Top ten lists tend to annoy most people more than enlighten. I’ve personally never encountered a top ten list of anything with which I completely agreed. In fact, the fun usually comes from wondering what in the heck the list compiler was thinking in putting one or two particular entries onto the list. Still, I can’t resist checking out a top ten list. I don’t think many people can. There’s something about a list of the best or worst or most amazing things that makes us comfortable. Humans love to categorize things. Some people might argue that it’s hardwired into our psyche, but I strongly resist thinking humans are instinctually programmed to do anything. After all, a baby will crawl right off the roof of a building it you let him; he has to learn fear.
Loving lists is a conditioned response, too, I think. After all, we are bombarded with lists all the time. Come the end of the month millions of people will be glued to their television watching famous people read variously populated lists of five people (or five lists of people!) who will then be narrowed down the best. When you think about it, The Academy Awards is just one long litany of top five lists narrowed to a list of final winners.
Then, of course, there’s the reigning king of lists, David Letterman. (Who, by the by, I think presided over the most entertaining Oscar telecast of all time and I can’t understand why his shot was considered a dud and he’s never been invited back when Whoopee Goldberg consistently bombs and yet gets invited back just about every time Billy Crystal turns it down. But I digress.)
Dave turned the Top Ten List into a bona fide piece of pop culture. Before he started making his list a nightly part of the American consciousness, the king (and queen) of lists were the Wallechinsky/Wallace family. Irving Wallace, along with his son David Wallechinsky and his daughter Amy Wallace published the first Book of Lists in 1977. It was a compendium of lists of just about everything you can possibly imagine and quickly became a bestseller and mandatory reading in middle schools across America. (Partially because of the sex chapter, but mostly because it seems that the middle school age is when our fascination with lists really takes off). Since the first edition, it has been re-released in various new editions with new lists and updated versions of old lists.
Since there are literally lists of just about anything you can imagine either in the Book of Lists or on the internet, one might well imagine why anyone would bother to offer up one more. Especially a list that is certainly not original and is guaranteed to completely satisfy no one. Well, to be frank, there’s your answer. One of the great things about top ten lists, and maybe the only real value in them at all, is starting debate. Many an all-night argument has sprung out of top ten lists. And since dissent and debate is frowned upon in this country by our current leadership, and the possibility exists that an entire generation will grow up without learning how to engage in constructive debate, consider this top ten list a small contribution to educating people in the art of critical thinking.
I decided to come up with a top ten list of punk songs. But, of course, even that narrow topic is really too broad. Coming up with the top ten of anything requires painful paring down of candidates and since punk has produced an incredible array of songs for over thirty years, the first thing I did was narrow it down to songs from the 1970s. But hey, since roughly 90% of all the really great punk songs were recorded in the Me-Decade, even that isn’t narrow enough.
Arguments about when and where punk began could take up an entire article, but suffice it to say that both American and British bands have almost equal claims. Then, when you add in the fact that both the West Coast and the East Coast American bands argue over their claims to birthing punk, well, the whole thing just becomes a riddle wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside…well, you get it. Since for most people the image of punk revolves around the Sex Pistols and British youth with bad teeth and mohawks, I decided to narrow down this particular top ten list of punk songs to music that came from the British Isles.
I know that decision is guaranteed to immediately tick off a lot of punk fans since the British bands seem to always get the attention. So let me just say that while I admire and enjoy The Ramones, X, Blondie, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and all the other great American punk bands, it just would have made it far too difficult to include them in this particular list.
Another thing. I have also decided not to include anything by the Sex Pistols. What!!!!! Yeah, I know that compiling a top ten list of punk songs that focuses exclusively on UK bands but doesn’t include the Sex Pistols verges on sacrilege. But let me explain. The thing is that any list of top ten punk songs by definition is going to be topped by a Sex Pistols song. I mean, let’s face, regardless of whether you believe that punk originated in England or America, you can’t deny that the Pistols made punk what it became. And regardless of whether you believe Anarchy in the UK, God Save the Queen, Pretty Vacant or Holidays in the Sun is the best Pistols song, you know in your heart that one of them-in my opinion Anarchy in the UK-is the ultimate punk song of all time. That said, you won’t find the Sex Pistols in this list because I want to make room for as many bands as possible.
Which brings me to my last rule. Since I’ve only got ten openings, I’m going to limit each artist I choose to just one song. Frankly, I could fill a top twenty list with just two or three bands, but one of my hopes for this list is that someone may read it and get inspired to listen to an artist or band they’ve never heard of before. So, with all that out of the way, I herewith offer up one man’s top ten list of punk songs to come out of the British Isles during the 70s.
10: “All I Want.” Snatch. Not one of punk’s great anthems, sure, but rather one of its little-remembered gems. Snatch was basically built around the duo of Patti Palladin and Judy Nylon. They were two American girls who moved to England. This song features one of the catchiest hooks in all of punkdom and masterfully uses the terrific punk tool of repetition. What exactly does the singer want in this song? All she wants is all you know. The singer isn’t after material goods like your money or your car, but rather information. Because information is power. And not just power over people, but power in dealing with people. It’s a great song and deserving of being on a top ten list.
