This year, we’re going to hear a fair amount of noise about 2016 being the 40th anniversary of punk. A lot of it will be bullshit, and no doubt there will be a plethora of quotes from Dave Grohl. Regardless, punk rock is a goddamn interesting and important subject, and it deserves a kind of joyous but critical examination that it’s almost never received.
There’s a large body of literature regarding the “first” rock ’n roll song.[i] You can also find a lot of writing about the “first” rap song. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen an even marginally thoughtful piece about the first punk rock song. Most journalists just wave around the first Ramones records, throw in a line or two about the Stooges and the Dolls, and Bob’s Your Uncle.[ii]
So what was the first modern punk rock record? I’m going to take a stab at examining this question as academically as possible.
First of all, let’s define our terms. What is punk?
True, in the mid-1970s there was a flourishing of exciting and progressive music that sought to repudiate the indulgences and fripperies of the existing rock landscape; but to accurately address our question, we must separate artists who were part of the punk era from artists who played punk rock.
Prior to 1976, artists like Patti Smith and the Residents were making music of almost brutal innovation, but they weren’t making modern punk rock. Likewise, acts like Blondie and Television played fresh, engaging, contrarian music that fueled and defined the style and sprit of the punk era, but they didn’t play punk rock.[iii] You could make a good argument that the beginning of the punk era dates to events that happened in 1972 and ’73 in New York City at Club 82, the Mercer Arts Center, or CBGB’s/Hilly’s on the Bowery; but these dates won’t tell you anything about the first appearance on vinyl of modern punk rock. [iv]
In our search for the first modern punk rock record, it’s disingenuous to find it in the work of any of the amazing precursors who recorded in the 1960s and early ’70s, like the Velvet Underground, the Sonics, the Stooges, the Monks, and the Troggs (not to mention Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Burnette, and a pile of other rockabilly primitives). Certainly, these artists made music that was aesthetically and structurally similar to the punk rock that emerged in the mid-1970s, but I am specifically searching for releases that set off a firecracker with immediate impact, and not the elders who lit a match in the darkness.
Toward that end, I am only considering the work of artists without roots in the 1960s or early 1970s, and who were relatively new when they released the relevant material.[v]
Not one word below is meant to diminish the extraordinary music and titanic legacy of the Ramones and the Saints, who are without a doubt the Ur-bands of the modern punk rock movement.[vi] Although neither group released vinyl until 1976, there is definitive evidence that the Ramones were playing modern punk rock in 1974, and the Saints by the end of 1973; but what I want to do here is delineate the first vinyl release(s) of modern punk.
Traditionally, there are three records that are cited as the “first” punk rock releases: the first Ramones album (April 1976), the “New Rose” 45 by the Damned (October ’76), and the Saints debut album, (I’m) Stranded (September ’76). Each of these sound as fresh today as they did 40 years ago, and each are among the greatest records ever made; but they weren’t the first “modern” punk rock records.
So who are our candidates? I’ve targeted six records/album tracks, all released prior to 1976 (with one exception). Each could stake a legitimate claim to being the first modern punk rock record:
“After Eight” by Neu! (album track from Neu! 75, released early 1975); “Two Tub Man” by the Dictators (from Go Girl Crazy!, March 1975); “Sick on You” by The Hollywood Brats (from Grown Up Wrong, recorded 1973, released 1975); Eddie and the Hot Rods, Live at the Marquee EP (July, 1976); “She Does It Right” by Dr. Feelgood (from Down By The Jetty, January 1975); and “You Really Got Me,” a 45 by The Hammersmith Gorillas (1974).
Without a doubt, Neu!’s “After Eight” sounds like a modern punk record. Over thundering, unrelenting drums (think of Rat Scabies imitating Mo Tucker), a savage rhythm guitar spits out a more-or-less continuous three-chord blast, while someone howls like, well, a howler monkey doing an imitation of (the yet to be anointed) Johnny Rotten.[vii]
We also know that John Lydon, Wire, the Buzzcocks, and a pile of other first-gen punks were very aware of this track, and therefore there is a direct connection between the innovative sound of “After Eight” and some of the most prominent early punk acts.[viii] However, the fact that this song appears on Neu!’s third album (they had been recording and releasing remarkable and groundbreaking music since 1971) may fiddle a bit with the criteria I’ve set to answer our question.
