The first wave of punk is said to have lasted a mere two years before imploding in 1979. Yet in that short amount of time it left an indelible mark on fashion, music, and popular culture. We look back at the early punk bands that started it all.
Punk rock emerged as a reaction to the corporate music industry, and the bloated “dinosaur rock” of the 1970’s, a sound characterized by long, self-indulgent soloing and slickly produced albums that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes years to record.
But punk rock aimed to change all of that – challenging the status quo by stripping rock music down to its bare essentials, and demonstrating that anyone could pick up a guitar, start a band, play concerts, and record music. Punk rock aspired to reclaim rock n’ roll music from the greedy clutches of record company executives, and put it back in the hands of the people.
In this beginner’s guide to punk rock we’ll be taking a look at the music and musicians who influenced the early punk bands and artists of the first waves of punk rock that arose almost simultaneously in late 1970’s New York and London, and the major artists of those two competing scenes. Let’s dig in!
Table of Contents
Before It Was Punk Rock: Proto-punk (1967-1975)
The origin stories of nearly every first-wave punk rock band include an eerily similar tale of how their founding members connected with like-minded miscreants over a shared interest in particular kinds of music, such as the so-called garage rock of the 1960’s to mid-1970’s. Compilations like Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era (1965-1968) are often cited as being heavily influential on early punk. Alongside compilations like Nuggets were a handful of early 1970’s bands that operated well outside the mainstream music industry, and that each made their own unique contribution to the birth of punk rock.
Hailing from the Motor City, Detroit’s MC5 were a revolutionary rock band in many ways. Combining fierce, almost militant left-wing politics with loud, fast, and aggressive music, MC5 took 1950’s rock n’ roll and supercharged it with overdriven guitars and ear-splitting volume.
Wayne Kramer’s distinctive guitar playing – a mix of power chord riffing and tasteful solos – would be copied by rock guitarists (punk or otherwise) for years to come.
Aside from speed, volume, and attitude, MC5’s most notable contribution to punk rock was infusing social and political commentary with rock music. You can trace a direct line from the politically charged lyrics of “The American Ruse” to “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols or “London Calling” by The Clash.
Recommended track: Kick out the Jams
Iggy & the Stooges
If the MC5 gave early punk rock its political edge, then their “little brother band” and fellow Detroit rockers, Iggy & the Stooges, inspired punk rock’s dangerous edge.
Led by frontman Iggy Pop (late dubbed the “Godfather of Punk”), The Stooges built on MC5’s loud and aggressive sound and deployed it like a heat-seeking missile with chaotic, destructive live shows where seemingly anything could happen.
The chaotic elements of early punk shows were codified when Iggy & The Stooges played live: spitting, crazed dancing, crowdsurfing, broken musical equipment, profane stage banter and mockery of the audience, smashed beer bottles, and even blood. If you’ve ever slam-danced or crowdsurfed during a concert, you have Iggy Pop to thank.
Recommended track: Search and Destroy
The Velvet Underground
The first wave of punk rock bands, centered around the CBGB’s club in New York included a heavy emphasis on artistic expression, chaotic experimentation, and diversity of taste, style, and musical approach. Much of this tradition was inherited from The Velvet Underground.
The Velvets experimented with everything from fuzz and distortion to droning sounds and long-form songs containing spoken word narrative and poetry.
Primary songwriter Lou Reed was no stranger to writing songs about controversial topics like drugs, as with the groundbreaking Heroin, on The Velvet Underground & Nico.
More properly an “art rock” or “experimental rock” outfit, the Velvet Underground’s close relationship with artist Andy Warhol (who produced and managed them) would foreshadow the close connection between the early New York punk and art scenes.
Recommended track: I’m Waiting for the Man
New York Dolls
If first wave punk rock was partly characterized by sloppy, novice musicianship, and outrageous, sometimes gender-bending fashion, then it mostly inherited those traditions from the New York Dolls.
The Dolls took the glam rock aesthetic of artists like T-Rex, Slade, and The Sweet and infused it with a trashy, drugged-out vibe, all while looking as much like transvestite hookers as rock stars.
While the New York Dolls imploded in 1976 (just as the punk scene in New York was truly taking off), their short, catchy, simplistic songs would serve as a template for up and coming bands like The Ramones.
