Punk rock “shocked the world” when it arrived in the late 70s, one mainstream news outlet remembers. Bands like The Ramones inspired “a generation of wannabe rockers to buy guitars and form their own bands…. They proved that you didn’t have to be the next Jimmy Page or Paul McCartney to be a rock star.”
The idea is common—that punk bands’ amateurishness gave license to remake musical culture with attitude and style… talent and ability be damned. There’s a sense in which this is true, but there’s also a sense in which it’s a generalization that ignores the various organs—early metal, avant-garde art rock, new wave, etc.—that made up the larger body of punk.
The scene was built on some serious ability, beginning with the primitivist Velvet Underground, who relied on the talents of classically-trained multi-instrumentalist John Cale. In James Williamson, The Stooges had one of the finest guitarists not only in punk (or “heavy metal,” as Lester Bangs called 1973’s Raw Power), but in rock and roll writ large.
Talking Heads had one of punk’s best bass players in Tina Weymouth, a huge influence on contemporary bass guitar. When punk arrived on the radio, it did so in the sultry, chilling tones of Debbie Harry’s two-and-a-half octave-range voice: in the icy, high-pitched echoes of “Heart of Glass,” Call Me,” and “Rapture.”
Before Blondie, Harry was stripped down in the punk band The Stilettos. And before that, her ethereal voice elevated the work of late sixties folk rock band, Wind in the Willows. As one of seven singers, she honed her instrument in the demanding environment of a vocal ensemble. In her best-known Blondie songs, Harry harmonizes with herself in huge trails of reverb, recalling the dreamy psychedelia of earlier years.
Hear her multi-tracked, heavily effected isolated vocals in three huge Blondie hits further up, and her much more stripped-down, rawer vocal track from “One Way or Another,” below. There’s a lot of underground punk and indie and alternative music that did abandon musicianship, with mixed but often brilliant results. But when it comes to what most people remember when they remember the sound of early punk, the genre was just as much driven forward by musical ability and dedication, as evidenced by the career of Debbie Harry.