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A Guide to Punk Music in 10 Songs

A quick overview of the faster, louder rebirth of rock’n’roll

Punk Music Guide
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    We’re kicking off Punk Week here at Consequence with a guide to the genre. Keep checking back throughout the week for interviews, lists, editorials and videos — it’s all things punk, all the time. You can also pick up our new “Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk!” T-shirt at the Consequence Shop.

    Punk is a genre born of rebellion and conflict, and there’s no way to define it without inspiring fevered debate. From the moment “punk rock” made the jump from a phrase occasionally thrown about by rock critics like Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs to a real genre, there have been constant battles to separate real punks from posers.

    But authenticity is overrated — even the one band that everyone can agree epitomizes punk rock, the Ramones, used stage names. Some bands stuck to the “loud fast rules” ethos but abandoned the DIY spirit, while others kept the punk spirit alive while borrowing rhythms and tempos from reggae and other genres.

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    Over the last five decades, punk has died and been reborn many times over, and even in 2021 it continues to spin off viral hits as well as unlikely pop-punk crossover moments from rap star Machine Gun Kelly or show business scion Willow Smith. But let’s look at the big picture, 10 songs that trace the unlikely and shockingly varied path of a genre that has room for both Bad Brains and Green Day.


    The Stooges – “Search and Destroy” (1973)

    After punk rock was minted as a movement, several influential acts from the ‘60s and early ‘70s were retroactively hailed as “proto-punk” bands that made the genre possible, from MC5 to New York Dolls. And perhaps no band provided more of the future blueprint for punk than Detroit’s The Stooges, led by James “Iggy Pop” Osterberg. The Midwest was hardly ready for Pop’s confrontational stage persona and the band’s primal thud, and the Stooges split up for a few months following two commercially unsuccessful albums for Elektra.

    “Search and Destroy,” the Stooges’ definitive punk blueprint that’s been covered by Sid Vicious, Dead Boys, Rocked From the Tombs, and The Dictators, probably wouldn’t exist if not for David Bowie. After his Ziggy Stardust breakthrough, Bowie used his newfound industry clout to get a reformed Stooges signed to Columbia, bringing the new lineup with guitarist James Williamson to London to record Raw Power.

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    “Search and Destroy” explodes with snarling attitude as Iggy Pop declares himself a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm. But the album charted even lower than The Stooges’ debut, and they broke up in 1974, just as many Stooges fans were forming seminal punk bands of their own.

    Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976)

    Song 1, side 1 of The Ramones’ debut album is effectively ground zero for punk rock, the moment when the sound familiar to regulars at the East Village club CBGB started to make its way out into the world. Although Patti Smith beat them to stores by a few months with the first major label album by a CBGB act, The Ramones were a more natural standard bearer for the fast, simple 3-chord punk template that would follow.

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    “Blitzkrieg Bop” has the combination of poison and bubblegum that would become The Ramones’ signature: the title refers to Nazi Germany’s surprise attack military strategy, while the band’s immortal “hey ho, let’s go” chant was inspired by one of the biggest pop hits of 1975, “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers. Still, it took time for “Blitzkrieg Bop” to reach the masses: the song never charted, and by the time the song had infiltrated rock radio, TV commercials and Spider-Man movies a few decades later, most of the original Ramones had passed away.

    Sex Pistols – “Anarchy in the UK” (1976)

    While America’s earliest punk bands took a few years to climb the singles charts, usually adopting slicker and more diverse sounds in the process, punk was an overnight sensation in England. That was largely thanks to the Sex Pistols and the shrewd svengali who assembled and managed the band, Chelsea boutique owner Malcolm McLaren. Their debut single “Anarchy in the UK” was a perfect calling card, with frontman Johnny Rotten declaring himself an anarchist antichrist over Steve Jones’s roaring riffs.

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    One week after the release of “Anarchy,” Queen’s Freddie Mercury canceled a Thames Television appearance. And the visibly drunken Sex Pistols were their last minute replacements, cursing out host Bill Gundy on live TV and setting off a London media furor. From that moment on, the Sex Pistols were a powder keg of constant controversy that turned British punk into a pop phenomenon. “Anarchy in the UK” peaked at #38 on the UK charts, but the band’s next seven singles all went top 10, a streak that continued even after the band’s breakup and bassist Sid Vicious’s 1979 overdose death.

    The Clash – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” (1978)

    The Clash rode the wave of publicity Malcolm McLaren had created for punk, making their live debut opening for the Sex Pistols in July 1976, and signing a lucrative contract with CBS Records in the aftermath of the Pistols becoming tabloid stars. While the Clash’s earliest songs were full of rapidfire power chords like The Damned and the Pistols’ records, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones quickly began showing signs that they’d become the most ambitious and musically omnivorous band of British punk’s first generation.

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    The Clash’s self-titled 1977 debut featured a cover of Jamaican singer Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” fusing young London’s twin obsessions punk and reggae. The single “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” followed in 1978, the first Clash original to incorporate choppy ska rhythms into the band’s punk attack, foreshadowing not just the genre-blurring that lay ahead on later Clash albums but the ska and reggae DNA in countless future punk bands.

    Dead Kennedys – “Holiday In Cambodia” (1980)

    New York City got all the glory as the ‘70s epicenter of American punk, but California arguably became the country’s most enduring hotbed of punk rock following the rise of L.A.’s Black Flag, the Germs, and the Circle Jerks, and the Bay Area scene that birthed the Dead Kennedys. Frontman Jello Biafra was the closest thing American punk had to its own Johnny Rotten, a fearless provocateur with a piercing warble who knew how to turn his political stances into catchy, barbed slogans.

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    Gallows humor was baked right into Dead Kennedys’ name. And “Holiday in Cambodia” was a pitch black surf rock satire of self-righteous American college students that suggests sending them to live under Pol Pot’s dictatorship, which killed over a million Cambodians in the second half of the 1970s. The band split up in 1986, but since 2000 Dead Kennedys have reunited and toured with different singers, much to Jello Biafra’s chagrin.

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