From Siouxsie Sioux to Joe Strummer: Punk’s 10 greatest lead singers of all time
“Punk rock is meant to be our freedom. We’re meant to be able to do what we want to do.” – Joe Strummer
What goes into making a great lead singer usually begins with the final word in the title; singer. That said, when you’re assembling a punk band, if that even still happens anymore, then chances are that picking out a lead singer who has a great voice is low down on your priority list. That’s because to be a great frontman or woman for a punk band is to embody the very ethos of punk, you must have the attitude, you must have courage, you must not be determined by anyone else but yourself and, perhaps most importantly, you must be willing to bleed for your art.
There was a time, when punk was still very much in its infancy, that the final point was a necessity because fighting the audience members was not only a likely possibility but more often than not an inevitability. Arriving in a strange town with safety pins pushed through your flesh, spiked hair and torn clothes in the seventies was enough to include a pitchfork-wielding mob as part of your welcoming party. It’s meant that all of our favourite lead singers of punk bands have a steely resolve that will likely never be replicated.
As we mourn for a moment in musical history where punk was still at the forefront of avant-garde when its ethics were about alleviating the oppressed and attacking injustice through art. A time when music was an escape from the doldrums of modernity and had not become the background soundtrack it feels so akin to today. So we’re taking a look back at ten lead singers of punk bands who can be rightly called the greatest.
The ten below are full of verve, of malicious intent and musical destruction. They’re artists who have used the energy of punk to create a career and, most importantly, a body of work which connects them to their audience on an even playing field. Here, we look at the ten best punk lead singers of all time.
Punk’s greatest lead singers:
10. Siouxsie Sioux – Siouxsie and The Banshees
One of the UK’s most influential female artists, namely Susan Janet Ballion AKA Siouxsie Sioux. Having been part of two bands—Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, and The Creatures—she’s had a huge impact on the works of PJ Harvey, LCD Soundsystem and many more.
It’s easy to scoff at Siouxsie Sioux and routinely class her output with her band as being so integral to the explosion of post-punk that it is forever inextricably linked to the demise of punk rather than its birth. Of course, to do so would be pure ignorance. Siouxsie was there at the very beginning and, chances are, she’ll be there at the end too.
Part of the Bromley contingent which helped the Sex Pistols take over the Bill Grundy Today show and, in turn, provide those watching with an acidic taste of what punk was, Siouxsie’s position in the clique was underpinned by her ferocious attitude and searing style. It’s something that she takes into all her ventures and from her very first debut at the 100 Club with Sid Vicious on drums, where she screamed the Lord’s Prayer at the audience for the majority of her set, she’s been a unique player in the punk rock game.
One thing that sets her apart from many of the stars on this list is that Siouxsie can really sing. Across some incredible tracks like ‘Hong Kong Garden’, ‘Kiss Them For Me’ or her impressive covers of ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘The Passenger’, Siouxsie Sioux has always provided the clearest image of the artistic vein that runs through the beating heart of punk.
9. Henry Rollins – Black Flag
Quite possibly one of the most intense men you would ever have the pleasure of meeting, Rollins inclusion on this list was guaranteed from the very moment he joined Black Flag. The story goes that Rollins was working for a pittance at a local Haagen Dasz ice cream parlour when he was invited to watch the band play at a semi-local gig. Rollins grabbed his bag and went to watch the band lay down their furious hardcore sound. Eventually, an opportunity arose for Rollins to jump on stage and sing a few songs.
He absolutely nailed the songs for the audience and grabbed a huge wave of appreciation for the crowd. Still, he trundled home and picked up another shift at the parlour. After a few days, Black Flag called him up and offered him the position of the lead singer. At the time, Rollins was holding an ice cream scoop in his hand and looked down to realise if he didn’t leave now, he never would. He joined the band and became an icon.
Nobody embodies the fearsome energy of punk better than Henry Rollins. Bulging with muscles and searing intelligence, Rollins did a lot of heavy lifting in regards to the image of punk being a brutal and nonsensical outlet for adolescents. While his performances were always on the intense side, Rollins always practised music like many would meditation and it has elevated his position to an unspoken deity of the hardcore scene. Whichever way you cut it, Rollins is an impressive frontman and deserves his place on this list. After all, would you tell him otherwise? Thought not.
8. Poly Styrene – X-Ray Spex
We couldn’t talk about punk without mentioning Poly Styrene. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the British singer was the vocalist of X-Ray Spex. Her vocals have been defined as piercing and unique (owing to her operatic background) and Poly Styrene remains one of the gems who surfaced from the punk movement. Embracing massive braces on her teeth, it was also the Sex Pistols who influenced her to start a career in music, and some might say defined it with her rallying cry “Oh bondage! Up yours!”.
X-Ray Spex was known to be a creative and high-energy punk band and, although they only released one album and five singles altogether, they toured the UK once before Poly Styrene was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then bipolar syndrome.
Nevertheless, the group then reformed several times later in the nineties and that didn’t stop Poly Styrene from going solo. Her albumTransculence waved goodbye to her loud X-Ray Spex signature sound and welcomed a jazzier approach to her music. She died in 2011 following a battle with cancer, but her musical heritage continues to show people how to be a true individual.
