This article was first published on CLUAS in May 2003
A retrospective of the Ramones' career
Hey-ho. Mark looks back on the influence of de brudders Ramone...
The Ramones rank as one of the greatest prototypes in rock. Currently enjoying a revival of interest which (or because) half the band is unfortunately no longer around to enjoy, the New York CBGB graduates were the spark that ignited punk in the UK in the 1970s. Most music bibles credit the group with begin the first punk band, the band which paved the way for the more loud-mouthed and commanding Sex Pistols and more politically charged The Clash.
But then there's a thousand references to the Ramones in any serious rock index. Because this band inspired almost all of the defining movements in rock's modern history. The Ramones sound can be heard clearly in US hardcore through the 80s and 90s while the band's 1-2-3-4 attack style has resurfaced in international garage rock revivalism. From a sideways glance the group looked criminally goofy, all spindly legged spider rockers. The genius of the four leather jacketed "brudders" from Queens lay however in their very ability to subvert the prevailing Rocky-style all-American machismo with an irresistible cartoon geekishness. Add to that their whacked-out fusion of 60s girl group-style tunes with punk and you've got something of a goofy Alice Cooper tribute outfit.
But yet the component parts meshed wonderfully into something taken utterly seriously by Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and a young Dublin group called U2 seeking for something new and hard-edged amid the glam, Wham! and big hair of late 70s/early eighties. Founded in New York in 1974 and disbanded in 1996, the Ramones, said band-leader Joey "...wanted to kind of save rock n' roll, keep it exciting and fun and the whole bit." Four misfits from Queens, NY stole a Paul McCartney pseudonym as their common surname and declared a revolution. They vowed to kill the deadweight, cut the crap and bring back the primal energy of rock n roll. Rock should be fun they preached. And sure enough, with their rallying cry of "hey ho let's go" the Ramones got their revolution and changed the history of rock.
Their album 'End of the Century' (1980) re-released in a new expanded edition that features the original twelve songs produced by legendary (and recent murder suspect) studio man Phil Spector (along with six bonus tracks, five of them new to the music shelves and the sixth a Joey Ramone radio spot). This album was recorded at a period when the new wave style of the eighties was chasing punk out of town. This, combined with Spector's unpredictability and stubborness created an album not so identifiably Ramones and impossibly out of context in the group's recording career. That doesn't mean it's not the probably the best thing they ever did: it probably is. An offering that never features high on fans' favourites lists, time has been very much kinder to this record than the critics were twenty three years ago. 'End of the Century' sees the band on a colossal sound - trademark Spector - but, uniquely, without Johnny's customary buzzsaw guitar sound leading the mix. A band that could always sound impossibly chunky, the Ramones benefit best from Spector's presence in the sense that he drew out hidden subtleties and potential in their traditional sound: thus Johnny's Mosrite guitar blazes rather than chugs, while Joey shows off his pop sensibilities in some evocative and emotional singing amid the very un-Ramones strings - surely a contentious choice by Spector among his punk-rock charges. Two tacks make 'End of the Century' a real contender: 'Rock & Roll High School' and 'Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio?', two wonderful shots at a big pay day. Sadly the record remained only moderately successful, though a listen to 'Rock & Roll High School' will loosen the tear wells in any old rocker's eyes. This writer was quite privileged to catch Ramones contemporary Simon Carmody crack it open and move the house at an Olympia charity gig in Dublin last Christmas.
'Pleasant Dreams' (1981) carries the 12 songs on the original release as well as seven previously unreleased tracks. The wonderfully titled 'The KKK Took My Baby Away' makes one wish the Ramones' had ventured into sociological commentary a little more often. Their sixth studio album, 'Pleasant Dreams' unfortunately suffers by comparison and surely marks the beginning of the end of quality days for the Ramones.
The Ramones were nothing if not prolific. From 1983, 'Subterranean Jungle' features the regulatory dozen tracks but in its reissued format it carries seven unreleased songs. The effect is to overload even a dedicated fan: this was never one of the band's better albums and is only notable in the Ramone canon because it sees the group for the first time clocking four minutes on a song. Despite sporting the coolest sleeve photo in the band's discography, there's a throwaway, taking-the-mickey feel to the whole project. The 12th track for example - 'Everytime I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You' - would work if it was humorous and not a rotten tomato.
'Too Tough to Die' (1984) however did show the band at their hard-hitting best. With original drummer Tommy Erdelyi producing, the band here goes back to its punk roots. The original 13 songs are included but on this outing of the album UK single 'Street Fighting', 'Smash You' and a whopping nine more previously unreleased bonus tracks are added on. It's strange to find a main-line record company so generous with the out-takes and extra tracks. Is it an effort to add value to the relatively stodgy units in The Ramones back catalogue? A clearing out of the archives? One suspects the former but such a weight of tracks makes for an outright overdose for the curious newcomers who may be buying the albums on the back of the press surrounding Joey and Dee Dee's passing.
Devastating and crafty when they tried, the Ramones were never technical geniuses and their flaws were all too obvious as the younger generation of New Wave acts they spawned began to shade the Ramones out. Perhaps a longer association with Phil Spector may have freshened the band, but the band's one-album collaboration with the producing genius was too painful to allow that. Out of time, out of place, and still incapable of playing a fourth chord, the Ramones were lizards left to die on the highway as younger, sharper machines roared by. Capable of bludgeoning, uncompromising music that often bested the ravaging power of The Stooges and the percussive assault of contemporary garage bands, the Ramones unfortunately left it too late to quit. Their amazingly long haul was too long and the last 16 years of the band's career produced much more in the line of quantity than quality.
The goofy image worked right to the end though. The group was fortuitous in having as their image maker New York photographer Chip Dayton, who shot the band from their early live shows at the CBGB onwards. His black and whites from the Ramones buzz-saw style gigs defined the band's live appeal. The ragged leather-jacket-white-t-shirt-and-jeans uniform of the band was exploited wonderfully by Dayton to create a million copy-cats and the images that sell so well on the band's new generation of fans.
Key figures of rock music's family tree, the Ramones' 1976 first show in London provided The Clash, Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols with the courage and inspiration to go forth and conquer. The British scene eventually eclipsed the New York punk revolution but the Ramones have always been credited as the standard bearers.
More recently, hardcore artists like Green Day and Offspring have flaunted their Ramones influences. Johnny Ramone guested at a Pearl Jam show, Pearl Jam paid tribute to Joey and Dee Dee on their latest album. Joey also offered regular counsel to long time fans U2, a group who played a Ramones song at their first TV audition. The Strokes are fans, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have saluted the Brudders...
So the Ramones place is certifiably sure in rock's annals: just
listen for them in every other contemporary rock album you buy.
Are the Ramones all about the t-shirts? Read the blog entry.