(Credit: Sire)

Looking back at The Ramones' pivotal debut album

Ramones is the eponymous debut album by the legendary punk rockers. Although commercially unsuccessful, the 1976 classic proved a turning point in music history and is one of the most influential albums of all time. Simply put, without it, alternative music would not exist. There would be no Nirvana, Metallica, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Green Day or The Clash. These bands are only the tip of the iceberg as well; countless others have cited Ramones as being a major influence on them. 

At face value, the album may be taken as a routine demonstration of short, punchy punk songs; it is so much more than that. The album represented a break away from the bloated, narcissistic and quite frankly ridiculous posture that rock music had assumed at the time. A tale as old as time, the so-called ‘rock gods’ of the era had become overly concerned with self-pleasure and pomposity, and thus they were fat sitting ducks; their crown was there for the taking. A new dawn was rising, characterised by black leather and minimalism, a stark contrast to the endless shimmer of the caped rock that was dominant during the early-mid ’70s.

Before we delve into the sheer importance of the Ramones‘ debut album, it is necessary to note how it got to this point. One ordinarily assumes the decade of the 1970s as being part of the modern era, however, it was markedly different from the one we live in today, coming with its own set of issues. That is not to say the future was without its problems either, but that is beside the point. If the 1960s were ‘swinging’, then the ‘70’s provided somewhat of a contrast to that. 

The decade characterised as being the ‘me’ decade saw society move away from communitarian thought and into the realms of the atomised individual, wherein the traditional, post-war economic consensus of John Maynard Keynes had been replaced by a loose, often contradictory set of ideals under the blanket term, neoliberalism.

Of course, The Cold War was in full swing as well, and ordinary global citizens expected nuclear oblivion at any point. In accordance with the total lack of care, the proponents of this shadow war had for its calamitous effects on the world. The decade resulted in numerous military coups, crises and revolutionary thought and brought society to a juncture.

Numerous scientific and technological advancements also characterised the ‘70s, and together with the socio-political turmoil, the world stagnated as the new world tried to separate from the old.

Furthermore, the bowler-hatted bureaucrat that we associate with the old world, the one the hippie, civil rights and independence movements railed against in the ‘60s, was still firmly in charge. The backwards attitudes, the drab orange, brown and mustard colour schemes topped by the lack of jobs led to the world feeling dormant and ‘sclerotic’, which was mostly felt by the youth. One may be inclined to draw immediate parallels with today, although the obvious differences are clear. We have the internet, 24hr service, and everything people wished for in the ‘70s at our disposal.

Furthermore, the comedown from the ‘60s was hard. The hippie and civil rights dreams had not been realised. This also added frustration to the forward-thinking, iconoclastic minded younger generation. A wide range of opinions attempt to account for where the punk movement began and the hippie movement ended. However, just like life itself, the story is not black and white. There is much overlap, and to punk purist’s disdain, both the hippies and punks were fighting against the same set of systems and values, aware of it or not.

Punk is also a fight against complacency, and complacent was certainly a word to describe the society in 1976. Amongst the fallout from the dark side of the movement rearing its ugly head in the latter stages of the ’60s, transitioning into the ’70s, hippiedom lost its way. However, the slightly younger generation had accepted its anti-authoritarian ethos and were about to finish what it set out to do. One only has to note that Joe Strummer et al. were hippies before turning punk to heed the weight of this. 

Furthermore, the influence of The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol had a massive impact. Their black-clad minimalism — both fashionably and sonically — was a key progenitor to the punk movement. The intellectual discussions of sadomasochism, drugs, and death presented them as proto-punks amongst the flowery feel-good haze of hippiedom. Additionally, Detroit legends Iggy and The Stooges and the MC5 would have a huge impact on punk.

Subsequently, in December 1975, Patti Smith released Horses, a groundbreaking, all-encompassing record that gave a leg up to not only the rest of her New York peers but the global punk movement. Then, five months later, 1976 became a year zero for music, culture and society. If Horses pushed the door ajar, Ramones blew it off its hinges. On 23rd April 1976, the true revolution began, and the new epoch arrived, casting off the shackles, that tyrannical, restrictive device that was so inherent to the old world.

