This week, we’re pleased to present the playlist Phuc Tran put together for his memoir, SIGH, GONE: A Misfit's Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and The Fight To Fit In
In 1987, I entered high school. The ‘80s were in full Benetton bloom, and we all donned the uniforms that would identify ourselves as friend or foe: jock, prep, redneck, punk, geek. I already had an irrepressible oppositional streak and an explosive relationship with my parents, so punk was the natural fit for me. Punk was against pretty much everything, so I immediately signed up. By the end of high school, however, that antithetical stand felt like a corner into which we had painted ourselves. If punk was against everything, it would eventually dismantle and destroy itself, too.
These twelve songs capture that beautiful self-destruction as I discovered it. My friends and I saved our money to buy whatever cassettes and albums we could find (in addition to whatever good music we could find on the airwaves of college radio). This was the dawn of alternative music (the term would be coined) and in listening to this playlist, I’m reminded of how big that alternative/punk tent was. From the conventional punk of Stiff Little Fingers to the two-tone beats of ska to the suburban malaise of the Replacements. To us Gen-Xers, alternative
simply meant not commercial, not popular (and by default, cool). My friends and I all thought we were the cool kids in the margins, living on the metaphorical edge of things. The edge meant that we could fall off the cliff with the slightest misstep, but the edge also meant that maybe — just maybe — we could cut through the bullshit packaging and get to something real inside.
I don’t know if we ever did, but we sure did leave a gorgeous mess.
1. The Magnificent Seven by The Clash
Maybe not the obvious choice for a favorite Clash song, but this song shows how they were chafing against the rules and sounds of punk. The blend of early hip-hop and disco and funk was a middle finger to everyone who thought they could put the Clash in a box.
2. I Confess by The English Beat
I loved (and was always mystified) that despite the hard margins of ‘80s musical genres, punk and ska were odd bedfellows — but it was a lovely reprieve to hear something with horns and piano in contrast to the buzzsaw guitars of punk.
3. Everything Turns Grey by Agent Orange
Every track from this album is a gem, and Agent Orange’s Molotov cocktail of surf rock melody and blistering punk rock showed me that even if punk was conceived in Detroit and birthed in New York and London, it could move to California and get a tan.
4. Waiting Room by Fugazi
The post-punk sound (maybe even a rebellion against punk itself) started here for me. A song and sound about what punk looks and sounds like when it tries to grow up.
5. Add It Up by Violent Femmes
Hearing the Violent Femmes on college radio in 1985, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how an acoustic three piece could be so anti-establishment and raw — and not use electricity. I hadn’t really heard much Arlo Guthrie or Bob Dylan, so clearly I had a lot to learn.
6. Suspect Device by Stiff Little Fingers
Before Frank Black’s natural vocal distortion in the Pixies, there was Jake Burns’ vocal shred that made you think his voice was its own instrument.
7. Cities in Dust by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Can punk be smart and weird and literary? It sure can be — especially when it writes a catchy, goth dance track about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
8. Left of the Dial by The Replacements
Poetic, shambolic, self-sabotaging, smart — The Replacements captured an American ennui that was decidedly suburban and melodic.
9. How Soon Is Now by The Smiths
You really can’t make a playlist of ‘80s alternative music without the Smiths, and “How Soon Is Now” is anthemic, featuring Marr’s riffs-over-riffs guitar play and Morrissey’s incomparable morosity.
10. Push by The Cure
Write a soaring, four-minute song and not have the vocals come in until two and a half minutes in? What else says “we do what we want” more than that?
11. Never Understand by The Jesus and Mary Chain
As a teenager, I couldn’t believe
that a band would play such beautiful melodies and bury them under the rubble of distortion and feedback. I had no idea what the lyrics were, and it didn’t matter.
12. When You Sleep by My Bloody Valentine
In my final year of high school, I was feeling frustrated by the limitations of punk rock’s “three chords and the truth” songbook. My Bloody Valentine’s song “When You Sleep” exploded every notion and paradigm I had about popular music. I’ve been picking up the pieces ever since.
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has been a high school Latin teacher for more than twenty years while also simultaneously establishing himself as a highly sought-after tattooer in the Northeast. His 2012 TEDx talk “Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive” was featured on NPR’s Ted Radio Hour. His acclaimed memoir, SIGH, GONE: A Misfit's Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and The Fight To Fit In
, received the 2020 New England Book Award for Nonfiction and the 2021 Maine Literary Award for Memoir.
is currently featured in our Self Portraits