The breakup of the New York Dolls would also seed first-wave punk outfit, The Heartbreakers, with two of its members.
Recommended track: Trash
Death (Honorable Mention)
While they received almost no recognition or acclaim during their active years, Detroit’s Death was later regarded as being a pioneering band that bridged the gap between the workman-like Midwestern proto-punk of MC5 and the Stooges, and later first-wave punk bands like the Ramones and Dictators.
Unrecognized during their time (1971-1977), Death’s story is one of missed opportunities. Their name didn’t lend itself to commercial success, and their first single was pressed into only 500 copies.
Death’s best recorded output from 1975, 7 songs recorded at United Sounds studio in Detroit, languished until 2008 when guitarist Bobby Hackney’s sons discovered the recordings and pushed to get them released to a wider audience.
While Death didn’t influence future first-wave punk bands, the point is that they should have, and probably should have been counted as one of them, too.
Recommended track: Politicians in My Eyes
The First Wave of Punk Rock: New York (1974-1979)
The first wave punk rock scene in New York contained a wide variance in musical styles and ability. Part of the reason that the term “punk rock” has historically been so hard to define is due to how the New York scene included bands that were polar opposites of each other in terms of sound and style, such as the Ramones and Talking Heads, or complete musical outliers such as Suicide. There really was no single, unified vision behind the burgeoning New York punk scene other than a strong D.I.Y. ethic and a desire for unrestrained artistic expression.
Hailed as the “punk poet laureate”, Patti Smith picked up the torch dropped by The Velvet Underground and ran it further than anyone could have imagined.
Smith was already a published author of several collections of poetry by the time the New York Punk scene was getting started. She’d also gigged as a writer for Rolling Stone and Creem magazine, but early, successful experiments with setting her poetry to music steered her toward forming her own band instead of existing on the sidelines writing about music.
Along with her backing band, The Patti Smith Group, she fused intelligent, heartfelt poetry with blues-inspired pub rock to create the quintessential first wave punk rock opus, 1975’s Horses, which was (unsurprisingly) produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale.
Horses was an eclectic mix of free-form lyrical improvisation set to rock music that generated immense critical acclaim at the time, but little in the way of commercial success. Iconic singles like “Gloria” (a Van Morrison cover) and “Land of a Thousand Dances” became live staples at Smith’s intimate and often raucous performances, but initially failed to reach radio audiences.
However, by 1978, Smith would enter mainstream consciousness with the hit single “Because the Night”, penned for her by Bruce Springsteen (who would also later write “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones to release as their own song, but eventually end up releasing himself due to pressure from his record label).
Recommended track: Gloria
Often hailed as the band that kick-started the CBGB’s punk scene in New York, Television seemed to emerge as if from nowhere as a fully-formed unit (though they actually came about when the short-lived Neon Boys broke up).
Sonically and aesthetically, Television more closely resembled a continuation of The Velvet Underground’s free-form art rock experimentation than The Stooges’ bombast and nihilism – a contrast that is said to have fueled the creative differences that resulted in the eventual firing of founding bassist Richard Hell.
Singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine and guitarist Richard Lloyd’s dueling guitar attack made for tight, dynamic songs whose complex harmonies swelled and built and broke open like waves against rocks. The title track of their 1977 debut album, Marquee Moon, is just over 10 minutes long, but so captivating that it never feels like it.
Verlaine’s lyrics had an Impressionistic quality and a poetic delivery, as on the standout track Venus: “It was a tight tour night, streets so bright / The world was so thin and between my bones and skin.”
Television’s early live shows were riveting performances that featured long, improvisational stretches filled with guitar heroics – and that inspired the birth of quite a few other New York bands that later became part of the growing punk scene at CBGB’s.
Recommended track: See No Evil
The Ramones are rightly credited with creating the template that would codify the instantly recognizable sound of punk rock: short songs, loud guitars, and a breakneck tempo.
Their self-titled debut from 1976 defined the parameters of punk rock, with most songs clocking in at under 2 minutes, played at or near 160 beats per minute – 14 songs totaling just under 30 minutes of run time.
By stripping rock n’ roll down to its barest essentials, the Ramones showed that anyone could pick up a guitar and start a band, thus laying the groundwork for the D.I.Y. ethic that would characterize the 1980’s punk rock scene.
