Whenever people think of punk, the first (often only) image that leaps to mind is three chords, safety pins, leather and gobbing. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the state of the alarmist headlines of Britain’s tabloids throughout 1977 following the Sex Pistols’ now-legendary NSFW appearance on journalist Bill Grundy’s TV show.
It seems unbelievable now, but punk was fleetingly thought of as a genuine threat to societal harmony. After the psychedelic Sixties, when the Beatles conquered pop, England won the World Cup and music had pushed back the boundaries, the Seventies was a drab and sterile decade in Britain. Hippie fashion had become co-opted to the point that office workers could have long hair and flares; pop and rock music was in decline, just like post-imperial Britain itself, crippled by recession, strikes and unemployment. There had to be a reaction.
But, beyond the ‘here’s one chord, here’s another, here’s a third, now form a band’ mentality of its first wave of bands, personified by the Pistols, The Clash and The Jam, punk was a rapidly evolving beast, and by the end of 1977 its original progenitors were expressing dissatisfaction and alienation with the scene. Punk became more complex quite quickly, and the same year saw debut releases from The Stranglers, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury. The pub-rock scene and new-wave helped to guide its evolution, along with an impulse to be constructive as well as destructive. The burgeoning growth of the independent scene, with new, regional labels striking out by themselves and releasing music outside of the existing, London-centric major label structure, soon followed the punk explosion.
MORE: Sex Pistols // ‘Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols’ at 40 years old
Much less overtly political than its British equivalent, American punk had also always been more diverse, even from the very start, as demonstrated by more sophisticated acts like Talking Heads and Television, the more melodic new-wave of Blondie, and the excoriating Suicide who didn’t even use guitars at all.
Punk itself has been endlessly storied, remembered and written about over the subsequent 40 years. Did it succeed? What was its legacy? There are some truly wonderful and informative books out there about punk, either dedicated to the subject or placing it in the wider pop history context. Jon Savage’s authoritative ‘England’s Dreaming’ is a great starting point; Barry Cain’s 2007 book ‘The Sulphate Strip’ provides contemporaneous reviews and interviews from the year itself; and Greil Marcus’ totemic but incredibly scholarly ‘Lipstick Traces’ for the extremely dedicated.
MORE: ‘No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones’ – An Introduction to The Clash
To mark the year that punk smashed its way into the nation’s mindset, here is our guide to 20 absolutely essential punk singles released in 1977.
Although that means no ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ (released in 1976) or ‘Teenage Kicks’ (released in 1978) and nothing by the incredibly influential all-female outfit The Slits, who didn’t get their discography up and running until 1979, there’s plenty of stone-cold classics and comparatively under-appreciated gems.
All of them are collected in a Spotify playlist at the foot of this page, after a track-by-track guide to the playlist – happy listening!
The Damned – ‘Neat Neat Neat’
The Damned, of course, had the great honour of releasing the first ever British punk single in the shape of ‘New Rose’ in October 1976 – an utterly iconic moment, but sadly not eligible for this list. Its follow-up ‘Neat Neat Neat’, however, was very nearly as brilliant, and remains a perfect encapsulation of the original spirit of punk – a new musical situation.
Built on an iconic, revving bassline from Captain Sensible and featuring an addictive playground-chant of a chorus as the band garble “neat neat neat”, it barrels along at breakneck pace. In 2017, it appeared on the soundtrack to the acclaimed film Baby Driver, providing the score to an intricate heist and car chase.
The Jam – ‘In The City’
One of the great British debut singles, ‘In The City’ perfectly sets out everything about the fire and skill of The Jam. Coursing with electricity and intent, it is two minutes and 16 seconds of power-pop musical stacking reminiscent of The Who.
Paul Weller and co. were always more positive and constructive than the average punk band. With lyrics like “I’m gonna tell you / about the young idea”, it wasn’t just about everything being shit, but also about them being the generation that was going to do something about it, a reflection of their suburban and upwardly-mobile origins.
The Jam went on to deliver many more famous singles over the next five years before breaking up at the peak of their fame, but as a mission statement, they don’t get more concise or attention-grabbing than ‘In The City’.
