Album Revisit: “Ramones” at 35

Get your party hats ready, boys and girls! This weekend marks a punk rock birthday of sorts. On April 23, 1976, Sire Records released the Ramones’ self-titled debut album, and almost overnight a movement was born. Years later, during his speech inducting Ramones into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Eddie Vedder referred to the band as “four working-class construction worker delinquents from Forest Hills, Queens, who were armed with two-minute songs that they rattled off like machine-gun fire.” The band’s seminal debut album is widely considered to be the ‘first punk rock album,’ meaning this weekend is punk rock’s 35th birthday! \m/ To mark this special date in history, we here at Dying Scene are revisiting punk rock’s debut album.

The sound and fury of “Ramones” ushered in a new sound and a new era of DIY ethos in music. “Ramones” grew out of a conscious reaction to the music scene of the era. Pop music was dominated at the time by acts like Captain & Tenille (“Love Will Keep Us Together” was #1 on the US charts longer than any other song in 1975), KC & The Sunshine Band and the Bee Gees. Rock radio was ruled by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen and Pink Floyd. Joey Ramone, the band’s front man, one stated that he, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy “decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard…In 1974 everything was tenth-generation Led Zeppelin, tenth-generation Elton John, or overproduced, or just junk. Everything was long jams, long guitar solos….We missed music like it used to be.” For his part, drummer Tommy Ramone has remarked that rock music was dominated by “endless guitar solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.”

Initially misunderstood by the masses, “Ramones” has become one of the most influential albums in the recorded history of American music. Sure there were other bands in the scene at the time: MC5, Television, the New York Dolls were all doing the proto-punk thing well before the Ramones played their first gig. But the Ramones were the first band to put the whole image together with the sound in a way that “the kids” could understand in a broader sense. The Ramones took the standard fare of pop music that they grew up on (obvious Beach Boys and early-Beatles influences abound), ran it through a buzzsaw rock filter, and combined it with a raw visual image. They stripped down music to its core and pulled back the curtain, revealing that you didn’t need to be a guitar virtuoso or dabble in black magic or dress up in goofy costumes in order to make music that mattered: all you needed were a distorted guitar, a machine-gun drummer, a relentless work ethic and a desire to make fun, unpretentious music.

It is sometimes hard to believe that a thirty-five year-old album recorded in a week for an estimated $6400 could have such long-lasting, wide-ranging influence. There is an age-old story that says that as a way to talk some confidence into Paul Simonon of the Clash in that band’s early years, Johnny Ramone remarked: “Wait till you see us—we stink, we’re lousy, we can’t play. Just get out there and do it.” Thousands of kids the world over would almost immediately take that advice. Leaving aside the obvious followers, including bands like Green Day, Screeching Weasel,The Riverdales, The Queers and The Mr. T Experience, or the other less-pop-punkers (including but by no means limited to The Clash, Sex Pistols, Face to Face, NOFX, Social Distortion, Bad Religion, the Descendents, Bad Brains and Circle Jerks) who have repeatedly referenced the band, the influence of “Ramones” can be felt across a wide range of music. Noted music historian Jon Savage has remarked that “Ramones” is “one of the few albums that changed pop forever.” The album, and the band in general, have been cited as instrumental by such varied acts as the aforementioned Vedder, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Yorn, Rob Zombie, Lemmy Kilmister, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, and Dave Grohl.

It has been an interesting study in music history and theory to revisit “Ramones” from a more critical perspective and try to place it in its proper context as the bedrock of the genre that it is: fourteen songs that clock in at just a hair over twenty-nine minutes (incidentally, another quote that I’ve always loved about the length of Ramones songs comes from Johnny, who noted that they “are actually fairly long songs, just played very, very quickly”) that sparked a musical revolution. While not the longest-running (nor, you could argue successfully, the best) lineup in the band’s history, the first Ramones roster of Joey on vocals, Johnny on guitar, Dee Dee on bass and Tommy on drums maintains a special place in annals of history as the godfathers of punk rock; the group that started it all. Without any further ado, let’s take a more formal, track-by-track look at the fourteen songs in all their glory (click on the song title for YouTube links of each song).

1. “Blitzkrieg Bop” – Brilliantly placed at the beginning of the album, “Blitzkrieg Bop’s” anthemic chant of “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” remains a punk rock rallying cry. Even the most casual of music fans is familiar with the song’s chant. Joey at one point referred to it as a call to arms for kids to start their own bands and get out there and make music. Like any great pop-punk song, “Blitzkrieg Bop” revolves around three-chords (A-D-E, if you were interested). Penned by Tommy and Dee Dee, I’ve always thought that the song was written from the perspective of an outsider of the scene; a parent or school official or other authority figure trying to make sense of what exactly these kids were doing in the mosh pit. At a loss for anything that makes sense, they equate it with some sort of Nazi violence.

