster Cult, Radios Appear was a burst of primal scream rock ‘n’ roll. Tracks such as “What Gives?” and “Murder City Nights” build the tension until it exploded in the instant classic ampheta-teen anthem “New Race.” Radio Birdman definitely rival AC/DC as Australia’s most influential band.
11. Iggy Pop – Lust For Life
Relocating to Berlin in tow of buddy David Bowie in 1976, the Stooges’ mainman was desperately trying to live down his blood-and-peanut-butter-smeared past on his solo debut, The Idiot. Five months later, Lust For Life plied the same Bowie-fueled, motorik-inspired art rock, but with perhaps a heavier dose of Detroit-esque atavism. Ignore the title track’s later ubiquity as a commercial jingle/movie soundtrack staple: Don’t you wanna gleefully dive onto a bed of busted beer bottles once you hear Hunt Sales’ Gene-Krupa-live-at-Motown drums? Absolutely Iggy’s best solo album.
12. Suicide – Suicide
10 years after its release, Your Humble Narrator cleared an entire dorm full of Smiths/R.E.M. fans with the world’s first electro-punk LP: “OMG! It’s so relentless! And noisy! And angry!” Yes, it is. Those are the good qualities. “Ghost Rider” and “Frankie Teardrop” still hold much terrifying power.
13. Chrome – Alien Soundtracks
Initially a rejected score for a radical San Francisco strip show, Chrome’s second LP was the first to pair multi-instrumentalist founder Damon Edge with crazed guitarist Helios Creed. If Iggy And The Stooges’ Raw Power was the sound of the Rolling Stones in hell, then Alien Soundtracks was the sound of the Stooges in hell, as a lo-fi sci-fi soundscape. The crude bashing and trash-compactor riffing had an acid-damaged edge, making this record both an avant-punk staple and early industrial-rock statement.
14. The Jam – This Is The Modern World
For all its Year Zero rejection of the past, punk had strong historical roots. Consider the Sex Pistols’ Who and Small Faces covers, the Clash’s pilfered Kinks riffs or the Ramones’ covers of Latino R&B singer Chris Montez and vocal surf outfit the Rivieras. The Jam made it explicit: They were a Who/Small Faces-esque mod trio for spike tops. Apply Pistols-esque anger, energy and aggression to Paul Weller’s Ray Davies-ish songs and you get perfect pogo anthems such as the title track and “All Around The World.”
15. The Real Kids – The Real Kids
You’ve never heard of them, but the Real Kids are punk immortals. John Felice apprenticed in Boston’s great proto-punk contribution, the Modern Lovers, clearly learning a thing or two about tight, dynamic songcraft from Jonathan Richman. His ear for effective guitar hooks is as good as Keith Richards’ or John Fogerty’s. The Real Kids’ songs all sounded like Felice had the world’s best AM radio glued to his ear, one which also playlisted the Ramones, Heartbreakers and Flamin’ Groovies.