If post-punk found its perfect expression in the long-playing record, punk before it found its way through the single.
Noisy, energetic, excitable, chaotic and aggressive by nature, the first wave of British punk music acted as if each of its songs was the only chance to say everything they had to say, giving itself an urgency and vitality that was ideal for the 3 minute pop single on 7” vinyl. As such its easier to name classic punk singles than albums per se from the period, but those singles, taken at face value, say and express as much as the best albums do and are as much worlds unto themselves as said albums are.
My selection criteria was strict but simple. The first wave of British punk is generally considered to be from 1976 to 1978, with 1979 bringing in the Post-Punk, Two-Tone, Oi and second wave of British punk. To this end, the bands I chose had to have formed by 1978 at the latest and no later; and they had to release a single between 1976 and 1978 inclusive.
This caused some interesting conundrums. A band like The Skids, for instance, released singles in 1978, but were more considered to be in line with Post-Punk, whereas ATV, while going into experimental music by their second album, were producing some excellent inventive punk singles in 1978 (my Skids choice would have been ‘The Saints are Coming’, by the by).
Anyway, Never Mind The B******s: here are my favourite first-wave British punk singles!
Sex Pistols — Holidays in The Sun (1977)
Perhaps not quite as appreciated as ‘Anarchy’ or ‘Queen’, ‘Holiday’s in the Sun’ is still my favourite Pistols single. From the forceful intro of stomping jackboots and crashing guitar, to the rush of energy the song surges on, to Johnny Rotten’s hysterical, seemingly improvised rant over the end, the whole thing is thrillingly alien, confrontational and fun. Swindle? Not based on this song.
Buzzcocks — Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?) (1978)
Pete Shelley specialised in putting witty, sardonic lyrics of unrequited and/or love to sweetly poppy melodies and buzzsaw guitars played at breakneck speed. ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ is a prime example, featuring Buzzcocks’ greatest, catchiest chorus and minor chords as bruised as the band’s lovelorn heart.
The Clash – White Riot (1977)
Perhaps the most well-known and beloved of punk groups, The Clash hit the ground running with their debut single. More wiry and feral than their later, more muscular recordings (Give ‘Em Enough Rope), The Clash wrote a raucous soundtrack to revolution, taking inspiration from the local black community’s revolt against police inspiration while their white counterparts cowered. “Are you taking over/or are you taking orders?”, asked Joe Strummer. The question never goes away.
The Adverts — Bored Teenagers (1977)
Technically a ‘b-side’ (to the equally great ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’), ‘Bored Teenagers’ gets to the heart of what punk was about for a lot of people, especially in the suburbs – the deadening boredom of British society. To a tense, hard-hitting musical attack, the group outline not only the tension inherent in everyday living but also the desire to make connections with others. The communal side of punk can be heard here.
Subway Sect – Ambition (1978)
Having been modified by manager Bernie Rhodes to sound more like The Who, ‘Ambition’ gave the Sect real muscle without taking away from their essential arty strangeness, particularly in singer Vic Godard’s wiry, near-hysterical vocals and literate lyrics. This song proved you didn’t have to be a Clash Clone to be punk.
X-Ray Spex — Oh Bondage! Up Yours (1977)
Poly Styrene was one of punk’s most exhilarating, fearless singers. On ‘Bondage’, with its famous spoken opening of “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think…”, she attacked the larger bondage things like consumerism and gender roles tie people up in. The band drive things along with a mean groove, while wonderfully squawking saxophones gives the band a unique quality other punk bands didn’t have.
The Stranglers – (Get a) Grip (on Yourself) (1977)
Opportunists or just able to adapt? The Stranglers had been around on the pub rock scene and were older than other punk rock bands. As influenced by The Doors as much as anything else, they still found sympathy with the punk movement, as evidenced by this storming single with it’s snotty, accusatory vocal and pounding drums. The dreamy saxophone solo over the chorus takes things to another level.
The Damned – New Rose (1976)
The song that has the honour of being the first British punk single released, ‘New Rose’ is the sound of a young, snotty group enjoying playing loud, basic rock and roll, having a laugh and sod considerations of taste and politics. The Damned were often sneered at by their peers, but punk was supposed to be about change, not snobbery. The Damned, and ‘New Rose’ in particular, planted the flag for punk kids to have fun (at 120mph!)
Siouxsie and the Banshees – Hong Kong Garden (1978)
Siouxsie was there at the start, playing at the 100 Club with a free-form squall called ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ By the time of the Banshees’ debut single, though, there was a new melodicism on display, most evident in the use of that most un-punk of instruments, the xylophone to colour the song with an oriental flavour—a great example of how punk didn’t have to be just a three-chord thrash.
Wire – Dot Dash (1978)
Soon to abandon guitar thrash altogether, ‘Dot Dash’ created a perfect balance between their art and punk tendencies. The song depicts a ship making a distress call via morse code, also known as a ‘wire call’ (very clever), fusing cubist verses(!) with a big, joyful singalong chorus—a big favourite of mine.
ATV – Life (1978)
Formed by Sniffin’ Glue editor Mark Perry, ATV refused to be tied down by already emerging punk orthodoxies. ‘Life’ finds Perry in fine form, a real street poet bemoaning life as being ‘as wonderful as growing old’, while the anthemic chorus achieves a wistfulness their contemporaries never had.
Generation X — Ready Steady Go (1978)
Truth be told, I’m not really a Generation X fan, finding them a little too slick for my tastes. ‘Ready Steady Go’, though, is different, a wonderfully punchy number evoking the mod pop culture of the sixties and celebrating them with Day-Glo guitars. The chorus is contagious, too.
Penetration — Firing Squad (1978)
Propelled by an insistent bassline and phased guitars, ‘Firing Squad’ nods towards the innovations-to-come of post-punk, while retaining the harsh, compressed attack of punk at its best. With Pauline Murray’s assertive, commanding vocals leading the charge, this song showed there were different ways to do this punk thing, without losing the spirit of its assault.
The Lurkers – Shadow (1977)
One of the conflicts found in punk was between art-school idealism and working-class aggro. The Lurkers fell cheerfully on the latter, dressing this punk-pop ode to lost love in straight-ahead razor guitars and football terrace chants. Insanely catchy, to the point only the churlish can deny how much fun it is.
The Jam — In the City (1977)
The Jam was another band that was sneered at by their peers, for wearing sixties suits, tuning up on stage and displaying a debt to the mod-rock of The Who. Yet, ‘In the City’ was such a great song, the Pistols lifted its central riff for ‘Holidays in the Sun’! Focusing on the excitement of youth grouping together to enact social change, ‘In the City’ is a punk song and a great one at that.
Stiff Little Fingers – Alternative Ulster (1978)
Written and released at the height of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, ‘Alternative Ulster’ was as much about the lack of places for teenagers to go as it was sectarian violence according to one of its co-writers. Regardless, its tension was palpable, a military-type opening riff leading into an ultra-aggressive thrash, complete with Jake Burns’ throat-shredding shout. Hardcore starts here? Quite possibly.
The Undertones – Teenage Kicks (1978)
Famous for being John Peel’s favourite song, ‘Teenage Kicks’ is the classic punk single it’s ok for everyone to like, and like it everyone does. It’s classic, semi-glam, crunching strum and plaintive vocal from Fergal Sharkey all add up to a punk-pop classic that will no doubt stand the test of time, all the more impressive for being a song blatantly about teenagers getting laid.
What do you think? Are there any classic singles from that first wave of British punk that I’ve ignored or missed? What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments!