The idea of “punk love” is both irresistible and ridiculous. This is because punk is almost by definition unromantic, at least in a traditional sense. (The irresistibly ridiculous 1983 romantic comedy Valley Girl derives most of its humor from the incongruity between the tropes of the teen-romance genre and punk rock’s supposed disaffection with all things “normal.”) The idea of the punk rock love song is doubly alluring and improbable. As a musical genre, punk music is about alienation and dysfunction, resistance, or some combination thereof. It’s often marked by a certain caustic sense humor. In short, it’s not usually baby-making music. Nevertheless, there are countless love songs in punk’s grimy annals. To be sure, love songs are more common in some punk subgenres than others. Riot grrrl, peace punk and hardcore were, for the most part, too busy taking down the patriarchy/capitalism/society’s hypocrisy for romantic distractions, but emo more than made up for all of them.
Not only are there a ton of punk love songs, but some of them are really good! In part, it’s because they are a bit unexpected. Even if you disregard all those punk “love” songs where the lyrics include threats of violence or general misogyny directed at an object of affection (we’re looking at you, Misfits), there’s no shortage of great ones. The best are original, often disarmingly funny, painfully honest and direct, and sometimes endearingly warped. It’s still February, and even if Valentine’s Day is a capitalist conspiracy, let’s celebrate with 15 of the absolute best punk rock love songs.
1. The Buzzcocks, “Ever Fallen in Love (with Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”
The Buzzcocks are the grandaddies of high-speed heartache. If you are reading this list for ideas for a romantic playlist for a green-haired cutie, “Love Battery,” or truthfully, a lot of other songs by The Buzzcocks would be a better idea than this one. Still, this is the most beloved romantic song in their discography. With its barreling tempo and a winning tunefulness that prefigured mall emo, it’s easy to see why. The lyrics strip all floweriness away from a timeworn theme (unrequited love hurts) while the raw, power-pop guitars imbue it with the urgency of a fresh wound.
2. The Damned, “See Her Tonight”
Like “Ever Fallen in Love,” this spazzy love song isn’t the least bit poetic, but it is convincing. Dave Vanian is frothing and spitting on himself to get to see this girl, and, in fairness, she does sound pretty cool. A free thinker, unbothered by trends or conventions, it’s safe to assume the song’s heroine is no punk-rock poseur. (“She don’t fit in any so-called scene,” he says.)
Besides being believable, two other things make this song great. One: A song about a girl, by a guy, that praises that girl entirely for her personality traits is a rare and beautiful thing. Two: People talk (and sing) about falling headlong in love all the time, but this song, with its double-time rave ups, comes a lot closer to sounding the way that actually feels than any mid-tempo treatment of the subject.
3. Rites of Spring, “For Want Of”
The searing guitars and emotionally raw lyrics on Rites of Spring’s only full-length may be responsible for all that we have come to know as emo. We can forgive it that because it stands as a landmark unto itself and still sounds as immediate as it did when it came out in 1985. One of the most melodic and memorable songs on the album, “For Want Of” is wildly poetic, with lyrics that sketch the difficulty of letting the past go in sharp lines. The drums pound like a panicking heart and the riffs fold into each other like endlessly crashing waves, which creates a strong musical analogy for drowning in emotion.
4. X, “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss”
This organ-driven rocker by Los Angeles punk legends X describes a world in chaos, where right and wrong have lost all meaning. But its chorus, sung with Exene Cervenka and John Doe barely harmonizing together, makes it a love song, and a great one at that. Indeed, the refrain, “the world’s a mess; it’s in my kiss,” makes it one of the most punk rock of punk rock love songs. That line, moaned, almost bleated by Doe and Cervenka, conveys a desperate love, a love in spite of everything, including the people concerned. It can be taken as a profound statement, hinting at so much that can never be put into words, but what makes it even better is that it’s also exactly the kind of rambling nonsense your significant other slurs when they’re sloppy drunk and about to pass out next to you. It could be heard as both, and those two things aren’t necessarily in conflict.
5. 7 Seconds, “Trust”
Yes, this is a bona fide love song by a hardcore band. There aren’t many of them, but they’re out there. As a straight edge/youth crew-type hardcore band, 7 Seconds’ love songs tend to be super positive and painfully sincere. Sample lyrics include, “I know it ain’t cool to say now / But I can’t help the way I feel inside” and, “When things get too much for you / Look back and I’ll be there.” Troy Mowat plays the same beat almost the whole way through, while and the ooh-oohs on the chorus gives the tune a poppy coiffeur. It’s a song about trust and honesty in a relationship that’s as pure as a plain white t-shirt fresh out of the bag, and about as nuanced.
6. Descendents, “Good Good Things”
Masters of hooky, melodic pop punk, Descendents have a lot of love songs. Well, they at least have a lot of songs about girls, and this one is their sweetest. Descendent have a fair amount of sour love songs, too, but this one is simply about falling in love with someone and hoping they feel the same way. Quirky lyrics like, “so cool and warm when you put your arms around me,” save it from being completely cornball.
“Good Good Things” is roaring loud, like a feeling that can’t be contained, and while the buzzsaw guitar work and caffeine-fueled backbeat might not scream romance to a lot of people, it absolutely captures the nervous, restless, can’t-even-think-straight energy of newly sparked infatuation. It’s such a massive anthem that it seems like it’s half chorus, and that chorus is explosive.
7. Slant 6, “Partner in Crime”
If you pay close attention to the lyrics, this a pretty conflicted love song. But, it’s also bold and real and honest. If this list is light on female voices, it’s because many women in punk were (and still are) more likely to write a song challenging gender roles and traditional ideas about love and marriage than they were to pine away for someone in song. If they did write love songs, they tended to complicate the typical boy-meets-girl script. Christina Billotte, leader of ‘90s D.C. punk band Slant 6 and a few other great bands, does that in “Partner in Crime” through emotionally honest lyrics about a complicated relationship. Ultimately, a picture emerges of someone she loves and could never bear to hurt: “To kill this boy would tear me apart / No romance and no guitars.” It’s a fearless reckoning wrapped around hot-rodded surf guitars. Like every song on their second album Inzombia, it completely rocks.
8. The Exploding Hearts, “I’m a Pretender”
Most of The Exploding Hearts’ canon consists of love songs, and nearly all of those are as socially problematic as they are insanely catchy. That’s a big part of the genius of their weaponized power pop, that it can be as simultaneously disturbing, touching, funny and impossible to get out of your head as it is. This bouncy, jangly treat is just about the only one in their oeuvre that wouldn’t have a girl applying for a restraining order faster than you can say “bubblegum.”
A sweetly hopeful tale of early ‘20s romantic dysfunction, “I’m a Pretender” has that sliver of truth in it that any decent pop song needs to make it relatable enough to buy into. In this case, it’s that, much like the inexperienced lover portrayed in the song, none of us really knows what we’re doing. We’re all pretenders at the game of love, aren’t we?
9. Sleater-Kinney, “Oh!”
“Oh!,” off Sleater-Kinney’s sixth studio album One Beat, bursts with unabashed happiness in a way that very few love songs do. The lyrics “nobody lingers like your hands on my heart / Nobody figures like you figure me out” on the thundering chorus announce that this a no doubts and no looking back love song. Crackling with electric energy, the song conveys a clear-eyed joy and the wonder of discovery. We wouldn’t expect anything less from the power trio. The “ohs-ohs” nod to rock songs of a simpler, earlier time, but this is no dreamy, teeny-bopper Valentine.
10. Vivian Girls, “Going Insane”
Not only were Vivian Girls a punk band, they were one of the best punk bands ever and this song proves it. Katy Goodman and Frankie Rose help Cassie Ramone kick up a storm of noise while she wonders if the guy she likes realizes that she likes him. This girl group tune on steroids has sunny highlights and dark shadows, and ramps up frenetically to an abrupt end as Cassie wonders, finally, if he knows that she’s going to win his heart. The drama is irresistible.
11. Richard Hell and the Voidoids, “Love Comes in Spurts”
No one actually listens to the Voidoids and that’s okay. But if you haven’t listened to “Love Comes in Spurts” you should give it a whirl. The mental images this stone classic engenders are kind of messy and gross, but sometimes love is, too.
12. The Sex Pistols, “Submission”
It isn’t the greatest love song ever written but it is one of The Sex Pistols’ better songs, and that’s got to count for something. Big, stomping power chords and a trudging beat create a sensation of spiraling irresistibly downward, which suits the theme of being dragged down into a mysterious and “watery” love. Luckily, the snapping bass line keeps things from getting too soggy. John Lydon very nearly sings on this one, and his declamatory sing-talking is certainly compelling. In fact, “Submission” almost becomes a power ballad. The extended metaphor about underwater exploration by submarine works better than it should and, Lydon’s “sub mission” after his aquatic femme fatale, lends itself to obvious BDSM flavored entendres.
13. The Eat, “Catholic Love”
Truly, there is no punk-rock love story to rival the star-crossed amour of “Catholic Love” by The Eat. Chronicling the challenges and rewards of Jewish-Catholic cross-cultural dating, this 1979 Southern-fried nugget of rock ‘n’ roll could warm any punk’s heart.
14. The Pagans, “What’s This Shit Called Love?”
Musically speaking, they don’t get too much more vicious than this rocket-mounted rager by Cleveland rockers The Pagans. The chorus sounds like some kind of malfunctioning industrial machinery that your wouldn’t want to get your fingers caught in. On the surface, the lyrics sound like your expected anti-love punk song material. Mike Hudson sounds sassy singing, “come on babe, teach me a lesson,” but then he sings “Look at you, I guess I feel something / Anything, it could be better than nothing.” It’s then you realize he’s asking, “What’s this shit called love?” because he might really need to know.
15. The Ramones, “I Want You Around”
When they weren’t singing about pet cemeteries and sniffing glue, The Ramones were big softies (well, mostly Joey), and their mushy songs are legion. A lot of those songs are really songs about pop music more than love. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” for example, shows more adoration for the ‘50s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll that inspired them than it does for any girl real or imagined. The Phil Spector-produced “I Want You Around” isn’t too different from any of The Ramones’ other love songs, but it has just enough lyrical inspiration to stand on its own (apart from its bubblegum inspirations), while still doing them proud. When Joey nasally croons, “You heard that I’m no good / Yeah, yeah, I’m no good / But I’ll treat you like I should,” it could be the answer song to any number of ‘60s girl-group songs to lonely bad boys.