The Stooges, the MC5, The Dolls were all dead and buried by 1976. Very few had been interested in them at the time, the Stooges and the MC5 had played their last gigs to hostile or disinterested audiences, the Dolls has simply petered out; and no one seemed to have cared that much.
1976 however saw the release of the debut album by a band who were going to be a huge influence in their own lifetime. The Ramones (album and band) had it all, a distinctive sound and style that was to point the way forward. Pre Ramones there was still the stale smell of rock in the air, any new band was likely to be influenced by Zeppelin or Free or at least the Faces or Stones but the Ramones appeared to have discovered a form of music that was quite heavy and exciting and didn’t rely on riffs (the staple currency of early 70’s rock) at all.
When I first heard the band (on the John Peel Show of course) I just couldn’t get to grips with the sound Johnny Ramone produced from his instrument, it sort of sounded like a guitar and sort of sounded like a household appliance or a piece of industrial machinery. I don’t know why I was so confused, everyone from Slade to Zeppelin, from the Sweet to Hawkwind were into distortion but Johnny’s just sounded different. On top of that noise Joey’s singing was, well, different and the drums plodded away sounding as if they were recorded in a different room.
Despite the aggressive sounds from the guitars the songs themselves seemed rooted in the 50’s especially in relation to the ‘girl groups’ of that time. When they covered ‘Baby I Love you’ a couple of years later it made perfect sense, that was their sound. Also the musicians were not as new as they first seemed, Johhny and Tommy had played together in the late 60’s in a band called, of all things, The Tangerine Puppets. The band members were now in their late 20’s, closer in age to the Stones than The Hot Rods, but pre Twitter and Facebook no one in Britain was going to know about any previous lives, as far as we were concerned they had just appeared out of the ether.
It was all planned, the Ramones were not the archetypical mates muddling through and bashing away until they found their sound. Tommy was actually a sound engineer who apparently rehearsed the band within an inch of their lives to get the ‘Ramones sound’.
You could take a Ramones song and play it on an acoustic guitar and it could transfer beautifully, by their second album they had incorporated minor chords but you still wouldn’t need a huge repertoire. The actual aural experience owed as much to Phil Spector’s wall of sound as any garage band. A great big noisy thing for Joey to sing over. It was more the speed that was impressive in 1976, a song might not break the two minute barrier, there would be no padding with solos or ‘quiet bits’ even a middle eight could seem superfluous. The speed limit that previously I had awarded to Dr Feelgood had been broken, playing had now started to become an endurance test.
And finally there were the lyrics, largely written by dysfunctional bassist Dee Dee about freaks and mental illness and glue sniffing and a little bit about Nazis. You could sing along, it was fun.
Here they are in 1977 at their peak
In many respects The Ramones were an incredibly brave band, there had been little to suggest in 1974 that this was the way that music should go, here was probably the only New York band that appeared to have no regard for the Velvet Underground at all. The Ramones could have been a short lived joke but they weren’t because they conducted their brave experiment at just the right time so instead of being a novelty band they changed music forever.
Like the Dolls and the Stooges and the MC5 the band visited Britain but instead of trying to fit in to a post glam wilderness the band had fans actually waiting for them. Their visit coincided with the formation and early gigs of the likes of the Clash and The Dammed (the Pistols had six months on the other bands). These bands who had been trying to ape the MC5 or The Stooges or The Stones or Mott The Hoople suddenly had a new blueprint, one that would separate them from the past and align them with the present. Within a few months the press would be talking about the ‘ramalamadolequeue’ sound that formed the basis of so many punk bands but which was first heard in the guitar of Johnny Ramone.
The Ramones themselves were a great example of blue collar work ethic, they played and played and played music that didn’t really change much all and they played it all over the world. Being a Ramone seemed like being in some manual profession that worked away from home all the time, the band would climb into their transport, travel, put on their Ramone’s clothing, play their set and go and do the same thing over and over again. Despite wearing the same uniform they hadn’t much in common as a band. Johnny and Joey in particular were polar opposites Johnny being a hardass veteran of military school who ran the band like a military operation. Joey on the other hand was a frail character who suffered Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Just to add to the friction Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend which one might imagine added a certain tension to the tour bus. Unsurprisingly Joey and first replacement drummer Marky developed drink problems which Dee Dee continued to use heroin much to Johnny’s disgust.
And so the band continued for almost another 20 years, they were tough guys, I’d have cracked after 24 hours in the tour bus with Johnny and Joey, and Johnny’s anger.
And it took a toll, all the original members are now dead, all apart from Tommy (who got out early) they died in their 50’s.
And so a bunch of dysfunctional misfits with a whole range of physical and mental health problems managed to change the course of popular music. Despite this The Ramones tend to be a band that although people claim to love them this was never reflected in sales. I myself owned on vinyl ‘The Ramones Leave Home’ their second album and the one in my opinion where they had the best songs. I could be tempted to buy the first album just because of the great cover, I might also be tempted by ‘Road to Ruin’ or ‘Rocket to Russia’ because by their third and fourth records they had hit their stride. But I wouldn’t want all four and certainly wouldn’t want any of the subsequent records like ‘Animal Boy’ or ‘Brain Drain’.
Twenty years on and pretty much the same act, strangely enough the same hair too!
To this day most people like the idea of The Ramones and the visuals of The Ramones rather than the actual music. That’s not a negative criticism it’s more than most bands achieve and that’s why Johnny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee are icons.