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Top 11 Classic Punk Rock Songs
“Punk rock was the tsunami that threatened to drown us all in 1977.”
– Pete Townshend
- “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5
“Kick Out the Jams” is the title track of the MC5‘s 1969 debut LP, recorded over Halloween weekend at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. The song gained immediate notoriety by its introduction. Singer Rob Tyner opens with “Right now it’s time to – kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” That would lead to censored and uncensored versions of the album and Elektra dropping the band from its label.
“We picked ‘Jams’ as a single because it best summed up what we were doing at that moment,” guitarist Wayne Kramer told Uncut. “The song came out of bandspeak. Tyner heard the expression and it fitted in with this idea of total commitment, total assault on the culture. So we used the expression to harass other bands. I couldn’t tell you which bands, because we harassed every band we played with. Well, if they were losers, we let them know that. We’d stand by the edge of the stage and holler: ‘Kick out the jams or get off the stage!'”
- “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys
“Holiday in Cambodia” was released in 1980, an indictment of the mass killings by that country’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. The song was co-written by Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, whose lyrics compared the lifestyle of privileged American college students with the atrocities in Cambodia.
“Some Dead Kennedys songs had more than one writer – a lot of the best ones did,” Biafra told Songfacts. “‘Holiday in Cambodia’ was one of the few that actually was group-written – or at least group-constructed.
“The original ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ is more a straight punk song. We called them ‘chainsaws’ back then, ‘chainsaw punk’ after the Ramones song [‘Chainsaw’]. The other guys didn’t like it. They didn’t want to play it. I was heartbroken, I was crestfallen, they’d never done that to me before. And then Klaus [Flouride] began noodling around on what became that signature bass line. I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s cool. What would happen if we swiped everything from my “Holiday in Cambodia” song – verse, chorus, bridge – but used that as the original root rhythm?’
“Eventually, Ray [East Bay Ray] came up with that signature guitar part when he enters the song. It was taking a while; we didn’t even play it at our first show, although we knew we had it under our belt. It was a pretty chief song for making me decide I ought to stick with these guys and it might turn into something really unusual.”
- “Marquee Moon” by Television
“Marquee Moon” is the title track from Television‘s 1977 debut album. Like the Ramones and the New York Dolls, Television – guitarists Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine, bassist Richard Hell and drummer Billy Ficca – honed its music at New York’s CBGB. By the time the album was recorded, Television had played together for three years. Lloyd explained to Damien Love how he worked with Verlaine.
“Tom was a control freak when it came to music. For me, that was fine. A lot of time, he didn’t want me to come up with my own riffs, because he had a riff, but he couldn’t play it and sing at the same time. If he had a guitar part he couldn’t play while singing he’d give me the part, and I would make it mine. Like, on ‘Marquee Moon,’ basically, I just took over his part so that he could solo.
“The way Television worked was, when he was singing, he was playing the chords, rhythm, and I was playing leads – not solos, but leads. I played far more lead guitar than Tom did. And when it came time for the guitar solos, we would swap back and forth.
“The split was supposed to be 50-50, or 40-60, but we had this giant ‘Marquee Moon,’ where Tom gets to solo for five minutes or whatever, but it was so good that I couldn’t argue about it.”
- “Blank Generation” by Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Richard Hell left Television in 1975 to form the Heartbreakers but by 1976 he left to start Richard Hell and the Voidoids. “Blank Generation” was the title cut from their influential 1977 debut album. Television’s Tom Verlaine had introduced Hell to a novelty single, “The Beat Generation,” written by Rod McKuen and performed by Bob McFadden and Dor.
“I liked the idea of doing my versions of sorta genre songs, and a ‘generation’ song was one of them,” Hell recalled in Rock’s Backpages. “I was way into the Who’s first album [The Who Sings My Generation], and Tom had this funny, kitsch single by Rod McKuen called ‘I Belong to the Beat Generation,’ so it just seemed like a perfect conjunction to use that classic ‘Hit The Road Jack’ chord sequence as the structure of that song.
“The idea of the blank generation to me … well, the whole point was to make you struggle to figure it out. Number one, any way you interpret it is correct. Two, the point of it is to make you have a hard time figuring it out. But obviously it carries these connotations of emptiness, and obviously it carries these connotations of ‘fill in the blank.’
“My conclusion was that I didn’t care! It was kind of a defensive thing that kids that age will use. I think I felt just overwhelmed by input: the Vietnam war and the collapse of the ’60s and the proliferation of media … it just felt like everything was too much to handle and you just tuned out. Blank seemed appropriate to me, because my own feeling was of sensory overload.
“The Beat Generation” by Bob McFadden and Dor
- “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols
“God Save the Queen” was recorded in 1977, the follow-up single to “Anarchy in the U.K.” from the Sex Pistols‘ only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. With lyrics by Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), the song was a reaction to the poor treatment and lack of job prospects for young people in post-World War II Britain.
As a publicity stunt, the band performed the song on a boat trip as it passed Parliament during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Much of the country was outraged and the BBC banned the song. “If they’d have hung us at Traitors’ Gate, it would have been applauded by 56 million people,” Lydon recalled to The Telegraph in 2017. “We declared war on England without meaning to.”
“I’m very proud of the achievements in that record, it’s done wonders for this country,” Lydon told NME. “It’s musically timeless, although it absolutely encapsulates that period and free spirit of teenage angst and rebellion. But it’s bigger than that. It’s braver. It’s by far the hardest thing to have done initially: it was a full-on challenge to the establishment, and I meant it to be so. I knew it would get me into all kinds of hell on earth, and I was fully prepared for that.”
