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Monday, March 1, 2021

Steve Lillywhite: My Top Ten Punk Tracks

Steve Lillywhite

Legendary Record Producer, Steve Lillywhite reveals the ten punk toons that mean the most to him!

In a new regular feature, we speak to punk-loving celebs and ask them: “If you were only allowed to have ten punk singles in your record collection, which ones would they be?”

Steve Lillywhite CBE is a six-time Grammy Award Winning Record Producer. He has been credited on over five hundred records, and having worked with musicians including U2, The Rolling Stones, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Johnny Thunders, The Pogues, Simple Minds, Morrissey and The Killers he has a pretty damn impressive resumé!

Without a doubt, Steve Lillywhite is one of the most acclaimed and successful producers in British music history, but today he has the hardest job of his career as he chooses his top ten punk songs!


Written by: Steve Lillywhite

Yes, this was difficult because there are so many great bands out there. I love the Clash, but everyone loves the Clash, and will probably put them in their top three… and rightly so.

But I’ve decided to list ten punk tracks, that may not necessarily be the greatest punk songs of all time, but they’re tracks I’ve either worked on, had connections with or that impacted my career in some way. And of course, there are a few songs that I just simply love! So let’s get going…

10: THE SNIVELLING SHITS – I Can’t Come (I Can’t Come)

This was a record that I worked on and it’s not a great record, granted, but I chose it because it reminds me of those crazy days in 1977.

I engineered this song and eventually went on to become the band’s live bass player. The lead singer was a bloke called Giovanni Dadomo – he was a staff writer at Sounds, Pete Makowski was on guitar (he was also a writer at Sounds and became the Press Officer for New York Dolls) Dave Fudger rhythm guitar, my brother Ade played the drums and me on bass.

I love this song because it’s just a fun little tune and it’s one of the very, very few songs that I actually remember the lyrics to:

Too much speed I can’t keep my eyes closed
Too much speed got no respect for my nose,
I guess I fooled you; I was using my thumb
Truth of the matter is I can’t come.

“I don’t know why I remember the lyrics to this song… no idea. I don’t know the first line of U2’s With You or Without You, but I know the opening lyrics of I Can’t Come by The Snivelling Shits… really? And for this reason, and this reason alone, I put this song in at number 10 in my punk top ten!

“I don’t know the first line of U2’s With You or Without You but I do know the opening lyrics of ‘I Can’t Come’ by The Snivelling Shits.” Steve Lillywhite

9: LEYTON BUZZARDS – Saturday Night (Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees) (Jellied Eels to Record Deals )

I chose this song just because Saturday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees has to be the best title for a song EVER! It was a minor hit and OK, I guess it’s not really punk rock.

I suppose for the band, attaching their name to punk was just a ‘way in’ to the music business, and it worked! Because after the Leyton Buzzards they went on to become the ’80s band Modern Romance. Remember them?

So they went from this wonderfully titled Saturday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees to Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey! And of course, Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey (thanks to the wonderfulness of the British public) went on to become a much, much bigger hit than Saturday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees.

But that said, this a great song as it paints a picture of that time – which is an art form in itself! Anyway a well-deserved number nine in my list – even if it is mainly for its name!

“Saturday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees has to the best title for a song EVER!” Steve Lillywhite.

8: ULTRAVOX – Young Savage (Ha! Ha! Ha!)

Some people reading this will say ‘Ultravox? They’re not punk!’ But this is the pre-Midge Ure Ultravox when John Foxx was the lead singer. Early Ultravox music was more like a punky Roxy Music.

Ultravox was the very first band I produced. I did their demos and from that, we went into the studio and their first self-titled album was co-produced by Brian Eno, me and the band.

Young Savage, however, was originally a standalone single and it was only added as one of the bonus tracks when their second album, Ha! Ha! Ha! was reissued many years later.

This Ultravox song is as punk as you can get and it’s one of the fastest songs I’ve ever recorded. It’s pretty hard sounding and I’m happy with how this song turned out. Play it loud!

“This Ultravox song is as punk as you can get and it’s one of the fastest songs I’ve ever recorded.” Steve Lillywhite

7: THE ONLY ONES – Another Girl, Another Planet (The Only Ones)

Another Girl, Another Planet is a song that I have a slight connection with, but it was only when The Only Ones’ lead singer Peter Perrett reminded me, some 30 years later, that I remembered what that connection was.

While we were making Johnny Thunder‘s album So Alone Peter brought his multitrack tape with him to the studio and said, ‘Steve, you have a Hammond organ in the studio – can we record it? So we did – I think Johnny was running late or something.

What I love about this song is that it starts with a guitar solo – and that’s not very punk. Another Girl, Another Planet is a song that makes you think, and it doesn’t have a typical song structure, which makes it really interesting, and is one of the many reasons why I love it.

The Only Ones are one of the earliest bands that tweaked their sound and changed musical course to ride the punk wave of that time, and with this song – I guess you’d call it a ‘pop-punk’ song – they were successful.

