They played the same six songs from 1974-1996 on over and over again using approximately four chords for each, and occasionally granted us more than ten lines in a lyric. Their idea of a guitar solo is the same note sixty-four times in a row. And that note is an open string.* Collectively, they have as many addictions and mental illnesses per capita than any cast of Celebrity Rehab. At least we like their leather jackets, and know they can count to four.
They are the Ramones, and especially from an outsider’s perspective, it is admittedly puzzling that so many people like them. I’ve been there– until I really thought about what they were doing, why they were doing it, and where they were coming from, it was hard for me to look past what tended to be rather uninteresting songs and uninspiring musicianship. It’s hard to point to any certain moment I began to understand what in hell they were trying to accomplish, but I came around.
I suppose I must’ve realized that you have to have a lot of guts to onstage and do what the Ramones did– play simple songs. Especially by the late 70s, people had been so conditioned towards complex song form, technical virtuosity, and clean production that in a way, some of them had forgotten about where rock n’ roll started.
Rock n’ roll arguably began with an attempt to create simple music that reached people. It did not turn inward like the blues, but turned powerfully outward. Although the rock of the 1950s seems unbelievably tame compared to what was to come later, it was at the time the absolute most aggressive and most potent music you could find– loud, primeval, and danceable. As the years went on, the criteria for rock n’ roll became vaguer and vaguer, but this crude, simple backbone always remained.
Whether it was a conscious choice or not, the former Jeffry Hyman, Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, and Erdélyi Tomás decided to carry rock n’ roll’s primitive flame. On Doug’s suggestion, they all took the surname Ramon from Paul McCartney’s former alias (and somewhere along the line, added a final e) in a showing of unity. They changed their first names too– to Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy respectively. They wore their jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets onstage, scarcely ever took more than two minutes per song, and developed a reputation for arguing on and off-stage. Their first audience outside of New York City in June, 1976 was to a grand total of around ten people in Youngstown, Ohio.
Let’s examine some of the traits in the paragraph above, one by one.
First, the name change. Ever since the earliest blues days of Black Ace, Pink Anderson, Barbecue Bob, and Leadbelly, the name change has always been important to rock n’ roll. It represents the adoption of a persona, the shedding of a former identity– it allows a personality of the musicians’ choosing. Although the Ramones repeatedly rejected analysis of virtually anything they ever did, the names they chose say a lot. Not only do they dig back into the roots of the music they loved, but there is something in the first names that is classic, defiant, and youthful.
Then, the short songs. Watch this:
Even if you are unfamiliar with the music of the Ramones, you can probably see the sheer power of this extremely basic song– a cover, by the way, of Bobby Freeman from 1958 (although the most famous version of the song is by Cliff Richards)– lies in its pure energy. And pure energy is something that even the staunchest Ramone-opposers must admit that this group had a whole lot of. You can look in depth at what the Ramones were doing musically and write it off for its simplicity, but it is very difficult to write them off in terms of their live performance. The Ramones’ shows were quick and intense. I’ve heard that some of their earlier live sets were seventeen songs and just a little over thirty minutes long. Maybe they weren’t soloing like The Dead, maybe they lacked the performance-art mentality of Pink Floyd or The Who, but the Ramones’ concerts were more relevant to their audience than anything else could be.
It is critical to understand where the Ramones were coming from– dull, middle-class Queens. All of the original members were outcasts as children and as teenagers for one reason or another. For them, as it has for so many, music became an escape. They were playing for people like them, bored kids who wanted something to do, and were fed up with the kind of canned culture they were so often being fed. The Ramones never really claimed to be anything more than they were: a rock band that was depressed by politics and was looking for a way out, looking for a good time, and looking to be loved by the people they were playing to. The Ramones never rejected their roots, from their oft-admitted love of older music to their essentially anti-glam stagewear.
Even the squabbles are typical– rock n’ roll is a very angry genre, and frankly, much of the time, the Ramones were very angry guys. They made a choice not to hide their fights from the fans or the press. Nor did they travel to the other end of the spectrum, as they felt as though bands like the Sex Pistols that were purposefully offensive and radical were phony. While some could say that the Ramones were just as (if not more) inauthentic, it is true that they never denied where they came from.
Lastly, the failed gig in Ohio.
Today, we think of the Ramones as rock stars, but that was not always the case. Especially within the United States, their success was frankly rather limited. In order to survive, the Ramones had to work very, very hard, touring and gigging almost constantly. For years, the group depended on their t-shirt sales for most of their income, as their airplay was relatively limited (especially early on) and their record sales were none too fantastic. The band’s 1979 It’s Alive concert recording got as high on the American charts as the Ramones would ever get– number thirty-eight.
For more than twenty years, the Ramones did what many were afraid to do– write and play music as raw and simple as that which decades earlier had spawned the very beginnings of rock n’ roll. No matter what we think of their music, the Ramones were a band that did their own thing for their own reasons– something we should really admire. Anyone can speculate on the band’s technical capabilities, but the impact they had on the music after them was (and has continued to be) absolutely huge. From Punk, to pop, to alternative rock, you can probably find hundreds of acts that count The Ramones among their influences.
Four borderline delinquents from Queens turned absolute legends– a classic rock n’ roll story.
*That’s in “I Wanna Be Sedated.” I didn’t believe it, so I counted.