As much an attitude as a genre of music, nothing has been so influential or so controversial as punk.
It’s also likely nothing else will quite have the impact of punk. That’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s true. Sorry, metalheads, but a large percentage of metal bands have been influenced in some way by punk as well as Sabbath. Ask Slayer, or Guns N’ Roses. Ask Metallica, Lamb Of God, Clutch, Devildriver, Fear Factory, Mötley Crüe or Machine Head. Goths? You’re welcome. Punks invented that too! How about you Google it before you start filling the comments section with complaints?
The fact is there’s barely a genre of music that hasn’t been changed by punk. Psychobilly, industrial, grunge, grindcore… Hell, even electronica’s been infected! Just check out The Prodigy for evidence of that, or that stomping new single, Control, by Chase & Status! So if there’s anything to complain about here it’s that there are only 20 songs in our list, and not 2000! And before anyone suggests that we’ve forgotten some, just know that we haven’t and some of our favourites are missing too, because there’s simply not enough space.
Picking 20 punk songs was almost impossible. To put things into perspective, in 1981 the sadly defunct Sounds magazine compiled a list of the top 100 punk songs, as voters by their readers, and even then there were some glaring omissions. Not to mention the fact that in 1981, some punk bands had yet to release their best work, hadn’t formed yet, or in some cases hadn’t even been born! Indeed, there is an entire sub-genre of punk known as UK82 (from the Exploited song of the same name), and it’s not until 1991 that we reach ‘the year that punk broke’.
But maybe, just maybe, here are the best 20 punk anthems of all time. Enjoy.
20. UK SUBS – WARHEAD
While it’s already been noted that there are numerous anthems missing from our list – no Rancid, English Dogs, NOFX, or Poison Idea! – not one of those bands would begrudge the UK Subs a place in our countdown. Formed in 1976 and typically playing around 200 gigs a year, the Subs are one of punk’s hardest working and most prolific bands, with an incredible 26 studio albums, each named after consecutive letters of the alphabet, from Another Kind Of Blues to this year’s Ziezo, which will be their last. Despite countless line-up changes, including Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen on guitar in 1991, the band are still going as strong as ever, with 71-year-old frontman Charlie Harper showing no signs of slowing down. Obviously, there’s a wealth of material to choose from, but 1980’s Warhead remains a classic, it’s lyrics – “There’s children in Africa with tommy guns. Getting ready. While the Islam armies are beckoning on. They’re getting ready!” – are still terrifyingly relevant.
19. CONFLICT – MIGHTY AND SUPERIOR (1985)
It has been said, and not without some considerable evidence, that punk was the best thing that ever happened to metal, while metal was the worst thing that happened to punk. One notable exception to that, however, is Mighty And Superior from the 1985 EP The Battle Continues. Up until that point, it’s probably fair to say that Conflict weren’t that great. Sure, the intent was there, the fiercely anti-establishment, anti-fascist sentiment, but Mighty And Superior is where they completely nailed the sound, and it’s no coincidence that just months before its release they’d all been to the Marquee in London to see the UK debut of a band called Slayer, Conflict’s much missed guitarist Kevin Webb quite literally taking notes. Sadly, Kevin committed suicide, never getting to hear punk’s influence on Slayer, but this song remains one of Conflict’s finest anthems. The White Stripes clearly thought so!
18. GBH – GENERALS
Considered by many to be the Motörhead of punk rock, Birmingham’s GBH (along with Discharge and The Exploited) inadvertently helped to invent thrash metal, with Metallica’s late bassist Cliff Burton all but living in a GBH t-shirt. Though it’s slower paced than most of their other tunes, Generals, from the thunderous Leather, Bristles, Studs, And Acne EP of 1981, is one of the band’s most enduring songs and remains a fan favourite along with the likes of Sick Boy (later covered by Slayer) and Give Me Fire (covered by The Almighty). With an opening cry of “This means war!”, Generals takes a strong anti-war stance, a rousing chorus of “Britain needs you to die for her!” often coming louder from the audience than the band. Aside from ‘new boy’ Scott Preece, who joined as drummer in 1994, GBH have had the same line-up since 1978, and remain as fearsome live as ever.
17. THE STRANGLERS – NO MORE HEROES (1977)
Right from the outset, there were a lot of stupid rules about what was and wasn’t punk rock, and The Stranglers seemed to break them all, resolutely not giving a fuck. Aside from drummer Jet Black being in his late 30s and deemed too old for punk, the band also employed a keyboard player, Dave Greenfield, who had the audacity to play solos. They had the downright temerity to be excellent musicians, with Jean-Jacques Burnell rightly acknowledged as one of the most influential bassists of all time. But while they were considered outsiders in punk, The Stranglers built a massive following and had numerous chart hits, including this masterpiece from the eponymous No More Heroes album of 1977. You may also recognise their brilliant single Peaches from the movie Sexy Beast.
