Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: pop-punk.
For a subgenre of punk that’s essentially been around as long as punk itself, pop-punk gets short shrift. Pop-punk is catchy, upbeat, and predominantly deals with adolescent themes of love, lust, drunkenness, drugs, cartoonish violence, and low-brow rebellion (even when it’s being sung by brainy types like Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley and Descendents’ Milo Aukerman). But the sound is also rooted in the classic pop of The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Beach Boys, often pitting sweet harmonies against bratty, rowdy riffs. In other words, it’s everything The Ramones embodied when the band crystallized punk rock with its 1976 self-titled debut.
The Ramones, however, are more of a proto-pop-punk band. There were no subdivisions in punk in 1976—but by 1977, a backlash was already brewing against the anarchic stance and political stridency of saber-rattling groups like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Like starry-eyed apostates, the first true pop-punk bands—Buzzcocks, The Undertones, and Generation X—flew in the face of punk’s rebel stance. Instead of manifestos, they delivered love letters. And they weren’t afraid to admit that punk was, in some ways, just an extension of ’60s teenybopper rock. It also helped puncture the inflated sense of self-importance and consummate cool that punk had quickly adopted. If punk were meant to be egalitarian, it was pop-punk that actually cut through all the spit, spikes, and politics to connect with the hearts of the masses.
That connection didn’t happen overnight. Like the parallel movement of power-pop, pop-punk in the ’70s and ’80s was a loose confederation of oddball bands rather than a united insurrection. After the advent of pop-punk in England in the ’70s, American bands in the ’80s such as Descendents, Fastbacks, and The Mr. T Experience picked up the torch. Power-pop and pop-punk often get confused, and there is a certain amount of overlap between the two—but power-pop is a far more traditional genre that openly embraces bouncy, jangly ’60s rock rather than updating (and then demolishing) it with pop-punk’s hormonal, bittersweet slop and snarl.
It wasn’t until the early ’90s that pop-punk took root as a true grassroots movement—one that soon led to the massive breakthrough success of Green Day and Blink-182. Faced with bankability, pop-punk cleaned up its act. But the rise of the pop-punk aristocracy left room in the underground for fresh crops of young, hungry groups, from Saves The Day to The Ergs! to The Wonder Years. Pop-punk remains a readily dismissed, ostensibly disposable form of music—the kind of high-fructose junk that adulthood is supposed to spurn, regardless of the fact that some of the best pop songwriters of the past 40 years, in any genre, have come from pop-punk. But the sweet tooth lingers, and pop-punk’s timelessness is no longer in question, no matter how much critics and purists might want to wish it away.
Pre-Internet, regional sounds were more pronounced and idiosyncratic, and the punk scene that cohered in the Bay Area in the late ’80s was nothing if not distinctive. Much of it built up around Lookout! Records, a label started in 1987 by a Midwestern transplant who called himself Larry Livermore after the area’s nearby nuclear-research facility. Thanks to bands like Green Day, Screeching Weasel, and The Queers, Lookout! would become synonymous with the pop-punk explosion that occurred in the early and mid-’90s. The label was always more diverse than the association implied, but the bands that made it one of the biggest indie-punk labels of the era played a far poppier strain of punk than some of their labelmates—particularly Green Day, whose back catalog brought millions of dollars to Lookout! and essentially killed it when the band rescinded the rights to those albums in 2005.
But in the early ’90s, Lookout! reigned supreme. The label had closed out the ’80s with Operation Ivy, a ragtag ska-punk outfit that would become iconic, but began a hot streak that would last for years in April of 1990. That’s when it released 39/Smooth, the debut full-length of a local trio named Green Day, a band that leaned heavily on the “pop” half of pop-punk. The label would reissue it the following year as 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, adding tracks from a pair of EPs. The compilation would become Green Day’s de facto first full-length, and it showed that even at a high-school age, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong was a gifted pop tunesmith. (“Going To Pasalacqua,” all adolescent yearning and melodic hooks, remains one of the band’s all-time classic songs.)
That same year, it released the third album by an eminently snotty band from the Chicago suburbs called Screeching Weasel. My Brain Hurts was an insidiously catchy collection of smart aleck, pop-punk anthems penned by mercurial frontman Ben Weasel, a Ramones acolyte who had a knack for bubblegum hooks and clever lyrics. Even simpler with even more juvenile lyrics were The Queers, Screeching Weasel’s Lookout! labelmates and musical soul mates. The label released the band’s beloved second album, the typically titled Love Songs For The Retarded, in 1993, and the Weasel-Queers bond has remained tight ever since.