John Holmstrom, one of the founders of the legendary Punk magazine, the print that backed the Ramones from the start, claimed he wanted to “wipe out the hippies and blow up the whole world of rock ‘n’ roll and start again”. Ramones would certainly do that. Ironically though, before blowing up the whole of rock ‘n’ roll in its Palace of Versailles like state, the Ramones ran back in and saved the elements of it that had been popular when they were kids. 

The album is 29 minutes long, and each of its fourteen tracks are a marvellous tour de force of punk rock. What sets the album and the band apart from their peers is the way the record is a victorious display of rock reclaiming its roots. The album’s opener, and lead single, is punk’s de facto anthem ‘Blitzkreig Bop’. It is just over two minutes of searing punk energy and marries the soon-to-be punk staple of the ‘three-chord assault’ with tongue-in-cheek Nazi imagery. In a sense, Ramones takes on lyrically from where The Velvet Underground left off.  

In terms of the album capturing the original essence of rock ‘n’ roll, the influences are heard loud and clear. Link Wray, Elvis, The Monks, Kingsmen and Sonics, to name but a few, compound Ramones sound. The album shows that punk is truly rock ‘n’ roll. It is unhinged, speed fuelled rockabilly that is fast and loose, a stark contrast to the chart-toppers and ‘rock gods’ of the day such as The Osmonds and Yes.

While the moods displayed in the album were often dark, Johnny Ramone maintained that they were not “trying to be offensive” when writing the lyrics. The band were inspired intellectually by life, literature and pop culture and drew from no end of sources to make their songs pop in all the right ways. Again this is reminiscent of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and the MC5 and was a devastating mix with the high tempo punch of the music. 

Track two, ‘Beat on the Brat’  was said by Joey Ramone to relate to the upper class of New York City. However, bassist Dee Dee Ramone explained that the song was about how Joey saw a mother “going after a kid with a bat in his apartment building’s lobby”, classic punk eh? The album’s shortest track, ‘Judy is a Punk’, clocks in at one and a half minutes and is a cacophonous sprint written by Joey about his neighbourhood’s kids drinking on a rooftop. 

The album’s slowest song and second single, ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’, was solely written by Tommy and pays homage to love songs and the pop acts of the ’60s. The track used a 12-string guitar, glockenspiel, and tubular bells in its composition; instruments more fitted to The Beach Boys than Ramones. It presents what was an unexpected, romantic element of the band’s songwriting, one they would build on throughout their career, showing them to be truly reclaiming their roots and not being afraid to show feelings, again setting them apart from what was to follow. 

‘Chain Saw’ opened with the sound of a running circular saw and was influenced by the 1974 horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. At nearly 180 beats per minute, it has the fastest tempo of the album’s songs and presents itself as an early demonstration of how viscerally punk would develop in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It is also the most DIY sounding, indicating the measly seven days and $6,400 they were given to record the album by label Sire.

‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’ contains four lines of minimalist lyrics depicting the youthful boredom of the age and the endemic solvent abuse that came with it. Jokingly, Dee Dee said, “I hope no one thinks we really sniff glue”, before remarking, “I stopped when I was eight”. Showing how the Ramones and the album stood out from the other feeling-shy punks of the time, Dee explained that the song also came from an adolescent trauma. Positively though, the band, whose titles would often start with ‘I Don’t Want to…’, changed it to ‘Now I Want to’. Showing the album’s iconic stature, this song served as the inspiration for one of the first punk fanzines, Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue.

Showing the impact pop culture had on the band and record, ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement’ is also horror movie-inspired, and is the last track on side one. At just over two and a half minutes, it is the longest track on the album, which says something in itself. Contemporary icon Debbie Harry would posit that it was partially about the toilet at the legendary club CBGB, home of New York punk, where the Ramones would play a staggering seventy-six times in 1975: “I think that song from the Ramones is partially about that: ‘I don’t wanna go down to the basement … ‘ As kids, we never wanted to go down to the basement ‘cos it was so dark and scary. And that toilet was certainly very scary.” 

