The story of British punk in 23 songs
Before we begin, it should probably be noted that relating the story of UK punk in any less than about 4,000 songs in pretty much impossible. From The Adicts and Angelic Upstarts to Zounds and The Zeros, Wikipedia lists well over 100 UK punk bands, and their list is woefully incomplete, omitting Defcon Zero, Vortex, Sick On The Bus, The Satellites and many, many more. Further selecting the definitive song by each band is an equally thankless task. It’s easy enough with bands like Menace (that would be G.LC.) or Cult Maniax (Lucy Looe), but what about The Lurkers, Subhumans, or 999 who each had several classics to their name? What about Anti Nowhere League, Wire, and The Mob? All of them punk, but all very, very different.
Moreover, what began simply as punk rock rapidly diverged into multiple subcategories – from hardcore and crust to anarcho-punk, pop-punk, street punk, horror punk, and numerous other variations. And that’s before punk and metal hopped into bed together and started producing obnoxious bastard offspring!
And then there’s the fact that a lot of people can’t seem to agree about what punk actually is, but will happily bicker about what it isn’t. It’s fast and aggressive – except when it isn’t. The songs are short and political – except when they’re not. You’ve got to have spiky hair and a studded leather jacket – except when you don’t. There are rules, but there are no rules… So, yeah, basically we’re fucked before we even get started. But let’s have a stab at it anyway…
1. Sex Pistols – Anarchy In The UK
Of course, the Sex Pistols! Where the hell else would we start? Admittedly, so much nonsense has been written about them over the years that it’s hard to look at their legacy with any true objectivity, but there is no denying the band’s impact both musically and culturally. Some will argue that the Sex Pistols were manufactured by their manager Malcolm McLaren as a means to selling clothes, while others – particularly frontman Johnny Rotten – will claim that they invented punk rock. Whatever the truth, we can be absolutely certain that whether by luck or judgment the band not only kickstarted the genre, but also shook society to its very core. Lighting a fuse that was way too short for them to escape the explosion, the Pistols made worldwide headlines – THE FILTH AND THE FURY! – and most of the following bands wouldn’t exist without them. Impressive, to say the least, for a band that only made one album…
2. The Damned – New Rose
The first UK punks to release a single (this one!), the first to release an album (the brilliant Damned Damned Damned), the first to tour the west coast of America (having an influence on the punk scene there that can still be heard to this day), the first to split up and reform… Let’s just say that The Damned got there first with almost everything. Even the argument about Nirvana stealing Killing Joke’s Eighties riff for Come As You Are is moot, given that The Damned predated them both with Life Goes On. According to Lemmy, who briefly played bass for the reformed band, they were – and are – the only true punk band. Certainly, they brought chaos in their wake, to the point where the now defunct Rainbow theatre in London booked them when they needed the seating demolished, and then charged the band for the damages! Oh, and then they helped to invent goth. You’re welcome. Surprisingly excellent to this day, The Damned’s original line-up are due to tour in 2022.
3. The Clash – White Riot
Another band about which a great deal of nonsense has been written. Contrary to the epithet of the time, The Clash were not ‘the only band that matters’, and iconic title-track aside, their third (double) album London Calling is not, as suggested by many critics, ‘one of the greatest rock albums of all time’, but a tedious collision of styles that is slightly less interesting then watching paint dry (please send hate mail to the usual address). But that’s not to say that The Clash weren’t absolutely vital to punk rock, and none more so then with their debut single, White Riot, unleashed in March 1977. For sure, the riff owes a great deal to The Ramones, but inspired by vocalist Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon getting caught up in the riots at Notting Hill Carnival in ’76, there has rarely been such a ferocious call to arms as this (slightly less than) two-minute blast.
4. Siouxsie And The Banshees – Love In A Void
Queen of goth, you say? Well, yes, but that’s not to say the Siouxsie’s punk credentials aren’t second to none. Opening for the Sex Pistols, the Banshees played their first gig at the 100 Club Punk Festival in September 1976, having formed just two days earlier and with no musical experience. With Sid Vicious on drums, they improvised a version of The Lord’s Prayer for about 20 minutes. By mid-1977 the Banshees were a ‘proper’ band, appearing on the famous So It Goes TV show in Manchester and recording a session for John Peel, which featured this early classic. Unwilling to concede full creative control, it wasn’t until 1978 that the band was finally signed to Polydor, releasing their debut album, The Scream, in November of that year. So, yes, queen of goth, but also queen of punk.