2. “Beat on the Brat” – From a musical standpoint, I’ve always thought of this song as one of the more underrated tracks on “Ramones.” The loud-quiet-loud pattern Johnny’s palm-muted strumming during the verse before playing louder during the chorus is a formula that is still copied by bands frequently. Seriously, listen to most Foo Fighters songs. It is also a prime example of the Ramones’ lack of musical skill: Tommy’s drumming is inconsistent at best, changing tempo mid-verse from time to time. But that’s what made it punk rock, right?

3. “Judy Is A Punk”- The oddly named “Judy Is A Punk” probably best exemplifies the influence that 50s and 60s pop music had on the band (listen for the Herman’s Hermits shout out). It follows protagonists Jackie (who, we learn, is a punk) and Judy (who is, in fact, a runt) who curiously went to Berlin and joined the Ice Capades or to San Francisco and joined the SLA, depending on the verse. Also influenced by the old children’s story “There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly,” “Judy” wouldn’t sound out of place at a sock hop..

4. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” – The album’s fourth track also serves as the album’s fourth different style direction, this one a pop-punk ballad. The album’s slowest song, it pays respect to 1960s doo-wop ballads, complete with group “oohs” and “aahs” through the chorus. Another example of Tommy’s limits as a drummer, it tends to change in tempo unintentionally from time to time.

5. “Chainsaw” – Straight-forward Joey Ramone penned ode to love songs and horror music (though the song’s introduction actually features a circular saw, not a chain saw), and is the album’s most lyrically involved track. More unintentional tempo changes from Tommy, though for the first time on the album Johnny’s guitar does cut like a buzz saw. More doo-wop style backing vocals. Joey’s pronunciation of “Texas chainsaw massacry” in order to get it to rhyme with “they took my baby away from me” always makes me chuckle.

6. “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” – Pure pop punk at its finest: four lines of lyrics, group sing-a-longs, heavy metal inspired instrumental break about halfway through. A song about being bored and looking for something to do, both recurring themes in punk rock music in the decades to follow.

7. “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement” – Another ode to horror music, this time penned by Dee Dee and Johnny. This is the longest track on the album in spite of having only three real lines of lyrics. In all my years of listening to this song, I have yet to actually hear Joey say “basement.” Instead, he cuts off the last syllable, giving the impression that he would not care to go down to “the base,” which gives the song a weird, anti-military vibe that is purely unintentional (I think).

8. “Loudmouth” – Another short-and-sweet track written by Dee Dee and Johnny, “Loudmouth” also contains only three lines: “You’re a loudmouth, baby / You better shut up / Or I’ll be you up.” The very epitome of early punk rock sentiment.

9. “Havana Affair” – The last of the trio of Dee Dee/Johnny songs that compose the middle of the album, “Havana Affair” differs greatly from the other two, in that it actually tells a story. While the band reports that the song was written as a “fictional, Spy-vs-Spy” type of story, I can’t resist popular sentiment that the song is about CIA-trained operatives in and around the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

10. “Listen To My Heart” – For a straight-forward, two-minute punk rock song, “Listen To My Heart” is a rather introspective turn from the band, as it finds Joey singing that about regret, hurt and disappointment over a broken relationship.

11. “53rd & 3rd – The Dee Dee Ramone penned ode to life as a male prostitute in Manhattan. Reportedly autobiographical, “53rd & 3rd” finds its protagonist eventually killing a John in order to prove that he “ain’t no sissy.” This song is oddly (or perhaps brilliantly) placed between two love songs.

12. “Let’s Dance” – The band’s version of the Chris Montez hit from the early 1960s. The Ramones play this one fairly true to the original beach/surf song with an uptempo, pogo-inspiring beat.

13. “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” – One of the first songs that the band (specifically Dee Dee) wrote, “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” is a simple, two-line/three-chord song about unrequited love. It also serves as, perhaps, the album’s most musically complex song.

14. “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World” – The album’s closer, “Today Your Love” initially got the band in some trouble from their record company (and elsewhere) for its alleged Nazi sympathies. While understandable when read in black and white, this was an obvious overreaction. Much like today, some people have a knack for taking lyrics way too literally.

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