The mid-'90s saw a glut of half-arsed cheapo punk compilations, as anybody who had the rights to a couple of Vibrators demos rushed to cash in on punk's fleeting salability. They needn't have bothered. In 1993 Rhino Records set the standard for '70s punk retrospectives with their monumental nine-disc DIY series. Taken as a whole, they stood as the final definitive word on the new-wave brouhaha.
If you managed to find them, that is. The DIY series lapsed out of print within a few years, and punk neophytes had to glean their history lessons from a jumble of slipshod imitators. It's an ironic complaint given the subject matter, but there just wasn't any order to the whole mess. This wasn't cool, fun, green-haired anarchy; this was the kind of anarchy where you pay twelve bucks for ten songs with no liner notes, just to get that one Subway Sect tune you've never heard before.
Rhino's new foray into punk archivism emerges into a very different landscape. No Thanks! is four discs and 100 songs from the years 1973-80, including many that appeared on DIY. But this time around, Rhino isn't really unearthing any long-forgotten chestnuts. At least three of these songs have been featured on TV commercials, and all are now available on CD elsewhere. (The closest things to real rarities are Television's debut single "Little Johnny Jewel" and the Buzzcocks' hard-to-find classic "Boredom.") DIY loosed a flood of fantastic old music that was new to many of us; No Thanks!, on the other hand, greets an audience that knows "Blitzkrieg Bop" backwards. So what is its strength, its raison d'etre, its pulsing life force, etc.? Why does No Thanks! get out of bed in the morning?
Because it uses the hindsight of history to tell a story about punk that nobody yet has gotten quite right. Somehow -- mostly by eliminating a lot of the cheesier power pop dross that put such a drag on DIY -- these four discs cover more ground than DIY's nine, and in a more organic way. The running order is unfettered by geographic or chronological constraints, so unlikely, thrilling juxtapositions abound. After the Dead Kennedys' "California Über Alles," you'd never think to play "Another Girl, Another Planet" by the Only Ones, but boy, does it work. It's like the record collection of the coolest kid in school circa 1979: Look, here's Talking Heads right next to Sham 69 alongside Devo. The Stooges and the New York Dolls represent the past, while Joy Division and Black Flag point the way to yesterday's future.
Sure, you could come up with some quibbles, were you the quibbling type. The liner notes are a letdown from the get-go, especially an irritating misunderstanding of the Clash and "White Riot." Only 37 of the songs are by American acts; a few more would've been nice. There are some disappointing omissions due to licensing issues, like the Sex Pistols and PiL. (But both the Clash and Elvis Costello are present, unlike on DIY.) And lurking somewhere in any punk's heart is a bit of unease at seeing this spontaneous, anarchic music get the pricey museum treatment.
But the nasty joy contained herein takes those whines and gobs all over 'em. If you've never heard this stuff before, put this collection at the top of your Xmas list. If you've heard these songs a million times, you might be surprised at how fresh they sound alongside some unexpected neighbors. The next time some fly-by-night outfit tries to sell you a disc full of crappy Slaughter & the Dogs outtakes under the guise of a punk retrospective, you tell 'em: "Thanks, but No Thanks!"