- “Funky But Chic” by David Johansen
When the New York Dolls broke up in 1977, singer David Johansen brought guitarist Sylvain Sylvain into his new band. They co-wrote “Funky But Chic” for Johansen’s debut solo album, David Johansen. “What I love about David is the fact that he never forgets that he’s a New Yorker, which you hear in his lyrics,” Sylvain told Silent Radio. “He is very indigenous of where he grew up and that really pours out of his music. One of the songs on the new album, ‘Funky But Chic,’ was written back in 1975-76 and appears on David’s first solo album, which was released in 1978.”
“Syl and I wrote that song around the time the Dolls ended, so I guess the Dolls would have recorded it if we had made another album at that time,” Johansen recalled in The AV Club . “Then I recorded it for my solo album. Before we went into the studio this time, we’d been asked by a lot of people to start doing that song. Agents and stuff were saying, ‘Oh, we could do a lot with that song. We could put it in a movie or something.’ There was a lot of different chatter in the background about that song, so we just played it.”
- “Tommy Gun” by the Clash
Many fans discovered the Clash with their 1982 hits “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” The Clash, though, were one of the most political punk bands around, with songs like “London Calling” and 1978’s “Tommy Gun” adding to the conversation.
The band showed support for groups that had advocated violence for political gains. In the liner notes of Clash on Broadway, lead vocalist and guitarist Joe Strummer maintained that terrorists liked reading about their killings just as musicians enjoyed reading reviews of their work. Strummer famously wore a t-shirt at 1978’s Rock Against Racism show with the words “Brigate-Rosse” (Italy’s Red Brigades) and an insignia of Germany’s Red Army Faction. Strummer later said he only wore the shirt to call attention to, rather than actually support, the groups.
Criticism helped inspire Strummer to write “Tommy Gun,” which renounces violence as a way to protest. Drummer Topper Headon mimics the rapid fire of the Thompson submachine gun on his snare drum on the track.
- “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges
The Stooges‘ self-titled 1969 debut album introduced Iggy Pop to the world. The album was produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, who played the one-note piano riff and sleigh bells on “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Pop told Howard Stern what “I Wanna Be Your Dog” means.
“Have you ever seen like a really good looking girl, really nicely dressed, and she’s walking down the street with her dog, right? And like her dog is maybe intimate with her body, and she likes him and everything so you think, basically, more than that, it’s the idea of I want to unite with your body. I don’t wanna talk about literature with you or something. I don’t want to judge you as a person. I wanna dog you.”
- “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop
The Stooges disbanded in 1971 and by 1977 Iggy Pop had moved into a room in David Bowie’s Berlin apartment. Bowie co-wrote and produced “Lust for Life.” Pop told the New York Times that Bowie “saw me sometimes, when he wanted to voice it that way, as a modern Beat or a modern Dostoyevsky character or a modern van Gogh. But he also knew I’m a hick from the sticks at heart.’
The two were watching TV, waiting for Starsky & Hutch to begin on the Armed Forces Network, when inspiration struck. The network began each program with a call signal composed of beeps. Pop said Bowie “wrote the [chord] progression on ukulele, and he said, ‘Call it “Lust for Life,” write something up.'” Pop used references to William S. Burroughs’ novel The Ticket That Exploded in the lyrics.
The 1996 film Trainspotting used “Lust for Life” in its opening sequence, a twist of fate that really helped the song catch on with fans. Since then the song has been used in a number of films and TV commercials.
- “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground
“Sweet Jane” first appeared on the Velvet Underground‘s fourth album, Loaded. The song was written by Lou Reed, who left the band three months before the LP’s release in November 1970. Reed long lamented that Atlantic Records edited out the song’s bridge after it was recorded. Reed, who died in 2013, performed the song intact on the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City.
“‘Sweet Jane’ started out as a soft ballad very much like the kind of song Lou liked to write, and then it became a power song,” revealed bassist Doug Yule in Uncut. “The manager wasn’t really pushing anything for us to write any hits. It’s pretty much the band who wanted to change a solo. We’d add a little touch. It wasn’t a major shift done in the production, it would be the way we’d play them live.”
In Perfect Sound Forever, Yule disputes Reed’s claim that Atlantic excised the song’s bridge. “He did that. He edited it. You have to understand at the time, the motivation was … Lou was, and all of us were, intent on one thing and that was to be successful and what you had to do to be successful in music, was you had to have a hit, and a hit had to be uptempo, short, and with no digressions, straight ahead basically, you wanted a hook and something to feed the hook and that was it. ‘Sweet Jane’ was arranged just exactly the way it is on the original Loaded release exactly for that reason – to be a hit!”
- “Blitzkreig Bop” by the Ramones
Songs like “I Wanna Be Sedated” And “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” have cemented the Ramones‘ reputation as the kings of punk rock. It all began with “Blitzkreig Bop,” their debut single that introduced their “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” chant.
“There was a big hit by the Bay City Rollers at the time called ‘Saturday Night,’ which was a chant-type song,’ drummer Tommy Ramone told Louder Sound. “So I thought it would be fun to do for the Ramones too. And somehow I came up with ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go!’ I just liked the term because it made fun of Mick Jagger singing the Stones’ version of ‘Walking The Dog,’ where he goes ‘High low, tippy toe.’ We all used to goof on that and sing ‘hey ho!’ instead.”
“They felt they were going to beat the Bay City Rollers, that’s the thing,” added producer Craig Leon. “They went into it thinking they were going to be the biggest band in the world. Joey was the real fanatic for pop culture – I mean, he loved anything by Herman’s Hermits! I’m pretty sure that none of the Ramones were fans of the bands that people thought were their influences. They didn’t listen to the Stooges or the Velvets. They thought they were just dour old farts.”
This list barely scratches the surface, of course, so let us know what you’d add in the comment section below!
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