New bands sprang up in their wake as The Ramones toured the U.S. in the late 1970’s, and their first appearance in London in July of 1976 inspired the formation of many of the first-wave U.K. punk bands.
As if all this street credibility weren’t enough, The Ramones’ songwriting talent (most songs were penned by bassist and backup vocalist, Dee Dee Ramone) is obvious in how incredibly catchy and memorable their songs were: practically everyone has heard “Blitzkrieg Bop” at a sporting event at least once in their lifetime.
Ramones songs are likewise ubiquitous in films and TV shows – “Judy is a Punk” appeared on soundtrack The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and “Pet Sematary” in the 1989 film of the same name, for starters.
Despite their influence, The Ramones would never truly see commercial success during their active years (or most members lifetimes). Their fame is mostly posthumous, and mainstream recognition of their greatness only occurred after the “grunge” explosion in the 1990’s, when members of now platinum-selling bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden all pointed to The Ramones as one of their strongest influences.
Recommended track: Beat on the Brat
Perhaps the most pop-oriented, and eventually one of the most commercially successful bands to come out of the original New York punk scene, Blondie combined elements of surf rock, 60’s girl groups, pop, and reggae into a unique and instantly recognizable blend.
Front-woman Debbie Harry was once a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub where some of the early New York punk bands played, and also a Playboy Bunny for a time. In addition to being a gifted songwriter and amazing vocalist, Harry was also not averse to using sex appeal to attract attention for the band, as she often wore skimpy and revealing outfits on stage.
While decidedly a part of the early New York scene and first wave of punk, Blondie could also reasonably be characterized as a “new wave” band. In fact, Blondie have often been credited with strongly influencing (or even creating) both the sound and aesthetic of 1980’s new wave, thanks to their regular use of synthesizers and for wearing sharp suits on stage.
Early songs like “X Offender” have a punk edge, but Blondie was also capable of ballads, like “In the Flesh”, and even disco, such as with their 1978 hit, “Heart of Glass”.
Despite their later commercial success, Blondie never lost their connection to underground music or the New York scene, which is perhaps why they remain so popular with both mainstream and punk audiences.
Recommended track: X Offender
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that art rock owes a great deal to Talking Heads – at least as much as it owes to The Velvet Underground.
Perhaps it has something to do with its members all meeting in art school. Or perhaps it’s because of their peculiar style and quirky, observational humor – they did release an album named More Songs About Buildings and Food (1979), after all.
Or perhaps it was their comparatively squeaky clean image in the midst of a decadent NYC music scene. Whatever it was that made them so special, the Talking Heads had it in abundance.
Talking Heads musical experimentation expanded with each new album release, as they incorporated various influences from jazz, funk, and world music into their sound.
Frontman David Byrne was strange and eclectic, often wearing outlandish, oversized suits on stage, and choreographing almost every dance move of the band during live performances.
While Talking Heads began humbly as a comparatively minor act at CBGB’s, in a few years they would be known for collaborating with Brian Eno, headlining stadiums around the world, and selling millions of albums.
Perhaps the apex of their creative accomplishments is having recorded the single best concert film ever conceived – 1984’s Stop Making Sense.
Recommended track: Psycho Killer
Richard Hell & the Voidoids
While he sometimes gets overlooked in punk rock history, Richard Hell had a hand in three major bands that helped shape the genre in its early days. Hell was a founding member of Television before creative differences forced a split with guitarist Tom Verlaine, a founding member of The Heartbreakers, and of course, the frontman and bassist for The Voidoids.
Musically, The Voidoids had more in common with the rougher side of The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and The Stooges than with Hell’s former band, Television. One can even find traces of Bob Dylan in the drug-fueled, semi-poetic verses that Hell lays down over The Voidoids propulsive, guitar-driven rock. It probably helped that Robert Quine, guitarist for the Voidoids, was an astonishingly deft player who is sometimes credited with pioneering the punk rock guitar solo – high praise, given how few punk songs contain guitar solos.
But Richard Hell’s contribution to punk rock wasn’t just musical. Hell’s creative use of safety pins to hold his torn thrift-store clothing together, spiky, disheveled hair, and t-shirts adorned with spray-painted band names or profanity became de facto punk fashion both in New York City, and in the U.K., thanks to Malcolm McLaren importing Richard Hell’s style into his clothing store, Sex.