Side two opens with ‘Loudmouth’ then ‘Havana Affair’, straightforward punk tracks. The latter was influenced by Antonio Prohias’ comic strip Spy vs Spy. They proceed at the breakneck pace of 170 bpm, and ‘Havana Affair’ segues into ‘Listen to My Heart’, a song with a sardonic perspective on failing relationships, something that would become a Ramones and punk hallmark.

Invoking the sinister imagery of The Velvet Underground again, the lyrics of ‘53 and 3rd’ concern a male prostitute waiting on the corner of 53rd Street and Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. However, when he secures a customer, he kills them with a razor to ‘prove’ he is straight. Dee Dee would say, “the song speaks for itself”, later saying, “everything I write is autobiographical and written in a very real way, I can’t even write.” Supporting this, guitarist Johnny Ramone insisted the song was about “Dee Dee turning tricks”. The realistic violence of the lyrics would be a key element that areas of the punk movement would develop throughout its existence.

Harking back to their love of pop, ‘Let’s Dance’ is a cover version of Chris Montez’s hit, featuring a large Wurlitzer pipe organ. ‘I Don’t Want to Walk Around with You” is so minimal it consists of two lyrics lines, and again, three chords. The live version of this song, performed at London’s Rainbow Theatre in ’77, perfectly captures the abrasive essence of the band and record. It was also one of the group’s earliest songs, written at the beginning of ’74, and the opener of their first demo. It also segues into the closing track, ‘Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World’.

In what would become indicative of Ramones and punk rock, the track concerns a Hitler Youth member. Label boss Seymour Stein complained about the original lyrics, “I’m a Nazi, baby, I’m a Nazi, yes I am. I’m a Nazi Schatze, y’know I fight for the Fatherland”, insisting the track was too offensive. This is obviously true, but Stein was missing the point. He threatened to remove the track from the album, so the band conjured some alternative lyrics: “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am. I’m a Nazi Schatze, y’know I fight for the Fatherland.” Stein accepted the revision, and it was released, showing the band’s penchant for tongue-in-cheek lyrics that did their job in shocking and offending the older generation.

The album’s artwork also made the album and the band legendary. They initially wanted a cover similar to 1964’s Meet the Beatles!, but the results were “horrible”. They then settled on using an image shot by Punk magazine’s Roberta Bayley; this black and white shot had been used in an earlier issue of the magazine. Along with the music, this photo was to become iconic. It features from left to right: Johnny, Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee Ramone, staring straight into the camera with blank expressions, conveying the jaded feelings inherent to the punk generation. 

The band are wearing their now trademark ripped, faded blue jeans and black leather jackets, upright against the wall of a private community garden in New York. Again, with their backs literally against the wall, it is indicative of that generation’s sentiment. The stance of the band in the photo would also influence their future cover designs. Furthermore, for the first time, the world was subjected to the band’s classic font, now ubiquitous due to fast fashion brands created by the late great Arturo Vega. 

Ramones’ debut album was a galvanising force. Not only did it collect all of the hallmarks of what is now known as punk and bring them all under one banner, but in doing so, it shifted the tectonic plates of music forever. Without Ramones, the long, expansive timeline of rock, music and culture would not be the same. Yes, it showed the band’s pop inclinations, but this indicates their commitment to rock — going back to basics and doing what it was good at.

Undoubtedly, the album is a product of its time, and thanks to it, society moved on. Absurdly, today it may seem closer to pop music than the metallic, guttural genres of punk that exist. However, this does not detract from its standing as the album that blew the bloody doors off. It took off from where others had left and subbed on by Patti Smith’s debut, Ramones, paved the way for the shape of punk to come.

Perfectly capturing the band’s essence and the spirit of the ‘Me’ decade, Joey Ramone said: “To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain; and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am’.”

There’s no better showing of who the Ramones were than on this record.

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