Springing from the U.S. and the U.K., punk stormed the world with its loud, harsh sounds, brash political stance, and devil-may-care appearance. Its legacy has stayed with us as music has evolved over the years.
This article will examine one of punk’s most transformational decades and the best punk bands of the 80s.
Formed in San Francisco in the late 1970s, The Dead Kennedys went on to become one of the defining bands of the punk genre.
The band began its career playing shows at various locations around California. Initially, their name shocked and offended some people, who felt it was a mockery of the late President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, who had been assassinated some 15 years before.
Their first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, was released in 1980 and was generally well-received by critics and music lovers alike. Today, it appears on many lists of the most influential punk albums.
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and The Banshees rode the line between punk rock and new wave/alt-rock. With lead singer Siouxsie’s robust and captivating voice and the musicianship of band members Steve Severin, Robert Smith, and John McGeoch, the band climbed the charts, gaining critical acclaim and fans.
With lead singer Siouxsie’s strong, entrancing voice and the musicianship of band members Steve Severin, Robert Smith, and John McGeoch, the band climbed the charts, gaining critical acclaim as well as fans.
They disbanded in 1996, but Siouxsie and Budgie—who became a couple—continued to record music together as a new group called the Creatures.
The Cramps were an American band active throughout the 1980s. They embraced the “psychobilly” style of music, a blend of rockabilly and punk.
It’s a sub-genre often associated with the “slam-dancing” trend of the era. This violent, wild dancing style involved intentionally slamming into fellow dancers. It was the precursor to the moshpit of the 1990s.
Toward the end of the 1980s, punk in its original form was on the decline, but alternative manifestations of the genre were still relevant. For example, hardcore punk emerged in the late 1970s and was still alive and well in bands like Fugazi.
Hardcore punk is identified by faster beats and more chaotic song structure compared with the verse-chorus structure of most standard punk songs. Hardcore culture stood out by refusing to embrace any particular style of hair or dress and by rejecting pretty much anything they considered mainstream.
Fugazi lived by the ethics of hardcore punk and expressed them in their music as well. In their later albums, their music began to shift toward a more arthouse style of avant-garde rock, but their core values remained the same. They declared an indefinite hiatus in 2002, but rumors of a comeback have been floating for years.
Founded in the mid-70s, the Ramones have often been referred to as one of the first “real” punk bands ever.
The 1980s brought a bit of upheaval for the band. Despite changing musical styles and shifting band dynamics, they managed to release several albums during that decade, one of which—End of the Century—was produced by the legendary Phil Specter.
It ended up being their best-selling album at the time, although there was some disagreement on whether Specter’s involvement had watered down their sound.
The 1980s were ushered in by the U.S. release of the Clash’s London Calling. While the British band had had measurable success on their own side of the pond throughout the late 70s, January 1980 marked the start of their true international stardom.
The Clash and London Calling have received countless awards and mentions and have shown up on more best-of lists than we can count. They have sometimes been referred to as “The Only Band That Matters.”
Despite all the success and accolades, the band didn’t survive the 1980s. Internal conflicts caused ongoing drama, and band members—particularly Joe Strummer—got tired of touring and felt that the band had exhausted its creative juices. They officially disbanded in 1986.
Another great punk band of the 80s is Green Day. Though it didn’t hit its stride until the ‘90s, it formed in 1987 in California. Their pop-punk sound opened doors to a new generation of punk musicians that went on to dominate the 2000s.
Black Flag is a California-based hardcore punk band founded in 1976. After being inspired by the likes of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn formed the band on the principles of DIY punk. DIY punk embraces the concept of writing, recording, and promoting your own music whenever possible and rejecting the control of record labels.
Flack Flag’s sound is different from other punk groups in some significant ways, the most prominent being that their songs are much longer. Punk has traditionally relied on short, powerful songs driven by a simple beat. Black Flag created longer musical compositions that defied this trend and leaned into musical diversity and experimentation.
Their 1980s changes included the introduction of singer Henry Rollins, who has made a name for himself in recent years as a spoken-word artist, activist, and commentator who is active on social media.
The hardcore punk band Bad Brains were regulars at the famous New York venue CBGB during the 1980s. Their style blended punk and reggae with elements of metal and rap. It was a new mix of sounds that hadn’t frequently been heard together. They were also one of the few African American bands in a genre that consisted almost entirely of white performers.
The 1980s saw the band’s success skyrocket even further with the release of their album I Against I, and the ongoing evolution of their musical style and influence. Like many punk bands, they were often criticized for their destructive fans who trashed venues wherever they went.
The band continued making music into the 2010s but has slowed down in recent years due to band members’ illnesses and deaths.
Formed in 1976, Husker Du rose to fame in the early 80s when they got heavy play on college radio stations. The Minneapolis-based band seemed to know how to get the attention of young people, particularly young men, who liked their hard, fast, energetic sound.
The 80s saw several releases from the band, including Land Speed Record, Everything Falls Apart, Zen Arcade, and Flip Your Wig. Despite having reasonable success, Husker Du broke up in 1987. This was due mainly to internal disagreements and the disruptive influence of drug abuse on member Grant Hart.
The California natives first began performing when they were still in high school and soon gained acceptance in the local punk communities.
However, it was a long time before Bad Religion got mainstream success. They spent the 1980s performing, switching out band members, breaking up, and reforming. It wasn’t until after one of their reformations that they finally broke through into major label representation and widespread radio play with hits like “American Jesus.”
