The Ramones, "Ramones" (All Time Albums)
by Joshua B. Hoe
All Time Albums Series
Ramones - Ramones (1976, Sire)
Happy 40th Birthday Ramones - Ramones!
We can all debate where punk started (Iggy + Stooges in Detroit) and what punk is (DIY Urban Roots Music)….But, for me, the band that really defined punk for me was The Ramones. And one of the albums that has influenced me the most was their first album "Ramones."
Why The All-Time Albums Series
Part of the joy of the discovery of music is that we all come to the music that defines us at different times and through different locations (in physical and emotional geographies).
How we got to the music we connect with can be as interesting as the music and/or the actual ‘facts’ about what really defines that music (the origin stories etc.)
My goal, with this series, is to discuss my personal musical journey. I plan to tell the story of at least 50 albums that matter the most to me.
Tragedy Wears A Black Leather Jacket
I am starting with the Ramones self-titled first album because I honestly miss them and because as much as I love them...It hurts to think about them...I hope by telling the story of my relationship to their music, I can help keep their legacy alive with new folks.
In a strange way, the Ramones will always be defined by tragedy (Johnny’s life was basically fueled by the anger over never really making it in the mainstream). The tragedy on not ‘really’ making it, the tragedy of not ‘really’ getting along, the tragedy of the constant tour etc.
But, what is the hardest to believe that every original member is now dead.
I am pretty sure most real Ramones fans were saddened but not surprised to hear news that Dee Dee died young (2002 Heroin Overdose - after decades of addiction issues)….But, for all of them - every single Ramone - to die relatively young? How does so much cancer visit such a small cadre of people?
It just seemed pointlessly cruel to lose Joey (2001, Lymphoma), Tommy (Bile-Duct Cancer, 2014), and Johnny (Prostate Cancer, 2004) all at relatively young ages. Tommy, Joey, and Johnny, were not exactly party animals (Tommy left the band after the first album - but produced material with the band many years after he split).
I feel sad about this more days than you would imagine. The Ramones meant a lot to me, I hope this will help explain why.
My Travels With Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee
The Ramones, first and foremost, represent home to me.
My particular "home" is a place that never really existed except in my memory and which most certainly does not exist now - 1970’s NYC (I was born in Roosevelt Hospital when NYC was a very different place than it is today in 1967).
When I was a kid, New York was dirty and grimy - dangerous and exciting - alive and foreboding.
My family lived in a Brownstone apartment on the second floor over a Dry Cleaners.
There was a movie theater across the street, and we had a nice window overlooking the street outside our place (so I could safely watch all the happenings and goings-on).
My Dad was an aspiring Jazz drummer and insurance salesman (who also drove a cab and worked as a waiter - hard to make ends meet even in 1970's NYC).
There was always jazz playing at our place (much to my Mom’s chagrin). Sometimes we had to fight bugs and rats. We were not allowed to go in our buildings back yard.
When you left the apartment you were just as likely to hear Puerto Rican music as you were to hear rock and roll.
As you walked around the neighborhood you could see tough guys, bums sleeping on stoops, mixed-race folks, gay couples, or Hasidic Jews, you name it ...Just an amazing diversity of people and of real characters.
Perhaps more important, at this time, NYC was a place where working class people and even poor people could afford to live. Most of the people that I met in the city were certainly not rich.
The Ramones were from this New York - it poured out of them, they looked weird, had accents, and attitudes...They looked like they all might live in the same rat infested apartment together.
In truth, by the time the Raomones first album came out, I was living in Tennessee learning reading, writing, and arithmetic (we moved when I was 9).
Even though I was too young to have heard them or seen them live when I lived in NYC (I moved away when I was like 9) - when I did hear them - they reminded me immediately of ‘home.’ Or, they reminded me of my romantic ideas of my former home.
You got the feeling that if you saw them on the street and tried to talk to them that at least Johnny might punch you in the face for bothering him (if you watch the excellent documentary - end of the century - when the Ramones played London many of the English fans who would later become punk stars were all worried that they would get beaten up by the Ramones).