9. “Eddie and Sheena.” Wayne County & The Electric Chairs. This is one that is going to be argued over, I know. In the first place, most people have probably never heard it. And in the second place, most of the song doesn’t sound punk at all. It’s a story song. It tells the story of Eddie, a Teddy Boy, who is in love with Sheena, a punk. It’s Romeo and Juliet, man! Eddie’s friends disapprove of Sheena and vice versa. But, unlike those other star-crossed lovers, Eddie and Sheena make it work. They even have a kid. Named…Elvis Rotten!
8. “If The Kids are United.” Sham 69. Another one that maybe isn’t as well known as other songs left off this list, but it is irresistible. For one thing, it’s a punk anthem. Punk was, after all, a movement that united kids. Sure, they all started looking alike and that kind of went against the very message of punk, but all movements have their fashion statements. So what happens if the kids are united? Well, the hope of Sham 69 was that they would never be divided. That fear of a united punk front also happened to be the very same fear that led to record companies watering down punk into new wave.
7. “Alternative Ulster.” Stiff Little Fingers. Let’s face it, punk in England was political. Yes, it was economic as well, but economics is just an offshoot of politics. Political anger was the inspiration for thousands of great punk songs and this one has all the typical ingredients a punk song. Delirious drumming, scream-out-loud singing, a political message, and undeniably violent undertones. Stiff Little Fingers is an essential punk rock act and this is their finest accomplishment.
6. “Oh Bondage, Up Yours.” X-Ray Spex. Do you think that little girls should be seen and not heard? If so, then this song is for you. The singer-or should she rightfully be termed a screamer, or how about a screecher-warbles wildly behind Lora Logic’s maniacal saxophone. That singer-screamer-screecher Poly Styrene confronts the world in this song and pretty much spits in its face. The end result is a mercifully short but incredibly powerful testament to the fact that girls-and women-could do punk just as well as men. And boys.
5. “What’s So Funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding.” Elvis Costello. Where to begin when choosing an Elvis Costello song? The first song that comes to mind when I think of Elvis Costello in his punk phase is actually Pump It Up. It just sounds so incredibly punky. Watching the Detectives certainly could qualify and is deserving of mention on any list of top ten punk songs. But this is the ultimate Elvis Costello angry young man song, even if he didn’t actually write it. You cannot drive without turning this song up and singing along with it. You shouldn’t be able to listen to the lyrics in this these times without wondering, yeah, what the heck would be so wrong with a peace, love and understanding!
4. “Where Were You?” The Mekons. This is a band that was there at the very beginning of punk in England. And the band is still around and has been consistently putting out music ever since, though the band today and their music bears little resemblance to The Mekons that recorded this punk classic. Relentlessly repetitive, “Where Were You?” is simply a masterpiece. Sung in a broad English accent by a guy who keeps asking an unidentified someone else, well, where were they? It is at heart a cry for recognition. In doing so, it actually manages to be a punk song that rebels against punk itself. One of the mainstays of punk, or at least one of the mainstays of the criticism against punk, is that is an exercise in nihilism. This song and its demand to be listened to and cared about is a slap in the face against these charges that punk rockers didn’t care about anything.
3. “Janie Jones.” The Clash. Okay, to begin with, I’m ready for the complaints that I can’t possibly have The Clash at number three when I don’t even have a Sex Pistols song on the list. And I also am more than aware that The Clash put out better songs than this one. Sure, I could have gone with “London Calling” or “I’m So Bored With the USA”, but Janie Jones sounds more like a punk song than any other song on this list. In fact, I put this song on the list totally due to its sound because I’ve never been able to figure out the lyrics and I have no idea what this song is actually about. This is punk rock at its most raw, garage-band sound.
2. “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Joy Division. Some will argue that this isn’t a punk song and that Joy Division wasn’t a punk band. Those people have never heard the song “Warsaw” and don’t appreciate how punk evolved over the years. The raw power of punk couldn’t be contained, even if record companies had been willing to allow it to. Punk was a burning fire and if it had kept going the way it started, it would have burnt out. It had to change, to accept new instruments into the standard drum and guitar combo. The lead singer of this song hanged himself and the band changed their name to New Order. New Order moved from the punkish guitar sound of early Joy Division to become the most influential techno-dance band of all time. This song was in many ways a send-off to the early punk sound, heralding the change that was to come. Forget the real-life tragedy associated with it and listen to how it subtly incorporates the synthesizer into the punk sound.
1. “Natural’s Not In It.” Gang of Four. Punk, as I mentioned, sprang from an economic base of working class youth disenfranchised by unfair political decisions. In a weird way, punk probably couldn’t have risen to prominence in any economic system other than capitalism. Capitalism is inherently unfair to the poor, it keeps then down by insisting that they sell their labor for low wages while buying things they don’t need to keep the system afloat. Most British punkers were lower class. Gang of Four went against the grain. They were mostly middle class college students who saw through the unfair system of capitalism and chose music as their means of expressing their discontent and educating the masses. This song, through a series of seemingly disconnected phrases, succinctly encapsulates how the pursuit of leisure creates a system that not only allows gives birth to economic circumstances that created the punk ethos, but also allows for the economic contradiction that allows a band that criticizes that system to be signed by one of the most successful business conglomerates in the world. Oh, and by the way, it’s catchy as all get out and will stick in your head for the rest of the day.
Okay, there you have it. I left out songs by The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Iggy Pop, The Adverts, The Stranglers, The Damned and many, many others. It’s my top ten list of punk songs, and it’s probably not yours. Take this opportunity to look it over with someone else and engage in critical thought. Engage in dissent and debate. It may be your last chance to freely do so.