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Punk 101 

Manic pop geniuses the Ramones accidentally invent punk rock and change music history

click to enlarge A perfect example of Joey's splay-legged rock stance - RICK JOHNSON
  • Rick Johnson
  • A perfect example of Joey's splay-legged rock stance
It's hard to imagine the course rock 'n' roll might have taken had the Ramones never existed. With the release of their self-titled debut album in 1976, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy fired a shot literally heard around the world. Hailing from Forest Hills, Queens, and arriving at a time in history when rock (the roll was essentially gone by this point) was at its most bloated and uninteresting, the Ramones brought a much needed infusion of energy and excitement back to the genre, all the while showing that you could do it too. Did the Ramones invent punk rock? Probably, but more importantly, they re-invented rock 'n' roll.

Throughout their 22-year career, the Ramones stayed astonishingly true to their original blueprint. When they came onstage for their final show on August 6, 1996, in Los Angeles, they were wearing exactly what they were wearing on the cover of Ramones: leather jackets, jeans and sneakers (a "uniform" that would eventually be adopted by countless young musicians). Musically, there wasn't much change from record to record, the two notable exceptions being the 1980 Phil Spector-produced End Of The Century (the "difficult" producer added strings and horns to the band's sonic assault, resulting in their most interesting album) and its follow-up, the radio-friendly Pleasant Dreams that--while maybe not their most rockin' work--contains (arguably) their strongest collection of songs.

Blitzkrieg Bop
The musical climate looked tremendously promising for the Ramones when punk began to explode in the United Kingdom in 1977. (The Ramones' show at London's Roundhouse on July 4, 1976, has often been cited as the event that led to the formation of England's biggest punk bands, most notably The Sex Pistols and The Clash.) At the time, the thinking was that once America embraced punk the way the English had, The Ramones would surely become as big as Led Zeppelin--a perfect world indeed. Unfortunately, the Pistols' disastrous U.S. tour in February 1978 left a bad taste in the mouth of the American record industry, which responded by sanitizing punk and repackaging it as "new wave." The Ramones' big chance hadn't so much passed them by as evaporated.

This Business Is Killing Me/Too Tough To Die
Still, they persevered. The band toured relentlessly, releasing a new album every year (Leave Home, Rocket To Russia, Road To Ruin, It's Alive and Too Tough To Die being the standouts). Much to the band's eternal chagrin, their discs were lapped up by the same 100,000 people. Although their appearance in Roger Corman's 1979 cult film Rock 'n' Roll High School was a shot in the arm for the band, the movie was soon relegated to the "Saturdays at midnight" ghetto. Sporadic appearances on TV shows like Tomorrow, Sha Na Na, SCTV's The Uncle Floyd Show and The Simpsons were savored by fans but didn't exactly make the Ramones a household name. Dee Dee's departure in 1989 was a major blow to a band already torn by a major personal rift between Joey and Johnny (they rarely spoke for much of the band's last several years). But Joey and Johnny (along with Marky and Dee Dee's replacement C. Jay) would not let the flag drop, and they proudly carried on until that final L.A. show (where they were joined onstage by Dee Dee, Lemmy Killmister, Eddie Vedder and members of Soundgarden and Rancid).

Chain Saw
Live, the Ramones were like a locomotive. Johnny's guitar was so powerful it often bore little resemblance to a musical instrument. He remarked once that he wanted it to sound like "energy coming from the amp, not really even notes." Joey (all 6 feet 5 inches of him) would stand stork-like at the mic, belting out the brilliant comic book poetry that he and Dee Dee penned and pumping his fist in the air to accentuate every "Hey!" "Ho!" "Wait!" and "Now!," while the bassist thundered on, stopping only to count off the next tune with his trademark "1-2-3-4!" bark. And let us not forget the ironmen at the back. Being the drummer in the Ramones just might have been one of the toughest jobs in rock and roll. It made Tommy crack, drove his replacement Marky to drink (he left the band in late '82 and returned in '87), and caused drummer number two, Richie, to abandon music for a much quieter, stress-free occupation: golf caddy. Drummer number four, Blondie's Clem Burke (aka Elvis Ramone--seriously), must surely be thanking his lucky stars that his tenure in the band lasted for only a couple of shows in 1987.

Cretin Hop
Yet for all its manic energy, the Ramones' locomotive was by no means a runaway train. The band took great care in sculpting their show, from the way they took the stage (to the sound of Ennio Morricone's "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly"), to their simple yet effective choreography (Johnny and Dee Dee would each take three steps forward at the beginning of the choruses of "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" and "Suzy Is A Headbanger"--a move that in the hands of any other band would illicit snickers), to the appearance of longtime roadie Bubbles dressed as a circus freak and brandishing the infamous "Gabba Gabba Hey" sign at the end of the set closer, "Pinhead."

Something To Believe In
The impact of the Ramones is undeniable--a partial list of artists whose music owes a debt to them reads like a Who's Who of late-20th century popular music: U2, R.E.M., The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Green Day, Metallica, Nirvana, Guns 'N' Roses and, heck, even Bruce Springsteen (The Boss wrote "Hungry Heart" after seeing the Ramones play at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., in '79). But while Bono, Axl and Kurt were selling millions of records and touring the world in luxury, The Ramones were still crammed into a Ford Econoline, playing gigs to a thousand people a night and trying in vain to get their latest song on the radio.

And what about those songs? This is an area that is often overlooked when discussing the importance of this band. The Ramones were able to take the raw power of their heroes--The Stooges and The Who--strip it down to its absolute essence and combine it with the bubblegum hooks they secretly loved (they often cited the Bay City Rollers as an influence), somehow giving birth to a beast that was both raunchy and beautiful. It could certainly be argued that while The Ramones had fathered punk, in actuality they were an incredible pop band, with their finest works--"Rockaway Beach," "Oh Oh I Love Her So," "She's The One," "Howling At The Moon"--deserving of a place alongside the best of Lennon-McCartney and Brian Wilson.

Rock 'n' Roll Radio
Ex-Voidoid-Television-Heartbreaker Richard Hell said it best: "The Ramones wrote smash hit after smash hit, it's just that nobody bought them." You can't help but think that "Rock 'n' Roll High School," "Swallow My Pride" and "I Wanna Be Sedated" are all chartoppers in that perfect alternate reality where justice always prevails and, as Dee Dee once wrote, there is "beer in the soda machine."

  • After the Ramones, rock would never be the same.

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