Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia

How 1978 Kicked Off the Explosion of Pop-Punk

Forty years ago, a burst of bands like the Buzzcocks, the Ramones, and the Undertones led a burgeoning subgenre that rebelled against punk itself.

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Feb 26 2018, 3:30pm

Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia

In 1978, punk was going through an identity crisis. That January, the Sex Pistols imploded while touring the US, leaving punk without its flagship band. The American mainstream had failed to embrace punk in the wake of its eruption in 1977, despite a marketing push by the record labels that had snatched up the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones, and so many other sneering, distortion-abusing punk groups. Punk flourished aboveground in the UK, but by ’78 the scene was already fracturing thanks to an influx of new bands—some of them with commercial ambitions, others simply energized by the DIY ethos of punk—and a rapid mutation of the punk sound itself.

The Pistols’ John Lydon formed a new band, Public Image Ltd., and along with other budding post-punks like Joy Division and Wire, they experimented with punk’s DNA, splicing in everything from art-rock to synthesizers to noise to dub. On the other end of the spectrum, rowdy Oi! outfits like Sham 69 and outspoken anarcho-punk collectives like Crass released their debut albums in ’78, promising to redefine punk on their own terms. As punk was contracting, expanding, and gloriously deconstructing itself that year, a smaller subgenre snuck humbly into the mix. Although it wouldn’t solidify as a distinct entity until a while later, pop-punk came into its own in 1978.

“Punk is in decline, it is dead!” declared Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley in May of ’78, as recounted in Tony McGartland’s book, Buzzcocks: The Complete History. He was being interviewed about his band, which makes his proclamation a little hard to swallow, seeing as how Buzzcocks were a punk group, and they were doing quite well. A year earlier, they’d released the first DIY punk record in the UK, an EP titled Spiral Scratch, and since then, they’d vaulted onto the music charts and onto TV sets. It’s not hard to see why. While the Sex Pistols snarled and the Clash sermonized, Buzzcocks sang about love. Their first two albums, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites—both released in ’78—were as fast and loud as any of their contemporaries. However, instead of singing about punk’s favorite topics of violence and politics, tracks like “Fiction Romance,” “I Don’t Mind,” “Ever Fallen in Love with Someone (You Shouldn’t’ve),” and “Just Lust” tapped into the hormonal confusion and angst of being a young adult.

Shelley’s high, melodic voice was light years away from the acidity of Lydon or the rasp of the Clash’s Joe Strummer. Punks at the time typically condemned the rock royalty of yesteryear, but when Shelley first picked up a guitar at age 15, his instinct was to learn the Beatles’ songbook—and that inspiration beamed brightly from Buzzcocks’ teen-angst anthems. It wasn’t a far cry from the Ramones, whose 1976 debut album became the blueprint for pop-punk. But even when crafting love songs, the Ramones loved to revel in horror-flick gore and street-rat toughness. Pain was a major component of punk—but instead of singing about inflicting it, Shelley waxed vulnerable about being on the receiving end.

Buzzcocks weren’t the only punks in 1978 who felt no shame in loving the Beatles—or expressing it through their music. In an interview with New York Rocker that year, Billy Idol of Generation X confessed, “When I was seven years old I used to get all the pictures of the Beatles out of the teen mags. I think it’s one way of getting across.” He was defending his own appearance in numerous British teen magazines on the heels of Generation X’s self-titled debut album, released in March of ’78. From “Ready Steady Go” to “Youth Youth Youth,” the album oozed pubescent attitude and bouncy hooks—a celebration of being young, horny, angry, hungry, and wide-eyed with wonder. It didn’t include a faithful, reverent Beatles cover, which the punk scene would have scoffed it; it went further by including a faithful, reverent cover of a John Lennon solo song, “Gimme Some Truth.”

Clearly, Generation X wasn’t out to destroy rock’s status quo, as punk claimed to do. “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones / in 1977,” the Clash sang in their song “1977.” But in “Ready Steady Go,” Idol sang, “I was in love with the Beatles / I was in love with the Stones / I was in love with Bobby Dylan / Because I’m in love with rock ’n’ roll.” And with that, another piece of the pop-punk puzzle was cemented into place: an open respect for the tradition and craft of pop songwriting rather than a wholesale rejection, often disingenuous, of what came before. “I think we’ve got to form our own culture, today’s culture, and I think things like punk rock are helping to do it,” Idol told New York Rocker. “But we’re still linking to something in the past.”

Punk’s rebellious spirit in the 70s, as needed as it was, had a downside. Even when spouting from the mouths of scrawny kids like Lydon or Strummer, punk was full of rock’s macho swagger. Punk was masculine music, made almost entirely by men, and it vented male rage in a way that extolled toughness and righteous outrage. In that sense, it was barely different than so much of the rock culture it claimed to overthrow. Pop-punk showed another way—and of the class of ’78, the most subversive band was the Undertones. Formed in Derry, Northern Ireland, the group grew up in the era of Irish civil unrest known as the Troubles. In Dublin, the band Stiff Little Fingers sang extensively about the violence and tragedy of the Troubles, but the Undertones took the opposite stance. Their 1978 debut single, “Teenages Kicks,” was not only one of the catchiest pieces of bubblegum punk ever written, it carried a conspicuous refusal to lapse into the chest-thumping or preaching that was expected of a Northern Irish punk band at the time.