While the most popular pop-punk bands were content to write jokey, sophomoric songs that seemed perpetually stuck in adolescence, Lance Hahn of J Church elevated the genre, his songwriting panache matched only by his intellectual acumen. Many of Hahn’s songs served as character studies of people he encountered, from everyday interactions with friends to the junkies and criminals that haunted San Francisco’s Mission District. Hahn had a fondness for writing about the desperate and the doomed, but he also loved to write about socio-economic issues: Marxist themes of workers and revolution peppered his lyrics, and although he clearly sympathized with those movements, his songs rarely, if ever, tipped into the kind of aggressive hectoring favored by punk bands like Propagandhi. Hahn had a healthy skepticism of everything, including the causes he favored and the people whose dedication to them seemed questionable.
When Hahn wasn’t writing about the characters he encountered, or, say, coloring photos in a Marxist magazine (“Yellow, Blue, And Green”), he wrote about his own life as critically as he would anything else. No one else covered such a breadth of topics, and no one wrapped them into such catchy songs, and few would be as prolific. When Hahn died after a protracted illness in 2007, J Church had released seven full-lengths, four singles’ compilations, two split albums, more than 30 singles, 25 split singles, and nine “miscellaneous” full-lengths. He also left a trove of demos and unfinished songs. With his death, punk lost a luminary, and pop-punk lost a member of its Mt. Rushmore.
Once Green Day broke big in 1994 with Dookie, major labels accelerated their push into the punk underground, signing up what felt like every punk band with melodic songs and a following. Almost none of them panned out, and the one that would sure didn’t look promising at first. San Diego pop-punk trio Blink-182 debuted in 1995 with a loose, bratty album called Cheshire Cat released by indie label Cargo Music. Its 1997 follow-up, Dude Ranch, was no less bratty, but it was step forward musically, and Blink’s growing popularity necessitated an assist from MCA Records, which distributed the album. That summer, the label pushed the song “Dammit” to radio in Southern California, where it quickly gained traction and spread nationally. By early 1998, Dude Ranch had gone gold, a prelude to the multi-platinum sales achieved by its successor, 1999’s Enema Of The State. By the turn of the millennium, Blink-182 would succeed Green Day as the face of mainstream pop-punk.
While the mainstream went one way, pop-punk splintered, creating wildly specific cells inside a larger whole. The late ’90s saw bands such as Dillinger Four and Tiltwheel embracing a more jagged and political sound and outlook, a decidedly darker strain than that of Screeching Weasel or The Queers. As the millennium dawned, pop-punk bands began falling into different factions, united by down-stroked power chords, but rarely influences or ideology. New Jersey’s The Ergs! were one of the few to unite these disparate elements as it name-checked Screeching Weasel, boasted the technical proficiency of Descendents, and found commonality with the ragged aggression of Dillinger Four.
Formed by three high school buddies, The Ergs! were alienated nerds who made understandably juvenile music, at least at first. But the band grew up, and 2003’s DorkRockCorkRod would help unite a fractured scene. The band’s divergent influences allowed it a vast reach, while making it one of the most distinct acts to be classified as pop-punk in the early ’00s. The ambition of The Ergs! took hold as the band continued; its second and final LP, 2007’s Upstairs/Downstairs, juxtaposed sub-minute jams next to country-inspired ballads before closing with a nearly 20-minute jazz-inspired freak-out.
Although The Ergs! only flirted with the concept of singing about sci-fi (on the sophomoric Digital Endpoints EP), Wyoming’s The Lillingtons made it an ethos. Its debut album, 1996’s Shit Out Of Luck, was catchy yet inconsequential, with only hints of the band’s interstellar ambition. Death By Television would come three years later, and in that time the band improved on its Ramones-core style, but its lyrics also took a turn toward the skies. Gone were sophomoric songs about high school, sucked up by black holes and tales of warring planets. The two albums that followed Death By Television would build upon The Lillingtons’ narrative ambitions, incorporating elements of espionage alongside its interstellar ideologues. After the band split, vocalist Kody Templeman would join Teenage Bottlerocket, a band that, by that time, had already established itself as The Lillingtons’ spiritual cousin, even if Bottlerocket’s records lacked the star-gazing charm of the its chief influence.
On the flip side, many of the acts inspired by the Midwestern sounds of Dillinger Four began popping up en masse in the mid-aughts. A seemingly unending stream of pop-punk songs with shouted, post-hardcore-inspired vocals flooded the scene, nicely updating the pop-punk sound until it became staid. Of the various bands to attempt it, Cincinnati’s The Dopamines would do it best on 2010’s Expect The Worst, the best contemporary take on the subgenre. The band ripped its bass lines straight from Dillinger Four’s Patrick Costello and its choruses from the best Queers albums, but when the execution is this good, there’s no need for apologies.
