Tired of seeing the same names in every list of punk bands out there? Here are some overlooked and underrated punk bands from the first wave of American punk rock that deserve more recognition.
If you look at lists of classic punk bands from major publications, they just rehash the same 5-10 bands (Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, and so on). Similarly, if you look at popular lists of hardcore punk bands, you also see the same handful of bands overrepresented there (Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, yadda yadda yadda, you get it). Doesn’t it get a little stale and boring seeing the same band names endlessly recycled in list after list?
What about the lesser known and underrated punk bands who don’t make these lists? There are plenty of awesome underrated bands in the history of punk rock music that for whatever reason never got the attention or respect they deserved. Of course there are plenty of also-rans, but that’s a topic we can cover another time.
What if there was a better way? What if a list of bands could actually get you into something new, or motivate you to actually check out an underrated punk band whose name you may have heard, but never really took the time to explore? Isn’t that what lists of punk bands are supposed to be for, anyhow? Lists of punk bands should function like the liner notes we used to pore over in the pre-internet days to learn about new bands, shouldn’t they?
The way I see it, there are different tiers of popularity: top, middle, and bottom tiers. Everyone knows the bands at the top tier, and maybe a few bands in the middle tier, but few to none in the bottom tier. This article is about filling in some knowledge of the middle tier of punk bands. These aren’t exactly obscure punk bands, but they’re also not the most well known. They may just be, however, the most name-dropped by people trying to show off their punk rock knowledge.
Alright, let’s dig into this list of underrated punk bands that should’ve been way more popular. Each entry contains the obvious hit song for the band, as well as a deep cut. For your listening convenience, I’ve included a playlist of the songs mentioned at the end of this article.
Black Market Baby
Black Market Baby were one of only a handful of punk bands to emerge from the D.C. punk scene without ties to the Dischord record label. They’re also a bit of anomaly in that by 1980, a lot of punk bands were adopting a hardcore punk style, whereas BMB got their start in 1980, and exhibited a sound more akin to first-wave punk rock, drawing from both American punk and English street punk and proto-punk influences like Sham 69, The Damned, Dead Boys, and The Stooges.
Perhaps their lack of conformity to the hardcore punk style of the time is what led to their obscurity relative to the bands promoted by Dischord? If we know anything about the psychology of human beings in groups, we know that they tend to adopt the characteristics of the group around them. So it is with the various regional punk rock scenes – the predominant bands from each scene tended to look and sound similar. Since Black Market Baby sounded more like a rock-punk hybrid instead of a hardcore punk outfit, they found themselves on the periphery of the D.C. punk scene despite exhibiting more than enough talent and tenacity to reside somewhere near its apex. In just about any other 1980’s regional punk scene than D.C., Black Market Baby would have been hailed as one of its top bands.
Obvious Hit: Potential Suicide
Deep Cut: Downward Christian Soldiers
Formed in Houston, Texas in 1978, Really Red were a highly political and musically evolved punk rock band whose taut and aggressive sound contains echoes of post-punk stalwarts like Wire, Gang of Four, and Mission of Burma. Their pioneering blend of punk, post-punk, noise rock, and hardcore earned them legendary status in the history of Texas punk rock.
Really Red were known for progressive, socially-conscious politics that conflicted (sometimes physically) with the conservatism of Texas culture. They helped kick start the early Houston punk rock scene in particular, and Texas punk in general. Really Red were also the first Texas punk band to tour extensively beyond the state, and also the first to record and release a full-length album that received national distribution. You probably haven’t heard a punk band that sounds like Really Red… because there aren’t many that can mix biting social commentary, complex musicianship, and passionate intensity the way Really Red does (perhaps the closest equivalent I’ve found is The Proletariat, from Boston). Give thanks to Jello Biafra and Alternative Tentacles for releasing their entire discography, because without it you’d probably never have had the chance to hear Really Red in the first place.
Obvious Hit: Crowd Control
Deep Cut: Too Political?
