Sep 13, 2023, 06:27AM

One-Hit Wonders of the Punk Era

From “Roadrunner” to “Jilted John.”

X1080.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Punk existed long before it acquired a name. There were already stirrings in the collective unconscious, hints of the upheaval that was to come, by the early-1970s. I remember a friend of mine complaining about the Lou Reed album, Rock’n’Roll Animal, when it first came out in 1974. “It’s too professional,” he was saying. “I preferred the rawness of the Velvet Underground. Much more authentic.”

Listening to it now I can see what he meant. The album is full of searing guitar breaks and overt displays of musicianship, not a bad thing in itself, but completely at odds with the ethos of the early Velvet Underground. Compare the original version of White Light/White Heat to the one on Rock’n’Roll Animal. Or listen to the twin guitars in the introduction to “Sweet Jane.” It’s the quality of musicianship that’s emphasized here, rather than the street-wise posturing of Reed’s strutting poetry.

In 1975 I went on the obligatory hippie trail to India. I stayed in London briefly, with another friend, before I set off. He was dismissive of my journey, saying that London was much more interesting than India. He was referring to the nascent pub-rock scene then overtaking the capital, a precursor to punk. I always say I was too young to be a hippie, too old to be a punk. I was 13 years old in 1966, when the first stirrings of the hippie movement were taking place in San Francisco; 23 in 1976, when punk hit the streets of the UK. When I went to India the style was still predominantly hippie. By the time I got back punk had emerged.

A change had taken place in me too. The ill-defined search for enlightenment that lay behind much of my hippie persona had given way to an angrier feeling, entirely in keeping with the new punk ethos. I remember the anger. It had no focus and no purpose. There was no reason behind it. It was a raw, inchoate surge of aggression that overwhelmed me for a time and that led to me putting my foot through a plate glass window, among other acts of petty vandalism.

I’d been living in Cardiff before my journey, but moved to Hull when I came back. Cardiff’s in the southwest, while Hull’s in the northeast. I was rejecting all my old friends in the Cardiff hippie scene and looking for new connections in a new part of the country. It was a volte-face that reflected the changes going on in my heart, as well as in the country. I lived in the Spring Bank area of the city, which is where all the squats and clubs and after-hours dives were at the time.

It was here that I first heard Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner. It was a revelation. Hypnotic, repetitive, romantic, revealing, it’s an unabashed celebration of modernity, of roads and cars and driving around late at night with the radio on, in complete contrast to the back-to-the-land ethos of the hippie movement at the time. It’s stripped-back. It’s simple. It describes a feeling. It’s not trying to bamboozle your mind with complex word play or literary references like some of the progressive groups at the time. There’s no irony. It’s an open-hearted ode in praise of all that’s good about being alive in the moment and you can’t help singing along to it.

The song is often described, misleadingly, as “proto-punk.” It was first recorded in 1972, with John Cale of the Velvet Underground as the producer. It takes its inspiration from a Velvet Underground song, Sister Ray from the Velvet’s second album, White Light/White Heat. It illustrates my opening statement, that punk existed before it had a name. That’s why the term “proto-punk” is misleading. This is as much a punk record as anything that the Sex Pistols or the Ramones ever produced. It may have been recorded at an earlier time, but its release in 1977, at the height of the punk era, ensured that it would be a hit.

Another song I heard about this time was Whole Wide World by Wreckless Eric. Eric’s real name was Eric Goulden and he’d been living in Hull not long before I moved there. He went to Hull art college, and several people I met had known him. When I first heard the song I misheard the lyrics as “I told the whole wide world I’m out to get higher,” when actually he sings, “I’d go the whole wide world to find out where they hide her.” It’s a romantic ditty about looking for your soul mate, but to me it represented something much larger. I thought it was about the singer’s striving for universality, about reaching out and embracing “the whole wide world” with his words. I felt that this was the spirit in which a real artist put pen to paper, sitting at home in his room while addressing the entire planet. It was written in 1974, before the punk era, but became an anthem of punk sensibility. I remember dancing to it in a club in Hull, while feeling my heart expanding to take in the whole of creation. It was never a chart hit but has attained a certain immortality by being included in the 2006 film, Stranger Than Fiction.

