Top 20 Classic Punk Rock Songs (Part 1)

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generation x

Generation X

I’d been asked to pick the Top 20 songs that we might consider to be “classic punk rock.” While this “classic” terminology would have made the 20-something me cringe – “Hey, this is music of the moment, dammit! And I’m here now! Fuck classic anything!” – the 50-something me now explains: “Well, this was music that mattered very much then – and stands the test of time. Which is to say it still sounds fresh and brash and still makes sense today. Hence it is, uh, classic.”

If you know this stuff, this annotated listicle should ding a bell you won’t at all mind hearing again. If you don’t, discovery awaits. It’s a time-travel jaunt back to a most fertile – and some would say proudly fetid – period in rock ‘n’ roll. And how can disagreement not arise?

What is punk? A sound, a DIY attitude, a back-to-basics attack with a snarl? A reaction to the staid arena rock sounds of the mid-‘70s? An injection of politics amidst a time of great discontent? An attempt to cover subjects previously untouched by rock‘n’roll?

You may have heard one or two of these at cbgb, which closed its doors on October 16, 2006 following a set by Patti Smith.

20) “X Offender” by Blondie

Their label, Private Stock, rejected the original title (“Sex Offender”), so this gets The Rolling Stones/Ed Sullivan Show “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” award. But with its chiming melody, Deborah Harry’s deceptively sweet vocals and the controversy over the com0ocker’s version of a ‘60s girl group gem. And it laid groundwork for a punk-pop band that later expanded its range and made deep mainstream inroads.

19) “On the Run” by Eddie and the Hot Rods

The final song on their first LP, “On the Run” clocks in at an over-six-minute epic (for punk) length, and is a churning, harrowing tale of being chased (paranoia or reality?), being young and misunderstood (crazy? dangerous?) and ultimately locked up for it. Sings Barrie Masters: “I should be pitied/But they got me committed” as echoes of “I’m not a number!” ricochet about. Of some note: Many folks put Eddie and the Hot Rods in the pub rock genre (Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe) and there’s certainly a connection there, but to me they were part of the Pistols-Damned-Clash explosion.

18) “Jocko Homo” by Devo

Sure, kids raised on ‘80s MTV saw Devo’s yellow nuclear waste site suits and thought that’s what “new wave” was all about – wackiness – but the pre-“Whip It” Devo was more punk rock than synth-pop or new wave. (Though “Jocko Homo” was a punk rock song that initially started in an unorthodox time signature, 7/8.) With its squawks and squalls, with the monkey noises and Mark Mothersbaugh’s mewling about de-evolution, it was frenetic, twisted rock‘n’roll with wit that carried the very real message: That evolution is over and we’re now de-evolving. Go ahead, dispute that theory in 2015! Plus there was the classic chant: “Are we not men?/We are Devo!” We were all Devo for a spell.

17) “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex

One of the best opening lines of punk by the teenaged Poly Styrene – “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think… Oh bondage! Up yours!” An S&M fantasy? A feminist rant? The sexual implications of the first verse give way to anti-consumerism in the second; it’s both gleeful and agitated, a helter-skelter flurry of noises, with Styrene’s caterwauling matched by Lora Logic screeching sax.

16) “Your Generation” by Generation X

We’re all fans of The Who, of course, and I took “My Generation” to heart when I first heard it. But truth be told, I didn’t hear it when it was released. I was a generation younger than Pete Townshend and heard it after the fact. So when Generation X came along with this kiss-off to The Who and its brethren with “Your generation don’t mean a thing to me!” it made (temporary) sense to young punks coming alive again with this in-your-face confrontational broadside. Staking a claim. It felt real good. “I might make friends enemies/But I gotta take that chance,” sang Billy Idol.

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15) “Alternative Ulster” by Stiff Little Fingers

Some of the best rock ‘n’ roll has intense local roots… and then that local concern, through the magic of music, becomes something universal. (We got to know Liverpool through The Beatles and London through The Kinks.) Such is the case for Stiff Little Fingers, often dubbed “Northern Ireland’s Clash.” The most bracing of kickoff guitar licks from Henry Cluney, and then comes Jake Burn’s barking lead vocals, laying out the bleak Belfast landscape and, at the close, striking the eternal chord to rebel and get away: “They say they’ve got control of you/But that’s not true you know/They say they’re a part of you/And that’s a lie you know/They say you will never be free… free… free!” Sure, “The Troubles” were at the song’s core; but wherever you were, it became an anthem against repression and for living the one life you have.

