Punk rock has always prided itself on being abrasive, tough, and against the grain. From the fashion to the lyrics, punk rock is all about taking risks and fighting against the system. But while punk rockers are widely recognized for their contributions to music in this regard, many serious musicians overlook their actual musical contributions because of their inability to "get into" punk.
Punk rock, despite what's widely believed, didn’t stick to just one sound. In fact, punk's sound is often that of cash registers being opened and closed, as some of the biggest hits of the '70s and '80s were written by "punk bands."
These seven songs are excellent examples of the depth of punk rock and how the genre wasn’t so much about a singular sound, but an attitude that could be incorporated into a wide variety of pop styles.
1. The Clash, "Train in Vain"
The Clash are one of punk’s seminal bands. Their attitude and style influenced the entire genre, and they remain one of the most outspoken and successful of the original British punk bands. Hearing “Train in Vain” for the first time, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written by a pop music impresario. Closing out their legendary album, London Calling, “Train in Vain” would sound more at home on a Stax record with its funky beats, impassioned singing, and soulful harmonica.
2. Billy Idol and Generation X, "Kiss Me Deadly"
Billy Idol found fame as a member of the original British punk gang dubbed the Bromley Contingent, and would shortly after start his own punk rock band, Generation X. While pioneering the early punk sound with tracks like "One Hundred Punks" and "Ready Steady Go" on their self-titled debut, Generation X would break the mold by blending heartfelt balladry with philosophical punk rock idealism on the standout track "Kiss Me Deadly."
3. The Damned, "Smash It Up"
The Damned were among the first punk rock bands out of Britain, and the first to release a 7" single, "New Rose." Their first album is a touchstone for punk rockers everywhere, largely defining the genre with its fast beats and heavy guitars. The Damned would break out of the already constraining punk style on their third album, Machine Gun Etiquette, with the poppy and keyboard-driven sound of "Smash It Up," a standout track among a whole set of great pop-influenced songs.
4. The Jam, "That’s Entertainment"
The Jam would make their name on the punk scene for their fiery shows, unrelenting rhythms, and highly literary lyrics largely referencing the class struggles faced by England's lower classes. After putting out some highly influential and very rocking albums, the Jam would spread out, achieving success on the charts and releasing genre-bending tracks like the poignant acoustic ballad "That’s Entertainment."
5. Iggy and the Stooges, "Gimmie Danger"
There are few bands that define punk rock like the Stooges. As leader of the group, Iggy Pop would become the living embodiment of punk rock. Their album Raw Power, while championed as one of the heaviest, hardest punk albums of all time, also features the atmospheric acoustic track "Gimmie Danger." With its arpeggiated acoustic riffs, vamping toy piano, and Pop’s crooning lyrics, it isn’t until the heavy bridge that you're reminded you’re listening to a Stooges recording.
6. Blondie, "Rapture"
As one of the earliest punk bands and one of the most successful, Blondie's largely avoided being pigeon-holed as a punk band despite their first two albums featuring some of the most classic American punk music of all time. This can mostly be attributed to the immense popularity of their hit "Heart of Glass," an infectious, disco-influenced dance song. But not only did this punk band do disco, they also did funk, with their number-one hit song, "Rapture," reflecting the burgeoning crossover of funk into hip-hop. Lead singer Debbie Harry’s rap breakdown towards the song’s end also stands as one of the earliest raps on a recording, and the first number-one song in the US to feature rapping. How punk is that?
Christopher DeArcangelis is an active musician and copywriter from Chicago. He writes songs, plays guitar, and sings vocals for the rock and roll band MAMA and is the founder of the creative agency Static Free Industries.