Released in 1976, The Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ is one of the defining songs of the punk era, exploding onto the scene in a way that completely refreshed America’s attitude to guitar music. The track, which comes from the band’s self-titled debut album, proved that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to be a pioneer. Rather, The Ramones adopted a musical philosophy advocated by the likes of Woody Guthrie. It said that all you needed to write a great song was “three chords and the truth.” With ‘Blitzkreig Bop,’ The Ramones pushed that notion to its logical extreme.
It is the violence contained within ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ that has made it so appealing to angsty teenagers for such a long time. The name itself is taken from a form of warfare adopted by the German military in the second world war, although it was originally called ‘Animal Bop’. Dee Dee Ramone, however, felt that the alternative title better captured the visceral energy the group were going for. It was also Dee Dee who changed the line “shouting in the back now”, to “shoot ’em in the back now.”
As is the case with so many of The Ramones’ songs, the meaning of the lyrics is obscure at best. But, then again, meaning isn’t what Ramones songs are about. With tracks like ‘Blitzkreig Bop,’ The Ramones stripped away anything extraneous and Apollonian, leaving only the bare essentials: rhythm, texture and melody.
This was Johnny Ramone’s genius and, in this isolated recording of his guitar part for ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, that genius is abundantly clear. The song is about as simple and elemental as they come. It is written in 4/4 and in the key of A. Johnny relies on a very simple chord progression, which is played using only downstrokes. The resulting sound, as you can hear in this clip, is primordial and motoric in quality.
Johnny’s style was characteristic of the DIY punk aesthetic and went on to inspire countless young guitarists. One such guitarist was Kevin Shields who, on listening to The Ramones became fixated with the idea of “doing one thing really well,” a fixation which he would finally achieve with his pioneering shoegaze album Loveless.
None of this is to say that Johnny Ramone’s guitar playing is somehow less valuable than that of more virtuosic players, quite the opposite in fact. Whilst many assume that Johnny Ramone is using power chords in this track, he is in fact using full barre chords. Whereas a power chord is formed of just two notes, (the root and the fifth) barre chords utilise all six strings and have far more depth and colour as a result.
That’s part of what makes ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ so special. Because, whilst Johnny Ramone’s heavy use of distortion does create that wall of sound effect so essential to punk music, the depth of his chords also creates an uncharacteristic degree of harmonic complexity. In this way, Johnny Ramone took rock n’ roll back to its roots, to a time before spandex and elaborate guitar solos. With The Ramones, he demonstrated that the best music is that which belongs to the people.