In addition to pioneers like Buzzcocks and The Undertones, the ’70s produced a wealth of pop-punk gems. In England alone, a gaggle of gawky punks called The Lurkers somehow made The Ramones sound mature, and Buzzcocks’ fellow Manchester band Fast Cars—named after a Buzzcocks song, even—put searing urgency behind its saccharine hooks. But when it comes to ’70 British pop-punk, few can touch Generation X. Fronted by a baby-faced Billy Idol before he reinvented himself as a sneering hard-rocker, the group was responsible for one of the greatest pop-punk albums of all time, its 1978 debut. Every song is punchy, fizzy anthem. And on “Ready Steady Go,” the ’60s musical variety show of the same name is eulogized—and Idol, who clearly couldn’t care less about punk orthodoxy or iconoclasm, waxes nostalgic for his childhood, while gushing the lines, “I was in love with The Beatles / I was in love with The Stones / I was in love with Bobby Dylan / ’Cause I was in love with rock ’n’ roll.”
The ’80s were a stranger decade for pop-punk. Punk turned mostly hardcore, leaving the wimpier sounds of amped-up romance championed by Descendents and The Fastbacks little room to flourish. Weeds sprouted out of the cracks, though, including Australia’s hilarious, heartbroken The Hard-Ons; England’s goofy, hyperkinetic The Toy Dolls; and Washington State’s Moral Crux (an infectious band that sounds about 1/10 as tough as its name). But it was two Bay Area outfits that formed in the mid-’80s, The Mr. T Experience and Sweet Baby (initially known as Sweet Baby Jesus), that set the pace for the ’90s pop-punk eruption to come. The pair of bands shared a member, but their respective sounds were different variations on a theme; where The Mr. T Experience was blunt and cruddy, Sweet Baby had a bit more pep in its step. Without their tandem inspiration, Green Day might never have happened.
Punks may have spent the first part of the ’90s fretting about authenticity and selling out—which seems quaint 20 years later—but the scene thrived, while every one worried about corporate hucksters pilfering it. Thanks to affordable, accessible vinyl, bands could make a 7-inch if a CD was too expensive—vinyl never really left the punk underground, and the 7-inch in particular surged in the ’90s among young bands. Resources like Maximum RocknRoll’s Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life provided a network of venues, bands, and others to help unsigned, unknown bands tour the country on their own. Band sprouted up at a rabid rate, and thanks to the precedent set by groups like Green Day and Screeching Weasel, playing poppy music lost the stigma that set in during the tough-guy ’80s.
Sicko even unironically covered Indigo Girls’ “Closer To Fine” on its fantastic 1993 debut, You Can Feel The Love In This Room. The Seattle band played fast, technically impressive pop-punk that was proudly geeky (song titles included “Computer Geek,” “The Dateless Losers”), but also clever and thoughtful. Its jokey album titles—such as Laugh While You Can, Monkey Boy; “You Are Not The Boss Of Me!”; and Chef Boy-R-U-Dum—accurately conveyed the spirit of the music within.
Even goofier was Pennsylvania’s Weston, who had albums with titles like A Real-Life Story Of Teenage Rebellion and Got Beat Up, which plumbed the depths of the adolescent experience with humor and catchy songs. “Feet” had lyrics about anti-fungus foam, and “Teenage Love Affair” was just what it sounds like (as was “Varsity Sweater”). The band would reinvent itself as a more serious, artistic group on its 2000 album The Massed Albert Sounds, but its most beloved songs remained those goofier ones.
Although Motion City Soundtrack formed in the late ’90s, it didn’t make its mark until the 2000s. Its second album, 2005’s Commit This To Memory, has become a classic of the genre, full of hook-laden, keyboard-assisted songs whose bright melodies don’t mask the despair and self-loathing lurking beneath them. Frontman Justin Pierre sounds like a wreck in his lyrics, but paired with the hooks he and the rest of the band write, they’ve made for an unbroken series of strong albums every couple of years.
Motion City Soundtrack is just one of a number of notable punk bands who have called Minneapolis home. The city’s legacy stretches back beyond Hüsker Dü’s heyday, but it’s been particularly active the in the 2000s. The Soviettes played a more ragged, aggressive strain of pop-punk during its five-year run at the beginning of the aughts, but the songs on its three simply titled full-lengths—LP I, LP II, LP III—are pop at heart.
