Ramones is one of those epochal albums, an album that is said to have Changed Everything. It’s the original pure punk rock record, the one that crystallized a sound which would soon fuel recordings by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, and a host of others. Broad generalizations about a scene as complex and multifaceted as rock and roll are always bound to fail, but here goes anyway. When Ramones came out in April 1976, rock was doing its damnedest to become legitimate — singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and James Taylor, theatrical spectacles like Kiss and Alice Cooper, high-fashion glam like David Bowie and Roxy Music, classically intricate prog like King Crimson and Yes, and veterans of 1960s bands working harder and harder to prove their continued relevance. Into the midst of all this grown-up strutting, here come The Ramones with an album that is brazenly, unapologetically, and absurdly adolescent.
Or at least, that’s what I hear when I listen to it today. With all the weight of history it’s accumulated, I find it a little challenging to write about Ramones naively, but the truth is although I knew a lot about it, I never really spent much time listening to it. So when Robby assigned it to me and I put it on repeat, what I kept hearing was, basically, a bunch of smart-aleck kids, but kids who have a fierce and precise dedication to the beat, so much so that everything they do is made to serve that beat.
They cranked out one song after another, most of which hew to basically the same formula: brevity, breakneck speed, repetition around a few notes and chords, wilfully dumb lyrics, and above all, a rhythm section that puts a breathtaking rush of energy into every measure. Part of what makes these songs work is the contrast. While the lyrics communicate ennui, or degeneration, or cruelty, or frustrated romance, the music over and over again communicates abandon — joy, recklessness, freedom.
That’s adolescence all over, isn’t it? The songs themselves are like a mental map of a 14-year-old boy in Queens. There’s a fascination with taboo subjects like Nazism (“Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World”), prostitution (“53rd and 3rd”), and horror movies (“Chain Saw”, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement”). You’ve got your kid drugs (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), your kid crime (“Judy Is a Punk”), and your kid violence (“Beat On The Brat”, “Loudmouth”). There’s even a CIA-spy fantasy (“Havana Affair”). When it comes to sex, though, the whole thing is quite innocent. Aside from their musical attack, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Listen To My Heart” could have come from 1962. Heck, “Let’s Dance” did come from 1962, and “Judy Is A Punk”‘s “Second verse, same as the first” is a callback straight to Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.”
Maybe it’s a fascination with the British Invasion that explains The Ramones’ phony British-ish accents? For as much as it often sounds like English singers lose their accents when they sing, The Ramones seem to be trying their hardest to come across as English. Listen to the way they sing words like “verse”, “first”, “brat”, or “girl”. Or for that matter, “Hey! Ho!”, which in their hands somehow becomes “‘Ey! ‘Oh!” My favorite manifestation is in “Havana Affair”, in which “banana” sounds like it came from London, and suddenly “Havana” is pure Noo Yawk. On paper the words rhyme, but in the tune they sound completely different from each other.
If they just had their lyrics, The Ramones would be nowhere. With just the tunes and the way they’re sung, they would have a weird charm. But once you get Dee Dee on bass and Tommy on drums, driving every song like a floored Barracuda, and guitars spitting pure hormonal ecstasy and madness into the increasingly pretentious rock establishment, you get a record that changes history. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!