16. BAD BRAINS – PAY TO CUM (1980)
Before this monumental debut single from 1980, it was probably thought that musicians would explode if they played this fast, and even today it’s impossible to read the lyrics as fast as frontman HR spits them out. Formed in Washington DC in 1977 (and later banned from playing there, spawning the classic Banned In DC) Bad Brains were unlike any other punk band, not least because they were (and still are, obviously) all black Rastafarians, interspersing their breakneck tunes with reggae songs. Ironically – this being pre-internet – most UK audiences didn’t know they were black until seeing them live and Nazi skinheads were often in for quite a shock if they gave the band any shit, rapidly discovering the four large Rastafarians from America’s then-murder capital were not remotely intimidated by a roomful of teenage boneheads. Bad Brains may have offered a message of peace, but they were also hard as fuck!
15. X RAY SPEX – OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!
Formed in 1976 after seeing the Sex Pistols, X Ray Spex released just a handful of singles and one album, the brilliant Germfree Adolescents, before spitting up in 1979. Their impact on punk music can still be felt, not least in the so-called Riot Grrrl movement of the ‘90s and with Russian activists Pussy Riot. “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,” begins vocalist Poly Styrene, “but I think, oh bondage, up yours!” Widely misinterpreted as a song about all things kinky, it was, like many of their tunes, a song about consumerism, and was instantly recognised as a punk classic. Remarkably, for a punk band, X Ray Spex employed a saxophone player, Lora Logic, who, even more remarkably, was only 15 years old when she joined the band. They reformed in the ‘90s, releasing the album Conscious Consumer, but, sadly, Poly died of cancer in 2011 aged just 53.
14. BLACK FLAG – RISE ABOVE
If you’ve ever read Henry Rollins’ book Get In The Van, then you’ll know that Black Flag were largely despised when they first came to the UK in 1981, a feeling that was very much mutual. Fans of the band – all six or so of them – risked a kicking for showing any signs of approval, a situation often made worse by the fact that the band seemed to take pride in antagonising their audiences. Opening for The Exploited probably didn’t help. But while Los Angeles was seen as some far off, sun-soaked paradise, there was a genuine fury to Black Flag’s music, not least against the notorious brutality of the LAPD, which continues unabated. Ironically, by the time the band were fully appreciated in the UK they had moved on to playing long-winded, jazz-like jams, but Rise Above remains a classic, as does the Damaged album: “We are tired of your abuse! Try to stop us, but it’s no use!”
13. THE EXPLOITED – FUCK THE SYSTEM
Loved and hated in equal measure, The Exploited have often been dismissed as ‘cartoon punks’, which is perhaps true if you consider that cartoons are frequently violent and subversive. And while other bands mellow with age, The Exploited seem to get heavier and more ferocious with each album. Granted, they’re not exactly prolific, with just eight studio albums in over 30 years, but it doesn’t get much more fierce than this, the title track of their last album. Opening with an unrelenting scream, Fuck The System is a battle cry born of pure, unadulterated rage. “It doesn’t really mater what you’ve got to say/They never fucking listen to you anyway!” yells mohawked frontman Wattie Buchan, the instigator of several riots worldwide. And before you ask, yes, Punk’s Not Dead is a more obvious choice, but the production was rubbish. Fuck The System kicks ass.
12. DEAD KENNEDYS – CALIFORNIA ÜBER ALLES
Dead Kennedys are another band with multiple classic anthems from which to choose: Holiday In Cambodia, Nazi Punks Fuck Off, Kill The Poor, and the hilariously chart-bothering Too Drunk To Fuck, to name just a few. But California Über Alles, with its sinister opening beats and bass line (since sampled by The Prodigy on Dead Ken Beats), is where Jello Biafra and his crew first unleashed their surf-infused brand of vitriolic punk on a very unsuspecting world. California Über Alles is a scathing attack on then California governor Jerry Brown, with Biafra sneering: “I am governor Jerry Brown/My aura smiles and never frowns/Soon I will be president!” Ironically, while the song has been updated at times to include the likes of Ronald Reagan (We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Kali-Fornia Über Alles 21st Century), Jerry Brown was re-elected as governor in 2011, making the original as relevant as ever. Hopefully, there won’t be an update to include Trump in the future.