It’s a classic and just a great tune! Which is why it’s at number seven in my top ten!

“Another Girl, Another Planet is a song that makes you think, and it doesn’t have a typical song structure, which makes it really interesting, and is one of the many reasons why I love it.” Steve Lillywhite.

6: NEW YORK DOLLS – Personality Crisis, (New York Dolls) 

I love the New York Dolls! There are so many Dolls’ song I could have picked to appear in my top ten. I love Jet Boy for example, so this was a hard decision, but I decided to go for Personality Crisis – for no reason other than it’s a great song.

New York Dolls were just attitude, and for me attitude is everything. I never really listened to the Stooges, because to me they sound like a band who couldn’t play. But, New York Dolls sounded properly recorded and they were there, with their attitude, before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and they just oozed that punk vibe, even before punk was a thing.

The New York Dolls lived it breathed it and owned it – and this is the reason why they’re at number six!

“New York Dolls were just attitude, and for me attitude is everything.” Steve Lillywhite.

5: JOHNNY THUNDERS – You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory (So Alone)

In ’77 I was living with my flatmate Michael Beal in a basement flat in Kensington near the Nashville Rooms and the Red Lion, so we used to go to loads of punk gigs.

Michael was mates with Johnny Thunders, who had moved over from New York with his band the Heartbreakers. The Heartbreakers had just released L.A.M.F. and Michael had found out that the band didn’t like the production. So when I got to meet Johnny, I must admit I played on that fact.

Being Mr bloody cocky I said: “I can make you sound a lot better, Johnny.” Of course, I didn’t know if I could. I was bluffing. Sadly The Heartbreakers split, but I ended up getting the job of producing Johnny’s solos album!

STEVE LILYWHITE AND JOHNNY THUNDERS
Johnny rolling a joint… in the Studio with Steve

One of the reasons I have chosen this track (and again, I think You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory is one of the greatest song titles) is because my 19-year-old daughter, said to me one day: “What tracks have you worked on that you think I should listen to?” So I gave her a list of some of my bigger hits; U2, The Rolling Stones and all that, and at the end just threw in: “Oh, and you should listen to You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory by Johnny Thunders.”

She listened to them but admitted that ‘they weren’t really her thing’. However, she said she loved the Johnny Thunders record – which was one of the first things I produced.

So, in my daughter’s eyes, I have been going downhill ever since my first record!

“Being Mr bloody cocky I said: “I can make you sound a lot better, Johnny.” Of course, I didn’t know if I could. I was bluffing.” Steve Lillywhite.

4: SEX PISTOLS – Anarchy in the U.K. (Never Mind The Bollocks)

I love the Sex Pistols but for me the Sex Pistols were only ever four songs: Anarchy, God Save The Queen, Holiday in the Sun and Pretty Vacant.

Whenever I heard a Sex Pistols record playing it always sounded so good – far better than anything I had ever done.

They were double as loud, twice as full and I would always think, ‘How the fuck do they do that?’ I couldn’t get how they did it. I think in retrospect it was because the songs weren’t fast.

The Pistols never really played fast like most other punk bands. There was space in the sounds, it ‘chugged’ and of course they also had a proper producer in Chris Thomas who is a legend – he worked on Dark Side of The Moon for goodness sake! So for me, it was a sonic thing that attracted me to the Sex Pistols

Sadly, John Lydon has become the Alf Garnett of punk, but he was a great frontman and I’ve always loved his lyrics and Anarchy In The U.K. is great lyrically.

“Whenever I heard a Sex Pistols record playing it always sounded so good – far better than anything I had ever done.” Steve Lillywhite.

3: RAMONES – Blitzkrieg Bop (Ramones)

 Yes, they are considered punk but the Ramones were the greatest pop band ever. For me Ramones were pop, pop, pop. Their songs were about melody and their flirtation later in their career with the Beach Boys stuff was just brilliant!

Melody has never been that great in punk. I’m a romantic and I like some melody and Ramones had buckets of it, and why shouldn’t punk music have melody?

They also had humour. They always had the Dee Dee counting the band in with his rapid-fire shout of “1-2-3-4!” that had nothing to do with the tempo of the song. It became like a catchphrase.

For me the Ramones music was intelligent, ‘dumb-punk’. To just be dumb is easy, to be ‘clever-dumb’ is genius.

The common myth that the band just went into the studio and played isn’t true. It was very much a case of multi-layered guitar tracks, overdubbing and quite a bit of production… clever-dumb

Anyway, Blitzkrieg Bop is two minutes of pure adrenalin, a three-chord tune that hurtles by with furious abandon – hence is number three position in my top ten.

“The Ramones music was intelligent, ‘dumb-punk’. To just be dumb is easy, to be ‘clever-dumb’ is genius.” Steve Lillywhite.

