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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.

    Minor Threat – “Straight Edge” (1981)

    In the early ‘80s, hardcore became a subgenre of punk unto itself, and a small group of teenage friends from Washington, D.C. became enormously influential on the development of hardcore. Henry Rollins picked up and moved to California to become the frontman of the most famous lineup of West Coast hardcore legends Black Flag, while his pal Ian MacKaye stayed in D.C. to form several seminal bands, including Minor Threat, and found Dischord Records.

    The songs Minor Threat recorded in their three years together typified hardcore’s spirit of extreme brevity even by punk standards — their Complete Discography compilation spans 47 minutes, while their most influential song runs just 47 seconds. MacKaye’s anthem of abstinence from alcohol and drugs may have simply been a statement of his own life choices, but the words “straight edge” soon became synonymous with sober punks everywhere. Perhaps feeling hemmed in by punk’s musical constraints and didactic politics, MacKaye pioneered a more experimental “post-hardcore” sound with his later band Fugazi.

    Bad Brains – “I Against I” (1986)

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    While bands like The Clash were embracing reggae from a punk perspective, Bad Brains upended the D.C. hardcore scene by approaching punk with the grooves and musicianship of four Black musicians who cut their teeth playing jazz fusion and reggae. Their speed and precision, far beyond that of any more traditional punk bands in the area, quickly became the stuff of legend.

    Singer Paul “H.R.” Hudson and drummer Earl Hudson, Rastafarian brothers born to a Jamaican mother, sometimes pulled Bad Brains further in a reggae direction, while guitarist Dr. Know and bassist Darryl Jenifer favored punk and metal. When those divergent interests blended well, as on the title track to I Against I, their third album and only release for stalwart West Coast punk label SST Records, the results were transcendent. But at other times the band simply couldn’t stay on the same page, and the Hudson brothers left Bad Brains for the first time during the tour in support of I Against I.

    Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” (1993)

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    While a bunch of guys from Seattle were blowing up with punk-adjacent hard rock in the early ‘90s, the most potent feminist punk scene in the genre’s history, the riot grrrl movement, was fomenting an hour away in Olympia. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy never enjoyed the commercial success of their upstate contemporaries (although Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail inspired the title of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). But by providing a major challenge to the overwhelmingly male punk landscape and inspiring subsequent generations of female musicians, the early riot grrrl bands are responsible for an inarguably huge amount of the best punk rock of the last three decades.

    Many of Bikini Kill’s songs, like “I Like Fucking,” were provocatively written to challenge the retrograde gender politics that were prevalent in the hardcore scene. But “Rebel Girl” is revolutionary in part because it’s such a sincere celebration of a peer, actively playing against the sneer in Kathleen Hanna’s voice with clever misdirection: “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood/ I got news for you – she is!”

    Green Day – “Basket Case” (1994)

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    Right at the moment when mainstream alternative rock was starting to feel a little too much like sluggish heavy metal, Green Day came bursting through the door with brief, snotty punk anthems so deeply indebted to The Clash and the Sex Pistols that Billie Joe Armstrong almost couldn’t help but sing in a fake British accent. The Berkeley, California trio’s major label debut was immature enough to be titled Dookie, but imbued with enough classic pop sophistication that it wasn’t all that shocking when Armstrong went onto record an album of Everly Brothers covers with Norah Jones.

    “Basket Case” was the fastest of the Dookie hits that dominated MTV, and with Tre Cool’s hyper drum fills and Mike Dirnt’s rubbery basslines mirroring the anxiety Armstrong was singing about. The album was already crossing the Platinum mark when “Basket Case” was released as a single, and the song blasted them so far into the stratosphere that by the end of the decade it was the first Diamond-certified punk album. Billy Idol have been the first punk to become a pop star, but Green Day cemented pop punk as a cottage industry.

    The Linda Lindas – “Racist, Sexist Boy” (2021)

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    In 2021, punk rock is still obscure DIY bands playing to tiny local audiences, and it’s also glossy Travis Barker-produced major label albums. Somewhere in the middle, punk songs that hit a nerve go viral in a way that pre-internet punk pioneers never got to experience.

    The Linda Lindas’ big YouTube hit, a performance at the Los Angeles Public Library, opens with the band’s 10-year-old drummer Mila de la Garza, in a Bikini Kill shirt, explaining her experience with coronavirus-era bigotry that inspired the song. “A little while before we went into lockdown, a boy in my class came up to me and said that his dad told him to stay away from Chinese people. After I told him I was Chinese, he backed away from me.” Then she and her bandmates burst into their furious musical response to him, “Racist, Sexist Boy.”

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    In the song’s bridge, the girls run through a list of antiquated insults, some of which conjure punk authenticity debates of old (“poser!”) and some of which evoke Peanuts comics (“blockhead!”). The performance won rave reviews from an array of musical legends, including Kathleen Hanna. Within a few weeks, The Linda Lindas had performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and signed to Epitaph Records, the stalwart punk label founded by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz before any of them were born.

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