5. Buzzcocks – Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)
There is much talk these days about which band were the originators of pop-punk, all of which, frankly, is so much wasted breath, when all you have to do is listen to the Buzzcocks. Granted, their debut EP, Spiral Scratch, was something of a curveball, featuring original singer Howard Devoto, who quit the band shortly after its release. But thereafter, it’s pretty much all pop-punk with the likes of What Do I Get?, Why Can’t I Touch It, and this treasure that reached Number 12 in the charts. Incidentally, that debut EP was self-released, making them the first UK punks to do so, virtually kickstarting the DIY scene overnight, and the Buzzcocks were responsible for putting on the Sex Pistols’ second Manchester show in July 1976, as told in the movie 24 Hour Party People. Tributes to vocalist/guitarist Pete Shelly, who died in 2018, came from everyone from Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses to Green Day and The Wildhearts.
6. The Stranglers – No More Heroes
Often ostracised by other punk bands of the time, The Stranglers were (apparently) too old and too competent as musicians to fit in. Moreover, they had – shock, horror! – a keyboard player, which was pretty much blasphemy, especially since he could actually play. Not that The Stranglers gave a solitary fuck, as you’ll see on this brilliant performance on Dutch TV, in which, forced to mime, they make zero effort at pretending to play live and instead set about wrecking the stage. Bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, a 7th degree karate black belt, can also be seen mouthing the words “fuck off, you c*nt”, which rather summed up their attitude. Indeed, having formed in 1974, The Stranglers are one of the few punk bands who owe little to the Sex Pistols. They were already doing their thing, punk fans just happened to embrace them along the way. Sadly, keyboard player Dave Greenfield passed last year due to COVID complications, but over the span over five decades saw 23 Top 40 singles and 17 Top 40 albums. Not a bad run, by any measure.
7. X-Ray Spex – Oh Bondage! Up Yours!
In all honesty, the ladies are rudely underrepresented in our list – the likes of Penetration and the Slits contributed a great deal to the scene – but there is no ignoring X‑Ray Spex and their legendary singer Poly Styrene. ‘Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard…’ but not Poly, as evidenced on this, the band’s debut single, a feminist rallying cry that was promptly banned by the BBC. Remarkably, saxophone player Lora Logic was only 15 years old when the band started, but even more remarkably Johnny Rotten – always keen to dismiss fellow punks bands – was a fan! “They came out with a sound and attitude and a whole energy, it was not relating to anything else. Superb!” he said. And he wasn’t wrong. With just five singles and one album during their first incarnation, all except this one reached the charts and all of them are now regarded as classics.
8. UK Subs – Warhead
Alas, Mr. Rotten was not quite so complementary about the UK Subs, referring to them as “awful”, but the Subs’ first six singles – including this one – and their first four albums all made the charts, and frontman Charlie Harper – now 76 years old and still touring – has yet to say anything stupid about Brexit or Trump. So there’s that. Admittedly, despite an astonishing back catalogue that includes an album for every letter of the alphabet (in alphabetical order), the Subs never really covered any new ground, offering basic punk-by-numbers. Then again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Practically every punk who can string a few chords together has been in the band over the years, including Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen in the early ’90s, and it will be a fucking sad day when they’re gone.
9. Stiff Little Fingers – Suspect Device
While the inclusion of a band from Northern Ireland may be controversial to some, omitting Stiff Little Fingers from the history of UK punk would be almost criminally negligent. Besides which, it’s blatantly obvious from their lyrics that the band, who frequently wrote about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, were preaching unity. This, their debut single of 1978, was released on their own Rigid Digits label with an initial pressing of just 500 copies, but after John Peel gave it continuous airplay it went on to sell over 30,000. Amusingly, it was also sent to a record label in the form of a ‘cassette bomb’, which was hastily thrown into a bucket of water because the label thought it was a real bomb. It was certainly explosive! Politics aside, SLF also had a talent for capturing the angst of teenage years with hits like Gotta Getaway and At The Edge.
10. Sham 69 – Borstal Breakout
For good or ill, Hersham’s Sham 69 were one of the bands that brought the sound of the football terraces to punk, via the stomp of glam rock greats Slade. As such, the band were plagued by violence at their gigs, especially after the National Front infiltrated the skinhead movement, but there’s no doubt that they had a vast influence in the scene, regularly bothering the charts and appearing on Tops Of The Pops. Admittedly, referring to themselves as ‘the Cockney cowboys’ was a bit silly, Hersham being in Surrey and a long way from the east end of London, and the message of songs like If The Kids Are United was mostly ignored by people battering the snot out of each other, but Borstal Breakout is an absolute classic, and thankfully the gigs are considerably less dangerous these days.
11. The Slits – Typical Girls
The Slits were anything but typical girls. Formed in London in 1976, they opened for The Clash on the White Riot tour, offering what was then a very strange collision of punk, reggae and even jazz. And it wasn’t just their music that was strange, or at least appeared so at the time. Posing topless and covered in mud on the cover of their debut album The Cut, these pre-riot grrrls challenged attitudes to sexuality as much as music. ‘Who invented the typical girl?’ they ask. ‘Who’s bringing out the new improved model? / And there’s another marketing ploy / Typical girl gets the typical boy.’ Given that vocalist Ari Up was German, while drummer Palmolive was born in Spain, and guitarist Viv Albertine was from Australia, they are not technically a British band, but were nonetheless very much a part of the early UK punk scene.
