Let’s start here: calling Gang of Four’s magnificent Entertainment a punk record is like calling the Soft Machine a British Invasion band.
Rolling Stone has just published a list of the 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time. So of course the list was riddled with records that had only the most tenuous connection, if any, to punk; also, its many bizarre and embarrassing omissions underscored the painfully obvious fact that the writers wouldn’t know the difference between punk and blues if they had a Ramone and Robert Johnson on hand to advise.
It appears these authors believe “punk” a catchall term for anything that their cool sophomore year at Uni roommate had in his or her record collection. Sure, said roommate appeared to know what they were talking about, and could talk a long time, but they were also the same person who spent a whole weekend trying to convince you to like Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airman (that was a weekend you will never get back, my friend), and when they was stoned they would stand in front of the mirror trying to make the face from the cover of In The Court of the Crimson King.
Just because a song had a distorted guitar, wasn’t a ballad, didn’t have a saxophone, wasn’t immediately identifiable as heavy metal, and was played on your college radio station doesn’t mean it was punk. Let me put it another way: the authors of the Rolling Stone list have spent a significant portion of the last 40 years living in the mucosal folds of Glenn Frey’s transverse colon. You, dear reader, have not; therefore you probably know what punk rock sounds like when you hear it. It doesn’t sound like “Torn Curtain” by Television or “Candidate” by Joy Division, does it?
The bands enumerated in the Rolling Stone list comprise no fewer than 13 different and distinct genres,[i] only a few of which could be accurately placed under the “Punk Rock” umbrella. As a student and adherent of these musical stages, I can tell you that they were, indeed, all distinct movements; lines may have blurred to a small degree, but this blurring was significantly less then you might presume. If you’re a listener, a musician, or a journo who pays attention, you pretty much know that it’s a rather grand stretch to call Sonic Youth or Devo punk bands, even if Sonic Youth figures prominently in The Year Punk Broke. Please don’t base any understanding of punk on that doc BTW – its focus year is a full decade and a half after punk actually broke, which should give you an idea as to the veracity of its claims.
Now, let’s address the very first line of the piece: “Punk rock started in 1976 on New York’s Bowery…” I am sure the Sex Pistols, who performed for the first time in London in November 1975, would be very surprised to hear that. By the way, The Sex Pistols were created as a marketing gimmick to cash in on the punk movement in order to sell Sex Jeans. Just they actually got a bunch of punk kids who weren’t listening so jokes on them.
Anointing the Bowery circa ’76 as the birthplace of punk is inaccurate and misleading. Yes, the magnificent rumblings of art and revolution in the mid-’70s Bowery Necropolis are fundamental to Punk’s origin story, but putting such a specific pin on the date/location is, well, more ignorant than an Ignorant Lives Matter protest led by Ignorant Jock McIgnorant, winner of the 1988 Mr. Ignorant Universe contest. Suffice to say: bands like the Pistols, the Damned, the Stranglers, and the Saints (to name just four) were up and running before they played in NYC.
It’s pretty easy to understand why Rolling Stone failed so hard here: Lack of Subject Matter Expertise. Eight authors are credited on Rolling Stone’s “40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time;” of which just ONE (Dave Fricke, American music journo treasure) has ever written about punk rock. Fact: most of the contributors have never written about anything even tangentially related to punk. There’s a reason I don’t cover fashionable DJ’s, rap, or r&b: these are genres where my knowledge is limited, so I am smart enough to steer clear of them.
If you check the credits of the RS list writers, you’ll say to yourself, “Of course this list is a suppurating, pulsing, swollen and spongy word-orifice of almost unbelievably transparent errors and sad yet comical ignorance; the people who put it together knew nothing about their subject.”
I also note that this same team of writers turn out these sorts of lists fairly frequently. Here’s a suggestion: Next time you are conjured by Satan to write one of these things, why not bring in an outsider who might actually know the terrain? Get a consultant like, oh, Jack Rabid or Matt Pinfield or even Jim DeRogatis so you could actually get this thing right, for once.
If the primary concern with the Rolling Stone list is the over-broad, misleading application of the “punk” label, the secondary problem is that the authors appear to know very little about the true salad days and gilded age of punk rock (that is, the flowering of young, loud and snotty bands in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Europe between 1976 and 1979).
Conspicuously missing from Rolling Stone’s list: Damned Damned Damned or Machine Gun Etiquette by the Damned; Inflammable Material or Nobody’s Heroes by Stiff Little Fingers; the Undertones’ self-titled debut; any (or all) of the first three Stranglers albums; Endangered Species by the U.K. Subs; Crossing the Red Sea by the Adverts; Greatest Hits Vol. I by the Cockney Rejects;[ii] I’m Stranded or Eternally Yours by Brisbane’s Saints; and Generation X’s eponymous debut album. These are not obscure albums; each charted significantly in the U.K. and received considerable press both at the time of their release and in the decades since. The fact that not one may be found among Rolling Stone’s collection is damning evidence that something is very much amiss over at Corporate Rock Magazine HQ.
