The Lyrical Story Of Punk Rock

Punk Poetry

From biting humor to political sting, the original punks had a way with words. From the West Coast—with the skate punks of Southern California and the art-scene of San Francisco—to the gritty, intellectualized punk of New York City, the music had a multitude of flavors and a range of intent. Some bands just wanted to have fun, and some wanted to change the world. Here’s a look the lyrical landscape of the late 1970s punk-rock milieu.

Patti Smith

The godmother of punk, New York’s Patti Smith has always been a poet as well as songmaker. Reviewers of her work often mention her idol Rimbaud—along with Baudelaire—as touchstones. These lyrics are from her 1975 song, “Elegie:”

I just don’t know what to do tonight
My head is aching as I drink and breathe
Memory falls like cream in my bones, moving on my own
There must be something I can dream tonight
The air is filled with the moves of you
All the fire is frozen yet still I have the will

The Ramones

The American godfathers of punk, also from New York, The Ramones’ aim was to have fun—and to be louder than the next band. Here we present the wise words—all of them—from their song 1976 song, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement:”

Hey, daddy-o
I don’t want to go down to the basement
There’s somethin’ down there
I don’t want to go
Hey, Romeo
There’s somethin’ down there
I don’t want to go down to the basement
(repeat 2x)

The Avengers

In San Francisco, 19-year-old art student Penelope Houston first fronted The Avengers in 1977. The band’s punk anthems were blistering indictments of the status quo. These lyrics are from the song, “We Are the One” (put your fist in the air for full effect):

We will build a better tomorrow
The youth of today will be the tool
American children made for survival
Fate and our destiny we shall rule

We are not Jesus Christ
We are not fascist pigs
We are not capitalist industrialists
We are not communists
We are the one! We are the one!


Down in Los Angeles, also in 1977, the band Fear blended their own acerbic assaults with piercing jabs of humor (as did the L.A. band Black Flag). Here, writer/singer Lee Ving shares his views on the military industrial complex with “Let’s Have a War:”

There’s too many of us–
Let’s have a war! So you can go and die!
Let’s have a war! We could all use the money!
Let’s have a war! We need the space!
Let’s have a war! Clean out this place!
Let’s have a war! Jack up the Dow Jones!
Let’s have a war! It can start in New Jersey!
Let’s have a war! Blame it on the middle-class!
Let’s have a war! We’re like rats in a cage.

Sex Pistols

Released during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the Sex Pistols’ single “God Save the Queen” was controversial, and though officially banned by the BBC, it somehow became a number one hit. The Pistols spoke to the economic despair of the time with their attacks on the monarchy, consumerism and political apathy:

God save the queen
She’s not a human being
And there’s no future
And England’s dreaming
God save the queen
’cause tourists are money!
And our figurehead
is not not what it seems
God save the queen
We mean it man
And there is no future
In England’s dreaming

The Clash

Where the Sex Pistols were all spit and anarchy, the Clash’s brand of punk exuded a slightly more refined sensibility. The title track of their third LP, London Calling, referenced a 1979 nuclear meltdown (Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania), the Cold War, real war and the general bleakness of late ‘70s England.

London calling … to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down
London calling … to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
London calling … now don’t look to us
Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling … see we ain’t got no swing
‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing
London calling …

Joy Division

The gloomy, romantic music of England’s Joy Division broke through to mainstream audiences in the U.K. with the synth-heavy, brooding “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in mid-1980. It became a brutal touchstone for the band, which suffered the suicide of singer Ian Curtis in early 1980.

You cry out in your sleep,
All my failings exposed.
And there’s a taste in my mouth,
As desperation takes hold.
Just that something so good
Just can’t function no more.
But love, love will tear us apart again.
Love, love will tear us apart again.

The Stooges

Another American punk progenitor like Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and the Stooges were hugely influential in the birth of punk. The band’s primitive, feral sound (first heard in 1969) was an answer to the bloated, “noodly” rock of the time. On “Search and Destroy,” from 1973, Iggy lays out a plan for the nihilist future:

I’m a streetwalking cheetah
with a heart full of napalm
I’m a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb
I am the world’s forgotten boy
The one who searches and destroys
Honey, gotta help me please
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby, detonate for me!

Johnny Thunders

A staple on the early New York scene, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers were notorious for rough living. With songs like “All By Myself, “I Wanna Be Loved,” and “Born to Lose,” the band epitomized the lonely underdog, the bruised and battered. No song captured this more than the 1978 bittersweet ballad, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory:”

Feel so restless, I am
Beat my head against a pole
Try to knock some sense,
down in my bones.
And even though they don’t show,
The scars aren’t so old
And when they go,
They let you know
You can’t put your arms around a memory
You can’t put your arms around a memory
Don’t try … don’t try.

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