“The songs are a lot more personal than just commenting on a general situation like the Troubles,” said Undertones guitarist and chief songwriter John O’Neill in an interview with Melody Maker in 1978. Indeed, “Teenage Kicks” was a work of piercing heartache, crooned in singer Feargal Sharkey’s quivering tenor. The guitars were as raw as any Sham 69 song, but that wide contrast between punk crudeness and pop sensitivity made “Teenage Kicks” one of the most striking and definitive pop-punk classics. Goofy-looking and unassuming in knitted sweaters and schoolboy haircuts, the Undertones demurred when it came to the rowdy punk lifestyle. “It’s not actually being away from home that gets us,” O’Neill told Melody Maker when asked why the band disliked touring. “It’s being away from girlfriends.”

The pop-punk groups of 1978 weren’t necessarily apolitical, nor were they timid about offending potential fans by taking a principled stance. That year, both Buzzcocks and Generation X played Rock Against Racism, a series of high-profile concerts organized to counter the rise of white nationalism within the punk scene and across the UK in general. Polemics just didn’t come naturally to most pop-punks, at least not when it came to making music. As Idol explained to New York Rocker, “I don’t think you can be like a political party and be a rock and roll group also.” That point is arguable, but it gave an insight into pop-punk’s desire to steer clear of sloganeering.

Buzzcocks, Generation X, and the Undertones were unmistakably pop-punk bands by today’s definition of the term, but in 1978, the distinction wasn’t so clear. Plenty of punk groups of the era threw a token pop tune or two into their set—sometimes for ironic effect, other times earnestly. The Damned covered the Beatles’ “Help!”, while the Clash’s resident pop apologist, Mick Jones, delivered the sunny love song “1-2 Crush on You.” Similarly, the Vibrators had “Sweet Sweet Heart” and the Jam took an early turn toward the romantic with “I Need You (For Someone).” Groups like the Rezillos and the Lurkers crept even closer to the pop-punk camp with their debut albums while still remaining squarely punk. Two of their songs released in 1978—“(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures” from the Rezillos’ Can’t Stand the Rezillos and “Jenny” from the Lurkers’ Fulham Fallout—dwelled melodically on love while delivering a vicious punk kick.

Many of the burgeoning pop-punk groups in 1978 bordered on power-pop, a parallel genre on the rise at the time. But power-pop began earlier, and it was a more American phenomenon, with mid-70s bands such as Los Angeles’ the Nerves and New York’s Milk ’n’ Cookies writing stripped-down earworms that harked back to the golden age of 50s and 60s rock ’n’ roll. The US still had the Ramones, the founders of pop-punk, and their 1978 album Road to Ruin upheld that title even as it edged away from the rougher sound of their previous three full-lengths. “Questioningly” was a forlorn, jangly ballad, and “Don’t Come Close” replaced cranked amps with ringing guitar licks.

But another American band that year staked a legitimate claim on pop-punk. Hailing from the San Fernando Valley, the Dickies unleashed their first album The Incredible Shrinking Dickies that year. Like the Rezillos on the other side of the world, the Dickies were more obsessed with pop culture and absurdism than love and romance. The Incredible Shrinking Dickies flaunted fun, bizarre songs such as “Walk Like an Egg” and “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla),” all rendered with lightspeed hooks and snotty yet silly vocals. The Dickies jokingly called their style “easy listening punk” in a 1978 interview with Sounds. But in hindsight, it was pure pop-punk, and it showed off another facet of the subgenre: the spastic, nonromantic, totally geeky side. They stood markedly and bravely apart from their LA punk contemporaries Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and the Germs, all of whom contributed to the rising tide of hardcore.

Not far from the Dickies’ San Fernando stomping grounds, an unknown punk band in Manhattan Beach was practicing material that would wind up on their 1979 debut record. It was a self-released single containing “Ride the Wild,” an infectious song that hinted at greatness to come. They called themselves the Descendents, and they became the torchbearers of pop-punk throughout the 80s, when the punk scene was dominated by hardcore, while bridging the gap between both. Pop-punk finally broke into the American mainstream in a significant way thanks mostly to Green Day and their 1994 album Dookie—and the sound of the Buzzcocks and the Undertones resurfaced, especially among Green Day’s former Lookout! Records labelmates, including the Queers, Screeching Weasel, and the Mr. T Experience. By the turn of the century, everyone from Teenage Bottlerocket to the Ergs! had absorbed and reflected this amalgam of vintage US and UK pop-punk, updating it for the adolescent lusts and anxieties—and in the enduring case of Green Day, even the politics—of a new millennium.

Even during its formative phase in 1978, pop-punk wasn’t simply a lighter, more palatable version of punk. It was just as rebellious, only it rebelled against punk itself: its nihilism, its bad-boy pose, its mockery of melody, its belittling of sentimentality, and above all, its self-seriousness. In a way, pop-punk became its own kind of post-punk—not by being experimental or avant-garde, but by daring to express innocence, frivolousness, romance, and fun. Some pop-punks were art students; some were street kids. Some wanted to be rock stars while others wanted to get home early. What united these unintentional pioneers was the wish to see punk grow beyond its narrowness and self-negation into something more universal. And, of course, to sing some love songs along the way. “The one thing I’ve got against punk is this concept of no emotion,” said Billy Idol in 1978, as recounted in George Gimarc’s Punk Diary: 1970-1979. “Surely the music should be ringing with emotion.” In ’78, pop-punk triumphed at exactly that.

Jason Heller is the author of the forthcoming book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter.