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Music

How a controversial cult film inspired the Ramones

@SamWKemp

In 1976, The Ramones found themselves trundling through the endless expanse of Ohio. The rain had been falling for days, following them as they burnt a trail through the Carnation state: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron. Beyond the window of their tour bus, they could see the fields turning into quagmires; the crops bowing under the weight of so much rain. The ongoing storm had wreaked so much havoc, in fact, that when the Ramones pitched up at a small town where they’d been invited to perform at an outdoor event, they found the organisers hastily dismantling the stage. With their upcoming gig cancelled, the Ramones had no other option but to take the day off. It could have been worse, I suppose.

Of course, they had no intention of spending the day out in the rain, so the band went about finding somewhere they’d be able to wile away the hours. They settled on a small art-house cinema, which, on that particular night, was showing a controversial 1932 horror film called Freaks. With the rain still lashing down outside, they made their way into the cinema. It smelt of boot mud and mouldy upholstery and clearly didn’t see all that many customers. Still, it was better than getting soaked in a deluge.

Set amongst the backdrop of a travelling French circus, Freaks tells the story of a trapeze artist who joins a collective of carnival performers with a plan to kill a wealthy dwarf and steal his inheritance. However, Freaks is far more than a tale of deception, it is also a tale of love and acceptance. Indeed, the scene in which the troupe – gathered around a table – sing: “Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us,” inspired the Ramones’ famous punk catchphrase “Gabba Gabba Hey,” which first appeared in their 1977 track ‘Pinhead’.

Featuring a cast of disabled performers, Freaks was banned by the BBFC on the basis that it “exploited for commercial reasons the deformed people that it claimed to dignify”. However, these days, it would appear that the “freaks” to which the title of this pre-code film seems to refer, are not the performers themselves. That’s not to say that the film isn’t shocking – it absolutely is. But time has revealed that the director, Tod Browning, had no intention of simply exploiting the disabled performers he was working with.

Rather, Browning wanted his audience to look into the hearts and minds of the maimed and deformed, revealing them to be more dignified and virtuous than the beautiful but morally bankrupt trapeze artist Cleopatra. For the Ramones, whose frontman, Joey, had been born with a parasitic wing, and who had always felt like outsiders, Freaks had an immense resonance. They too had long been viewed as a troupe of carnival performers, shunned by the music industry and loathed by the rock establishment. But with the phrase “Gabba Gabba Hey!” they crafted a modern musical Ichthys, a phrase that allowed fellow musical outsiders to bond, comfortable in the knowledge that their respective tastes were rooted in the Ramones’ punk sound.

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