Speaking of the aesthetics of punk, I should clarify that I never had any interest in looking like the punk stereotype. Mohawks? Nah, I like my hair too much to shave off most of it. "Looking" punk rock, whatever that means, is a fallacy because punk is simply an attitude, a way of seeing things. It's not one particular look or sound. It's anything that challenges what's expected, to be okay with living "outside of society," as Patti Smith sings. Neil Young, who most casual listeners would never classify as punk rock, was actually punk as hell back in the 1970s. He made one left turn after another in a series of albums that defied expectations. In the liner notes to Decade, he talked about how this radical shift in his music came about: "Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." Most of what's truly enjoyable in art and popular culture can be found just outside the margins. Or to use Young's metaphor, in the ditch just off the road of life.
So, you'll find the punk spirit in places you'd never imagine, as long as you know what you're looking for. Little Richard. Oscar Wilde. Norma Rae. Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. The films of Todd Hayes Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. All of them are punk rock. It's everywhere, having seeped into most corners of our culture. You've likely been influenced by it too, without even knowing it.
"To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It's freedom." — Patti Smith
"To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying 'This is who I am.'" — Joey Ramone
A few years back I learned that the Ramones first album was released on April 23, 1976—or as I like to call it, my first birthday. This pleased me to no end. This year Ramones turns forty, which got me thinking about not just the album or the band, but also about '70s punk rock as a whole. The early punk bands didn't even have a name for their musical genre yet, but they were united by defying what was expected of them and creating art that spoke to others who were similarly located outside society.
When I was younger, each new band or musician that I discovered led me to another band and then another, continuing further down the rabbit hole, But it was—and still is—those first wave punk rock bands from the '70s, especially the New York City scene, that I most obsessed over. This is how I found the Ramones, New York Dolls, Television, Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, Blondie, the Cramps, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and so many more. The music of my youth in the '90s, when Generation X was simultaneously celebrated and condemned, also helped introduce me to those '70s bands that I'd only been slightly acquainted with previously. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Social Distortion, and later Sleater-Kinney, to name a few, gave credit to those punk bands early and often. Then, during college and in my early twenties I was educated further by people who had grown up on this music and were eager to turn on another generation of fans. In rock music, hardly anything is new and almost everything is updating or slightly modifying past sounds. The best bands just put their own spin on it. Once we realize that, we start to see how big music history is, how many musical connections there are to be made, and how important so many of the bands from previous eras are to the bands we later grew up with as our musical touchstones. This happens to each successive generation of musicians and listeners.
That first Ramones album is important because in some ways it represents when people outside the New York City scene started to take notice of the music being made by these bands. And in fact that music had already been vital for most of the decade at that point in 1976. The Ramones were heavily influenced by the New York Dolls and '60s girl groups. They wanted to return to the time when songs were succinct blasts of pop and got the job done in under three minutes. They adhered to that philosophy rigidly for more than two decades. The cover to that first album is iconic and typically one of the top images associated with '70s punk rock. The band look like a gnarly street gang, each dressed in leather jackets and ripped jeans, their backs up against the graffiti-covered brick wall with their band name emblazoned in fat, bold letters across the top of the record. This simple black and white cover was a perfectly realized visual representation of that era. It screams "NYC 1970s" and "punk rock" in equal measure. In one cover and one album, they set the tone and the look for punk rock for the remainder of the decade.
That first wave of punk rock, along with the new wave bands that followed into the early '80s, is the music I return to most often. It fits any mood, it works no matter what my current life situation is like, and it never fails to excite, inspire, and invigorate me. If I had to pick a favorite from that era—which would be impossible—the New York Dolls would be in serious contention for that honor. They burned fast and bright in the early to mid-'70s, but those first two albums are the quintessential New York sound. A case can be made for several of their songs to be classified as one of the proto-punk songs, including "Personality Crisis," "Trash," "Human Being," and "Lonely Planet Boy." Everything you know and love about '70s punk rock is in those songs. Along with their other influences (like R&B and girl groups), the Dolls mixed in a heavy dose of what they learned about sound and style from the Stooges and the Velvets, two bands that could easily lay claim to being the true Godfathers of Punk. And the bands that followed the Dolls drew on the their unique blend of influences to further evolve the punk sound and style. Then those bands begat even more new wave icons of the late '70s and early '80s, like the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, and XTC. It all goes back to what I mentioned earlier: rock music is a succession of bands building off of what their predecessors built before them, often adding new and intriguing elements along the way.
