Pop punk is enjoying some nostalgic attention these days. Lists crop up here and there, delineating the gems of the genre. However, they all share one subtle flaw: A focus on the major label feeding frenzy that followed Green Day's seminal 1994 word Dookie. (It's on our survey of best punk albums in history!)
Pop punk was a vibrant movement long before Billie Joe, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool transformed the suburban skateboarder into a stoner punk obsessed with food and lost love. Here's our tribute to five greats from the days before “Longview.”
Lame Gig Contest
In the great 1989 Bay Area pop punk sweepstakes, Crimpshrine was a favorite of the 924 Gilman cognizanti. In the intervening years, the band have lost some of their buzz, but still remain a favorite of punks who graduated high school in the late '80s. Frontman Jeff Ott crafted pop punk anthems for the gutter, based on his life as a homeless punk in Berkeley. Drummer Aaron Cometbus documented the '80s Bay Area scene in his zine Cometbus as adeptly in print as Crimpshrine did in song. The band's lone studio album, Lame Gig Contest, gained a manic following, despite being rejected by tastemaker label Lookout! Records. Songs like “Trying Too Hard” and “Pretty Mess” display a Dylanesque lyrical sensibility along with a catchy intensity.
If Crimpshrine were the band documenting the feelings and obsessions of the '80s Gilman scene, Jawbreaker were pop punk's Velvet Underground, the band that spawned 1,000 bands. (Just ask anyone from Weezer or Fall Out Boy.) Their major label debut Dear You was initially panned by fans, but has gained respect in recent years. Nothing, however, compares to Unfun, the band's debut, with its desperately sweet (and sometimes downright hateful) tales of longing and regret on tracks like “Want” and “Wound.”
3. Screeching Weasel
My Brain Hurts
Bands like Crimpshrine and Jawbreaker were cute without being cloying, in large part due to their street-level realism. Screeching Weasel were another animal all together; A band that traded in autobiographical tales (“Kamala's Too Nice”) and confessions of inadequacy (“My Brain Hurts”), yes, but also pilloried punk's pretensions (“What We Hate,” “Teenage Freakshow”, “Fathead” and “Slogans”). Circa 1991 Screeching Weasel was probably the most divisive band on the scene this side of GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. It's hard to pick a standout record (Boogadaboogadaboogada! and Anthem for a New Tomorrow are two other exemplary efforts), but My Brain Hurts leads the pack by a hair.
Single Going Steady
Yeah, yeah, yeah… it's a singles collection, not a true album. Whatever. Singles Going Steady is the blueprint for punk rock bands preferring tuneful tales of lost love and longing to rage against the machine. Pete Shelley was the first to hear the girl group melodies and bubblegum hits underpinning the Ramones' buzzsaw guitar attack, the original pop punk troubadour; Everything that came after has been a rewrite of “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've”). “Orgasm Addict” presages the pop punk fixation on wanking (“You get in a heat / You get in a sulk / But you still keep beating your meat to pulp”) that later broke through to the mainstream on Green Day's “Longview.”
Milo Goes to College
American hardcore hit the L.A. suburbs like an atom bomb, with every buzz-cut muscle head from Hermosa to Long Beach banging out anthems to teen angst in mom and dad's garage. No one ever quite hit on tunefulness while also maintaining their punk credentials quite like Manhattan Beach's Descendants. Milo Goes to College, the band's debut LP, provided the template for America's take on the more melodic strains of first wave punk: Celebrations of suburban life (“Suburban Home”), attacks on punk conformity (“I'm Not a Punk” and “Tonyage”) and, of course, yearning for the one who got away (“Bikeage” and “Kabuki Girl”).