“Whole Wide World” came out on the Stiff Label. This was just one of a fleet of new independent labels that appeared around this time. Stiff was set up originally to record the pub rock bands, Dr Feelgood and Brinsley Schwarz. It was Dr Feelgood who lent them the money to start the label. Nick Lowe, who had been the bassist in Brinsley Schwarz, was the main producer and was the first act to appear on the label. He produced and played guitar on “Whole Wide World.” Stiff released what’s generally considered to be the first punk record, New Rose by The Damned, as well as records by Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Devo. Costello and Dury had been pub rock acts, which illustrates once again how intimately related the two scenes were. Punk was entirely dependent upon the foundations that the pub-rock scene had laid down before them. The punk rockers lived in squats broken into by their older contemporaries in the squatting movement, they played in pubs that had been commandeered by the pub-rockers, and they released their records on do-it-yourself labels like Stiff and Rough Trade which had been created by hippies as a way to beat the system.

Labels are slippery. Punk existed before it was called punk and elements of the hippie movement, which was universally derided by the punks—Johnny Rotten called them “boring old farts”—fed into the punk scene. It was hippies who first started squatting in the capital and who’d been behind the free festival movement, squatting land to put on live music events. Punk fanzines grew out of community newspapers like Jamie Reid’s Suburban Press. Caroline Coon said that punk was “the hippies’ revenge.” What she meant was that after the suppression of the peace-and-love revolution, hippies became more aggressive in their attitude, and this led to punk. That was true in my case. We didn’t see a clear line between what the punks were advocating, and what had been before. The one dissolved into the other. It was only particular hippie attitudes that were rejected.

The one clear difference lay in the music. Punk was direct, melodic, fast and catchy. It dispensed with the high-art pretensions of the prog-rock era that preceded it, preferring a return to the two-minute pop song; but that didn’t mean that hippie musicians weren’t involved. An example of this was Another Girl, Another Planet by The Only Ones which came out in 1978. This was a crossover hit. The Only Ones are usually categorized as punk, but the drummer had been in Spooky Tooth, a hippie band. Also close attention to the lyrics reveals another dimension to the song than the simple pop tune it purports to be. It is widely understood to refer to heroin. Peter Perrett, the songwriter, has always denied this while at the same time admitting that he always enjoyed "writing ambiguous lyrics that could be taken on two or three different levels."

The song has a short guitar break in it—very musical and accomplished—which was a completely un-punky thing to do. Most punk musicians weren’t capable of this, being at the beginning stages of their musical careers. But it’s a great little pop tune, which, as the lyric states, gets under your skin without being irritating. John Peel described it as an "artful little caprice," while Q magazine in 2005 placed it at number 83 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. AllMusic said it was "Arguably, the greatest rock single ever recorded.". For about 10 years I used the title “Another Planet” for a column in my local newspaper, The Whitstable Times. It was meant to suggest other possibilities than the ones that were currently on offer. The other planet I was referring to was the one in my head.

The final one-hit wonder on my list is “Jilted John” by Jilted John which also came out in 1978. I’ve linked to the best version available on the internet, but it’s worth watching the band’s performance on Top of the Pops too, which is memorable for other reasons. It’s obvious from this that the song is a parody, if the lyrics hadn’t already made that clear. The line “I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop” has been described as “peak sadness” and “one of the greatest lines ever written,” while the chorus of “Gordon is a moron” was repeated in school playgrounds all over the UK for at least a year. I pity anyone called Gordon when the song came out.

“Jilted John,” the character, was a creation of Graham Fellows, an actor. He’s on record saying that the name was inspired by Wreckless Eric. The song’s a parody of punk when punk had become a formula. You can hear all the punk tropes in there: the repetitive guitar riff, the countdown (“two, three, four”) the rock ’n’ roll bass line, but played for a different effect. It’s the exact opposite of “Roadrunner,” which was sincere. “Jilted John” is pure irony, but played with a straight face, Graham Fellows keeping in character even while doing interviews with the rock press. A number of newspapers were taken in by the act. The record was described by David Jensen on Top of the Pops as “one of the most bizarre singles of the decade.” John Peel, on the other hand, predicted it would be a hit. It got to number 4 in the UK Top Twenty. Graham Fellows has gone on to create several more comic characters and remains a stalwart of the BBC.

By the time “Jilted John” was in the charts, punk was all but dead. The Sex Pistols—always the leaders in the punk pantheon—broke up in January that year during a fractious tour of the USA. Punk was a brief moment in the history of popular music, lasting barely three years from its inception to its demise, and yet its influence has echoed down the years. For those of us who were reaching adulthood in this period, it has created many indelible memories. It was such an optimistic time. Anything seemed possible.

Follow Chris Stone on X: @ChrisJamesStone.


Register or Login to leave a comment