7. HR – Bad Brains
It’s fair to say that Bad Brains’ original lead singer Sid McCray, is the man behind introducing the members of the group to punk. The move would see the band become one of the pioneering black artists of the scene and alongside their music, afford them a place in the annals of punk rock history. However, it was H.R. who took the band to a whole new level with their sound.
The band originally began as a jazz fusion ensemble before listening to groups such as the Dead Boys and Sex Pistols convinced them that punk was a new way forward. Naming their group Bad Brains after the Ramones track of the same name, the group had a headstart on most of their contemporaries — they could really play.
With H.R.—AKA Human Rights—leading the group the band became a pivotal figure in the burgeoning hardcore scene in Washington D.C. That said, it wasn’t just their appearance and style that was an allure for their audiences, it was their integral sound. As time has passed and the group have changed members and musical styles it’s easy to see how Bad Brains have become such a noteworthy figure in the history of punk rock, they’re simply better musicians than most punk bands could ever hope to be. It means that they chose to make punk rock was truly that, a choice.
6. Jello Biafra – Dead Kennedys
Being in a band called the Dead Kennedys the chances are that you’re going to be in the crosshairs of Middle America, no pun intended. It means that while for many of the artists mentioned in this list being able to defend oneself in the face of public criticism is a nice thing to do, for the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, AKA Jello Biafra, it was a necessity. The singer has never backed down from a verbal jousting contest and it’s certainly part of what makes him one of the best punk singers.
Born Eric Reed Boucher, Biafra soon became a figurehead for the West Coast punk scene as he and his band became the talk of San Francisco with their breed of furious punk rock. His unique “quivering” vocal style not only put the band out on their own with a new style but also belied the power that Biafra always had store dup for any right-wing nut who wanted to take him on.
Though his royalty-hoarding may upset many people who see punk as a socialist experiment of sorts, Biafra has proved time and time again that he will always be on the right side of history. Never afraid to stand his ground, perhaps what is most overlooked about Biafra is his searing songwriting skill. Not only were the songs potent and attention-grabbing, but they enclosed vital messages too. Take, for example, the undying anthem ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’. His expert lyrics were an advantage the band had over every other act, they showed that Dead Kennedys had a strong core once you got past the stunts and that Jello Biafra was truly one of a kind.
5. Johnny Rotten – Sex Pistols
Let us, just for a second, put aside John Lydon’s recent adoration for the particularly extreme section of the right-wing known as Donald Trump and try to focus on what he did within the music. We know it will be hard because, for the most part, Rotten’s decision to back such a figure goes against everything he has ever stood for. One of the most infamous anti-establishment characters in Britain has seen since Guy Fawkes, catching Rotten as a right-winger feels very dirty indeed.
When Johnny Rotten and his pals from the Sex Pistols introduced themselves to the world through a series of four-letter words and a subsequent banning from the BBC, the figurehead of it all was Johnny Rotten. The singer may well be the frontman for one of most notorious punk bands to have ever graced the planet, and he was certainly involved in the brokering of the new wave and post-punk scene with PiL, but it was his wild persona which drew him into the spotlight and kept him front and centre throughout his career.
Anyone lucky enough to catch the intensity of the Sex Pistols in their incendiary beginnings would have seen a master at work. No, you wouldn’t call any of the musicians in the bandmasters of their craft—though we’d argue Steve Jones may be one of the most underrated guitarists in rock—it was Johnny Rotten who was a leading light for all lead singers, or perhaps more precisely, frontman.
Not famed for his voice, while Rotten’s razor vocal could cut the room in half, it was his onstage persona that gathered up audience gasps and later, their gob. Rotten’s scowling and animalistic performance was something he took with him everywhere he went—and we mean everywhere. Whether it was in an interview or floating down the river Thames or taking part in Judge Judy, Rotten stayed true to his stage name and persona, providing piles of quick-witted bile wherever he went.
4. Debbie Harry – Blondie
If there’s one lead singer who became the acceptable face of punk, largely because of how stunning it was, then, of course, it’s Deborah Harry. The famous Blondie lead-singer from New York may well be known for her signature two-toned bleached blonde hair, but most of all for her unique high-pitched voice and innovative musical style. Harry’s career started in the late sixties when she was part of various bands including the Stilettoes. That’s when she met Chris Stein, with whom she started a band called Angel and the Snake before Blondie was created in the late seventies. Having written and co-written most of the band’s songs, Harry appeared to be somewhat ahead of punk’s time.
Blondie’s sound brought new influences to the new wave movement—from reggae and hip-hop to the avant-garde. While their track ‘Rapture’ influenced some of the earliest rap songs and introduced this growing genre to a rock audience, ‘The Tide is High’ showcased some serious reggae vibes. Following the band’s sixth studio album The Hunter in 1982, Harry started her solo career and also made a debut in the film industry with different acting roles. Her five solo albums were critically acclaimed yet she’s still nicknamed Blondie everywhere she goes.