This California-based punk band of the 80s took punk to the beach. They mixed traditional punk sounds with surf music for a west coast hybrid music embraced by surfers, skaters, and music lovers alike.
Minor Threat had a short but impactful career in punk music. The hardcore band formed in 1980 and debuted its first E.P. in 1981. Unfortunately, disagreements among band members overwhelmed the group, and they disbanded in 1983.
Still, they left a long-lasting impression on punk music and culture. They are largely credited with inspiring “straight edge” culture into punk. The straight edge movement celebrates a lifestyle free from alcohol, illegal drugs, and casual sex. At the time, this lifestyle was the polar opposite of what was being promoted and displayed by most punk and rock bands, so it ironically became the ultimate expression of rebellion.
Following the breakup, Minor Threat’s frontman, Ian MacKaye, is still active in the punk community as a musician, activist and businessman. Other band members have also gone on to other projects and pursuits, but none that garnered wide mainstream attention.
The Circle Jerks are one of punk’s most influential bands and one of the best examples of the California punk sound.
Their album Group Sex, released in October of 1980, is considered one of the foundational albums of the hardcore genre. Despite their albums being generally well-received, the band experienced many ups and downs, going on several hiatuses and reunions.
They continued performing and releasing music over the years and even did live shows up to 2019.
Formed in California in 1978, the band, led by Mike Ness, was inspired by British rockers like the Rolling Stones and wanted to bring some of that sound and energy to their music.
They began playing in nightclubs and other local venues and soon got picked up by radio stations.
By 1982 they had recorded and released their first album, Mommy’s Little Monster. The record received excellent reviews and was said to have become an “instant classic” It had all the angry, anti-establishment rants, growl, and power chords people want in a punk album.
This New Jersey-based band broke into the scene in the late 1970s and released their first full album in 1982. Their music has always been heavily influenced by horror films, particularly B-grade horror flicks from the 1950s and ‘60s.
Horror punk combines vintage horror movie lore and elements of 1950s doo-wop music with traditional punk rock sounds. Artists in this genre utilize violent, often gory lyrics as well as dramatically dark clothing styles to create a horror movie-style experience at their shows.
By the time their band broke up in 1982, founder Glenn Danzig was ready to embark on his own projects. He established his own band, Danzig, as well as Samhain, and continued to pave the way for the new genre of Horror Punk.
Interesting fact: The Damned have the honor of quite a few “firsts” in the punk world. They are the first British punk band to release a single, the first to release a studio album and the first to tour the United States!
They were contemporaries of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and the three bands toured together during the early days of their success.
Like many bands, The Damned saw the changing soundscape of punk music as the ’70s gave way to the 80s. New musical genres and styles began to take hold, and some inspired the band. They also switched out members during that time, so it was a decade of significant change for them.
DOA was Canada’s contribution to the punk scene. These hardcore punk rockers released albums and toured both Canada and the U.S. in the 1980s. Their political views took center stage in their music, advocating for equality and environmentalism.
This San Pedro-California-based punk group was solidly anti-commercial and pro-working-class. They boasted an eclectic sound that was hard to pin down. Sadly, they disbanded in 1985 following the death of lead singer D. Boon.
Dag Nasty was formed in 1985, later in the decade than most of the other bands on this list. Their musical style reflected the changing face of punk by incorporating the darker metal sounds that developed into hardcore punk.
The Buzzcocks were an influential band on the late 70’s punk scene in and around Manchester, U.K. Formed from talented young men on the local college campus, the band made bold moves with their music.
Unfortunately, the BBC flatly refused to play some of their explicitly sexual songs, like “Orgasm Addict.” Nevertheless, the band is still around and active at the time of this writing.
Anarchy has always been the undercurrent of punk music, but not all bands have delved into the explicit political doctrines of the ideology. However, the British band Crass did not shy away from declaring their anarchist beliefs or living their principles in everyday life.
Founded in 1977 by a group of friends living in an anarchist commune, the band began playing gigs at venues around London. At the time, the punk scene was at its peak, and there was a heightened interest in the music and lifestyle.
They released their first album, The Feeding of the 5000, in 1978, but it was met with resistance from the mainstream culture, including from the police, due to its controversial content.
They released three more albums in the 1980s, each of which was met with some amount of controversy, along with some sales success. Still, the band never really reached mainstream success, but this was no doubt the way they wanted it.
Members of Crass continue to make music and participate in activism well into the 2010s. Their legacy in punk music and social movements will live on.
The Replacements could have been just another punk band from California, but they found a way to stand out and be unique. Formed in 1987, the band was one of the first to delve into the hybrid sounds that would become ska punk.
Stiff Little Fingers
Irish band Stiff Little Fingers formed in the late 1970s and drew much of their inspiration from the political upheaval in their country at the time. They made music in the early 80s, then broke up and reformed in the late 80s. They continued making music into the 2010s.
The Angry Samoans
This band did not originate from Samoa, but judging by their music, they were angry! The distorted guitars and seething lyrics got people’s attention. Their 1980 release, Inside My Brain, reflected teen angst, rebellion, and dissatisfaction with society.
Top 80s Punk Bands, Final Thoughts
Punk was the inspiration for so many genres of music we enjoy today. What’s your favorite punk band of the 80s? What punk-related music do you like best? Hopefully, this list will be able to help you answer these questions!