Similarly, Hell’s artistic contributions aren’t limited to music – he’s also an accomplished poet and writer, and has appeared in films.
Recommended track: Blank Generation
Call it shlock-rock. Call it novelty music. The Dictators were a band that knew how to have fun, even if their audience wasn’t always in on the joke.
It’s not uncharitable to describe Dictators as the musical equivalent of a fart joke. It might, in fact, be a compliment. Despite the silliness of the subject matter, they wrote some great, catchy songs, that are easy to sing along with.
Dictators applied a loud and simplistic songwriting approach similar to that of The Ramones, but lacked the speed and urgency of the boys from Queens.
The subject matter of their songs was also very much in line with what The Ramones were singing about (girls, teenage angst) but from a slightly different perspective. Whereas Ramones were obvious weirdos, outsiders, and loners, Dictators were more like the class clown who would stick pencils in his nose or sneak a whoopee cushion onto someone’s seat for a cheap laugh.
Given their start in 1973, Dictators could just as easily be classified as proto-punk as punk rock, but unlike the proto-punk bands listed above, Dictators shared the stage with many of the early CBGB’s bands, including the aforementioned Ramones.
Notably, Bruce Springsteen was apparently a huge fan of The Dictators. He can be heard chanting “1-2-3-4!” to kick off the first track of Dictators’ third album, Bloodbrothers. Not surprisingly, bassist Mark “The Animal” Mendoza would later go on to play bass in Twisted Sister.
Recommended track: (I Live For) Cars & Girls
The Dead Boys
Quite possibly the first Midwest punk band ever, Cleveland’s Dead Boys came to life after the demise of the now legendary proto-punk outfit, Rocket From the Tombs (RFTT for short). Guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz teamed up with Stiv Bators (who sang guest vocals at the final RFTT show) to form Frankenstein, and eventually settle on the name Dead Boys. Other former members of RFTT would go on to form Pere Ubu and Saucers.
After moving to NYC from Cleveland to be closer to the action of the growing punk rock scene, Dead Boys would come to exemplify the danger, violence, and nihilism that would characterize much of the punk music scene for years to come, especially once hardcore punk became the predominant sub-genre in the early 1980’s.
Stiv Bators was the perfect punk rock frontman. One might say he was the American Johnny Rotten, but it’s fairer to say that Johnny Rotten was the British Stiv Bators.
Among other antics, Bators was notorious for mocking audiences and baiting them into violence and vandalism, stripping naked and exposing himself, throwing around food and drinks, and according to punk legend, receiving head onstage.
Dead Boys’ best known song, “Sonic Reducer”, is one of the finest punk rock anthems of all time, and an ode not only to feelings of alienation and resentment of authority, but also to the transformative power of rock music.
Recommended track: Sonic Reducer
Suicide is the perfect example of the diverse musical styles present in the early New York punk rock scene around CBGB’s. A musical duo consisting of vocalist Alan Vega and instrumentalist Martin Rev, Suicide pioneered a minimalist, electronic sound characterized by repetitive drum machine beats and overdrive synthesizers.
Suicide were well known for clearing concert halls with their abrasive and challenging sound and confrontational live personas. It wasn’t unheard of for their concerts to end prematurely due to violence.
It’s not hard to perceive the influence of Suicide on other forms of electronic music that would rise to prominence in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In particular, Suicide heavily influenced the birth of industrial dance, noise rock, techno, synth-pop, post-punk, and ambient music.
While it might seem like an odd mixture given the synth-driven nature of their sound, Suicide also had some crossover appeal in the New York glam rock scene, appearing several times at the Mercer Arts Center in support of The New York Dolls.
Recommended track: Ghost Rider
If drugs were fuel, then Heartbreakers had a perpetually full tank.
Rising from the ashes of the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan teamed up with Richard Hell (who was fired from his gig playing bass in Television the same week that the Dolls broke up) to form the Heartbreakers and continue the Doll’s legacy of channeling 1950’s rock n’ roll and R&B into a turbo-charged, glam punk train wreck.
