Punk Rock in its truest form developed in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, each region independent of knowledge of the other due to the difficulty at the time of following distant scenes in the era prior to global radio and the Internet. Each Punk scene at the time developed its own take on the concept, though for the most part there was a shared distaste for the “excesses” of ’70s mainstream rock.
For that reason, bands began speeding up their music, cutting down songs to their barest essence. Short songs, stripped-down arrangements, and often political lyrics gave Punk Rock its traditional sound. But it was a short-lived development, as Punk Rock gave way to harder-edged music in the ’80s including hardcore, while diverging to provide room for post-Punk, alternative rock, and eventually the grunge movement of the ’90s.
If you’re looking for an entry-point as a listener to discover what set Punk Rock apart from the rest, and why the music of a four-year period has managed to remain distinctive in itself while managing to influence artists as disparate as Nirvana, the Pixies, and Green Day, this is the article for you. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, and I’m not looking to focus on the most obscure bands. This is for those of you who think you hate Punk Rock without ever having actually had a chance to dig into it. These five bands made their impact on the Punk scene during its most active period, paving the way for countless others even as the scene eventually self-destructed.
#5 — RADIO BIRDMAN
Radio Birdman formed in Sydney, Australia, in 1974, and influenced the work of many of Australia’s best-known bands of the ’80s and beyond, making them one of the more critical bands leading to the eventual development of a rock scene in Australia. Their early music didn’t fit at all with what was being played in the pub scene at the time, so the band found a pub in Taylor Square, Sydney, took over its management, and renamed it the Oxford Fun House. Opening the club up to bands of similar ilk to themselves, Radio Birdman singlehandedly built up a Punk Rock scene with a unique aesthetic. The band’s debut EP Burn My Eye got to the attention of music critics well outside the Australian purview, twisting the sounds of Detroit bands like MC5 and The Stooges into what would eventually be described as Punk Rock. Though they’re not particularly well-known outside Australia, their early work features numerous examples of what made ’70s era Punk Rock great.
Next: How punk reinvented “Leader of the Pack”…
#4 — THE DAMNED
The Damned formed in London in 1976, building a name for themselves by incorporating a variety of sounds into their blisteringly fast arrangements. Their cover of “Help” by The Beatles is a solid example of the Punk aesthetic, stripping the song down to its barest essentials without losing what makes it catchy in the first place. And “New Rose,” their first single, opens with a deadpan intro: “Is she really going out with him?” echoing the Shangri-Las’ 1964 bubblegum hit “Leader of the Pack” while turning the concept on its ear with what critic Ned Raggett once described as “a deathless anthem of nuclear-strength romantic angst.” The Damned would morph into a much more gothic-inspired theatrical act as the ’80s New Wave sound developed, and they’d have their biggest hits in that arena. But they were among the key early developers of the Punk Rock movement, and serve as a quick and dirty introduction to the style.
Next: America’s contribution to punk rock…
#3 — THE RAMONES
The Ramones were America’s first big entry into the world of Punk Rock in its best-known form, building on the proto-punk movement which had developed in New York in the early ’70s via lesser-known acts such as Television, and in Cleveland via acts like the Mirrors, Electric Eels and Rocket From The Tombs. Formed in 1974, The Ramones only achieved moderate commercial success, but are often cited as the first Punk Rock group, and they were a major influence on the movement as it deveoped both in the U.S. and the UK. Most of their songs clocked in at under two minutes in length, building a wall of noise featuring minimalist lyrics, alternating sped up guitar chords, and stacato percussion developed to be as intense and propulsive as possible. Though only their first album managed to go Gold, their reputation over the years has been cemented in the music press as one of the earliest innovators of what would be the Punk Rock sound.
Next: The most influential British punk rock band…
#2 — THE SEX PISTOLS
Though they may have only produced one album and four singles during their career, London’s Sex Pistols proved to be the most influential band in British Punk Rock hands down. And though they had a reputation at the time for being lacking as musicians from a technical standpoint, decades of hindsight showcase just how solid the band was at its peak in the years 1977 and ’78.
Johnny Rotten in particular proved to be an insightful lyricist who was years ahead of his time. “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” skewered social conformity and deference to the Crown at a time when a large portion of the population was unemployed and living in poverty. And “Bodies,” one of his most incisive songs, remains to this day the most blistering anti-abortion anthem ever recorded. Rotten left the band in 1978 after a disasterous tour of the United States, and though the band continued to perform with Sid Vicious (the only member of the band who truly couldn’t play his own instrument), the band’s best work was recorded prior to Rotten’s exodus. And their album, Never Mind The Bullocks, Here Come The Sex Pistols, remains the seminal album of Punk Rock fury to come out of the era.
Finally: The greatest punk rock band of all time…
#1 — THE CLASH
The Clash formed in London in 1976 and proved to be highly influential in the UK and the U.S., incorporating elements of punk, reggae, ska, dub, funk, rap, dance, and rockabilly, making them by far the most musically diverse act to emerge from the era. Without the influence of albums like London Calling, The Police’s dictinctive sound may never have developed, as they mined similar territory. The Clash’s lyrics were heavily influenced by politics, and their rebellious attitude and relentless musical experimentation led to the band earning the nickname “The Only Band That Matters.” Each of the band’s members had been active in the developing punk scene in London, and once they combined they proved unstoppable, developing into one of the most influential bands of all time, genre nonwithstanding. London Calling may remain their seminal work, but their entire discography remains beyond reproach.