Angry Samoans were among the very first wave of L.A. punk bands, emerging in the summer of 1978 and founded by a pair of rock critics, Gregg Turner and “Metal” Mike Saunders (who is credited with inventing the term “heavy metal”). They initially began as a Dictators cover band, but soon began writing original material that was fast, raw, and primitive, drawing from numerous 1960’s garage rock and psychedelic influences. And those influences show pretty clearly in short, punchy, highly satirical punk songs about cars, girls, teenage angst, castration and suicide, poking your eyes out (because it’s a cool fad!), and Hitler’s severed and preserved penis terrorizing and murdering neighborhood dogs. It’s fitting that one of Angry Samoans early shows took place at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.
With most of the other underrated punk bands on this list, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why they weren’t more popular. Angry Samoans’ case is less mysterious. Satire is difficult to pull off successfully, so a tasteless song like “Homosexual”, which pokes fun at closeted suburban dads and suggests that Darby Crash (of The Germs) was gay probably didn’t help their popularity much with their contemporaries in the L.A. punk and hardcore scenes.It also didn’t help Angry Samoans’ popularity much when they included a rant against KROQ-FM DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, titled “Get Off the Air” on their debut EP in 1980, Inside My Brain. After its release, Angry Samoans were blacklisted at several prominent Hollywood/L.A. clubs like the Whisky a Go Go and the Starwood, presumably due to Bingenheimer’s influence in the local club scene. Nail, meet coffin.
Obvious Hit: Gas Chamber
Deep Cut: Steak Knife
I know it might seem odd that a band whose lineup at various times has included Dez Cadena and Ron Reyes of Black Flag and Greg Hetson of Circle Jerks & Bad Religion would appear on a list of underrated punk bands. Perhaps I can justify it by asking you this simple question: how many Redd Kross songs can you sing along with versus how many Bad Religion, Circle Jerks, or Black Flag songs? Unfortunately, the answer for most fans of punk rock is probably “very few” or “none”.
It’s pretty remarkable that Redd Kross got their start as a band named “the Tourists” when brothers Jeff McDonald and Steve McDonald were still in Middle School. If you’re thinking, “damn that’s really young to be in the hardcore scene”, not only would I agree, but I’d also say that if I’d been able to get my hands on a guitar in middle school, I’d have tried to start a band too. The middle school years are painfully awkward, and going from just listening to bands like The Ramones at 12 years old to actually playing punk music like theirs sounds like a dream come true for a kid that age.
Part of the reason that Redd Kross doesn’t get as much attention as their 80’s punk contemporaries is the sporadic nature of their recordings. Originally named Red Cross, they laid down their first EP in 1980, just when hardcore punk’s popularity was on the rise, but they didn’t follow that up with a full-length LP until two years later with 1982’s Born Innocent. After its release the International Red Cross threatened to sue the band, who quickly changed their name to Redd Kross. Still, it would be another 5 years before they released a followup album, 1987’s Neurotica, which sounds decidedly more like garage rock and power pop than punk rock.
Obvious Hit: Linda Blair
Deep Cut: Kill Someone You Hate
Considered by many to be the first Pacific Northwest punk band, Wipers were formed in Portland, Oregon in 1977 by guitarist and vocalist Greg Sage, originally with the intention for the band to be a recording project only. However, Sage quickly realized that his viewpoint on music being pure art and not a commercial product was perhaps unrealistic, and the band began playing live shows and doing interviews before too long.
Wipers exerted a powerful influence on other bands that came up in the Pacific Northwest punk and underground music scenes, including Soundgarden, Melvins, and Mudhoney. Similarly, Greg Sage’s influence on Kurt Cobain and the rest of Nirvana becomes clear after listening to even a handful of Wiper songs, particularly their darker and moodier releases, such as Youth of America (1981) and Over the Edge (1983). It’s an interesting coincidence that Nirvana was led by a left-handed guitarist and vocalist who was the primary songwriter and creative force, and that the band was a power trio – characteristics shared by Greg Sage’s Wipers.
