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Box full of punk-rock aggression

You can hear the Ramones chant of "Hey-ho, let's go!" over the sound system at Yankee Stadium during ballgames. You can hear Iggy Pop's music marketing vacation cruises on TV. For a while, a Clash song sold jeans.

So maybe it's hard to recall the reality of what was going on in the United States and the United Kingdom more than a quarter-century ago in the world of underground rock. Or maybe, through no fault of your own, just an accident of birth, you came late to the party. But this thing that became punk rock in the mid-1970s -- it was not every band's choice of term, mind you -- was not born of someone's marketing plan of how to tap into youth culture. It was not a monolithic sound, either. It was, in large part, created out of boredom and frustration with what popular rock 'n' roll had become: big, bloated, corporate, edgeless, wallowing in excess.

Politics infused some of what came from England, which had a sizable contingent of unemployed youth who took the Sex Pistols' cry of "No future!" quite seriously. In the England of 1976, punk songs rocketed up the charts: It was popular music. Not so in the States. The early sounds emanating from CBGB in New York's Bowery -- the Ramones, Television, Blondie, the Cramps, the Dead Boys, Talking Heads -- found pockets of fans in cities and colleges, but American pop culture rarely turns on a dime.

Here, most of the punk bands initially met with hostility or indifference. To the ears of most people, the music sounded primitive, unformed, violent. Yet this period was arguably the greatest creative spurt in rock 'n' roll since the British Invasion of the '60s.

There have been previous punk-rock collections, but none quite like Rhino's new 100-song, four-CD box set called, "No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion." Rhino's definition of the genre is broad enough to include pre- and proto-punk groups such as the Modern Lovers, Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, Ultravox, the Runaways, and the Dictators.

It also includes artists tangentially connected to punk, such as Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, and the Pretenders. Also, West Coast bands such as X, Black Flag, Germs, and Fear from the hardcore era that followed punk, as well as more artful bands influenced by punk (the Cure, Magazine, Wire, the Pop Group).

Generally speaking, Rhino has picked the best and most representative songs, such as Ian Dury's "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll," 999's "Homicide," and Fear's "I Love Livin in the City." The label is operating under the notion that punk is more about attitude than particular style; I concur.

When all this music was tumbling out fresh -- it seemed there were great new records every week -- I wondered how it would age. Would this most vital and of-the-moment sound become dated? It didn't. One reason is, despite the pronouncement by some English critics that punk was dead by the time the Clash released its second album, punk has continued as a genre and an ethos.

What was and remains is this: At its best, it was sexy, not sexist, empowering without being full of itself. It could be rude and crude, witty and insightful. It opened doors long shut to female musicians. It operated on a DIY (Do It Yourself) principle. It rejected flash, shunned formal training, and embraced the idea of being self-taught. Songs were intended as short, sharp shocks -- three chords and loads of aggression.

Subversion was a punk rocker's friend, from X-Ray Spex 15-year-old singer Poly Styrene singing "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" to the Adverts taking the point of view of a hospital patient who has received the eyes of Gary Gilmore in a transplant; Gilmore, the infamous killer executed by a Utah firing squad, had said he'd donate his eyes to science as they'd probably be the only body part usable.

The promotion for "No Thanks!" cleverly makes use of the Sex Pistols refusal to license any songs, stating "No Sex Pistols On Crappy Boxed Set, Reports Lydon." In August, John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, told the Washington Post he "wouldn't be having it." Rhino intended to call the collection "Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?" -- the last thing Rotten said on stage at the end of the Pistols US tour.

Rhino suggests you buy this collection -- "99 percent of the story" -- and dust off your copy of the Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" album to complete the picture. Claiming to represent "99 percent" is certainly a cheeky reach, but "No Thanks!" comes very close to capturing the era in all its dissonant, cacophonous glory.

There's no real chronology to the set, but it appropriately starts with the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" and closes with the most touching and saddest of songs, Johnny Thunders's "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," and Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." In between, a whole lot of good stuff. There's the teen angst of Buzzcocks and Eddie and the Hot Rods; there's the incendiary and articulate political thrust of Ireland's Stiff Little Fingers; there's the us-against-the-world bravado of the Avengers and Sham 69.

At the Vans Warped tour a few years ago, I talked to Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen of Rancid about seeing the Clash play Cambridge in 1979 and how galvanizing it was, how much it felt like that very community was being formed right in front of me. The Rancid guys, who see the Clash as inspiration, were hungry for every detail. Sure, the community that was formed then has fractured, but new ones are always starting up. And the bond punk rock can have -- then or now -- is the one formed when outsiders realize there are others who share their views and tastes.

Jim Sullivan can be reached at

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