2: SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES – Hong Kong Garden (Once Upon a Time: The Singles)

This was my first hit. At the time of Hong Kong Garden, I was working with Johnny Thunders, and Nils Stevenson the manager of The Banshees was in the studio and heard what we were doing. He said: “Oh, I like the drum sound. We’ve just recorded our first single with an American producer and we don’t like how it sounds and we want to recut it – would you do it?'”

I jumped at the chance because I knew at the time that Siouxsie And The Banshees were hot as hot, and I felt that if I could deliver a version of the song that the band liked, chances are I would have a hit record.

Steve Lillywhite in the Studio
Steve in the studio

I recorded it with them, they liked it and it got to number 7 in September 1978. Hong Kong Garden opened up the world for me. Suddenly punk had enabled me to choose who I wanted to work with and because I was young and I was opinionated I only wanted to work with the best. If a band was hugely famous it didn’t matter to me I would only work with them if I felt they were the best at what they did.

So, for giving me my first hit record Hong Kong Garden is at number two.

“Hong Kong Garden opened up the world for me. Suddenly punk had enabled me to choose who I wanted to work with” Steve Lillywhite.

1: THE RUTS – Babylon’s Burning (The Crack)

Babylon’s Burning by The Ruts is the perfect song! For the last 40 years, every time I hear that bassline it makes the hair on my arms go up.

When you hear that opening riff, there is nothing about it that’s out of place. Usually, people think that ‘perfect’ is clinical, but if you do perfection and it still has attitude that’s the perfect combination. The fact that Malcolm Owen also had the best voice in punk also helps, but sadly he left us too soon.

The band is still going as Ruts DC and Segs is now the lead singer and it works brilliantly. I saw them at the 100 Club recently and they were fantastic and their energy is amazing!

Another reason The Ruts are at number one (other than this song is as close to perfection as you can get) is that they still look cool. Granted, it’s a bit ‘Peaky Blinders’, but they still look good.

John Lydon doesn’t look cool anymore, in fact not many other punk bands look cool because they’re old farts now,…but the Ruts? They still look great!

“Babylon’s Burning by The Ruts is the perfect song! For the last 40 years, every time I hear that bassline it makes the hair on my arms go up.” Steve Lillywhite


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16 Comments

  • Tina
    Tina

    I must admit that as I was scrolling down through Steve Lillywhite’s Top Ten Punk Tracks I thought ‘You’ve gotta be fuckin kidding me if you class this as Punk’ until I seen the Sex Pistols at N°4 and then The Ruts as the N°1 track. Although personally I think the Pistols and The Ruts should be the other way around 😉

    Reply
    • Myrtle
      Myrtle

      I agree with you with the song choices… The Only Ones/Ultravox!!!
      But I think the ruts are a more genuine punk band than the pistols, I do love them but I always think of the pistols as a manufactured fashion brand band.

      Reply
      • Tina
        Tina

        @Myrtle Hi, may I ask how old you are?

        Reply
  • CW
    CW

    Superb choices.

    Reply
  • Starkoman
    Starkoman

    Whilst Mr. Lillywhite is an undoubtedly talented producer, he has tended towards the more commercial side of audio production, commonly reflected by the larger bands he’s opted to work with over the decades.

    For me, his best work came with the best groups — his work for Virgin Records in the late ‘70’s and early 1980’s were a golden time.

    His choices of Punk Top 10 are not mine (even of his own recordings), nevertheless it is fascinating to read his reasons for his choices and some of the stories behind them.

    Thanks for doing this!

    Reply
  • Sandra
    Sandra

    Love this. Great read and well written by Mr Lillywhite. Loved the stories behind the songs and I have to agree with his number 1. The Ruts are just brilliant! Does steve have a biography? Would be an amazing read, I bet there are many tails he could tell.

    Reply
  • Jon
    Jon

    Thatsa shocking top ten🙈

    Reply
    • Myrtle
      Myrtle

      Musical choice is definitely realtive, particularly in this choice!

      Reply
    • Tina
      Tina

      😂😂😂

      Reply
  • Starman56
    Starman56

    really well written great read thanks steve

    Reply
  • Craig Yang
    Craig Yang

    loved this. Thanks steve. really interesting read

    Reply
  • Roger Jephcote

    Steve my top 10 punk 1 pretty vacant pistols 2 oh bond age up yours xray spex 3new Rose damned 4 bank robber clash 5 if you Don want to fuck me fuck off Wayne county

    Reply
    • Tina
      Tina

      Hey Roger, along with the Pistols you’ve mentioned two other original great Punk bands X-ray Specs and The Damned!

      Reply
  • Chris
    Chris

    Love The Ruts superb band only if they could get a singer who sounds a bit like Malcolm then I would be 15 again. Shine on me

    Reply
  • Kevan brown

    Should have had God Save The Queen, The Clash London’s Calling Stiff Little Fingers Suspect Device and X-Ray Spex Germ Free Adolescent

    Reply
  • MG
    MG

    Ah, was doing ok until the bizarre opinion on the Stooges…

    Reply

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