Once upon a time being called a "punk" was not considered a compliment. Oh, but how times change! Once Wayne County was a man! And Lou Reed lived at home with his parents. And certainly the New York Times wouldn't be breaking the story of a mid-'70s Detroit trio named Death who were apparently pre-punk avatars themselves!
But that is the world we live in. And picking 25 punk pioneers wasn't easy. In many cases, I've lumped bands together since it wouldn't be fair for the Ramones to grab a minimum of five slots when only 25 exist. Like all good socialists, we want to spread the wealth around. And in that rare moment where I did allow a second band member an individual slot, it was because the two members of the band came at it from radically different angles. As I explain--for the few loyal readers who read the comments. (I wish to thank you for your patience, your indulgence and your offers to put me up in your spare bedroom--awfully nice of you, really).
As always there are so many people left off this list who could easily qualify. And there are those you may question, but I wanted to offer some scope as well. What fun is it if everyone comes from the same scene? Or the same era? That said, I wish I had room for the guys in Suicide.
Punk has now been with us long enough for entire new generations of kids to sprout up and claim it for their own. Some roughhouser is always wrecking the "scene" and some poor, noble kid is trying to save it.
The one thing you have to admit about the people on this list, they sure are old.
25) Jeffrey Lee Pierce: There will be those who will argue that JLP comes along too late. Maybe the Minutemen would be truer to the spirit of punk, since JLP always had more glam rocker blues in him and how many self-destructive folks do we wish to lionize in our history? And the albums he made with the Gun Club sound sonically challenged. But he held together the spirit of a certain funky, punky blues when others had either forgotten or moved on.
24) Handsome Dick Manitoba: Ah, the Dictators. Often overlooked because they were more pro-wrestling than punk. But such is life. Handsome Dick also used to have too much hair. For punk. But the man has an energy level that is pure aggression and people who rhyme "growing up" with "throwing up" automatically are given special consideration on these pages.
23) Jello Biafra: My friend Jerry pointed out that Jello didn't just lead the Dead Kennedys but also LARD, a band that hasn't received much notice in this blog. Jello brought a certain nightclub vibe to their politics and a showmanship and shock value that guaranteed other people to pay attention to the group, especially politicians and moral majority leaders who had no real interest in listening to punk rock in the first place.
22) The Birthday Party: They relocated from Australia to the UK in order to be better noticed and they included Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey. They played with greater ferocity than most punk bands and with far more imagination. They understood that Captain Beefheart was more important than some guy with a safety pin through his nose because you'd be less able to string a guy like Beefheart on a clothesline.
21) Alex Harvey: He had a sensational band if he didn't mind saying so himself. It's just that his timing was a little off. He came of age while glam was still happening and punk hadn't yet been invented. His own off the wall antics and clear disregard for the professionalism of the era make him a welcome entry on this list and will surely cause some people to scratch their heads and say "Who?" To which we say, maybe Billie Joe Armstrong would care to explain...Billie to the front desk....
20) Ian Curtis: The mopiest guy on the list and the least likely to be aligned with such a confrontational movement since he really always looked like he wanted to be anywhere but on a stage singing about his own personal misery, Ian Curtis either made Joy Division the most distinguished band of his generation or just the most doomed--and it's people like me who pour gasoline on the potential fire. I'd make a greater argument that it was producer Martin Hannett who messed with the group, since their early demos are pretty frightening stuff, whereas everything that came after sounds like an art project.
19) The Sonics: Long before Nirvana alerted the world that there was music coming out of Washington State, the Sonics back in the ancient 1960s tried to do the same. But money and politics being what they were back then, the band was pretty much stopped when it was decided that they could definitely harm the morale of the youth of the nation with their attitude and evil, evil guitar chords. Score one for big government.
18) The Monks: Their album Black Monk Time is receiving a reissue just in time for this blog and we're not among those who question such odd coincidences. It's obvious to us that a band of American GI's stationed in Germany who manage to record a raucous blare--back when it was mostly against the law to do so--deserves our attention and respect.
17) Sky Saxon: The Seeds would never become a household name but "Pushin' Too Hard" and "Can't Seem To Make You Mine" are two fine examples of songs that inspired a generation to turn on, detune out and do so for decade after decade all in the name of art. Or no art.
16) Patti Smith: Every crowd has their poet. They can never actually sing, which is why they start off as poets, but through time and earned confidence they find a way to break past their limitations and pull off something musicians would never dare. Patti's earliest efforts remain pretty shocking in their raw, spirited nature and she sure knew how to make cool friends.
