Punk rock started in the early 70s with bands such as the New York Dolls, but the genre didn’t quite come into itself until the mid to late 70s. This is why I call the late 70s and early 80s, the “The Golden Age of Punk Rock.” Bands like The Clash, Black Flag, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Runaways, and so many more flooded independent record shops throughout the UK and America.
Sure, punk and proto-punk artists such as Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan were well known by this time. “Punk rock,” however, was different than “punk.” Punk rock refused (and still refuses) to focus on melodies and intricate instrumentals. Punk rock states: “I want societal change, I know three chords, and I’m going to scream my message for all to hear!” This was new to even the counter culture. Punk Rock’s nihilistic outcry did not care what the listeners thought – and the listeners loved what they heard.
What were some of the highlights of the golden age of punk music? If you had about five hours, I would make every one of your readers listen to an extended playlist showcasing 100 golden age era of punk rock classics. I still might create this playlist, but for now, I want to talk about a handful of songs that made the golden age of punk rock so special. I’ve selected 7 choices by The Clash, X, Dead Kennedys, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Cramps. What made these songs special, and why did I choose these specific songs?
Spanish Bombs – The Clash
Spanish Bombs might seem like an odd choice to represent The Clash. After all, London Calling, from the same album, is one of The Clash’s most beloved songs. London Calling certainly is an amazing song, but so is Spanish Bombs! Besides, the two songs talk about the same subject – homeland terrorism by separatist groups.
Spanish Bombs specifically talks about the ETA and the Basque Conflict of Northern Spain. Lead singer, Joe Strummer, also equated the ETA’s campaigns of the 70s to those of the Spanish Civil War in the 30s. At the time, the ETA was engaged in a guerilla bombing campaign and targeted several hotels in the tourist destination of Costa del Sol.
Still, what makes Spanish Bombs a better choice than London Calling? Spanish Bombs shows that the same horrors seen in The Clash’s home country (The UK) plague people 1000 miles away. Spanish Bombs shows solidarity, a hallmark of punk rock’s cries of social injustice.
Holiday In Cambodia – Dead Kennedys
Dead Kennedys tackle a different issue ignored by the world – the Cambodian mass killings by Pol Pot. Holiday in Cambodia shows a young, rich “savior” type, who thinks he knows everything about poverty, travels to Cambodia, The “white savior” witnesses the horrors of the Communist Party of Kampuchea first hand – in other words, he gets shot.
Looking past the surface, Holiday in Cambodia talks about those who want to change the world, but only on their terms. Holidays in Cambodia even hints that ignorance is the true cause of dictatorships. If there’s one thing that Punk rock hates, it’s an unjust totalitarian regime!
The guitars of Holiday in Cambodia sound horrifying, by the way. Ominous chords played repeatedly coupled with overtones of high notes make the listener brace themselves for the horrors of the song.
Human Fly – The Cramps
Human Fly by The Cramps talks about a maggot of a human. This human fly goes mostly by instinct and ignores his instinct. The second verse of Human Fly goes so far as to describe the protagonist’s mind as garbage. In the third verse of Human Fly, we find the protagonist will have sex with anything that moves, and maybe even a few things that can’t move. Essentially, The Human Fly will amount to nothing but a maggot, only wanting to eat, sleep, and procreate.
The instruments in Human Fly sound rather simple and almost phoned in, but that’s part of the message of the song. Human Fly talks about a person with very little comprehension or self-awareness – so of course, the music should not be too complex. After all, we want the human fly to realize this song is about him!
Johnny Hit and Run Pauline – X
Johnny Hit and Run Pauline shine an odd light on the trifecta of pop culture – sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Opening with a Chuck Berry guitar riff, we hear a tale about a man who carries a hypodermic needle full of a sleeping drug. He uses this needle to drug and rape random women. He doesn’t care who these women are, he just refers to them all as “Pauline.” Back to the trifecta, while the rock and roll might be pure, the sex and drugs are pretty messed up – Johnny is a date rapist.
In the third verse, we find the last “Pauline” was immune to the drug, and wouldn’t cooperate. Johnny rips out her hair, and probably more. Johnny truly is a Human Fly – a psychopath who views women as nothing but sex machines.
I Want to Be Sedated – The Ramones
I Want to Be Sedated by The Ramones was influenced by two incidents. Firstly, Joey Ramone had a humidifier accident and ended up in the hospital with severe burns. Secondly, The Ramones were in London touring during the Christmas Holiday. The entire city was shut down, and there was nothing to do (and nowhere to go), so they sat in their hotel room watching movies, instead of enjoying their visit to England.
Both these events made the band members (and especially Joey Ramone) want, and need, a bit of sedation. Still, this goes beyond simple boredom and pain relief. I Want to Be Sedated talks about a more complex boredom and pain – that of a daily humdrum of life. I Want to Be Sedated encourages its listeners to give up the status quo that has them so bored, and to find something that truly excites them.
Fun fact: Joey Ramone plays the same guitar part 65 times! A monotonous sound shows the monotony of a boring life well.
Cherry Bomb – The Runaways
Rock and Roll, even punk rock, tends to be a no girls allowed type of club. After all, women are supposed to be sweet – the opposite of good rock of any genre. The Runaways came storming out against this mindset and proved to the world that women can rock better than any man. Composed of five young women, The Runaways introduced the world to such talents as Lita Ford, Micheal (Miki) Steele (later of The Bangles), and the legendary Joan Jett.
Cherry Bomb was the anthem of The Runaways. The song fights the sweet as cherry pie and shows that cherries can be dangerous and loud. Their lead singer was named Cherie Currie, so there’s another level for the metaphor. Cherry Bomb shows the world that Cherie and the rest of The Runaways, are about to kick some serious ass.
Cherry Bomb paved the way for The Go-Gos, L7, Vixen, Sleater-Kinney, and so many other female artists in rock and roll.
Anarchy in the UK – The Sex Pistols
With nihilistic lyrics that want to tear down society and restart from nothing, Anarchy in the UK screams of revolution. Of course, the song is hyperbolic, as Johnny Rotten and the rest of the Sex Pistols were not actually calling for IRA style tactics. Still, Anarchy in the UK calls for a fundamental change in the UK. Forget all the things England finds so damned important. Religion? I am an Antichrist! Capitalism and popular music? The NME is the enemy! Heck, there’s even a line about stopping the orderly flow of traffic – that’s just another norm by the status quo!
Modern anarchists like to view Anarchy in the UK in a “tongue in cheek” manner, because modern anarchy isn’t just about “fucking shit up.” But Anarchy in the UK was before the modern anarchists. This was the late 70s and polite British society didn’t question their lives. A good citizen of The Queen just lived on autopilot. Punk rock was (and still is) an outcry against this status quo.
So, stop getting offended by Anarchy in the UK, be you a modern anarchist or a suburban salesman with 2.5 kids. Start listening to the message of The Sex Pistols, and start questioning the norms of society.
The Golden Age of Punk Rock Lives On
As I mentioned before, the golden age of punk rock cannot be represented fully by these seven songs. If you truly want to know more about this era and genre of music, listen to everything by these artists from this era. Also, listen to Black Flag, listen to T.S.O.L., Social Distortion, and The Circle Jerks. You bought the Misfit’s t-shirt at Hot Topic, now listen to what The Misfits sang about!
While you’re at it, don’t listen to just the golden age of punk rock. Listen to more modern bands as well. Screaming Females and Against Me! will blow out your eardrums, but also echo their message to your soul. Don’t you remember, when you were young, and you wanted to set the world on fire?