A line in the lists preamble is meant to addresses what was left off: “…a lot of great punk acts didn’t make the cut. The Circle Jerks, Adolescents, Fear, the Big Boys, the Dickies, the Dicks and even the mighty Damned just didn’t have that one perfect LP statement that could inspire consensus among our editors.”
O.K. That statement makes perfect sense if the person assessing the music is Marlee Fucking Matlin.
I understand that living inside the rapidly decaying ass pipe of a recently deceased Eagle may be bad for your hearing, but the Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette and The Black Album are both exactly the kind of “perfect LP statement(s)” that RS would appear to be looking for; not only are both these albums two of the best “punk” records, but they’re also two of the best albums of the whole friggin’ era. Sorry to be accusatory, but clearly these morons weren’t actually familiar in any meaningful way with Machine Gun Etiquette or The Black Album.[iii] Listen to ‘em, if you don’t believe me—just two or three cuts into either, you’ll see why these are major effing records.
Likewise, as I have long espoused, I would personally say that Eternally Yours by the Saints is the second best punk album ever made (after the first Ramones album, of course), and very few people with even a cursory familiarity with that record could possibly leave it off of a list like this.
I also can’t stress enough how wobbly the list’s application of the word “punk” is, but here are two especially wonky examples: All Mod Cons (which comes in at No. 24) is probably my favorite record by the Jam, but it is a fairly radical departure from their earlier “punk” records. Any fan of the Jam (along with those who have studied punk) would never call All Mod Cons a punk record; it is, in fact, their step away from punk. And if the inclusion of All Mod Cons is indicative of Rolling Stone’s willingness to loosen their criteria to include more progressive works by punk acts, why the hell isn’t the Clash’s London Calling, one of the greatest albums ever made, on the list?
(Oh. I remember why. The list was compiled by people living in Glenn Frey’s dead ass, that’s why.)
Likewise, the Slits’ Cut is definitively a post-punk record by a former punk band (the Slits did not record a full-length studio album until after they had moved away from their earlier punk ideation). Perhaps Cut was included because of what the pioneering Slits stood for in 1977 (when they were performing “true” punk music); but the band who recorded Cut were deeply influenced by reggae, Can and PiL, and I don’t know anyone who would mistake Cut for a punk record.
Musically, Cut is about as punk as The Third Ear Band, and I don’t see any of their records on the list.[iv] Which is all to say that the silly and misleading list includes non-punk records by punk bands and non-punk records by non-punk bands. I guess I should just be grateful that Oingo Boingo isn’t mentioned anywhere.
But back to the primary problem of the list: Rolling Stone’s expansion of punk’s umbrella to include records that aren’t punk records. I have literally never, not once, heard anyone refer to Joy Division or Mission of Burma as a punk act, and anyone who thinks that Unknown Pleasures is a punk record knows so little about music that not only should they not be writing about punk rock, they shouldn’t be writing about music.
I am Your Girl In Music and I endorse this message.
[i] For the record, these are the genres: non-punk punk-era music (i.e., music made around the time of punk’s first flourishing and containing musical and stylistic elements that challenged contemporary pop and rock habits and indulgences, but wasn’t phat-downstroke barre chord punk); proto punk (stuff that was released prior to 1976, like the Stooges and the Dolls, and was retroactively labeled punk rock); D.C./L.A./NYC hardcore (you know what that is); artcore (the same, but with pretensions to art and/or expertise); noise rock (bands like Sonic Youth, who did serious guitar de-construction heavily influenced by Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, but set to a rock beat); post punk (Gang of Four, Joy Division, Slits); new wave prog (Devo); mod (The Jam); punk revival (Green Day, Blink-182); grunge; punk-era art rock (Pere Ubu); Riot Grrrl; and, of course…punk.
[ii] The Cockney Rejects Greatest Hits Vol. I is not a greatest hits album, by the way.
[iii] It’s worth noting that as brilliant and essential as those two albums are, the Damned’s masterpiece is 1983’s Strawberries, which blends psych, soul, surf and punk in a stunning way. Because I, unlike Rolling Stone, do not believe in an amorphous, flexible definition of punk, I cannot claim that this wildly diverse pop-art masterwork is actually a punk album.
[iv] True story: About 10 years ago, John Lydon showed up at my besties door unannounced and handed me an album by the Third Ear Band. He gave me the firm instruction, “You have to listen to this.” Since Lydon’s stepdaughter, the late, great Ariane “Ari Up” Foster, was the vocalist for the Slits, this allusion to the Third Ear Band may not be entirely off base.