Though it could easily be mistaken for a Tubes-esque clod-rock pastiche, there’s a striking immediacy, arrogance and aural rage that makes “Two Tub Man” by The Dictators sound like an honest-to-goodness punk rock song.
Around the time Go Girl Crazy! was released, there were a number of excellent new bands who were working in a post-Who/post-Purple/post-Free riff-rock genre that had certain things in common with punk, but was clearly not punk (e.g., Cheap Trick, early AC/DC, even KISS); and Go Girl Crazy! has some scent of that, but on “Two Tub Man” it most definitely sounds like the Dictators have stumbled onto something different, and they knew it.
Likewise, the version of “California Sun” on Go Girl Crazy! dispenses with any niceties and just throws the sunny bitch against the wall and screams at it until it hands over its lunch money; it too, sounds like a punk song, not a proto-punk song.
Although a sloppier version of the Dolls seems highly improbable, that’s a good way to describe the magical and mysterious Hollywood Brats.
A London-based band (with some Norwegian members), the Brats dispensed with the more “difficult” old-school R&B and blues influences of the Dolls, and instead they made a messy copy of the Dolls’ most basic and primitive elements. The result is, well, punk rock. Their sole album—recorded in ’73 but released in ’75—is full of ridiculous delights, but (for the sake of this piece) it is most notable for a track called “Sick on You”.
A churning, chunky, snotty and primitive blast of arrogance and disgust, howled virtually amelodically and featuring a noisy, buzzing guitar that threatens to burst out of the sides of the vinyl, it is unmistakably a modern punk rock song (and virtually indistinguishable from the ’77-era artists who favored the more trashy edge of punk, like the Lurkers, Slaughter and the Dogs, and the vastly underrated Boys).[ix]
I almost certainly would anoint “Sick On You” as the first modern punk rock song on record, except for one fact: its visibility at the time of initial release was relatively small. Unlike, say, the Feelgoods, Neu!, or even the Dictators, I don’t necessarily see a direct line between this amazing song and the fires of ’76.[x]
On the surface, Eddie and the Hot Rods’ Live at the Marquee EP should be a standard post-pub rock sweat’n’ amphetamine boogie record, but there’s something different about it; they’ve added speed, slop, and an overdriven distortion to the pub rock formula, with an emphasis on a bruising rhythm guitar and four-beats to the bar kick drum.
In doing so, they’ve made something that is indisputably a punk record. Although it’s the only post-’75 release on this list, it must be cited because of its significant influence on both the musicians and the audience who defined punk rock in 1976.
Whereas there was a certain southwestern laissez faire to most of the British pub rock bands (the Hot Rods excepted), Dr. Feelgood took a different road entirely: if you visualize the early Stones and (especially) the Pretty Things as a coiled metal spring, the Feelgoods wound that spring so tightly, virtually to the point of snapping; simultaneously, they removed virtually all traces of late-’60s/early-’70s whiskey flab from the roadhouse band sound.
The Feelgoods bit down on covers and compatible originals with an unprecedented speed, economy, and an almost desperate desire to get from A to Z as quickly as possible. “She Does It Right” is a dentist-drill burst of ultra-streamlined R&B, and although it has a foot in Hamburg Beatles, it also has a bigger foot in the imminent punk explosion.
Now, what makes the Feelgoods (and Down by the Jetty, their debut album) not just hyperactive but transcendent is the work of guitarist Wilko Johnson. Instead of playing old-school boogie rock with the shortnin’ bread slur of Richards or Thunders, Johnson played with a manic, constantly strumming trebly chop that in it’s own way is as reductionist as the work of Johnny Ramone or Neu!