But how does a punk band that strongly influenced Nirvana make its way onto a list of underrated punk bands? Despite the critical acclaim and obvious influence over many of the major grunge and alternative bands of the 1990’s, Greg Sage opted to retain as much creative control over Wipers music as possible, and that meant avoiding major labels and other recording deals that might have compromised his vision. Instead, he preferred to use his music production skills to support up and coming bands, and to actively downplay or shun recognition of his prolific musical accomplishments, preferring to let the music speak for itself.
Obvious Hit: Return of the Rat
Deep Cut: Youth of America
It’s probably fair to say there wouldn’t be a “Chicago Sound” if punk rock fans Marko Pezzati and Santiago Durango hadn’t met in college and formed Naked Raygun in 1980. The band’s first album, Throb Throb (1985) featured a raw sound that combined the grittiness and fast tempos of punk rock with the melodic hooks of post-punk. A trademark of Naked Raygun songs is that many are infused with memorable, sing-along choruses and lyrics that speak to both personal and political issues.
Naked Raygun were also more keen to experiment with different sounds than many of their hardcore punk peers. They briefly featured a keyboardist in their early days, and have used both piano and saxophone to great effect on several albums. Raygun were also more apt to blend genres in their music, often incorporating post-punk, post-hardcore, and even noise rock elements on some tracks.
Despite appearing on this list of underrated punk bands, Naked Raygun were among the most significant and influential Midwest punk bands in the hardcore scene of the 1980’s. Then again, Midwest punk was largely overlooked in favor of the more popular punk bands from either coast, so even the most well known punk and hardcore bands from the region are significantly less well known nationally.
Obvious Hit: Rat Patrol
Deep Cut: Treason
Imagine living in conservative Texas in the 1980’s. Now imagine that you’re an openly gay man in Texas in the 1980’s who is outspoken and critical of the prevailing culture, and that you front a punk rock band that is known for its hatred of, and confrontations with, police. Oh, and also imagine that you sometimes dress in drag during performances and tell people that you’re a Communist. Congratulations, you now understand the tiniest fraction of what it must have been like walking in the shoes of the legendary Gary Floyd, singer for The Dicks, a pioneering Texas punk band.
The Dicks let you know just who they were right off the bat. Their first (and still most well-known) single, Hate the Police (1980), tells the story of a boy who grew up to be a racist, power-mad cop. It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that the song is an amalgamation of the many hostile police and “good ‘ol boys” the band encountered.
Musically, The Dicks are able to seamlessly blend touches of rockabilly and country into jangly punk rock songs driven by frantic energy and Floyd’s maniacal vocals. Like their Texas punk peers, Really Red, The Dicks were staunchly political and not afraid to take risks lyrically, or musically.
Obvious Hit: Hate the Police
Deep Cut: Kill From The Heart
The Effigies formed in 1980, and were one of Chicago’s earliest and most significant punk bands. Their early lineup shuffling eventually settled into a steady core featuring John Kezdy on vocals, Paul Zamost on bass, Earl Letiecq on guitar and Steve Economou on drums. This lineup featured on Effigies’ vinyl debut on the legendary Busted at Oz compilation in 1981, with the tracks “Quota” and “Guns or Ballots”.
Compared to experimental and often more political Chicago punk peers Naked Raygun, The Effigies were conventional and workmanlike in their musical approach, tending to favor personal themes, such as the harsh realities of everyday city life, over grand political statements. Still, their musical style exhibits a skillful blend of influences like D.C. hardcore punk and British post-punk into heavy Midwest punk that bears some similarities to English Street Punk and flirts with elements of Thrash Metal.
After helping put Chicago punk on the map with three solid punk/post-punk albums in the 1980s: For Ever Grounded (1984), Fly on a Wire (1985), and Ink (1986), The Effigies quietly broke up in 1987. The band reunited again briefly that same year when Metallica offered them an opening slot on their upcoming European tour. But after tense internal deliberations, the band rejected the opportunity and disbanded once again. This ended up being the same tour in which Metallica bassist Cliff Burton would die in a tragic accident when the band’s tour bus flipped over while traveling to their next gig on an icy highway in Sweden. Though it may seem morbid to contemplate, perhaps that decision is partly why The Effigies are appearing on a list of underrated punk bands instead of a list of legendary ones?