Minneapolis also produced Banner Pilot and Off With Their Heads, two bands that would emulate the “gruff vocals with poppy music” template to varying degrees of success. Off With Their Heads would define itself with Hospitals, a flawless mini-LP, and Banner Pilot’s Collapser served as its high-water mark before it began to regress creatively.
Many bands followed in the wake of The Ergs!, but fellow Jersey outfit The Measure [SA] offered the best successor to that band’s experimentation on Songs About People… And Fruit N’ Shit. Although Mike Yannich (better known as Mikey Erg) played drums on the record, the real stars of Songs About People… are Lauren Denitzio and Fid, whose call-and-response vocals give a shout-out to Jersey natives Lifetime while the duo riffs as if its band’s name were Discount. And then there are anomalies such as Gordon Gano’s Army, a short-lived British band that would release one of the best pop-punk albums of the new millennium before disappearing. The band’s name pays tribute the Violent Femmes’ bandleader, but its music is all simple, gooey goodness.
Pop-punk has frequently hosted a variety of joke bands and gimmick acts, many of whose punchlines fell flat on repeat listens. Not The Steinways: The band’s 2006 album, Missed The Boat, pokes holes in pop-punk’s lyrical tropes, while also taking aim at the band’s own recurring chord progressions and song structures.
1. Buzzcocks, Singles Going Steady
Before breaking up in 1981 (and subsequently reforming in 1981), Buzzcocks released three full-lengths that defined pop-punk for generations to come. As great as those albums are, the singles collection Singles Going Steady has stood as the group’s most popular document. It’s no mystery why. Pound for pound, heart-on-sleeve angst and cheeky, self-deprecating cleverness has never had a better vessel. From an ode to masturbatory frustration, “Orgasm Addict,” to the aching frustration of “What Do I Get?,” Singles Going Steady is pop-punk’s blueprint and battle plan.
2. Descendents, Milo Goes To College
When Descendents’ first album, Milo Goes To College, came out in 1982, drummer Bill Stevenson was only months away from joining Black Flag. In other words, the same engine was able to drive both bands—but that force was put to less destructive ends with the Descendents, with frontman Milo Aukerman spewing snotty tales about regret, alienation, and the inescapable desire to conform to middle-class norms in the Reagan Era. For a punk band in the early ’80s to write a song called “I’m Not A Punk” took serious guts—and the same goes for penning tender yet vindictive sing-alongs like “Bikeage.”
3. Green Day, Kerplunk
39/Smooth established Green Day, but 1992’s Kerplunk made it clear the Bay Area trio wouldn’t be punk’s little secret for long. Even though forebears like The Mr. T Experience and Screeching Weasel influenced the band, Green Day set the tone for the pop-punk that followed. Even after Dookie took Green Day into the big time, costing the band all of its cool points in the underground, Kerplunk remained essential listening. (Not coincidentally, the band rerecorded “Welcome To Paradise” for Dookie.) Dookie was Green Day’s most cohesive album, but Kerplunk and 39/Smooth were charmingly hit-or-miss—and the promise they showed couldn’t be denied.
4. J Church, Arbor Vitae
Nailing down J Church’s prolific output to one essential album is a fool’s errand—a mixtape would be more appropriate—but 1995’s Arbor Vitae is the dark-horse candidate. The 1993 singles compilation Camels, Spilled Corona And The Sound Of Mariachi Bands has some of J Church’s best songs (“Bomb,” “Sacrifice,” “Girl In A Magazine,” “Kathi”), and both the band’s 1991 debut, Quetzalcoatl, and 1994 full-length Prophylaxis, are required listening. But Arbor Vitae was the first J Church album that sounded good; Hahn’s lengthy discography runs the spectrum of recording competence. It also offered a cohesive, succinct overview of Hahn’s talents, from perfect pop-punk gems (“Cigarettes Kill,” “Drinking Down,” “Smoke In My Face”), to social commentary (“Waiting On The Ground”), to quickie goofs (“Mr. Backrub”), to stylistic detours that still sounded distinctly like J Church (“Disposed To Femininity”).
5. The Ergs!, DorkRockCorkRod
The Ergs! served as something of a pop-punk case study. While they took the best parts of the scene’s forefathers, they didn’t get lost in those influences: They’d quote Henry Rollins’ Get In The Van then pay homage to Miles Davis without losing sight of their bubblegum hooks. DorkRockCorkRod offers introspection while still cracking a smile, serving as a distillation of pop-punk’s range and scope. The three-song suite of “Most Violent Rap Group,” “Pray For Rain,” and “Saturday Night Crap-O-Rama” may be one of the best triple plays in all of rock music, let alone pop-punk.