The Playlist Special: Top Artists Pick Their Personal Top 10

Billy Idol: Punk

In the mid-1970s Billy Idol was a young Englishman who didn't like much of what he was hearing. "By 1974 you had all these bands regurgitating ideas from the Sixties," Idol recalls. "What did it say to a teenager who couldn't get work and who was being told in England you have no future? If there was one more guy up there with an acoustic guitar and a furrowed brow, I was gonna kill him." Idol found salvation in punk rock – from American proto-punks to blazing U.K. pioneers like the Sex Pistols, whom he saw play in 1976. "We were disenfranchised youth. The only power you had was to say how you felt, exactly, pulling no punches," he recalls. "I used to bicycle to a second-hand record store in New Cross, which took me an hour and a half. One day I was going through the records and there was the Stooges' first album. It wasn't even released in England. Someone must have bought it and not liked it."

Listen: Billy Idol's Top Punk Songs

  • 1.
    "No Fun" | The Stooges, 1969

    The anthem for how we felt by the time the mid-Seventies came along. He was so on the money in 1969. The primitive nature of it and Iggy's confrontational, slightly disaffected "I'm bored but I'm gonna be sexy  about it" style spoke volumes to us. We were looking for people who could confront society. The lyrics stand up even better today.

  • 2.
    "Kick Out the Jams" | MC5, 1969

    When I was 13 or 14, I went to a festival on the south coast of England with hippie bands of the era. And suddenly, halfway through the day, the MC5 turned up. I didn't know who they were, but they were so radically different. The two guitarists were wearing spangled jackets and every now and then they'd jump up in the air and twirl around and come back down. Most groups weren't doing things like that. They were saying, "Let's not fuck about—let's do something, let's revolt against the system." No holds barred. Of all the groups playing that weekend, they stayed with me more than the others.

  • 3.
    "Sister Ray" | The Velvet Underground, 1968

    Their most outrageous song. It's about sailors having a wild time with some transvestites, and there's a mini-riot at the end when the police arrive. It really captures the mixture of Lou Reed and John Cale – the organ is so distorted. It was the anti-flower power. Instead of making people mellow, it was saying, "Let's make them uptight and pull them out of their torpor." I played it a couple of weeks ago on my iPod and my tinnitus went up about 10 levels. That record still has that effect.

  • 4.
    "Keep Your Dreams" | Suicide, 1977

    A lot of people think punk is super negative. But Alan Vega is saying the most positive things possible – you and your friends have to hold on tight to life. With the electronic nature of what they were doing, they were way ahead of their time, like music from Germany like Neu! and Kraftwerk. I used to go see them a lot when I was living in New York. They were revolutionary.

  • 5.
    "Roadrunner" | Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, 1976

    Jonathan Richman was as important to us as loads of other groups. It wasn't music that was smashing you in the face, but it was punk rock. People thought punk was all nasty, but it was never just one thing, and Jonathan was super on the forefront of that. The song is about three chords, really simple. If you weren't that gifted, you could play it. It didn't say to you "no" – it was saying, "yes."

  • 6.
    "Little Johnny Jewel" | Television, 1975

    All the New York groups were so different: The Ramones were different from Blondie, who were different from Suicide, who were different from Television. I love the riff in this song and it was a different way of singing – it wasn't like Robert Plant, it wasn't the blues style. They were trying to come at the music from a different angle. When that record came out, it looked homemade, like they put it out themselves. It said to us, "Oh, look, you don't have to rely on the big record companies if you believe in what you do."

  • 7.
    "Anarchy In The U.K." | Sex Pistols, 1976

    What a call to arms. It's like the New York Dolls and Iggy morphed through an English sensibility. I was going to see the Pistols in '76 at a club, At first, they were doing all covers, like "Substitute" by the Who. Then suddenly they started to plug in their own songs like "Anarchy in the U.K." Right from the bass riff, you went, "Wow – they're writing great songs." It showed me you have to write your own songs. They gave us such huge hope.

  • 8.
    "Kiss Me Deadly" | Generation X, 1978

    We were trying to do a mini-opera, but instead of 10 minutes it's four and a half. We weren't trying to bounce off the Ramones; we were trying to find our own thing. We did something with "Kiss Me Deadly" that a lot of groups around us weren't really doing. And that's what was super important to punk: that you stood up for what you believed in and didn't curry favor. You thought, "What made it fun for you?" You didn't think what made it fun for the audience. There was no audience!

  • 9.
    "New Kind Of Kick" | The Cramps, 1981

    That song said it all – "A new kind of kick" is what we all needed. There wasn't anyone doing the psychobilly thing like them. A lot of people were trying to bring about a rockabilly revival when punk started, but the Cramps were going back to the schlock movies of the '50s and transforming it into something that was futuristic. I was standing across from CBGB in the late '70s and out of this doorway a voice said, "I'm Lux Interior from the Cramps." It looked like a monster!

  • 10.
    "She's Lost Control " | Joy Division, 1979

    They weren't just a punk group. They were beyond that. They weren't just playing three chords; they were extending the music. And I loved the way Ian Curtis sang. A lot of people in the early '70s were screaming in very high voices, part of the heavy metal thing. I knew I couldn't sing like that; I was starting to discover the lower tones in my voice. So I liked people like Ian who weren't screaming. A great group.