12. The Ruts – Staring At The Rude Boys
It’s a great shame that we will never really know the full potential of The Ruts, frontman Malcolm Owen having succumbed to heroin addiction in July 1980 at just 26 years old. But perhaps some lights shine all the brighter for being so brief. Formed in 1977, The Ruts, like The Clash, were heavily influenced by reggae and noted for playing several Rock Against Racism benefits, but it was with their jagged punk rock sounds that they really stood out from the pack. Songs like H‑Eyes and Love In Vein documented Malcolm’s losing battle with drugs, but elsewhere they delved into civil unrest, police brutality, and the volatility of warring youth tribes – particularly with their fifth single Staring At The Rude Boys, released just a few months before Malcolm’s death and later covered, with great respect, by Gallows and Lethal Bizzle. Surprisingly, Henry Rollins, one of The Ruts’ biggest fans, did an excellent job standing in as frontman in 2007 at a London benefit show for guitarist Paul Fox, following his cancer diagnosis. Three months later, Paul, too, was dead.
13. Killing Joke – Wardance
In a 2020 interview with Kerrang!, Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman selected Wardance as being the most relevant song from the band’s spectacular self-titled debut album of 1980, because, “We’ve been adapted from an already evolving primate, another race of sentient beings, and part of us is not from here.” He also claims to have an IQ of 170 and then further insists that rock’n’roll was invented by psychiatrists at the Tavistock Institute. Which may go some way to explaining what makes the band so utterly unique: a throbbing, tribal pulse that has gone on to influence everyone from Metallica and Ministry to Faith No More, Godflesh, Nirvana, and, well… the list is endless. Forged in magic and madness, Killing Joke took the spirit and energy of punk into dark, new territory, forever pushing the boundaries of sound and scaring the crap out of people in the process.
14. Crass – Big A Little A
Books have been written about Crass, and you should probably read one if you really want comprehend the importance of the band to the punk scene and alternative culture. A couple of sentences here just isn’t going to cut it. You see, Crass were more than just a band; they were an idea and a way of life. To them, punk rock wasn’t just a bunch of slogan shouting and meaningless platitudes, it was about radical change and anarchy as viable lifestyle. As such, the music was almost secondary to the message, with artwork and direct action – such as the Stop The City protests – being integral to what made them such a significant force. Benefits and squat gigs were common. In fact, The Garage in London was a disused bingo hall before Crass squatted the place for a gig. Moreover, the band’s pranks and hoaxes are the stuff of legend, like the ‘Thatchergate tapes’ (look it up) and the time 20,000 copies of the anti-war song Sheep Farming In The Falklands were randomly inserted into other records at a distribution warehouse. It’s hardly surprising that Banksy’s a fan.
15. Discharge – Fight Back
It is rightly acknowledged that the first proper Discharge album, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, is a complete game-changer, paving the way for grindcore and thrash, its songs have been covered by everyone from Metallica and Machine Head to Sepultura, Anthrax and Neurosis. But let’s go back a little further, especially since current events have made this magnificent slab of rage particularly germane. It’s probably difficult for younger readers to fully understand just how much impact Discharge had on extreme music, not least because their sound has been so endlessly copied. But there really was nothing like it. Not even close. Noise not music, as it said on the T‑shirts and flyers. Hard-fucking-core! Minimalist lyrics, buzzsaw guitar, a drum beat (now known as D‑beat) that sounds like someone throwing a drum kit down a flight of stairs… Hell, even some punks at the time thought if was too extreme. To this day, you will never lose a noise war with the neighbours if you own a Discharge record.
16. The Exploited – Fuck The System
The bad boys of punk, which is saying a great deal, The Exploited have been leaving a trail of destruction in their wake for over 40 years, with their fans (known as the Barmy Army) causing riots in London and Canada, and generally causing mayhem wherever they go. If ever you go to a place where punks are not welcome, it’s probably because The Exploited have been there first. But in many ways, theirs is the real voice of discontent. ‘It’s doesn’t really matter what you’ve got to say / They never fucking listen to you anyway / So fuck the system.’ This is the sound of shitty council estates, not of art colleges, and to dismiss the band as ‘cartoon punks’ is to miss the point – unless it’s understood that cartoons are often loud and violent and subversive, and occasionally banned.
