The 10 best punk songs from the School of '76
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Back in the 70s, the landscape in Manchester was barren. There was a lot of progressive bands around, but they’d kind of ran their course and for teenagers like me there was nothing out there. Then this band called the Sex Pistols came along, and they were singing about things that were relevant to us rather than just mushrooms in the sky. We needed something a bit more real and direct, and that’s when punk came along. After forming the Buzzcocks we had three weeks to rehearse for a gig opening up for the Sex Pistols in Manchester. That night changed my life. Before that I was wandering around listening to music, but after that gig, punk went up and down the country like a carpet bomb and it kind of changed everything.
It was a very exciting time because everything seemed brand new and people became alive. You could see it in their faces. Suddenly there was something relevant to gravitate towards, and people did so readily. There were people like Mark E. Smith and the guys from Joy Division and New Order in the crowd that night. They saw us playing and they thought, ‘Well we can do that too’. So we inspired a lot of people in that way, just as the Sex Pistols had inspired us. It was a magical moment and we all came alive. No one knew how long it was going to last, and we didn’t really care - it was happening then and there.
There was a lot of thinking involved with punk, about your consciousness and how you related to music and the world around you. That still resonates today. There was that nucleus of bands at the beginning – us, The Jam, The Damned, Sex Pistols and The Clash – and we all started off together back in 1976. Then there became more interpretations of it than the bible. But people have been influenced by punk in their own way, and that’s great. Most of the bands in my top 10 are the ones that were the catalyst and the instigators of all of it. What came after was league division two!
I’m always thinking about the future these days, but when you stop and look back at some of these records you realise what an amazing legacy was left by all the bands from that era. And hopefully there’s something that younger bands can take from this well and carry it on...
THE CLASH – COMPLETE CONTROL (The Clash (US Version), 1977)
We did the White Riot Tour with The Clash when our first album came out, and that one had Autonomy on it. Joe Strummer came up to me and he said, ‘Here, you wrote that song Autonomy. That’s my favourite!’ You could see because it had the word ‘autonomy’ in it that Joe would be a fan of that one. But I was a massive fan of The Clash as well, even though they were our contemporaries. They had great songs, and I remember this one coming out because it was just so exciting. You used to hear it in the clubs and when it came on it sounded like a call to arms. It’s about that universal thing of saying, ‘Don’t tell us what to do!’ It’s a great song on many levels. There’s the attack on record companies - and their record company wanted to sign us but we wanted artistic control so we didn’t go with them - and it’s about that idea of autonomy: art has got to be free to express itself. The production on this song sounds rough and all over place, but it’s got that magic about it and there’s this brilliant sense of abandonment. It brought a lot of people together and started to create this thing called ‘punk rock’ from a British perspective.
RAMONES – I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES (Brain Drain, 1988)
I remember getting their first album and thinking it was fantastic. One of the reasons I didn’t choose a song off that one is everybody knows them so well. The Ramones were always big fans of ours. Whenever we went to New York they always came to see us play, and they always used to say they liked the way we took it to other places. Our songs weren’t as linear or straight forward as theirs were. We had experimental parts and discordant guitars going on, and they liked all that. That was a great compliment, as we loved what they did too. This is a more unusual track by them – not everybody knows this one. Pearl Jam did a great cover of it too. Eddie Vedder’s an old friend of mine. I actually knew him before he was in a band, and after we played Madison Square Garden with them a few years back I was in our dressing room and someone came in to say that Eddie was waiting for me on the stage. When I got up there they had Johnny Ramone’s guitar waiting for me, and we did a version of The Who song Baba O’Riley together, which was a great honour. It all comes in circles, you see.
SEX PISTOLS – BODIES (Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, 1977)
I obviously had this album at home, but when you saw people out in the clubs sing along to the chorus it was amazing. The Sex Pistols had this nihilistic approach that really stood out. And seeing people on the dance floor jumping around to this song really sticks out in my mind. The whole album was obviously amazing, particularly for its time, and I could’ve chosen any track really but this one is so simple and debased. It got straight to the point. It still sounds violent, filthy and disregarding of everything, although I’m sure there’s some sensitivity in there somewhere. Ha ha! It sums up the Sex Pistols perfectly. At that time they didn’t give a fuck about anything and they made you look at things in a different way. They opened a lot of people’s minds. They kicked open the punk door, and everyone else followed.
THE DAMNED – NEW ROSE (Damned Damned Damned, 1977)
I was in Paris and I ran into a guy who was making a movie about The Damned. He filmed me backstage at a show and I ended up being in film. Later on I was at the premiere watching all this old footage of the band, and I’d forgotten just how powerful this song was. As soon as those first notes come in at the speed of lightning, you’re in. That’s it. It’s got you! People used to say that punk bands couldn’t play and all that, but even the bands used to send themselves up with that. I can understand jazz to a certain extent and I can get into it, but that’s not what we needed at that time. All we needed was three chords. It’s what we did with them that counted. You can try to be clever and do this, that and the other, but it’s got to connect with people and that’s what mattered. Essentially, punk was an attitude. The music was kind of secondary in a way. It was more about relating to each other and this new way of thinking – looking at the world through the punk eyes. New Rose perfectly encapsulates that.
