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How Led Zeppelin inspired the Ramones to become punks

Led Zeppelin was undoubtedly one of the most influential band’s of all time. A sum of its four brilliant individual parts, the band wrote a collection of the most iconic music of the 20th century, and for as long as music consumption continues, they will be hailed as making an indelible mark on listeners. Made up of vocalist Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and the late drummer John Bonham, Zeppelin wrote electrifying rock and roll that was steeped in esoteric mysticism. 

A combination of blues, jazz, country and folk influences, Led Zeppelin has one of the most recognisable sounds ever put to wax. The virtuosity of each of its members and their electrifying sound has influenced a wide range of equally iconic artists. Fans of the long-haired British quartet range from Lady Gaga and Madonna to Black Sabbath, Nirvana and Joy Division. 

In fact, if one was to revisit any of the grunge movement’s defining albums, such as Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in 1991 or Pearl Jam’s Ten the same year, Zeppelin’s influence is clear. Their sonic impact is heard mainly in the late Soundgarden frontman, Chris Cornell’s unbelievable vocal range, whose banshee-like voice at many points earned him plaudits as a modern-day Plant. Eddie Vedder, frontman of Pearl Jam, who also has a distinctive, powerful voice, certainly takes a lot of his cues from Plant as well. Furthermore, both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam’s instrumentation is clearly influenced by Zeppelin, featuring visceral guitars and dynamic rhythms. 

Retrospectively, one would wager that Pearl Jam have more in common with classic rock bands such as Zeppelin than the fuzzy, strung out sound of grunge. Musically, there is not that much in common between Pearl Jam and the likes of Alice in Chains or even Nirvana.

However, there is another connection between the likes of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Nirvana that can be traced back to Led Zeppelin. A massive influence on the grunge movement, if not immediately made clear by elements such as the DIY ethos inherent to it, was the original punk movement of the mid-late 1970s. Whilst the initial wave of punk was not the only authority within grunge’s elaborate patchwork of heroes, it certainly played a crucial part in informing details of its instrumentation and overall outlook. 

One of these bands was the Ramones, who, like Zeppelin, are one of the most influential bands of all time. Characterised by their fast “down strokes” on the guitar and short, sweet and melodic tunes, the Ramones inspired generations, one of which became the adherents of the grunge movement, AKA Generation X.

It might surprise you to find out that the Ramones were actually hugely influenced by Led Zeppelin. A shocking revelation when you note that punk was diametrically opposed to classic rock bands such as Zeppelin, who they felt had come to embody all the worst components of music, self-indulgence, excess and misogynistic “cock rock”. Capturing punk’s perspective on classic rock, The Clash’s bassist, Paul Simonon, proclaimed in 1977: “Led Zeppelin? I don’t need to hear the music—all I have to do is look at one of their album covers and I feel like throwing up.” 

Well, it seems their transatlantic contemporaries, the Ramones, didn’t agree. In fact, guitarist Johnny Ramone was hugely inspired by Led Zeppelin’s live 1969 BBC version of their now proto-punk classic ‘Communication Breakdown’, and it was here that he first got his idea for his now-signature down-stroke technique.

Led Zeppelin inspired countless bands. (Credit: ZUMA/Alamy)

Mickey Leigh of The Rattlers, who is frontman Joey Ramone‘s brother, recalls in his book, I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir, the day that Johnny Ramone confessed his love for Zeppelin and the down-stroke. Leigh remembers the specific conversation regarding guitar style:

“One day, I started playing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown,’ and John was really impressed. ‘Wow, you know about downstrokes, huh?’ John said. ‘Whaddaya mean, downstrokes?’ I answered. ‘Ya known, how you’re picking everything downward’ John said, motioning. ‘I’m just trying to play how it sounds.’ I explained. ‘Yeah, well that’s really important,’ John told me. ‘Most people don’t realise that. That’s how rock and roll should be played. All of it! Everything should be a downstroke.'”

Leigh finishes by stating: “In retrospect, I believe Johnny had begun formulating the concept for the Ramones sound even back then.” Leigh’s opinion is hard to disagree with. The speed-laden main riff of ‘Communication Breakdown’ can now only really be regarded as proto-punk. Guitarist Jimmy Page even claimed: “We knew what we were doing: treading down paths that had not been trodden before.”

After ‘Communication Breakdown’ was released – and that fateful 1969 BBC session – the path of the quick, down-stroked power chord would become more than well-trodden. It is now a hallmark of punk – owing largely to the unmistakable sound of the Ramones. It would also go on to feature in genres such as grunge.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Ramones and The Clash came into each other at an iconic Ramones show at London’s Dingwall’s in 1976. Allegedly, Paul Simonon told the bowl-cutted guitarist: “We just rehearse. We call ourselves The Clash but we’re not good enough.” According to Ramones manager Danny Fields, Johnny Ramone responded: “Wait till you see us—we stink, we’re lousy, we can’t play. Just get out there and do it.”

So there it is. With ‘Communication Breakdown’, Led Zeppelin established a groundbreaking punk lineage that has continued to flourish in its many formats to this day. They had a defining influence on the Ramones’ signature sound, and therefore, by proxy, when we note Ramone and Simonon’s conversation, they even had a minor influence on The Clash.

Listen to Led Zeppelin’s spiky BBC version of ‘Communication Breakdown’, below.

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