Putting the musical aspect aside, Harry revolutionised punk’s fashion with her signature hairstyle, outfits and personality. Being a close friend to the late pop-art king Andy Warhol, he used her photogenic skills and appearance as one of his muses. Deborah Harry is one of punk’s queens and she has influenced a number of female-fronted bands such as No Doubt, The Cardigans and Garbage, but also male groups like Blur and Smashing Pumpkins. We’ve lost count of the number of covers of ‘One Way or Another’ and even ‘Call Me’ we’ve heard over the years. The tracks are timeless classics and the same can be said for Harry herself.
3. Joey Ramone – Ramones
Sometimes rock and roll can have a seriously debilitating effect on people. It can produce the same kind of ocular distortion as your favourite pair of beer goggles. It’s what made people fall for Rod Stewart in the sixties and it’s what made people fall in love with the lead singer of the Ramones, Joey.
As the frontman for the Ramones, Joey was thrust into the New York city limelight as he and the group forged their own boot-stamped path toward punk glory. At six foot five and as gangly as a bunch of rubber bands safety-pinned at the middle, Joey somehow cut a romantic love interest. The reason being that Joey Ramone, whether he wanted to be or not, was the face of America’s punk movement. Britain may have been churning out punk bands at an alarming rate but for New York, there was only one band who could truly take the crown as Prince of Punk, the Ramones.
Across their time as a band, the Ramones suffered what most punk bands succumb to, an inability to align their DIY ethos with their need to pay rent. While other bands compromised to for commercial success, Joey Ramone and the band refused to conform—for the most part.
With three-chords and hundreds of songs, the Ramones rubber-stamped their position as punk’s princes on many occasions. Never veering too far from their formula, the band brokered a brand new sound that would have been impossible without their star man upfront. While he was never the most charismatic frontman, Joey brought an awkwardness that many people could connect to. He was the perennial outsider looking in and that’s something punk will always welcome with open arms.
2. Iggy Pop – The Stooges
Now, if you started this article by taking umbrage with the inclusion of Siouxsie Sioux on this list thanks to her post-punk leanings, we’re imagining that you may have a problem with this inclusion too. Of course, to try and argue that the wonderful Iggy Pop doesn’t deserve to be on this list would akin to arguing with your favourite brick wall. That’s because, frankly, we won’t hear a bad word said about Iggy.
One of the forefathers of punk rock as we know it today, Iggy Pop has shared more than a few memorable moments with his audiences. Whether it was the time he smeared peanut butter all over himself or when Elton John showed up in a gorilla suit to lift him up on stage, or even when he jumped off the stage to fight with a gang of bikers—it’s safe to say that Iggy Pop has done it all.
At the beginning of the seventies, there was one band in The Big Apple who were making a real name for themselves—The Stooges. The group had grabbed music paper headlines with their visceral and searing performances. It was also enough to grab themselves some lucrative slots around the New York City club scene. With those spots in hand, the group inadvertently started one of the greatest musical movements of all time — punk. Their shows would become legendary and the need for more acts like The Stooges suddenly became apparent.
With the band’s music, they provided proof that rock didn’t have to be extremely difficult to play to be good. Instead, they could use energy and passion and the heart of the group to spurt their punk rock blood over the audience. Iggy Pop showed every other punk singer the route to success, the only kicker was that few could ride the road as well as he did and still does.
1. Joe Strummer – The Clash
Joe Strummer will always be remembered as one of the leading voices of the burning punk movement as he fronted the only band that matters, The Clash. That said, his musical influence stretches far further than the confines of a single genre. But as one of the few artists to have spent time on both sides of the punk fence, first as an admiring performer (as the lead singer of the 101ers) then as the frontman of the most important band of them all. It means he was expertly placed to see the best and the worst in punk.
Since he and The Clash turned punk into a global force to be reckoned with, Strummer had found himself constantly in and out of fashion. It would sadly take his tragic and unexpected death in 2002 for the true weight of his legendary status to land. Strummer, above all else, stood for truth, for passion and for justice. It’s an intoxicating mix which captured the hearts and minds of his fans for years after he made his musical impact.
Of course, a noted son of a diplomat, Strummer was a world-weary traveller by a young age. It had seen his viewpoint on the struggle of British society in the seventies be given extra weight and further credence. Above all else, Strummer represents a different sid of punk. He wasn’t showbiz or particularly interested in fame unlike some of the name son this list. Instead, Strummer was a bastion of the genre’s more ethical points of pride.
As such, he used his position within The Clash to spread the word of the oppressed and, what’s more, he did it through a collection of incredible songs. Whether from the band’s self-titled debut or their Magnus Opus, London Calling, Strummer always put his and the band’s integrity in the limelight but positioned it within some searing songs. When you add to this the fact that he once vanished as part of a publicity stunt that only he knew about, that he once drank ten pints before running the Paris marathon and, all the way up until his death, kept a spot at Glastonbury Festival for his dawn-threatened teachings, you have not only a great lead singer, the greatest, in fact. But you also have a great man.