MAGAZINE – SHOT BY BOTH SIDES (Real Life, 1978)
We made our first EP Spiral Scratch, and Howard (Devoto) said he’d done what he wanted to do and he was leaving. Me and Pete (Shelley) were sat next to each other on the sofa at his house and we kind of looked at each other shocked for a few seconds before we said, ‘Well, we’ll carry on’, because we felt like we were just starting. But it was the best thing that could’ve happened really, because Howard’s more Magazine than Buzzcocks. He was there right at the beginning and he helped start the band, but he was going in a different direction. I remember him coming to us one day and asking if he could have this riff that we’d written for Buzzcocks and the next thing I heard was Shot By Both Sides, which was quite amazing. He’s a great artist, Howard, and he did us a favour by moving on and doing Magazine. I don’t think we would’ve had Buzzcocks today – or even the week after – if he’d have stayed with us. It was a bit of a shock and a blow at the time, but we carried on and he went his way and we went ours. And we wouldn’t have the catalogue we have today with Howard still in the band. It gave me and Pete the freedom to do the things that we wanted to do, and allowed us to experiment and interact with each other a lot more. We wouldn’t have had that with Howard there. Sometimes these things happen in history, and something even better comes out of it. And the world got two bands for the price of one!
THE FALL – BINGO-MASTER’S BREAK-OUT! (Bingo-Master’s Break-Out EP, 1978)
We’d put The Fall on with us for loads of gigs in the early days. We helped them out a lot and that was all part of the punk spirit. We all helped each other out in those days. This track really reminds me of that early Fall business as well. They’ve been incredibly prolific over the years and carved their own niche from the initial punk thing. I love Mr. Pharmacist and a lot of the later ones as well, but I wanted to pick something really early that reminds me of 1976/77 when it was all kicking off. This one really captures the spirit of that time. We were in Italy a while back and I hadn’t seen Mark for years, and he was on form there too – still Mark E. Smith, you know. We had a good catch up about the old days, and he had a bottle of whiskey in his pocket just like he did back then. He’s always had a very modern way of looking music did Mark, particularly at that time.
BUZZCOCKS – SICK CITY SOMETIMES (Buzzcocks, 2003)
We’ve been doing this one live a lot, and it’s a bit of a hidden gem. When people come to the shows they’re noticing how powerful this one is live. I was writing about the alienation that comes from all the old towns in the UK disappearing, and how we’re getting lost. All these music venues and clubs are closing down and punk and rock ‘n’ roll is getting cut down. The culture is eroding. It’s all finance over art and businesses are knocking these historic buildings down without realising what they mean to people. I was working on that idea around the time of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, and I put in a reference to that in one of the last lines of the song: ‘Now the buildings take a fall / And it tries to kill us all / In the name of something zero in your mind.’ It’s symbolic of how we can all fall down easily. You can fall as a person too. And of course the world’s not been the same since those attacks. I was talking about not just Manchester or London or New York, but every city. It’s my social comment, if you like, on how we need to take care of each other more. And live it goes down really well.
THE JAM – MODERN WORLD (This is the Modern World, 1977)
In the early days there was The Jam, The Damned, the Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and there was all this energy and attitude under one big umbrella of punk rock. But people have got to move on and forge their own identities of who they are, and that’s what happened. The Jam became The Jam and it was a bit more mod influenced, but originally it all still had that same attack. And it was good that everybody took it in a different way. The Clash became The Clash and we became the Buzzcocks. Not everybody wanted to be Sid Vicious, you know. Everyone had their own things that they wanted to say and they developed accordingly. I have some great memories of The Jam playing this song, and we used to play Top of the Pops together so we go back a long way with The Jam. It’s all that school of ‘76/77.
BUZZCOCKS – HARMONY IN MY HEAD (Single, 1977)
I wrote Promises but Pete sang it and he put some verse in there. And we’d been on Top of the Pops a couple of times with tuneful songs. I felt like it was time we went on there with a steamroller of a tune, and that’s part of the reason I wrote Harmony in My Head. I was getting into James Joyce and Williams Burroughs at the time, and I loved the cinematic imagery they both used. So I tried to incorporate some of that Joycian cinematic imagery and Burroughs cut-ups technique into the lyrics, rather than just tell like a linear story. I was after a Kafka-esque feeling of alienation too, so I wrote about all the noise and the chaos that I experienced walking the streets in Manchester. It was a heavy time. The world was very black and white back then. And that wall of sound was the harmony in my head. It’s not a beautiful thing. It’s a terrible thing that is beautiful. I married all the pain and tragedy and bad stuff in the world with all the beauty, and that’s what life is really. It’s a song about urban life, and always a favourite of mine to sing live.
XTC – REAL BY REEL (Drums and Wires, 1979)
XTC are so underrated. Everybody kind of knows about them, but they also don’t. I thought they were great, from the early songs they did to the later, more polished stuff. Andy Partridge is a really underrated writer. This isn’t one of their well known songs, so that’s why I chose it really. But you can look at their whole catalogue and it’s all fantastic. I think they’re still yet to be rediscovered at some point, and I thought putting them on this list might help.
Steve Diggle was talking to Matt Stocks. For more information on the Buzzcocks, visit their official site.