It is easy to take for granted these days but back in the mid-1970s, the Ramones were the first band to create what we know now as ‘punk rock’. At the time, the Ramones didn’t consciously know what they were concocting, they just wanted to play pure rock ‘n’ roll. They only ever needed three-four chords and quirky lyrics with a catchy melody. Guitar player Johnny Ramone said in an interview once that he wanted to create “fun music for kids” and that set the path for their extraordinary journey.
When they were kids, members of the band grew up in poverty, for the most part, some of them were army brats and moved around the country a lot. Eventually, they formed what would become more than just a band, but also a family and a lifestyle.
We associate The Ramones with subversive culture embedded in the deep underground, but, Joey Ramone, for example, didn’t listen to The Velvet Underground or The Stooges – two bands who without a doubt identified with this culture – the charismatically quirky singer of the original punk band liked the mainstream.
According to producer Craig Leon, Joey liked bands like Herman’s Hermits and the Bay City Rollers. The Ramones’ respect for bubblegum pop was best exemplified when The Ramones did an album with the infamous producer known as the mastermind behind the ‘Wall of Sound’ recording technique, Phil Spector. End of the Century, the fifth Ramones album, released in 1980, was the band’s attempt to expand their reach into the bigger mainstream.
“Joey was the real fanatic for pop culture – I mean, he loved anything by Herman’s Hermits!” Leon recalled. “I’m pretty sure that none of the Ramones were fans of the bands that people thought were their influences. They didn’t listen to the Stooges or the Velvets. They thought they were just dour old farts.”
The life of the band is contradictory and somewhat tragic as they only ever achieved top 20 hits with a small handful of songs, but they would still go down in history, ironically so, as one of the most original punk bands of all time.
‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was their debut single in 1976, and despite how iconic that song is, it never became a successful hit in the day. It is this song that is often known as the ultimate Ramones anthem. The song utilises their classic three-chord sequence – I IV V – a very familiar chord progression that satisfies the listener’s innate need for resolution, which is as about mainstream as a song can get. If the song is mainstream in its musical essence, what makes it punk?
It was the sheer ferociousness of their relentless backbeat and heavy guitar distortion that made it pure rock ‘n’ roll. The studio version is quite poppy and has become a well-known song for its simple but catchy chorus. “Hey Ho, Let’s Go,” sings Joey Ramone in the beginning; the song is a chant and written with a call and response for the audience to happily sing along to.
The question remains: where did the Ramones get this idea from? While they pioneered the style of punk and how The Ramones delivered ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ – the basic structure of the song and how Joey Ramone sings it, was inspired by two songs in particular.
“There was a big hit by the Bay City Rollers at the time called Saturday Night, which was a chant-type song,” says ex-drummer Tommy Ramone. “So I thought it would be fun to do for the Ramones too. And somehow I came up with ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go!’ I just liked the term because it made fun of Mick Jagger singing the Stones’ version of Walking The Dog, where he goes ‘High low, tippy toe’. We all used to goof on that and sing ‘hey ho!’ instead,” original drummer, Tommy Ramone said according to Louder Sound.
Tommy Ramone also described what exactly this catchy but slightly cryptic song is about. “It was basically about a few kids going to a concert,” he explains, “Getting away from it all and having a great time. I happened to pick up Joey Ramone’s guitar, a two-string guitar with A and E strings tuned to a fifth. And I started bashing away on it and came up with the chords.”
The Ramones, for all the adulation they receive for being the first punk rockers, loved straight-forward, poppy songwriting, demystifying stereotypes surrounding the old NYC rockers.
Listen to this classic Ramones track, below.