Now you can understand why it pleased me so much to discover that a record from my favorite musical genre and era was released on my first birthday. It seems prescient, in a way, as if the cosmos knew that I'd grow up to swear musical allegiance to bands like the Ramones and decided that was too much symmetry to pass up so it rigged the release date for me. Of course, a quick search shows that the We Are the World album was released on my tenth birthday and I'd much rather smash that record to pieces with a hammer than listen to it. So much for prescient, huh? The original punks would have scoffed at that idea anyway.
If you're at all interested in the music I've discussed here, then you owe it to yourself to read the following two books.
The first is Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. The book is exactly what it says it is in the subtitle: the uncensored history of punk rock told by the people who were there and who lived it. McNeil is a key figure from the early days of punk and has been credited with coining the term "punk" in relation to the music and the scene in general. He and buddies Ged Dunn and John Holmstrom started Punk, the magazine that covered the bands and various insiders of the scene. Punk was influential in spreading the word about punk during those years in the late '70s. The oral history is like Punk on steroids, filled with stories that seem too fantastical and insane to believe. It's sequenced in order, with each interview spliced up and woven into the appropriate chapters, making for what feels like a book-length conversation between hundreds of participants. Not only does the book provide the inside scoop on what really went down at various shows and recording sessions, but it does so in the most highly entertaining way possible, probably because most of the participants are riotously funny, self-deprecating, and brutally honest about themselves and their peers. It's easily one of my favorite books, period, and writing about here has reminded me that it might be time for another reread.
The second book is A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974–1982, by Nicholas Rombes. Drawing on hundreds of fanzines, magazines, and newspapers, the book is one of the most exhaustive portraits of the punk movement ever published. Rombes not only explicates the music and art of punk, but places punk within the proper cultural contexts in order to elicit further revelations about the movement's importance to and place in history. In hundreds of distinct entries, Rombes shows throughout the book that what linked the various disparate elements of punk was the notion of defiance, of using artistic expression to put words and meaning to feelings of alienation, isolation, and anxiety. And unlike Please Kill Me, Rombes's book jumps around in time and intersperses straight analyses of bands or albums with fictional short stories and academic investigations of various cultural, political, and sociological aspects that influenced punk. It's the kind of book you can open to any page, read whatever entry you find there, and you'll learn something you never knew before. It's packed with indispensable stories and artifacts from punk's first wave.
When I first read the book several years ago, I was so blown away by the thoroughness of Rombes's research, and his clear passion for punk, that I was moved to reach out and contact him. Turns out he'd contributed a chapter to a book published by the press I work for a few years earlier and he fondly remembered that experience. Not only did we correspond over email about it, but he offered to send me some "punk surprises." When the package arrived, I was thoroughly moved by the contents. Inside was a thoughtfully curated collection of various punk ephemera, likely used in Rombes's research for the book. There was a newspaper clipping about early Patti Smith Group shows, a piece on Iggy Pop, other random punk-related clippings from the late '70s, along with a sticker of the book's cover image and a sincerely written letter from Rombes noting that he hopes I enjoy these little artifacts. I certainly do, and every now and then I carefully remove them from the envelope they're in, transporting myself back to what it must have been like to witness these bands as they exploded seemingly out of nowhere back in the '70s. From one geek to another, I thank Rombes immensely for gifting me with these small treasures.
Here are ten essential albums from that era, a primer of sorts for anyone interested in an education on punk's first wave. Remember: turn it up to eleven when listening to these.
Velvet Underground / Loaded. The last proper studio album from the Velvets (I still haven't been able to bring myself to give the Velvets-in-name-only Squeeze a listen, have you?), Loaded rang in the '70s with a gloriously ramshackle final statement from the original punk rock band. Future classics like "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" endure to this day, while "Oh! Sweet Nuthin" shows that stretching out and jamming wasn't strictly the purview of bands like the Grateful Dead. Lou Reed set up his solo career nicely with the sound of this album, also. A classic album from one of the best bands—of any genre—ever.
Iggy and the Stooges / Raw Power. Few albums have been as properly named as this one. Even fewer albums can compare to the pure unadulterated power that oozes out of the songs on the third Stooges album. "Search and Destroy" gives us the classic Iggy boast, "I'm a street walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm" and frankly no one could have described the man better than he described himself with that line. The Stooges had been left for dead before this album, and we have David Bowie to partially thank for resurrecting one of his favorite bands for what is, to my way of thinking, their definitive record.