15) Robert Quine: Robert Quine looked like an accountant. But he played guitar like a deranged psychotic. And along with the criminally underrated Ivan Julian made Richard Hell and the Voidoids one of the more interesting bands on the scene. Quine went on to infect the music of Lou Reed and Matthew Sweet with his evil derailments. For all of punk's belief in do-it-yourself and musical incompetence, Quine believed in none of it.
14) New York Dolls: They wanted to be the Rolling Stones. But even more wasted. And had they been more successful they might've been Aerosmith, but instead they remained "cult favorites" and while I've never been all that excited by them, too many people I know will threaten my life if I don't include them here. Only two members are still alive, which means they're livelier than the Ramones at this point. And they continue to reunite and tour. Had they only invested their money more wisely...
13) Rob Tyner: Like Robert Quine, one of the least likely looking punks on the list. That big Afro of his made him look like he might be ready for a disco group had there been such a thing back then. But in the late '60s the rules were still being written to this sort of thing, and the MC5 were among the bands authoring the textbook--and if you turn the sound up you'll hear what I'm talking about it.
12) Joe Strummer: I probably should make it the whole band, but since he's practically St. Joe Strummer at this point, why bother? The Clash were pretty good by punk standards, as entertaining as the Buzzcocks or Wire and some people even care about their politics, which to me is like admiring Britney Spears for her dental work. Sure, it's nice, but is that what you're focusing on?
11) Lester Bangs: The one writer on this list who even recorded his own music, including the fabulous "Let It Blurt" single and two albums that have their fans. But in the end LB is not going to be remembered for his music, but for his writing--which appeared in a funny little magazine called CREEM that once tried to overthrow the US Government and gave another mag called Grit a run for its money. Lester liked punk rock so much, he risked being hated by other people. What's not to like about that?
10) Lou Reed: Reed qualifies for this list just for being a nasty bugger. That he also used tons of feedback and frustrated his record company is almost secondary. How many Lou Reed albums do you own? How many do you actually go back and listen to? How many times do you stop what you're doing when you see him being interviewed? The answer my friend is....
9) Richard Hell: His band The Voidoids were one mean machine, but it was Richard himself who wore those shredded, safety-pinned t-shirts that became all the rage. He wasn't looking to start a trend. If he had, he would've trademarked it and made a lot more money!
8) Keith Moon: He taught an entire generation how to act completely out of control. Then he died before he could see the fruit of his behavior. He was practically famous before he could shave, and dead before he needed bifocals.
7) Stiv Bators: As the singer for the Dead Boys, Stiv Bators was always a better frontman to me than that guy in the Clash. Bators exuded real punk charm--which is to say he didn't look like he bathed much and his band was filled with guys who looked like they'd rather run off with your girlfriend than save the world.
6) The Sex Pistols: Completely calculated and manipulated to the max, the Sex Pistols had one legitimate star in Johnny Rotten, one legitimate icon in Sid Vicious and a guitar player in Steve Jones who made them sound like they knew what they were doing. Which I still side with management. Let's be glad they never made a second album. They might have recorded a ballad.
5) Gene Vincent: Long before there was such a thing as punk, there was this guy in his leather mumbling juvenile delinquent rock. People made fun of his music. It wasn't sophisticated enough. But it sure sounded great.
4) Peter Laughner: Had he lived who knows what would have happened. But Peter Laughner died at 24 after starring in Rocket From The Tombs and Pere Ubu and his music's been collected a bunch of different places, and we're still waiting on the definitive boxed set. In the live-fast-die-young punk aesthetic, he had it down before the rules had been written. It's almost like he could claim to be an author!
3) Lux Interior: Feeling a little sentimental since he died and realizing the Cramps haven't been sufficiently feted on this blog, I pay my respects to the man who worked a microphone like few others and played his racket long past the pleasure principle. Grab a copy of that Cramps video where they play the mental institution and see if you can figure out who are the inmates and who's in the band.
2) The Ramones: This was where it was impossible to single out the different members. Should Joey rank higher than Dee Dee? What about Tommy who left but continued to produce them and other key groups? What about Johnny? And Marky was in the Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids! OK, so CJ and Richie are obviously not pioneers, but this group was like money and went everywhere! Too bad they didn't make more money!
1) Iggy Pop: The man is a dynamo. The one performer who year after year takes the stage and owns it. Other performers borrow the stage. And if his catalog has been inconsistent, his live show remains one to take breath away.