As odd as it seems, there was something cool about this. Not that the innate capacity for violence is a good thing...Just that you could tell that they had attitudes but attitudes they had earned - not like they were celebrities or putting on airs.
They were real people from a tough neighborhood, people with hard edges and hard experience. They had real rough edges.
I love the Sex Pistols, but the real Johnny Rotten was a well-educated music snob and Sid was a barely functioning drug-addicted street kid (Yes, Dee-Dee was an addict, but a tough, street smart addict with massive hustle).
I just felt there was an authenticity to the Ramones that told a real story of who they were and where they were from while many of the other punk acts seemed (and still seem) more manufactured (The Clash and some others also had this authenticity).
I totally get that part of Malcolm McLaren’s whole point was to expose the music industry and its manufactured personalities and to exploit that same manufacturing process cynically. But, to me, Punk has always been roots music.
Punk is a music that anyone can play. It has a democracy to it.
Punk, to me, is/was a music that is about creation in the margins not really about exploitation. In this sense, Malcolm Mclaren’s vision was an entirely different than most of the bands I associate with punk (Malcolm was probably always really about himself).
He was a great agitator and marketer.
Memories of My NYC
Someone recently asked me why I wear a Ramones T-Shirt virtually every Sunday - I told him that I wear the shirt because it is nostalgia for a band and city that no longer exists. This is not entirely true, but, in a sense, this city in my memory probably never existed.
Sadly, while The Ramones still exist (on vinyl and in our memories) you can no longer see them on their never-ending tour.
NYC still exists in kind of the same way, you can visit for sure, but it has clearly changed drastically.
When I was a kid, there was a unique ethnic restaurant on every block, several family owned bagel places, and the streets were often filthy.
We not only knew the people on our block, we knew the homeless people on our block, they were part of the neighborhood. It seemed like there was a place in NYC for every kind of person - no matter what they looked like, smelled like, or were looking for in life.
It didn’t mean you might not get yelled at, mocked, or even threatened - diversity in New York was hard earned. The Ramones looked like they had paid a price for being themselves.
Honestly, I do not recognize New York anymore when I visit.
Now every block has a Starbucks and a TGIF’s instead of the long-standing family owned bagel joints and restaurants of my youth….
The streets look more like Disneyworld than they do like the NYC of my memory.
It is still huge and imposing, but, now it seems sanitized - like two mayors waved magic wands and made all the character disappear (and the poor people and the interesting people).
I get the feeling that the NYC of today is perfect for the Real Housewives and the Real Estate moguls on Bravo shows - a gigantic playground for the shallow rich. It used to be so much more (maybe it still is, but it feels different to me).
For all I know, old New York City was the same, but that is not the way I experienced it.
So, I visit my memories through the Ramones and Ramones records.
Punk: The Movable Feast
I feel Punk has been transformed in the public consciousness in much the same way as NYC. When I watch television and see some supposed music expert (like Blake Shelton) talk about punk, the music they talk about always seems, a-historic almost unmoored, usually reduced to a fashion statement.
People refer to artists like Avril Lavigne as punk now….Don’t get me wrong, Malcolm McLaren made this sticky territory - if punk was just about being unapologetic about capitalist branding, Avril Lavigne is/was certainly punk (I am not sure anyone has ever been more cynically marketed)….
But, if punk was about a style of music and an ethos of the creation of music then she probably is/was not. But, honestly, anyone who wants to be punk is punk...Excluding her is not the point (it is only to demonstrate genre lines).
I don't hate her hustle.
To me Punk is more about Ian MacKaye and less about exploitation and swindle.
What people forget (or never knew) is that Punk was really born out of two things for the majority of early practitioners:
1) Nostalgia for the rock and roll of the 50’s and
2) The belief that anyone could form a band (DIY).
I realize that Malcolm McClaren was selling a commodified version of punk - or revealing that all music was more commodity than personal - at the moment of it’s birth. But, I know from experience, to us the kids that loved it, it was much more about a democratizing kind of music - a place all freaks could play and where they could play the music that expressed how they felt.
Anyone could hang out in early punk.
