Ed. note: Every two weeks, it seems, some magazine, TV network, or blog releases its “Top 100 so-and-so music things of all time” list. Often, these rankings simply recycle the same set-in-stone music-geek beliefs that were established years ago–Pet Sounds rules, as does London Calling, etc.–but because there are often shifts in the critical canon, we’ve asked alarmingly frequent Idolator commenter (and occasional guest editor) Chris “dennisobell” Molanphy to start keeping track of them for a column we’re calling “Canon Fodder.” In this column, he explores a 20-year battle over the greatest classic-punk album.
As we mentioned in our first “Canon Fodder,” rock critics have this thing about classic albums and years ending in seven. They like to honor albums that came out in such years, and they tend to poll each other in years ending in seven, too. Boomer critics are most obsessed with 1967 and the Summer of Love, but get them talking about the birth of punk, and England’s “Class of ’77″ will eventually come up.
In August 1987, the editors of Rolling Stone counted down “The 100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years.” Setting an arbitrary timespan of 20 years was a quick and dirty way to ensure the dominance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–by taking competing 1966 favorites Pet Sounds and Revolver out of the running completely–and sure enough, the Beatles’ 1967 disc topped the poll. No surprise there.
More notable was the U.K. foursome that landed just behind the Beatles: 1977′s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols came in at No. 2. You could tell the Stonesters were proud of themselves for being hip enough to rank a punk album among all that classic Boomer fodder: “[T]he Sex Pistols captured second place, and that’s only the first of many surprises,” reads the contents page. Actually, the only real shocker was that RS editor Jann Wenner allowed a Pistols album to place above the Stones (Exile on Main Street came in at No. 3). But all in all, it was interesting that, in the middle of the Madonna-and-Bruce decade, the U.S. critical establishment so revered old-school British punk.
They were less kind, however, to its American equivalent. The Ramones’ self-titled 1976 debut appeared way down at No. 69 on the RS list. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy placed below a slew of U.K. punks and postpunks, including the Pistols, the Clash, Elvis Costello, and even Graham Parker; the Ramones came in even under Television and Talking Heads*, their U.S.-based CBGB peers. What did the band that arguably invented what we now call punk have to do to get a little respect?
Just stick around, apparently. In 1995, SPIN compiled its first official book, Spin Alternative Record Guide; the book contained its own editor-curated Top 100 albums list, one that leaned toward hipper, Gen-Xier tastes. Ramones placed at No. 1 on SPIN‘s list, and the New York foursome’s third album, Rocket to Russia, made the top 50 as well.
What about the Pistols? In what had to have been an intentional flip of the bird at Rolling Stone, SPIN slotted Bollocks at No. 100, below everything from Freedy Johnston’s Can You Fly? to Moby’s Everything Is Wrong.
Had the Sex Pistols actually fallen that far in estimation in less than a decade? Surely not–the two polls say less about these albums than they do about the pissing match between U.S. rock rags. We also shouldn’t read too much into lists that were so massaged and tweaked. (The ’87 Stone poll reflected the opinions of just 17 writers and editors; rumor had it the SPIN list was overseen by a fraction as many people.) Nonetheless, this move by SPIN took two peacefully coexisting punk albums and turned them into a litmus test. The question for ’90s Gen-X record geeks wasn’t “Are you a Beatles person or a Stones person?” It became “Ramones or Pistols?”
In the end, by a hair, the Ramones won. And they did it in the most punk way possible: hanging out and letting the rest of the world come around.
The ’80s marked rock’s last decade of unmitigated Anglophilia, both on the radio and among record geeks. The mainstream perception then was that, whoever invented punk, the Brits did it better and had permanently co-opted it. What’s more, Never Mind the Bollocks tidily fits cultural commentators’ perception of what Great Albums are supposed to sound like, both as statement and Zeitgeist-shifter. Critics who like albums with messages clearly favored Bollocks, whose pose of nihilism masked a core of post-’60s moralism. From “Bodies” to “No Feelings” to “God Save the Queen,” Bollocks was an inspired piece of pop political theater that captured the U.K. economic malaise of the ’70s at its height. A decade after its release, in the midst of Thatcherism and the MTV-fueled Second British Invasion, the album must’ve looked positively prescient.
But the ’80s were also the decade of the burgeoning hardcore and SoCal punk scenes–genuinely American forms that flew under the radar of pretty much every established rock critic except Greil Marcus. And then, in the ’90s, something seismic happened: punk “broke.” After Nirvana’s 1991 explosion and, later, the 1994 breakthrough of Green Day, punk reclaimed its place in the rock canon as a distinctly U.S. creation.
None of this should have any bearing on the two records’ merits, but great albums don’t exist in a vacuum.
If you’re a rock critic looking to enshrine the Ramones, the natural thing to do is pick a favorite album. This is harder than it seems. Their first three records–Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia–are all roughly similar in sound and strengths, and their most beloved anthem, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” isn’t on any of them. (That’s on their also-fine fourth album Road to Ruin.) The seminal debut Ramones is the most obvious totem, but it doesn’t read as an indivisible album. On your iPod, you could swap its “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” for, say, Leave Home’s “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and be equally satisfied. And isn’t Rocket‘s “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” maybe a little better than Ramones’ “Judy Is a Punk”? In short, the Ramones don’t lend themselves to album-based canonization.
The Sex Pistols don’t have that problem. Picking a favorite Pistols album is like picking a favorite Ralph Ellison novel; the band broke up after only one proper record. But by the mid-’90s, with Thatcher gone, Vivienne Westwood out of fashion, and Britpop reaching back to pre-punk forms for inspiration, Bollocks became charmingly dated–even, to quote Eric Wesibard in the SPIN album guide, “bloated” and “sluggish.” As for the Ramones, what was once a handicap became a virtue: the punishing sameness of their material. To a generation feasting on a new wave of catchy thrash, Ramones‘ clarity of purpose–loud, intense, succinct–looked like the real revolution.
Since then, the two records have achieved a kind of happy equilibrium. Critics seem no less fond of the Pistols’ single-album blaze of glory, but the Ramones’ 2001 acceptance into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the sad, near-simultaneous deaths of Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny have deepened critics’ affection for them and their output. In Rolling Stone‘s massive “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” list (2003), Ramones and Bollocks place less than 10 slots away from each other. This time, however, Ramones places higher. It’s No. 33 to Bollocks‘ No. 41–a final, tiny victory for the band that, surprisingly, has fewer original members still roaming the earth than the Pistols do.
Not that any of this matters, mind you: the highest-ranked punk album on the 2003 Rolling Stone list is the Clash’s London Calling (No. 8). We’ll talk about those guys some other time.
Final note: By a nose, your guest Idolator prefers Ramones to Bollocks, but it’s close.
* Want to know how revered Talking Heads were in the mid-1980s? Take a good look at that 1987 Rolling Stone poll–they appear four times, second only to the Stones and Bruce Springsteen. (The four albums–Remain in Light, More Songs About Buildings and Food, ’77, and Fear of Music–all fall below No. 50, but still…) It really is a snapshot of David Byrne at the height of his worship by rock critics; no other major album poll taken by any group features this many Heads records so prominently. (Go back.)