11. CRASS – BIG A LITTLE A
The Sex Pistols may have written Anarchy In The UK, but it was Crass who meant it, man. Formed in 1977, with each of their independently released records bearing a countdown stating their intention to split up in 1984, the band took anarchist ideals to a whole new level, squatting venues (one of which was a disused bingo hall that is now The Garage in London) and taking part in numerous direct actions, including the Stop The City demonstrations, which effectively brought the capital to a standstill. As such, their music often seemed to take second place to the lyrics, some of it bordering on unlistenable, but Crass did put out some truly great songs, and perhaps there is none greater in their catalogue than Big A Little A, an impassioned six-minute rant against government, royalty, and religion, that was released in 1981 as the b-side to Nagasaki Nightmare. Few bands, punk or otherwise, have ever been so controversial. And, yes, they did split up in 1984.
10. KILLING JOKE – WARDANCE
It’s impossible to overemphasise Killing Joke’s influence on music – particularly industrial music – since their inception in London’s Notting Hill in 1978, and their influence continues to this day. Whereas many punk bands increasingly relied on speed, Killing Joke had – and still have – a darker, more stomping, tribal sound, bleak and apocalyptic, perfect for an era in which nuclear war was a frighteningly real threat. Wardance, the band’s second single and the opening track on their self-titled debut album, is a perfect example of the band at their finest and why, without them, their would be no Godflesh, Ministry or Nine Inch Nails – especially since Killing Joke were unafraid to employ synthesised sounds to add further menace to their madness. It goes without saying that guitarist Geordie Walker is often imitated and never bettered. “The atmosphere’s strange out on the town,” barks frontman Jaz Coleman. He’s not wrong.
9. DISCHARGE – REALITIES OF WAR (1980)
In these days of black metal, death metal and grindcore, it may be difficult for younger readers to comprehend just how incredibly heavy Discharge were for their time. Universally panned by the music press – one review suggesting that they sounded like a pneumatic drill – they were quite literally the most ferocious band on the planet. You only have to look at the amount of bands who’ve covered its songs (Metallica, Machine Head, Soulfly, Anthrax, Napalm Death) to know that their debut album Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing is one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time. But even before that, Discharge were in a class of their own. Although it’s far more raw than anything from the album, the Realities Of War EP from 1980 is where it all began, later going on to inspire an entire genre of music known as D-Beat. Having taken an extremely ill-advised detour into heavy metal in the mid-‘80s, Discharge are currently back on form with a magnificent new album entitled End Of Days.
8. THE RUTS – STARING AT THE RUDE BOYS (1980)
Watford hooligans Gallows did a cracking version of this in 2007, even managing to bother the charts, but there is still nothing quite like the original, which also hits the charts 36 years ago. Brimming with tension, Staring At The Rude Boys perfectly captures that moment when it all kicks off in a packed nightclub, as was so frequently the case back in those violent days: “The lights come alive in a blinding flash/Dance floor clears as the mutants clash.” Another punk band heavily influenced by reggae, The Ruts had an incredible talent for bringing tension to their music, particularly through the jagged guitar sound of the late and great Paul ‘Foxy’ Fox, who sadly died from lung cancer in 2007. As such, we could have picked any Ruts classic for our top 20 – Babylon’s Burning, Jah War, Something That I Said – but unfortunately we will never know the full potential of the band as frontman Malcolm Owen died from a heroin overdose in 1980.
7. SHAM 69 – IF THE KIDS ARE UNITED (1978)
Sham’s major label debut, Borstal Breakout, is undoubtedly a better song, but if we’re talking anthems then it doesn’t get much more anthemic than If The Kids Are United, which was a top 10 chart hit in 1978, essentially bringing the sound of football terrace chants to punk rock. Unfortunately for Sham, while their message couldn’t have been much clearer, their gigs were constantly plagued by violence, particularly from right wing skinheads who took umbrage at the band playing Rock Against Racism shows. Ultimately Sham 69 were forced to call it a day, their final show – Sham’s last stand, at the Rainbow in London – predictably turning into a bloodbath before they’d even gone on stage. These days, Sham are back playing gigs – thankfully without the violence – but bizarrely, there are two line-ups using the same name, which suggests that the band themselves are not exactly united.
6. STIFF LITTLE FINGERS – SUSPECT DEVICE (1979)
Formed in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, Stiff Little Fingers were – and indeed still are – one of the most radical punk bands. Not least because they knowingly crossed the sectarian divide, uniting kids from both sides, and confronting the situation in songs like Barbed Wire Love, Alternative Ulster, Wasted Life, and this, their debut single, Suspect Device. Indeed, a cassette of the single sent to a record label was apparently thrown into a bucket of water because it was thought to be a bomb. Thankfully, however, the single – released on SLF’s own Rigid Digits label – reached Radio One DJ John Peel who played it constantly, and it went on to sell over 30,000 copies. It was also the opening track on their spectacular debut album, Inflammable Material, which was their first independent record to reach the UK top 20. It should be no surprise that Stiff Little Fingers refused to cancel their Paris show just four days after the terrorist attack at Le Bataclan.