What other genre would be a home for insane hard-core DC Rastas, Insane self-mutilating Detroit singers with OCD, Angry London Kids on the Dole, and 4 guys from NYC with bowl cuts and leather jackets.
Punk was also a response to the music culture of 20 minute solos.
Basically, in the 70’s, the business of Rock and Roll had become an exercise in rewarding over-playing and self-indulgence. Bands were engaging in painfully curating 30 minute songs full of never ending solos and embellishments.
Punk was a call to return to stripped down simple chords and songs that could be enjoyed quickly..Punk was a call to roots rock and roll.
You will often hear someone talk about how “Never Mind the Bollocks (Sex Pistols)” sounds like a Rock album.
That is because it is/was a Rock album.
An urban roots rock album.
Punk certainly grew into more than a return to rock (particularly in its California incarnations) but it was heavily influenced by nostalgia for the fun and anarchism of 50’s Rock and Roll.
Beyond all the sound and fury, the Sex Pistols were helmed by a singer who had an encyclopedic understanding of modern music.
Seeing early Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis was an anarchic and shattering event for many people. Many punk artists wanted to return to that feeling (instead of the masturbatory musical self-indulgence of say "Yes").
As much as people like to make cartoons out of punks - make everyone into Sid Vicious - many punks were intellectuals or at least knowledgeable about music (the most literate might have been Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) - it is, for instance, hard to think about the Clash’s lyrics without thinking of class consciousness and political theory.
Johnny, Joey, and Tommy were all very smart (if difficult) people and Dee-Dee was super street smart (kind of the hype man).
The Album "Ramones"
Few bands were as upfront about nostalgia as were the Ramones.
Listening to the album The Ramones is like being in a cartoon from a teens hyper-imagination.
Almost all of the songs may seem intentionally silly and stripped down.
The 50’s influence was obvious and intentional - they almost wrote lyrics in the style teens might chant at an illegal street race.
The band wore leather jackets and jeans (they would have fit right in as members of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in the movie "The Wild Ones").
You can hear obvious and intentional harmonies referring to those of the 50’s girl groups like the Ronette's in Ramones vocals and harmonies (Joey was a huge fan of many of the girl groups - part of the reason he later wanted to work with Phil Spector on the underrated End of the Century Album).
As tough as the Ramones seemed, you often heard these sweet 50’s style harmonies on songs like Judy is a Punk, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, and Let’s Dance.
The album has silly and goofy aspirational songs (Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, I Want To Be Sedated).
It has Songs that capture and communicate their love of comic books and horror movies (Beat on the Brat, I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement).
But the album is also marked by toughness and pain (53d and 3d would be a socially challenging song for anyone to put on an album today - 53d and 3d is about the violent frustrations of a male prostitute trying to turn gay tricks - the rumor has always been that it is about Dee Dee’s experiences on the street).
Despite the incorporation of so many 50’s influences, it still sounds uniquely Ramones and uniquely late 70’s New York.
This album also is the purest example of the Ramones sound - they wrote it before they started to feel the commercial pressure that would infect so much of their later work.
Johnny was kind of the asshole that made the group run - but, he was obsessed with the Ramones as a commercial venture and became more and more bitter as the cultural influence of the Ramones grew while the fame and money never did.
Because of Johnny, for instance, they added new members anytime someone was worn down so that the tour would never end...In hopes that they would finally turn the corner and reach the financial success and true recognition that he desired.
This constant internal pressure is the reason there is a sadness to the later Ramones albums - most featuring the rotating lineups and increasing problems and pressures between Johnny and Joey (Listen to the KKK Took my Baby Away - Joey is singing about Johnny dating - and later marrying - Joey’s ex).
The first album “Ramones” is the one where you can best hear them in their purest form - without seeing them live on stage.
The album still sounds like something unique and different - no other record that I have heard sounds the same.
"Ramones" was not the first ‘punk’ album that I heard - but, it is the album that defines punk for me.
The album makes me nostalgic for New York City, for a particular kind of character in New York City, and for the anarchy and fun of early rock and roll music.
I miss The Ramones, God Bless Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee! Viva Ramones!