This year the Ramones very first album turns 40 years old and it still has an effect on the rock music we listen to today. Like Nirvana in the 90s, they both drastically changed rock music for generations to come and, while like Nirvana, it’s a mistake to believe they came completely out of the blue (Nirvana coming up in the 1980s alternative rock scene, Ramones coming out of the CBGB club scene) they both are owed their place in rock history. In a sense, the Ramones were misfits even among the misfits at the CBGB club (a NYC club that is, according to Billboard magazine, the “undisputed birthplace of punk”).
While bands like Suicide, Talking Heads, Television, and Patti Smith were staffed by college graduates, artists, and intellectuals, the Ramones were middle class kids from Queens working blue collar jobs who enjoyed trashy pop culture, bubblegum pop, and bands like the MC5 and the Stooges (bands who would later be labeled Proto-Punk). Their music was aggressively simple, aggressively melodic, and aggressively stupid (in a good way).
For a music fan in the mid-70s as rock reached its most indulgent, offering vast boring stretches of prog music about fanciful topics, the Ramones first album must have been manna from heaven. Here was an album under 30 minutes, with no song clocking in over 2:40, full of simple riffs played loudly and aggressively, with song topics not about mythology or massive concepts but about being bored, horror movies, sniffing glue, and teenage romance. Topics that actually would mean something to the teenage rock fan matched with music the teenage rock fan could actually play. It would take me a month to learn to play “Roundabout” by Yes while it could take me a day to play “Let’s Dance” by the Ramones.
And while some people might think that the simplicity of it is bad on the contrary, it’s what makes it amazing. Every song’s riff is no more than three chords and while that may seem limiting, it keeps every riff memorable and infectious drilling into the listener’s head rather than plodding off into nothingness, with Johnny Ramone’s high gain guitar cutting through the record. Dee Dee Ramone’s bass chugs away in the left channel with simple grooves that work well with the quick pace of Tommy Ramone’s drumming. All of this is topped off with Joey Ramone’s singing, his untrained voice delivering raw, simple, and catchy melodies.
Take a song like “Chain Saw,” with its three chord riff and bassline, simple 1-2-1-2 snare bass beat and lyrics extolling indifference at a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” taking the narrator’s “baby away from me.” It’s gritty and dark but in a schlocky and enjoyable way reflecting the trashy nature of horror movies that inspired it with its music reflecting that trashy nature. But for every song that reflects the morbid humor of the Ramones, there’s a song that reflects the more romantic side of them like “Wanna be Your Boyfriend” or “Let’s Dance.” These songs despite being about love aren’t grand declarations of love or undying loyalty but deal with the realistic feelings of teenage romance. Both the obsession with shocking and taboo subjects and with innocent romance are things that many teenagers feel to this day.
The appeal of the Ramones for many people was their honesty and openness about such subjects. That honesty matched with the musical simplicity caught on like wildfire. All across America and especially Britain, the concept of simple music matched with honest lyrics caught on with hundreds of bands forming. Soon all these bands would be labeled “Punk Rock,” a term originally coined by the fellow CGBG band Suicide in 1972. Suddenly every person who had a passion for music and wanted something to say could go out and do it. From this miasma came so many classic bands that it would be impossible to just even list my favorites.
Sadly, the Ramones never truly saw the success that their influence seemed to say they deserved. After three strong albums of punk, they turned to a more commercial sound, even recording an album with famed producer Phil Spector fraught with disaster (Spector reportedly threatened the Ramones with a gun, and he later would go to jail for murdering his girlfriend). The band would eventually sputter out, and by 2016, all the Ramones have sadly passed away. But the impact they left on rock music lives on and they will be remembered for that. Their first album has stood the test of time as an all-time classic and needs to be heard by anyone interested in the history of rock music.