New York Dolls / New York Dolls. The record that answers the question "What do you get when you combine '60s girl groups, R&B, and the blues with early punk rock?" The Dolls made a name for themselves with regular and blisteringly high energy shows in the appropriately named Oscar Wilde Room at the Mercer Arts Center in downtown New York. Their gleefully trashy aesthetic and sound set them apart from most bands at the time, but in their hearts and souls they were classic rock 'n' roll revivalists who took what came before them and did what no one had done before (or at least not in the same way): they filtered all of those influences through the filth and grime of early '70s NYC. Very few bands ever sounded as vital or alive as the Dolls did during their brief career. Unfortunately, like a bands on this list they weren't long for this world. In fact, guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan died young. Thankfully in the latter half of the decade lead singer David Johansen transitioned into a punk rock icon with an underrated solo career. After devouring the first two Dolls albums and assorted outtakes and bootlegs, check out those early records of the David Johannsen Group for more of that Dolls goodness.
Television / Marquee Moon. Listeners today unaware of their history might question this album's punk creds. Television's songs could be long and sprawling with intricate musicianship and truly mind-blowing guitar solos. Not exactly what most expect out of punk rock. But back then punk rock was a wide open field, where anything went as long as it was started from the ground and built on a strong foundation of defiance. Along with the Patti Smith Group and a few other bands, Television are also important for having steered the early punk crowd towards CBGBs in the Bowery, which previously had given no indication that it would transform itself into the punk rock club in the country. Listen to "Marquee Moon" and marvel at the talents of guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.
Patti Smith Group / Horses. The Godmother of Punk? Some have called Patti Smith that and she certainly earned the title. She and her guitarist Lenny Kaye were music geeks who met and bonded over shared musical interests at a downtown record store. Both had been critics for music rags. Like a lot of their peers, they were into not just music but art and film and literature and poetry from the likes of the Stones, Burroughs, Rimbaud, and more. The Patti Smith Group married a literary component to the burgeoning punk rock sound of the time. Smith is a poet and her story-songs are extensions of her poetry. She's also a force of nature onstage and behind the mic, and in those early years the band created a sound all their own. The video from 1979 is evidence of their intensity and kinetic energy on stage. They had what all truly great rock bands possess: the ability to seem like they were falling apart and growing stronger, all at the same time.
The Modern Lovers / The Modern Lovers. Released in 1975 after the original lineup had disintegrated, this album might not immediately bring to mind punk rock but their sound was heavily indebted to the Velvet Underground. The band's leader Jonathan Richman once drove to New York to meet his idols in the Velvets towards the end of their career. Rumor has it he even slept on the floor at one of their apartments during the visit. This album contributed one of the most propulsive and addictive punk rock songs ever recorded with "Roadrunner." It's required listening while driving at night, any where, any time.
Ramones / Ramones. For more on this album, see above. I'll just add that the Ramones gave punk rock a look and sound the defined it to a broader audience for years to come. When you see a Ramones t-shirt with that distinctive logo designed by Arturo Vega and featuring the band member's names circling the presidential seal, you instantly think "punk rock."
Blondie / Parallel Lines. Yet another example of a band that incorporated an assortment of musical styles—including disco!—into their sound, Blondie is a perfect example of how diverse the music of early punk rock really was. Debbie Harry was a bombshell with vocals that ranged from heavenly purring to casually sneering to slyly disaffected to passionately engaged. Her singing and lyrics were the perfect mix of toughness and vulnerability. This album contains some of their strongest songs and helped them become one of the first bands to cross over and reach new levels of fame outside of the punk rock scene.
Talking Heads / The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. Released in the early '80s, this double live album features songs recorded in the late '70s and the early '80s. This allows listeners to hear the band's music grow and evolve over just a few short years. Another band that defies people's preconceptions of what punk is or isn't, the Talking Heads looked and dressed like a bunch of art school nerds (which they were) who happened to writer songs about the complexities and anxieties of living in the modern world. They had a few albums that could make this list, but if you want to get a broad cross-section of their uniquely cerebral and eccentric brand of punk rock, this is the way to go.
The Heartbrearkers / L.A.M.F. This one used to be hard to find, but it's a key album of the genre. Unfortunately the production was awful. This might have been corrected a bit in subsequent reissues, but I know people who grew up on the original mix swear by it. There's a Punk Rock All-Star quality to the band as it's made up of former members of the scene's early days, including one of the people most responsible for the punk rock guitar sound in Johnny Thunders (from the Dolls) and the man who became a walking, talking fashion symbol for punk rock in Richard Hell (previously of Television).
Now get to it; you have a lot of listening to do.