Obvious Hit: Body Bag
Deep Cut: Patternless
Reagan Youth was a punk rock band from New York City, formed in 1980 by singer Dave Rubinstein (aka Dave Insurgent) and guitarist Paul Bakija (aka Paul Cripple). The band is considered one of the first and most influential anarcho-punk bands in the U.S., and their music often dealt with topics such as the dangers of nuclear war, the pervasively negative influence of organized religion, and animal rights. The band’s lyrics were nearly always political and anti-establishment, with strong anti-capitalist and anti-war themes. They were also known for their pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-feminist stances. The band’s name was a play on the The Young Republicans, and like many of their peers in the 1980’s punk scene, they were highly critical of Reagan’s policies.
Not long after the band formed they started playing gigs around Manhattan. Legend has it that they even managed to convince one of their high school professors to roadie for them during their early days. Local NYC shows would eventually turn into national tours in which Reagan Youth would share the stage with some of the top hardcore punk bands of the 1980s, such as Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and M.D.C. They also appeared at the legendary Rock Against Reagan concert in Washington D.C. in front of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on July 3rd, 1983, which was also attended by a teenaged Dave Grohl.
But the story of Reagan Youth took a tragic turn a few years after their initial split in 1990. Singer Dave Rubenstein, who was struggling with drug addition and mental health issues died by suicide via drug overdose several weeks after losing his mother to a freak car accident, followed quickly by his girlfriend’s death; she became the final victim of the serial murderer, Joel Rifkin, before his apprehension by police.
Reagan Youth only released two studio albums before their initial incarnation disbanded in 1990, though they have appeared on several hardcore punk compilations since then. The band is still active today, though none of the original members remain in the band.
Obvious Hit: No Class
Deep Cut: New Aryans
Perhaps the quintessential American hardcore punk band, Negative Approach were formed in August 1981 in Detroit, Michigan by vocalist John Brannon and bassist Pete Zelewski, after the two saw Black Flag and The Necros perform together. The original lineup of the band consisted of John Brannon on vocals, Rob McCulloch on guitar, Pete Zelewski on bass and Zuheir Fakhoury on drums. Zelewski left the band early on to form another punk band called The Allied and was replaced by McCulloch’s brother Graham. Not long after, Fakhoury was replaced by Chris “Opie” Moore on drums. This lineup would remain unchanged until Negative Approach disbanded.
Despite being an actively touring band since their 2006 reunion, Negative Approach are still one of the most underrated punk bands from the 1980’s, even though they are easily one of the most recognizable hardcore bands to come out of the Midwest. That really says a lot about how overlooked Midwest punk bands are, doesn’t it? Never mind that they’re also one of the most influential hardcore bands – NA’s musical footprints are all over hardcore punk – just ask Poison Idea who their biggest influence was, for starters.
Negative Approach sounds like hardcore punk perfected: it’s nearly all blazing fast tempos, scorching guitar riffs, and growling, bellicose vocals. Most hardcore punk sounds like an audio gut punch, meanwhile Negative Approach is more like a sledgehammer to the face.
It comes as little surprise that the band honed their particularly aggressive hardcore punk sound during their time as a mainstay at the short-lived, yet legendary Freezer Theater, which was located in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Detroit, Michigan in the early 1980’s. According to the documentary, Dope, Hookers and Pavement, the area was especially dangerous because of the gangs and armed drug dealers just down the street from the club. This was during the beginnings of the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Fans and bands alike literally risked their lives to attend hardcore punk shows at the Freezer Theater, and you can just hear the sense of menacing danger they must have felt in Negative Approach’s music.
Unfortunately, NA’s original run wouldn’t last more than a handful of years – they broke up in 1984, leaving behind just a self-titled single from 1982, and their lone album, the utterly essential, Tied Down (1983). Touch & Go records eventually released all of NA’s recorded material that they had on 1990’s Total Recall compilation – a must-have for any true hardcore punk fan.
Obvious Hit: Tied Down
Deep Cut: Said and Done