The Adverts – ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’
A track whose release perfectly exemplified the ridiculous tabloid-driven hysteria that surrounded punk in 1977, British group The Adverts picked up on an American newspaper story about the soon-to-be executed murderer Gary Gilmore wanting his eyes to be donated to science for transplant purposes. In the song, the recipient is taken over by his new organs and goes on a killing spree.
On the back of the resulting publicity, denouncing it as ‘DEPRAVED’, The Adverts scored a UK Top 20 hit, thoroughly deserved in its own right due to its giddy, bouncy and slightly demented nature, which was a result of the band’s well-honed tightness as a musical unit.
Buzzcocks – ‘Orgasm Addict’
Having self-recorded and shopped around their utterly seminal debut EP Spiral Scratch at the start of 1977, Manchester’s Buzzcocks impressively landed themselves a major label deal with United Artists. Despite founding member Howard Devoto having left the group already by this point, frontman Pete Shelley totally owned the spotlight on the Buzzcocks’ early singles, which had all the essential elements that punk was invented for – pounding bass, rolling drums and slashed, buzz-saw guitars, all squashed inside two minutes.
‘Orgasm Addict’ obviously ended up getting banned, but the youthful, hormone-filled energy in the template laid down by the band here went on to inform so much of pop-punk. Shelley’s higher-pitched singing and palpable sense of anguish also set them apart from the gruffness and confrontational vocals that characterised a great deal of first-wave punk.
Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers – ‘Chinese Rocks’
Written all the way back in 1975 by former Heartbreaker Richard Hell (writer of American punk anthem ‘Blank Generation’ in 1976 and a sometime member of Television) and Dee Dee Ramone but which became a part of the Heartbreakers’ repertoire even after Hell’s departure, ‘Chinese Rocks’ is one of the great could-have-been punk hits that never quite made it.
With a rutting Stooges-esque riff combined with Spectorian production, it’s the stuff pop gold is made from – except its subject matter of heroin addiction and rough inner-city living, written primarily as a bet by Dee Dee that he could write a better song about the drug than Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin’.
Ramones – ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’
One of the bands most frequently credited with lighting the punk fire with their “one-two-free-four” hollers and basic three-chord formula played extremely quickly, and their highly influential self-titled debut arriving in early 1976, Ramones were a lot more melodically indebted to classic ‘50s and ‘60s rock’n’roll and bubblegum-pop than the ‘punk’ label would suggest.
‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’, one of their most distinctive songs and taken from third album Rocket To Russia, was an embodiment of the way in which they had inadvertently established punk rock as a viable alternative – lightning fast but minimal instrumentation, doltish drums, and that same kind of endless-summer vibe going back to The Beach Boys. Even going so far as to mention ‘punk’ in its title, it’s one of the first explicit expressions of the movement as a sub-culture.
Chelsea – ‘Right To Work’
London group Chelsea – whose very first line-up briefly included a certain Billy Idol – remain one of the more underrated British first-wave punk outfits. Led by the politically outspoken Gene October, whose mission statement was to represent “the poor, the underdog and the loner”, their debut single ‘Right To Work’ was piece of explosive sloganeering.
Built on a scuzzy, rusty three-chord riff, Chelsea railed against the rocketing youth unemployment that was blighting Britain in the late Seventies, October hollering “I don’t even know what tomorrow will bring / But let me tell you, having no future is a terrible thing”.
X-Ray Spex – ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’
Another member of the ‘Bromley contingent’ who seemed to make up so many first-wave British punk acts, the indomitable Poly Styrene was one of the stand-out characters of 1977.
Combining a savage, brattish denunciation of consumerism and instant disposability with a feminist call-to-arms, ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ was her debut single with the sadly short-lived X-Ray Spex. However, the legacy of this track, its parent album Germfree Adolescents and Poly Styrene herself is clear to see in subsequent rock frontwomen from Kathleen Hanna to Karen O.
Penetration – ‘Don’t Dictate’
Hailing from County Durham, Penetration proved that British punk was not a London-centric phenomenon. Boasting the memorable if divisive voice of Pauline Murray, a plaintive yet fearless presence on record, ‘Don’t Dictate’ was a bold statement of feminine autonomy set to a scuffed Stooges riff and a flurry of drumming.