17. GBH – Race Against Time
The Motörhead of punk, Birmingham’s finest have stayed pretty much unchanged – both in line-up and musical style – since their inception in 1978. Some bands evolve and experiment, but GBH are GBH. Ironically, it’s often said that they sound like a thrash band when in fact it’s quite the reverse, and it could easily be argued that without GBH there would be no thrash metal. Certainly, Slayer were fans, even covering Sick Boy on their Undisputed Attitude album of 1996, and Metallica’s late bassist Cliff Burton was frequently seen in a GBH shirt. On Race Against Time, from the legendary Leather, Bristles, Studs, And Acne EP, we find them rather amusingly celebrating the fact that they’d survived as a band for five years. That was in 1981. Their latest album, Momentum, was released in 2017 on the Hellcat label and you may not be astonished to learn that it sounds a lot like GBH. Bless ’em.
18. Conflict – Mighty and Superior
Formed in south London in 1981, Conflict shared many of the same values as Crass, with the same anarchist, anti-war, pro-animal rights stance. In fact, Conflict’s first EP, The House That Man Built, was released on Crass records and for a while after their dissolution, Crass frontman Steve Ignorant joined them as a second vocalist. The big difference – aside from the music – was that Crass were pacifists, whereas if you messed with Conflict they would fuck you up. Riots were not uncommon at their shows, and frontman Colin Jerwood was known to have a baseball bat called ‘The Bopper’ for the purposes of ‘attitude adjustment’, especially when it came to right wing boneheads. Not for nothing is the band slogan ‘The Ungovernable Force’. And 40 years later, the band are still going strong. You might recognise the riff from this one, since it was later ‘borrowed’ by The White Stripes on Seven Nation Army.
19. Rudimentary Peni – Defined By Age
Rudimentary Peni are an odd bunch by any measure. Rarely playing gigs because they found the experience “disappointing”, their record sleeves feature the iconic (and frankly unnerving) pen-and-ink artwork of vocalist/guitarist Nick Blinko and no pictures of the band, thus ensuring that hardly anyone even knows what they look like, and their music ranges from twisted genius to virtually unlistenable. Despite – or perhaps because of – this the band became so influential that when late Corrosion Of Conformity drummer Reed Mullin put together a ‘punk supergroup’ with Dave Grohl, Corey Taylor and many more in 2014, they were named Teenage Time Killers after a Peni track. Still making music to this day, Rudimentary Peni have managed to avoid the ‘rules’ of punk by failing to acknowledge that there are any. Brilliant.
20. Leatherface – How Lonely
Lauded, quite rightly, by The Guardian as being “the greatest British punk band of the modern era”, Sunderland’s Leatherface brought about a beautiful melancholy, while at the same time delivering breakneck tunes, made all the more ferocious by Frankie Stubbs’ gravel raw vocals. Imagine, perhaps, an old man drowning his sorrows in a bar that has nothing but Motörhead and Stiff Little Fingers on the jukebox, and maybe you’ll be close. Tragically, guitarist Dickie Hammond – one of the most talented musicians ever to call punk his own – passed in such a way in 2015, essentially drinking himself to death at just 50 years old. His music is eternal.
21. Gallows – London Is The Reason
‘We are the rats and we run this town / We are the black plague bearing down / We have no fear / We have no pity / We hate you / We hate this city.’ Indeed. This could have been written about any city in the UK, any place where the kids have, as the Pistols put it, ‘No future!’ Formed in Watford, which with the greatest respect to its residents, is another shithole, Gallows had a knack for dragging the listener through the rotten underbelly of a decaying Britain, rife with racism and knife crime, this song being a prime example of punk rock at its furious best.
22. Antisect – Spirit-Level
Adhering to some kind of rough chronological order, Antisect would be much higher up the list, having formed in Daventry in 1982, and released their debut album, In Darkness There Is No Choice the following year. Enduring numerous line-up changes, their musical style evolved from hardcore punk to incorporate a more ‘metal’ edge, but while they are considered seminal to many, they were, to these ears, a poor man’s Discharge. Until… After a hiatus of 24 years, Antisect returned with what can only be described as a masterpiece. Fiercely political and heavier than a London bus, The Rising Of The Lights album, on which Spirit-Level is the opening track, melds Killing Joke and Amebix for a sonic assault that is nothing short of astonishing. Doubtless, some will argue that this is simply a metal album, but they are wrong, so fuck ’em.
23. IDLES – Mother
“For the last time, we’re not a fucking punk band!” said IDLES frontman Joe Talbot at a Manchester gig in 2018. Which, you would think, rather precludes them from being in a feature about punk rock. But let’s not be so hasty. After all, how punk rock is it to deny being a punk band, despite all the evidence to the contrary? Indeed, a brief checklist of just this song reveals an angry, and wonderfully discordant racket that is both socially aware and anti-establishment, whilst challenging stereotypes… and smashing stuff up. ‘The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich!’ bellows Joe, in the best traditions of, er, punk rock. Sorry guys.
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