“She Does it Right,” recorded at the end of 1974 and released very early in ‘75, exemplifies the best of the Feelgood’s pioneering sound: It’s a three-chord blurt of mad R&B that careens downhill faster than a fat kid in a shopping cart, and it sounds like someone’s teeth chattering while they pee on an electric outlet. It is especially noteworthy because of its influence: In the first years of British punk, there were essentially only two guitar styles on display—the Ronson/Ralphs/Thunders grwoooooar to be heard in, say, the Sex Pistols, and Wilko Johnson’s electroshock shiver-me-treble, which was faithfully reproduced by the Jam, the Damned, the Vibrators, and the Stranglers (the Clash, uniquely, mixed both: Strummer did Wilko, Jones did Ronson).[xi]
Speaking of pub bands, there’s a relatively little known oddity from way back in 1974 that sounds and feels like a blast from the future. The Hammersmith Gorillas looked like Blue Cheer dressed as Slade, and for the most part they sounded like Canned Heat on speed playing glitter. But on “You Really Got Me,” a 45 they released in 1974, the Gorillas turned the Kinks classic into a hoarse, joyless, feral plod that resembled early (’77-era) Motorhead.
This single sounded nothing like a glitter record and nothing like smiley-faced britbeat bop (maybe it sounded vaguely like a Slade demo if Slade had switched instruments, turned off one channel of the mix, and let the janitor sing); mostly, it sounded like a punk rock record, in a way virtually nothing else released in 1974 does.
This 45 is a very serious contender for first modern punk 45, though its moderate obscurity—and the fact that it doesn’t seem to have lit any fires in the way, say, “She Does It Right” did—likely mutes any potential claim it might have to being the first modern punk record. Though, man, does it sound like a punk record.
So where does that leave us?
Although the Hollywood Brats and the Hammersmith Gorillas both made legitimately modern punk records prior to 1976, if one single record could be said to have been punk rock’s patient zero, it was “She Does It Right” by Dr. Feelgood. The release of this tightly wound spring of frills-free over-stimulated r’n’b almost certainly marks the point where existing pub rock, glitter, glam, and garage vapors coalesced into the spark of punk rock, and there’s a direct line from the appearance of this song to the fires of ’76 and ’77.
Regardless, Sting is a tool.[xii]
[i] Delineating the first rock song is a fascinating subject; personally, I apply the criteria of the first use of amp-distorted electric guitar in extant forms of R&B, hillbilly and blues. Therefore, I usually anoint these three: Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” (1949), Hardrock Gunter’s “Birmingham Bounce” (1950), and Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” (1951).
[ii] An English expression, roughly equivalent to “And that’s all she wrote.”
[iv] I’m going to take a moment to tear down a very common punk rock origin myth: (The band) Television have long been lauded as having “discovered” CBGB’s; this disregards the fact that a pile of bands—many of whom were very relevant to the evolution of the punk era—played Hilly’s On The Bowery, which is what the soon-to-be-legendary club at 315 Bowery was called before it changed its name to CBGB’s in December 1973. For instance the Stillettoes, who evolved into Blondie and the Sic F*cks, were a mainstay of Hilly’s On The Bowery.
[v] This admittedly subjective criteria eliminates Raw Power by the Stooges, which, in many ways, could be labeled the first modern punk record; but I think the lineage of the Stooges (who had been together for nearly a decade by 1976) places them firmly in the proto-punk category, even if Raw Power is a distinctively forward looking record. The same is true of the original Modern Lovers who, in simplifying the Velvet’s template, landed on a sound that was virtually identical to the punk rock that followed half a decade later. If I changed the rules of this search a bit, I’d probably name the first Modern Lovers LP as the first true punk rock record.
[vii] Please note that Neu!’s name does include the exclamation point.
[viii] Bowie was extremely tuned into Neu!, too, and he incorporated many of their stylistic tics into his Berlin-era work.
[ix] In fact, the Boys, who shared some members with the Hollywood Brats, later covered “Sick on You,” and no one could have guessed that a virtually identical—actually, superior—version of the song had been recorded by a pre-’76 band.
[x] However, the Hollywood Brats significantly shape an entirely different movement: The Brats were a major influence on Hanoi Rocks (at times, the music of the two bands is almost indistinguishable), and since Hanoi Rocks had a fundamental effect on the Los Angeles Hair-Glam movement (Hanoi Rocks are to Hair-Glam what the Ramones were to punk), the peculiar legacy of the Brats lived on in a very real and significant way.
[xi] Another artist who borrowed hugely from Wilko Johnson was Elvis Costello. Costello not only replicated Johnson’s guitar sound, he borrowed his onstage persona and trademark physical gestures.