Winning support slots with The Stranglers and a great deal of column inches followed, but Penetration sadly split up after just two albums. Their 1978 debut Moving Targets remains a widely admired time-piece of the era, however.
The Clash – ‘Complete Control’
A fiery polemic levelled at the record industry and the state of punk itself in the second half of 1977, released with no small amount of irony on CBS. An expression of frustration that CBS had insisted without their permission on releasing ‘Remote Control’ as a single four months previously, it’s one of The Clash’s finest and most complex moments.
‘Complete Control’ was a rare instance of the system being turned against itself, but also scans as a howling lament at punk’s idealism being crushed by corporate reality. More importantly, it was an absolutely crunching track in musical terms, with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ guitars rubbing against each other letting sparks fly.
Talking Heads – ‘Psycho Killer’
Talking Heads were one of a number of arty, interesting New York-based bands in 1977 who were demonstrating that punk was a far more diverse phenomenon than as it was portrayed in the press.
Crackling with neurotic, highly-strung nervous energy and jagging guitar lines, ‘Psycho Killer’ helped define the Talking Heads’ early sound and their bookish, intelligent reputation at a time when many of their Lower East Side colleagues were stripping back and opting for simplicity over subtlety. David Byrne’s vocal performance is masterful, sounding at once deranged and yet totally in control.
MORE: Talking Heads // ‘Talking Heads: 77’ at 40 years old
Television – ‘Marquee Moon’
Similar to Talking Heads, New York’s Television seemed to be the antithesis of noisy, nihilistic punk – with Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s duelling, spidery and intertwining guitars offset by a careful, deliberated rhythm section, this was as far from punk’s white-hot anger as it was possible to get. On the surface, at least.
A track like ‘Marquee Moon’ represents punk as an attitude or way of approaching art, not a singular, straitjacketing sound. An intelligent, poetic and textured art-rock masterpiece sprawling over an unusual 11 minutes, this could be seen as one of the first statements of post-punk.
MORE: Television // ‘Marquee Moon’ at 40 years old
Suicide – ‘Cheree’
Standing out from the crowd even among the diverse New York scene of 1977, Martin Rev and Alan Vega found their space in the gaps between styles. Although they’re most well-known for the amazing ‘Ghost Rider’, it was the eerily beautiful ‘Cheree’ that was the only single from Suicide’s eponymous debut.
Created from Rev’s shuddering keyboard/drum-machine hybrid and featuring Vega’s impassioned, guttural noises, ‘Cheree’ is strangely reminiscent of the simplicity of a ‘50s doo-wop song. Clinching proof that punk doesn’t necessarily require guitars!
The Stranglers – ‘No More Heroes’
With their proto-new-wave sound and knack for an irresistible melody, The Stranglers were one of the few British punk bands to achieve genuine mainstream success. Following hot on the heels of their highly successful debut album Rattus Norvegicus, ‘No More Heroes’ was the title track of the band’s second album in the space of a year.
A sideways commentary at the rise of crass celebrity culture at the expense of venerated persons with actual historical significance, namechecking Leon Trotsky, Lenny Bruce, William Shakespeare and literary character Sancho Panza, ‘No More Heroes’ was a top-ten smash in the UK and became one of The Stranglers’ signature songs.
Elvis Costello – ‘Less Than Zero’
He may have a reputation as an avuncular troubadour 40 years later, but Elvis Costello’s initial works dealt frequently with fascism, prejudice and justice. Inspired by the disgust he felt after seeing former British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley appear on television to attempt to deny his racist past, Costello said his first single ‘Less Than Zero’ was “more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument”.
Managing to subsume influences of reggae but without mimicking its syncopation, the slow and sinister melody driving ‘Less Than Zero’ is one of the most clever and subtle debut singles in the canon. Three singles later by the end of 1977, Costello was a mainstream star and increasingly bore little resemblance to punk as his career blossomed.
READ MORE: Elvis Costello // ‘My Aim Is True’ at 40 years old
XTC – ‘Science Friction’
A slightly tenuous inclusion here as ‘Science Friction’ was actually withdrawn as a single in the UK in October 1977, seeing a release in the rest of the world on the 3D EP, but few other bands illustrate the rapidly evolving nature of punk as Swindon’s XTC.
More casual and detached than most British punk, they actually had more in common with art-rock and the nascent synth-pop scene, but the kinetic sound of their earliest releases demonstrated an unmistakable punk attitude, with their ever-underrated songwriter Andy Partridge yelping about aliens on the group’s debut single. It launched a lengthy and illustrious career in which XTC frequently skirted on mainstream success but never quite broke through.
Wreckless Eric – ‘Whole Wide World’
Memorably promoted by Stiff Records through a series of ‘Wreckless Eric Bricks’ being mailed to pop journalists, Eric Goulden is another significantly overlooked character in the story of punk. Highly unusually for a pop song, his debut single ‘Whole Wide World’ consisted of just two chords (E and A), making it an extremely reductive song even by the ideologically stripped-down dictats of punk.
But what makes it so winsome is Eric’s infectious enthusiasm for his music, coupled with its everyman nature and DIY delivery. When audiences heard Goulden, they heard themselves. ‘Whole Wide World’ was never a chart hit at the time, but has soundtracked so many films and been covered so often that it’s now one of punk’s most famous standards.
The Saints – ‘This Perfect Day’
Hailing from Australia and technically predating the likes of The Damned and the Pistols, The Saints were well-placed to critique and subvert the British punk scene, a lot of which they saw as empty posturing – they were “punk before it was fashionable”, as lead singer Chris Bailey put it.
It was a close call between this and ‘(I’m) Stranded’ for inclusion on this list, but ‘This Perfect Day’ edges it out as The Saints’ masterpiece. Driven by clattering, breathless drumming and with an unmistakable melancholy underlying the energy, it remains one of the most singular visions for what punk could be that 1977 produced.
Iggy Pop – ‘Lust For Life’
As the lead singer of the often violently debauched Stooges, Iggy Pop was frequently dubbed as ‘The Godfather of Punk’, and at the close of 1977 he returned to reap a part of the harvest he had helped to sow with this distinctive calling-card of a track.
Celebrating his personal and professional rehabilitation as well as positioning himself as dignified elder statesman, ‘Lust For Life’s iconic opening drumbeat soundtracked the adrenaline-pumping opening sequence to Trainspotting two decades later.
READ MORE: Iggy Pop // ‘Lust For Life’ at 40 years old
Sex Pistols – ‘God Save The Queen’
The quintessential punk single in the wider British public’s consciousness, ‘God Save The Queen’ is surrounded by myths and rumours. Recorded under the aegis of A&M before being dropped, and then released with Virgin, there are apparently as few as 10 copies of the original test pressing in existence, fetching more than £12,000 in auctions today.
Released in June 1977 to coincide with the Queen’s jubilee, the Pistols performed it on a barge floating on the Thames on Coronation Day itself before being raided by the police. Banned from the nation’s airwaves by both the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, it was effectively blacklisted, but it didn’t prevent it from reaching no.2 in the official BBC charts behind Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ – though the NME charts had it as no.1, provoking rumours of a conspiracy…
As intriguing as all the controversy was, it detracted from the excellence of ‘God Save The Queen’ as a piece of cultural confrontation. It delivered the riot that their 1976 debut single ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ had promised, and saw the Pistols seize their very own perfect pop moment, capturing the essence of the time better than anything else, rather perversely, crashing the nation’s street party with a moment of incision.
However, Johnny Rotten has always been at pains to explain that the track wasn’t created just because of the jubilee, and wasn’t just a flick of the ‘V’ sign at the authorities. “You don’t write ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with them being mistreated,” he said in 2007.
It’s best understood as an urgent wake-up call to the population at large, with Rotten’s bitter taunt “there is no future in England’s dreaming”, this was a call-to-arms against complacency. In 2017, with the calumny of Brexit looming ever closer and a worryingly large amount of the population distracted by royal weddings, its message is as relevant as it was four decades ago.
Furthermore, the production makes it a veritable wall of sound, expanding to up every conceivable space, and there is no room for the listener to ignore it. You either turn it up, or turn it off – either way, it provokes a reaction, which is what all great art should do. Though many Pistols fans argue that ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ was more accomplished track and more of a manifesto, there can be no greater illustration of the social impact of punk than ‘God Save The Queen’.
Tags: 1977, 20 Essential Punk Singles, Ed Biggs, playlist, punk, Year Zero
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