When the Ramones hit the scene in 1974, people didn’t know how to take them, despite the fact that they weren’t really doing anything new. Essentially, the band was taking ‘50s and ‘60s pop music, but playing it much louder and faster. They were taking the music that influenced them, and in turn, helped to create and influence the American (and international) punk scene forevermore.
The band rarely devoted more than two minutes, three chords or a handful of lines to a song, and they almost always started with a “1-2-3-4!” This has become a typical punk sound for many similar bands, despite the fact that it really stemmed from the band’s lack of musical ability, rather than any actual stylistic choices.
The third album by “the only band that ever mattered” is not only an essential punk record, it’s considered by many to be one of the best albums of all time; London Calling is the Clash's finest moment. From the opening title track to "Train in Vain" at the end, every song is a masterpiece, without any filler to be found. This album also saw the early days of the Clash's experimentation with reggae, before they took it too far in later albums. Songs like "Rudie Can't Fail" featured forays into Jamaican rhythms that were innovative at the time and still hold up now.
By the time this album hit in late 1977, the Sex Pistols had already shaken up the UK with the release of their first two singles, “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen.” The full album featured these two songs along with 10 other doses of snotty punk rock from a young, leering Johnny Rotten. The album featured original (and most-recent) bassist Glen Matlock, even though the infamous Sid Vicious (who couldn’t really play) had by that time replaced him. Despite many re-releases and repackages, this is really their only “true” album, and one that should be a foundation stone for your record collection.
Glenn Danzig’s first band, The Misfits, was a groundbreaking outfit that wasn’t breaking any new ground. Like the Ramones before them, they were taking the things that they loved –- metal, ‘50s rock and roll, and B-grade horror and sci-fi music -- and mashing them up into a sound. What emerged was the birth of horror punk. The band painted themselves up like corpses, yet looked like greasers, and Glenn Danzig performed with a deep melodic voice that often was compared to Elvis or Jim Morrison.
With tracks like "20 Eyes,” "I Turned into a Martian,” Hatebreeders,” "Mommy Can I Go Out & Kill Tonight?” and "Skulls,” Walk Among Us is the first full-length by the Misfits to be released, as well as their quintessential album.
When the Bad Brains began exploring punk rock in D.C. in the late ‘70s, they already had a jazz-fusion background. Because of this, they were one of the only bands at the time to emerge into the growing punk scene already knowing how to play. This musical ability allowed them to play punk rock at blistering speed, which played an undeniable part in the development of hardcore and the idea that punk doesn’t need to be sloppy.
The band was composed of religious African-American Rastafarians who also were adept at reggae. That part of their sound influenced a range of bands from Fishbone to the Beastie Boys. Later on, the band would stray from hardcore, but their self-titled album is easily one of the greatest hardcore albums in existence.
Bob Mould’s initial outfit, Husker Du, began as a hardcore band, albeit a very talented one. 1984’s Zen Arcade, while still predominantly a hardcore record, began exploring other sounds, including jazz, psychedelia, acoustic folk and pop -– all sounds Mould still explores today.
An ambitious undertaking, Zen Arcade was released as a two-LP recording. It consisted of 23 tracks (including a 13-minute instrumental), yet was recorded in only 40 hours, for $3,200. The band’s label, being overly cautious, didn’t press enough copies initially, and when the album quickly sold out, were unable to keep up with demand. Due to this, one of the most innovative punk records of all time probably never reached the sales numbers it could have.
A West Coast punk counterpart to the Ramones, Black Flag’s take on punk rock was drastically different. While the Ramones were playing fast punk with friendly vocals, Black Flag was heavier and often slower. They drew from metal influences, and their lyrics were much darker.
While many like to argue whether Keith Morris or Henry Rollins-era Black Flag was better, I have to go with Morris. 1983's The First Four Years is a compilation of Morris's work with the band, and through tracks like "Nervous Breakdown,” “Fix Me,” “Six Pack” and the band’s famous cover of “Louie Louie,” you really get a grasp of the anger and influence of Morris-era Black Flag.
Arguably the most influential ska/punk band of all time, Operation Ivy created a sound that bands would imitate and emulate for years afterward (and indeed still do so today). While members Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman would go on to find commercial success in their later band Rancid, they have yet to reach the innovative, influential or sheer energy level their former band held.
1991’s self-titled release is a great way to grab Op Ivy, as it combines Energy, the band’s only full-length release, with their Hectic EP and Turn It Around 7”, thereby creating a comprehensive collection of their music.
Released on the same label (SST) in the same year as Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on The Dime was another ambitious, innovative two-album set. Like Husker Du, the Minutemen took their punk roots and then explored other influences. In this case, there was spoken-word over freeform jazz and funk mixed in with punk. Their rhythms were memorable, yet they shied away from the verse-chorus-verse structure, playing the music they referred to as “jamming econo,” which also came to reflect the DIY nature of their touring.
Only one song out of the 45 tracks on Double Nickels on The Dime clocks at longer than three minutes; most run around two, short, yet complex enough to prove that you can know more than three chords and still play punk rock.
As a Detroiter and as a punk, I have a serious connection to this record -- one of the records that started it all in the states. The MC5’s debut album, Kick Out The Jams, was recorded live on October 30 and 31, 1968, at Detroit's long-gone Grande Ballroom, where the band was a fixture. With such tracks as the title track and a version of John Lee Hooker's "Motor City is Burning," the MC5 were breaking free from peaceful protest into violent advocacy. With their attachment to John Sinclair and the White Panther Party, the MC5 knew how to party but had an agenda as well.