14) “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones

No tune captured the joy of being young and alive at this time better than this song from the genuinely teenaged Irish band, the Undertones. I saw them at The Paradise in Boston where it was a 21+ show so, legally (if not in reality), the only teenagers in the house were on stage. “Teenage Kicks” is the flip-side of punk’s anger or nihilism. It had a medium-fast tempo – punk enough – but it also had the hope, the hope for a girlfriend to hold tight “all through the night.” And in a larger scheme, hanging onto teenage idealism, for seizing the moment… and extending that moment. “I need excitement/Oh, I need it bad/And it’s the best I ever had,” sang Feargal Sharkey. (This was one of famed British DJ John Peel’s favorite punk songs, the one he had played at his memorial service and engraved on his tombstone.)

13) “So What” by Anti-Nowhere League

I’m bending my own rules here by including this nasty, crunching piece of work from 1984 by England’s Anti-Nowhere League, exemplars of a mid-‘80s return-to-punk attitude and style. This song, later covered by Metallica (they started off the Lollapalooza show I saw with it), is accusatory, vicious and completely antisocial. Except… well, it’s also so over-the-top it’s also really funny. Singer Animal also directs the vitriol at the boasters among us. Animal’s naughty show-off punk shouts, “I’ve been here and I’ve been there/And I’ve been every fucking where” and that’s followed by Animal’s rejoinder: “So what, so what/So what, so what, you boring little cunt! Who cares? Who cares what you do?/And who cares? Who cares what you do? You! You! You! You!”

12) “Land” by Patti Smith Group

The nine-and-a-half minute, three-part tour-de-force that anchors the godmother of punk’s debut album. Breath-taking still in its poetry, its rhythmic pulse and yearning lust – the opening of Smith’s composition, “Horses,” which mutates into guitarist Lenny Kaye’s garage riff-rock, when they segue into the ‘60s hit “Land of a Thousand Dances.” Motifs and voices that waft in and out and “Land” is a mélange: murmurs and cries and exhilarating whoops. A taut, yet expansive textbook example of tension-and-release.

11) “New Rose”/”Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned

A one-two punch from Stiff Records resident punk band, the Damned, produced by resident jack-of-all-trades Nick Lowe, and the very first punk single released in the U.K. The Damned managed to be both ferocious and comical – the first album jacket with them all lapping whipped cream off each other suggested they weren’t po-faced punks. These two feature Moon-like drum attacks from Rat Scabies (still punk’s best faux name) with breakneck melodic lift from the soon-to-be-ex-Damned guitarist-songwriter Brian James.

Related: Which songs are in our Top 10? Click to read Part 2 of our Top 20 Classic Punk Rock Songs!

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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  1. Greg
    #1 Greg 18 December, 2015, 00:20

    Not sure what your top 10 would be, but I would probably put Teenage Kicks up there. I’m sure you will consider the following:
    Buzzcocks – Orgasm Addict
    Clash – Janie Jones
    Ramones- Shock Treatement
    The Jam – This is the Modern World
    Squeeze – Slap and Tickle
    X – Los Angeles

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  2. Big daddy
    #2 Big daddy 20 December, 2015, 14:15

    You did a fine job!!!

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  3. nick
    #3 nick 20 December, 2015, 14:41

    Punky Reggae Party Bob Marley
    Holiday in Cambodia Dead Kennedys
    Anarchy in the UK Sex Pistols
    I wanna be Sedated Ramones
    Love comes in Spurts Richard Hell and the Voidoids
    Looking through Gary Gilmores Eyes X-Ray Specs
    Peaches The Stranglers
    Faithful Departed The Radiators from Space
    Pressure Drop The Clash
    Looking after No. 1 The Boomtown Rats

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  4. IRT1977
    #4 IRT1977 20 December, 2015, 15:45

    Agree with Greg that Teenage Kicks and Orgasm Addict would be in my Top 10 along with
    Piss Factory – Patti Smith
    White Riot – The Clash
    Pretty Vacant – Sex Pistols
    Psycho Killer – Talking Heads
    Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones
    Borstal Breakout – Sham 69
    Love Lies Limp – Alternative TV
    Suspect Device – Stiff Little Fingers
    …….although, as with any favourites list, this will change by the day!!

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  5. Jeroen bet
    #5 Jeroen bet 21 December, 2015, 16:29

    Little nitpicking here. “On the run” was the last track on the 2nd Hot rods album, Life on the line. The Undertones were from Northern Ireland (Derry) -still part of the U.K., so arguably not really Irish and New Rose was not a double A side with Neat Neat Neat, they were 2 different releases originally. Also worth noting that Teenage Kicks was probably John Peel’s favorite song – punk or otherwise – period. He even has the first line engraved on his tombstone.

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    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky 21 December, 2015, 18:36

      Thanks for taking the time, Jeroen. I’m looking at my original vinyl copy of Eddie and the Hot Rods’ Life on the Line. “On The Run” isn’t on the LP. Thanks for the heads’ up on The Damned; we’ve amended our copy. We’ve also added that Peel tombstone factoid.

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