Let’s start here: calling Gang of Four’s magnificent Entertainment a punk record is like calling the Soft Machine a British Invasion band.
Last week, Rolling Stone published a list of the 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time. Incredulous and ridiculous (even by Rolling Stone’s standards), the piece was riddled with records that had only the most tenuous connection to punk; also, its many bizarre and embarrassing omissions underlined the fact that that the writers didn’t know their subject remotely as well as they should have.
It appears that the authors have used “punk” as a catchall term for anything that their cool sophomore year roommate at SUNY Binghamton, Larry from Port Washington, had in his record collection. Sure, Larry appeared to know what he was talking about, but he was also the same guy 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 he was stoned he 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 on the Rolling Stone list cover (at least) 13 different and distinct genres, [i] only a few of which could be accurately placed under the “Punk Rock” umbrella. As a survivor and eyewitness of virtually all 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 were a listener, a musician, or a journalist who paid attention, you pretty much know that it’s a rather grand stretch to call Sonic Youth or Devo punk bands.
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.
Anointing the Bowery circa ’76 as the birthplace of punk is, well, misleading. Yes, the magnificent rumblings of art and revolution in the Bowery Necropolis of the mid-1970s are fundamental to our 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 of British Columbia competition. Without boring you with a long explanation, this is all you need to know for now: bands like the Pistols, the Damned, the Stranglers, and the Saints (to name just four) were up and running before they had any real awareness of the goings-on in New York City.
Before we further explain how this list is lazy, insulting and inaccurate, it’s worth addressing the why.
There are eight credited authors on Rolling Stone’s 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time list; only one of these (the wonderful Dave Fricke, who is one of the treasures of American music journalism) has any history of writing about punk rock. In fact, most of the contributors to the list have never written about anything even tangentially related to punk. There is a reason that I do not write anything for the Observer about fashionable DJ’s, rap, or r&b: these are genres I know very, very little about, so I am smart enough to steer clear of them.
If you take a look at the credits of the writers who put together the RS list, you will surely say, “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 does these sorts of lists fairly frequently. Here’s a suggestion: Next time you crawl out of Mr. Frey’s dark and musty nether-corona long enough to write one of these things, why don’t you bring in an outsider who might actually know the terrain? How hard would it be to consult with, oh, Jack Rabid or Matt Pinfield or even Jim DeRogatis so you could actually get this thing right?
If the primary thing that’s wrong with the Rolling Stone list is the over-large and misleading application of the word “punk,” a secondary problem is that the authors appear to know very little about the true salad days 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).
None of the following records are on 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. Let’s stretch our date parameter a bit and throw in D.O.A.’s Hardcore ‘81, arguably one of the greatest punk records to come out of North America, and perhaps the single best album to emerge from the hardcore movement.
These aren’t even obscure albums; each (with the exception of D.O.A.) 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 of these albums is on Rolling Stone’s list is a big, fat, stinking two-day-old piece of Tilapia sitting in the middle of the room, underlining that something is very, very wrong with the whole project.
A line in the preamble to the list 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 written elsewhere, 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 Timmy Sommer and I endorse this message.
Thank you to Dr. Jennifer Jo Brout for the statistical analysis of the list.
[i] For the record, here are the genres: There’s 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 20 years ago, John Lydon showed up at my 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.