5. THE CLASH – WHITE RIOT (1977)
Inspired by the riots at Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, in which Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon took part, White Riot was a call to arms for the white youth of Britain to get off their arses and find something worth fighting for. Far from being racist, as it was sometimes misinterpreted – The Clash were heavily influenced by reggae and headlined Rock Against Racism in 1978 – it was an effort to get white kids to stop being so apathetic, as evidenced by the opening line, “Black man gotta lot of problems, but they don’t mind throwing a brick/White people got to school, where they teach you had to be thick!” Musically, there are better Clash songs, the chord structure here sounding suspiciously like the Ramones, but as a statement of intent – this being their debut single – it is second to none, and has since been covered by everyone from Anti-Flag, GBH, and Dropkick Murphys to Rage Against The Machine.
4. RAMONES – BLITZKRIEG BOP (1979)
No list of top punk anthems would be anywhere near complete without something from the ‘brudders’ Ramone, and it really doesn’t get any better than this live version of Blitzkrieg Bop from the classic It’s Alive album, recorded at the Rainbow in London, on New Year’s Eve 1977. Hell, bassist Dee Dee Ramone’s cry of “1-2-3-4” is anthemic in itself, but the ‘Hey Ho! Let’s Go!’ chant from Blitzkrieg Bop (apparently inspired by the Bay City Rollers) is, like all classic Ramones, a work of simplistic genius. No guitar solos, no bullshit, just raw energy! You only have to look at the track-list for the album – 28 songs in less than an hour – to know that the Ramones weren’t fucking around. “What they want, I don’t know/They’re all revved up and ready to go!” Wearing a Ramones shirt and not owning at least one of their records should probably be illegal.
3. THE DAMNED – SMASH IT UP (1979)
Legend has it that in November 1979, Finsbury Council came up with a rather cunning plan when they wanted the seats removed from London’s Rainbow theatre; they booked the Damned – who had recently released Smash It Up – in the knowledge that their fans would do the job for them! And then they charged the band for the damages! Given that the song had caused the ‘redecoration’ of venues nationwide it was an ingenious move, and, naturally, went according to plan, with the photo-pit collecting most of the wreckage. Perhaps not surprisingly, the single was banned by the BBC, although it was performed live on The Old Grey Whistle Test along with I Just Can’t Be Happy Today, during which The Damned destroyed pretty much everything on stage, causing presenter Annie Nightingale to suggest that the studio was haunted by The Who. Needless to say, it was unwise to play the song at a house party, unless it was the house of someone you didn’t like very much. And, yes, we know that New Rose was brilliant, too!
2. SEX PISTOLS – GOD SAVE THE QUEEN (1977)
It could – and undoubtedly will – be argued that Anarchy In The UK should be the top choice for a Sex Pistols anthem. It was their first single, after all, and despite being described by Damned guitarist Captain Sensible as sounding like “some redundant Bad Company out-take with old man Steptoe singing over the top”, it was the first song to propel punk rock into the public consciousness. That said, the ‘Antichrist/Anarchist’ rhyme really is terrible, frontman Johnny Rotten later insisting that he has never been an anarchist, and if not for the band’s now infamous appearance on the Today Show the public might have chosen to ignore it and hope that it went away. Released to coincide with the Queen’s silver jubilee, there was no ignoring God Save The Queen! Banned by the BBC, it reached number two in the charts – with accusations that the charts had been ‘fixed’ to stop it reaching number one – and a blank space was left where it should have been entered, the “no future” refrain becoming symbolic of punk rock to this day. Nearly 40 years later, it’s still a classic.
1. THE STOOGES – I WANNA BE YOUR DOG (1969)
Seriously, what else did you expect to see at number one? Green fucking Day? While it’s cute that London is currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of punk with some particularly cracking shows at the 100 Club, Iggy Pop and the Stooges put out this monumental single back in 1969, along with the self-titled album, pretty much inventing punk rock in the process. Never before had three chords (and one piano note) been played with such nihilistic genius, and it goes without saying that the song has been covered ad infinitum. Almost everyone has had a crack at it, and none are even close to the original. Recognise the riff from Queens Of The Stone Age’s If Only? Yep, there it is again. And all this long after Pop had invented stage diving, taken on entire biker gangs (he lost), and walked Jesus-like across the hands of an audience whilst smeared in peanut butter. Any further questions?