By this time, Thunders, Nolan, and Hell were already notorious for their heroin use. It’s not surprising then, that the song they’re most well known for, “Chinese Rocks”, is about copping heroin. The song was supposedly gifted to Richard Hell by Dee Dee Ramone, who sometimes did heroin with members of Heartbreakers, though Hell has at times claimed partial credit for writing the song. Ramones would also later record their own version in 1980.
Heartbreakers are a tragic and all too common story of a band destroyed by drugs and egos. Despite a surge in popularity and a quickly growing fan base, they broke up in a dispute over the mix of their first and only album, L.A.M.F. in October, 1977 – yet another punk band with nearly limitless potential whose career was cut short.
Recommended track: Chinese Rocks
The Other First Wave of Punk Rock: The U.K. (1975-1979)
Meanwhile, across the pond from the New York punk scene centered around CBGB’s, the U.K. punk rock scene, centered around London, exhibited a more homogenous approach to music and style. That style was decidedly less artsy and experimental, and much more loud, snotty, and guitar-driven.
Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that the London punk scene got its kickstart thanks to the Ramones’ first visit to London’s Roadhouse in July, 1976. According to Joe Strummer of The Clash and Captain Sensible of The Damned, nearly everyone who later went on form a notable U.K. punk band was in the audience at that show.
Here we try to capture the spirit of the first wave U.K. bands that released a full-length album as early as 1976, and as late as 1977. Unfortunately, this does leave out some great bands that deserve honorable mentions, which I recommend checking out once you’ve listened to all of the bands in this beginner’s guide to punk rock:
- Angelic Upstarts (1979)
- The Lurkers (1978)
- The Rezillos (1978)
- Sham 69 (1978)
- The Ruts (1979)
- Skids (1979)
- The Slits (1979)
- Stiff Little Fingers (1979)
- Swell Maps (1979)
- U.K. Subs (1979)
- Generation X (1977) – featuring Billy Idol
The Sex Pistols
No beginner’s guide to punk rock could possibly be complete without mentioning the most notorious first wave U.K. punk band – The Sex Pistols.
Formed in 1975, Sex Pistols were the brainchild of artist and clothing designer Malcolm McLaren, who would manage the band for the duration of their original incarnation.
Originally comprised of vocalist Johnny Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock (later replaced by Sid Vicious), the Pistols channeled the raw power of The Stooges into a bombastic, confrontational, and angry wall of overdriven guitars and sneering vocals.
Image-wise, the Sex Pistols set the template for punk fashion with ripped clothing precariously held together with safety pins, DIY t-shirt with slogans or profanities spray-painted on them, tight, torn jeans, and combat boots. Malcolm McLaren is largely responsible for refining their look, though he also stole many of his punk fashion ideas from Richard Hell while visiting NYC.
If anyone is to blame for the rotten public image (puns intended) of punk rock in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s the Sex Pistols. Their notorious, profanity-laden appearance on Thames Television’s Today program with Bill Grundy is the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, it also terrified the U.K. public, and kicked off decades of media hysteria about punk rock violence and its corrupting influence on youngsters.
Recommended track: No Feelings
Buzzcocks are an early example of a punk band forming while its members attended the same college (or met in college). Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto bonded over a shared interest in The Velvet Underground while attending the Bolton Institute of Technology, and would later pick up instruments and form Buzzcocks.
Also an early example of a punk band mixing pop with punk, Buzzcocks wrote songs about boredom, loneliness, teenage romance, masturbation, and alienation.
Their first single released after signing with United Artists, “Orgasm Addict”, examines compulsive sexual urges and is filled with double-entendres. It’s also much too risqué for mainstream appeal.
Unlike many other punk bands at the time, Buzzocks were competent musicians who quickly evolved after their initially rough and simplistic first release, the Spiral Scratch EP. Later songs would feature complex vocal harmonies and intricately melodic two-guitar interplay that would exert a strong influence on future punk bands like Descendents and Green Day, as well as indie/alternative acts like The Smiths and Radiohead.
Recommended track: Boredom
Although they weren’t the first band to mix politics and punk, The Clash were definitely the first to do it with both clarity and style. How else can you describe a band that once billed themselves as “the only band that matters”? That is grade-A punk attitude, right there.
The Clash skillfully merged such genres as rockabilly, funk, ska, reggae, and dub into their sound. The track sequencing on their albums seamlessly blends this diverse mix into a cohesive listening experience, such that it feels perfectly natural for an uptempo rock song to be followed by the slow groove of funk or reverb-washed dub.
Prior to forming The Clash, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Joe Strummer was in a pub rock band called the 101ers, and at some point realized it was shallow and that he needed to make more meaningful music. He recruited lead guitarist and vocalist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon and set about changing both punk, and popular music, forever.
While The Clash’s first two albums, their self-titled debut and followup, Give ‘Em Enough Rope are near perfect punk albums, it’s their third album, London Calling, that begins their musical experimentation and departure from punk’s basic song structures for a synthesis of the aforementioned styles into a universally appealing sound.
After London Calling, The Clash were on their way to becoming one of the biggest musical acts of the 1980’s (and perhaps even of all time) when drugs and egos again stepped in to ruin a good thing. Despite selling out arenas worldwide and having their progressive political message broadcast on mainstream radio, The Clash broke up in 1985.
Recommended track: Safe European Home
While the Sex Pistols were the punk band that shocked and horrified the English public, and The Clash were the political conscience of punk, The Damned were busy having fun and getting on everyone’s nerves – including all of the other punks.
Despite being the first U.K. punk band to release a single (New Rose, October, 1976), and full-length album (Damned, Damned, Damned, February, 1977), The Damned never really captured the same level of attention or respect as their peers in the Sex Pistols and Clash.
Meanwhile, The Damned’s debut album hit listeners with an almost unrelenting barrage of serrated guitars, frantic drumming, and caustic vocals. It’s faster, louder, and more aggressive than the music their better-known counterparts were making at the time, and solidified The Damned’s status as one of the progenitors of U.K. punk rock.
To top it all off, The Damned were also the first U.K. punk band to tour the U.S., and their Spring 1977 appearance at The Masque in Los Angeles is believed to have kicked off the L.A. punk scene’s evolution into what would become known as hardcore punk.
Recommended track: New Rose
There’s just debate about it – the first Riot Grrrl was Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. Defiant, snotty, confrontational, and with thick braces on her teeth, Styrene showed the boys that girls can play punk rock just as well or better.
Like many other youngsters in the U.K. at the time, Poly Styrene was inspired to form a band after seeing The Sex Pistols live in 1976. Thanks to Styrene’s unique vocal style and distinctive outfits, it didn’t take long after forming for X-Ray Spex to become one of the most well-known punk bands in the U.K, sharing bills with similar acts like Buzzcocks, Wire, and Chelsea.
Set against a driving, punk backdrop, Styrene gleefully sang songs about bondage, identity, apathy, and rampant consumerism.
Often labeled as “deliberate underachievers” it took two years for X-Ray Spex’s first and only album, Germfree Adolescents to be released in 1978 (though they also released 5 singles in the lead-up to the album).
X-Ray Spex were also notable for having a saxophone player in the band, which was virtually unheard of at the time in punk rock. They are sometimes lumped in with New Wave bands because of this addition to their sound.
Recommended track: Oh Bondage, Up Yours!
The Adverts were one of the first punk bands in the U.K. to achieve mainstream success – their 1977 single, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” reached #18 in the U.K. Singles Chart. The b-side track, “Bored Teenagers” would also get a lot of airplay, and end up appearing on numerous punk compilations over the years.
Adverts were one of a handful of pioneering punk bands to play at the London’s legendary The Roxy during its first 100 days (considered by some punk purists to be punk’s finest early days). They were also notable for their bassist, Gaye Advert being considered one of the first female punk icons.
Musically, The Adverts wrote some surprisingly catchy and complex songs, despite sometimes describing themselves as “one chord wonders” (a song title from their first album, Crossing the Red Sea With The Adverts).
Adverts weren’t afraid to experiment with darker sounds – many of their songs feature minor chords or are written minor keys (“We Who Wait” and “Safety in Numbers” are great examples of this), granting them a kind of haunting quality. Acoustic guitar can be heard layered into the mix on some songs. And unlike some other punk vocalists, TV Smith could actually sing.
Adverts would experience a major lineup shift prior to the release a second album, Cast of Thousands, in 1979, and would break up after former member sued to stop the reformed band continuing on with the same name.
