Various Artists

United Kingdom of Punk

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This classic punk best-of is a strange little bugger. Most of the usual suspects have been rounded up, albeit only the English axis, but these are not the well-traveled, still unbelievably fresh studio versions you've heard 1,000 times if you were paying attention. You'll recognize such familiar titles as the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get," the Damned's "New Rose," and X-Ray Spex's "Oh Bondage Up Yours." But these versions are live recordings of varying quality, plus a few demos as well. Whether it's a licensing issue, meaning that this is a cheap throw-together (the Clash are conspicuously MIA), or a real attempt to present another, rawer side of well-traveled terrain is a good question. Regardless, this collection holds together surprisingly well in the latter sense. Six of these 16 bands have their hits taken from the stage of the infamous Roxy club in London, which only existed from January to March 1977, as documented by the Live at the Roxy series. Talk about works in progress: both X-Ray Spex and Wire (whose song here, "New York City," was unreleased before appearing on the band's archive LP Behind the Curtain) were playing their first-ever gigs, and the Adverts ("Gary Gilmore's Eyes") were doing their second or third. Even the comparatively experienced Buzzcocks were breaking in a totally new lineup. So this is not only raw in sonics, it's scattershot and even shambolic in performance (with the exception of the truly phenomenal Ruts, whose "Babylon's Burning" again sounds fully formed, even right out of the box!). And yet, thanks to the energy, attitude, simplicity, and most of all, wild "spirit of the times," these struggling versions seem hot just the same. Only the Sex Pistols, of all people, fail, as the opening demo of "Anarchy" is lifeless, a shell of its later subversive rage. Otherwise, this is a clutch of incredible songs stripped naked, their thunder stolen but the lightning still intact, with the snarl of a cornered dog. Hearing sleeping giants wake is highly interesting.

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