Has it Come to This?
Rolling Stone’s 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time
The first kid I knew who listened to punk rock was Danny Perlowitz. I have a distinct memory of him in 1978 bouncing on the balls of his feet, clad in a leather jacket that never came off and blue jeans, making his way through a crowded high school hallway singing “I can’t control my fingers/I can’t control my toes.”
We thought he was nuts.
Such was the filtering process by which the rebellious noise of mid-1970s New York oozed into the nearby suburbs. Within a year or two the rockers, who had fractured off from the disco boys around the time of Saturday Night Fever, had themselves split into what became the classic rock camp and a group ever in search of something new.
The seasons keep turning, though, and we’ve reached the point where the great nostalgia machine has discovered the least nostalgic genre ever. Yes, ladies and gentleman, the time has come to redeem punk rock. And the machinery dedicated to the task is to be none other than the antithesis of punk, the quasi-establishment (rock music division) Rolling Stone.
Lester Bangs must be doing serious RPMs in the great beyond.
By the time I discovered this music the moment was past though the aftermath was still glorious. And in the same way that I’d crossed paths with denizens of the East Village/Fillmore scene from the prior decade I stumbled across the path of many a punk from the day. So let’s just say that I feel the need to uphold orthodoxy that only one once removed can. Call me the Pauline punker.
So I’d submit the very existence of such a list violates the first tenet of punk which is “You shall worship no sacred cows including me.” That notion seems lost on the compilers, a group in which I only recognize two names: David Fricke and my near-and-proximate contemporary Will Hermes. You know what I think of Willl Hermes.
Here’s the first problem: if the whole reason for this existing list is that it’s 40 years since the first Ramones album came out, why are there albums from 1989, 1999 and 2014 on it? Does anyone honestly think that Blink 182 (#37) is anything but a costume act emulating an earlier generation? Back in the day there was a word for that: poseur.
I won’t even spare Green Day from this scorn. Much as I love Dookie (#18), it was clearly an act of homage. Billie Joe Armstrong has always struck me as caring about stardom and recognition in a way that Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle and Howard Devoto never did. Well, maybe Howard Devoto. At least the recognition thing.
Writing that last bit and knowing Hermes is involved gives me a whole new perspective on this project. The only explanation for these latter-day bands being included is to make some claim about the importance of punk in the history of rock music. To which I say: see the first commandment above.
Look, there are great albums on this list that everyone should know. But punk was arguably a singles music. The most disconcerting thing was walking into a record store seeing a 7-inch platter on a $400 turntable. (Those would be 1979 dollars.) Should anyone really have to sit through an X-Ray Spex album? (Poly Styrene, though, was a pioneer.) The song we all know makes the point. Same for Richard Hell.
Then what happened to the politics? Oh, sure, the list includes Dead Kennedys and Gang of Four but the context is entirely missing. That photo at the top of the post gives a sense of the NYC environment. If I can fit it in I’ll add the most famous London advert of the era. The world was falling apart, not fascinating us through our smart phones.
How were some decisions made? The synthesizer-based bands never really fit squarely in the punk ethos. So while I understand the desire to include Joy Division I think it’s a muddle-headed decision.
And where are the Two Tone bands? I hate to break this to the millenials and the compilers, but Rock Against Racism started in the 1970s and the integrated Ska revival bands of the UK were at the forefront of the movement. How can The Specials not be on this list?
I think by now the dangers of this list-building exercise are apparent. The reasonable person would say of course there’s room for disagreement, lists are about making choices. And I think the appropriate punkish retort to that nonsense is ‘Bollocks!” There’s no better argument for not making a list.
The biggest problem I have with this list is that it enshrines the critics’ darlings. Marquee Moon is as pretentious as anything put out by a dinosaur prog rock band. And it’s ironic that the canonization of Patti Smith continues here with the inclusion of the album that none other than John Lydon reduced to tatters. I’m reasonably certain at this point that Patti craves recognition the way some folks crave money and power.
You don’t need a list to provoke an argument. I was amused to see Mission of Burma listed because it reminded me of an hours-long beer-fueled battle. “Burma sucks.” “Burma rules.” Endlessly. Until the beer ran out.