Recommended track: We Who Wait
Hailing from London, The Vibrators were a pub rock turned punk rock band that knew how to execute a simple formula to near perfection. They applied the same basic verse/chorus/verse structure to practically every song they recorded, rarely deviating from it for long.
Songs like Petrol, You Broke My Heart, and Wrecked on You don’t really need much more than a simplistic, binary modulation between verse and chorus to stick in listener’s heads.
The Vibrators were also quite adept at the catchy, singalong chorus, as exemplified by the track Yeah, Yeah, Yeah which became the inspiration for the name of a certain early 2000’s post-punk band… you guessed it… the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
It could also be said that The Vibrators were likewise adept at inspiring other bands to name themselves after their songs. In addition to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers also took their name from a similarly titled Vibrators song from the 1977 debut album, Pure Mania.
Recommended track: Yeah Yeah Yeah
Taking their name from a Marc Bolan lyric, North London’s Eater were a respectable, working class punk band that mostly flew under the radar of the punk-obsessed British music press of the time.
Eater were easily the youngest punks in the early U.K. punk scene – members of the band were rumored to be between the ages of 13 and 17 by the time they recorded their ironically named debut, The Album in 1977.
Eater’s songs tended toward the anthemic, with shout-along choruses over razor-sharp guitar and steady, propulsive drums – a style reminiscent of The Buzzcocks and early Jam. Lock it Up appears on numerous punk anthologies, and their first single, Thinking of the U.S.A. is considered one of the best punk singles of all time.
While their career was as brief as the initial wave of U.K. punk, Eater would provide the seeds of other punk and new wave bands such as The Vibrators, Slaughter & the Dogs, and Classix Nouveaux.
Recommended track: Lock It Up
Within the span of a single release, 1977’s Pink Flag, Wire managed to both exemplify and transcend the confines of the newly birthed genre known as punk rock. The group, led by singer/guitarist Colin Newman, toyed with the trappings of punk rock, all while pushing against its nascent boundaries, and twisting its most recognizable features out of all proportion.
Punk rock songs were usually short – Wire made them shorter, with most tracks clocking in under 2 minutes, and a few under 1 minute. Field Day for the Sundays is a mere 28 seconds long.
Punk rock had loud guitars at the forefront – Wire made them thunderous, as on the song 12XU, and heavy to the point of all-consuming, as on the title track, Pink Flag.
Political punk? Yeah, Wire has you covered there too – Reuters batters listeners with a depressing future vision of military unrest, culminating in a drawn out chant of “rape!”, repeated until both the band and listeners are exhausted.
Although Wire would quickly abandon almost all punk pretense on their followup album, 1978’s Chairs Missing, and go on to spearhead the post-punk movement, Pink Flag is still a near-perfect punk rock time capsule.
Recommended track: Ex-Lion Tamer
The Stranglers were one of several pub rock bands that successfully rode the notoriety of the first wave of punk rock to commercial success.
While frontmen Hugh Cornwell (vocals/guitar) and J.J. Burnel (vocals/bass) certainly looked like punks, The Stranglers were an object of suspicion among U.K. punks because they were accomplished musicians and several years older – drummer Jet Black was 39 in 1977!
Despite all this, and despite having a keyboardist (Dave Greenfield) in the band, The Stranglers attracted a huge following during the early days of punk rock.
1977’s Rattus Norvegicus is a masterpiece of pub rock/punk rock fusion. J.J. Burnel’s crunchy and distorted bass both dominates and rounds out The Strangler’s sound – an almost unheard of approach to bass at the time. Meanwhile, Dave Greenfield’s keyboards and synthesizers make dramatic, virtuosic sweeps and flourishes that verge on, but never stray into excessiveness or indulgence. Hugh Cornwell’s punchy guitar and street-tough vocal delivery firmly anchor The Stranglers in punk rock territory (for awhile, at least).
Standout tracks like (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) and Sometimes are peak pub/punk synthesis. Hanging Around paints a vivid narrative of the strange characters that populate the streets and punk clubs of 1977.
The Stranglers would survive the implosion of U.K. punk rock in 1979 and go on to record a string of commercially successful singles and albums throughout the 1980’s, eventually becoming well known for their hit song Golden Brown, which appeared on the soundtrack of the film Snatch in 2001.
Recommended track: (Get A) Grip (On Yourself)