The Ramones goes GOLD
photo — Long Island Music Hall of Fame
I remember when I bought this record — it was late 1979, at this cool record shop located in a strip mall. I was driving around with a soon-to-be ex from high school and we just stopped in to browse and when I saw the cover of The Ramones I thought “well this looks interesting.” The soon-to-be ex wasn’t nearly as enthralled, especially once we heard it. Released in 1976, The Ramones’ eponymous debut has been heralded as genre-defining and immeasurably influential and it only took 38 years for it to reach GOLD status. I know my first copy of the disc lasted a little over a year. I took it and a stack of other albums to a party and left them up against the electric heat vent in the room. Needless to say it was unplayable after that. I bought another copy that lasted much longer, but I guess a whole lot of other people didn’t follow my example (of buying it, not leaving it against a heater).
While I was aware that The Ramones never had the numbers to compete with Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks or Michael Jackson, I was actually quite surprised that the record wasn’t already gold. I bought 2, so that means only 499,998 more had to be picked up by people over the years and you would think that for all the people who have raved about and praised the band for their importance, the disc would’ve moved. There was a point in the East Village, NYC (1989-91) when it seemed like every other person was wearing the classic Ramones t-shirt. It was a very trendy fashion identifier for the grunge/punk era in NYC. Kind of like beards are now. I wonder how many Ramones shirts have sold since 1976? Maybe more shirts than records? Perhaps this is a lesson in perceptions or perhaps what the band represented to many people was more important than their actual music. The Ramones were very pragmatic in their approach to getting a band together and this process served as a blueprint for thousands of bands that followed. They also defined (to music writers and fans) the very egalitarian ethos that anybody can do it. Pop and Rock music was ripped out of the country estates, private jets and huge arenas and brought back to the streets. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were guillotined in the press, Led Zeppelin went to see The Dammned in concert and Elvis Presley died because he couldn’t compete with Sid Vicious. The era of rock stars as ROYALTY was over! Hurrah!
It’s interesting that in this interview Johnny talks about how he thinks The Doors were one of the best American bands. Many people who would end up being fans of punk rock and numerous music writers viewed punk as an alternative to anything that smacked of the old guard, but the musicians didn’t necessarily feel that way. Rock writers have always had this love affair with early rock and roll as the almighty pinnacle of rock’s artistic achievements. “The music never had to evolve past Bill Haley and the Comets or Eddie Cochran…that was the real deal maaaan!” Which of course is silly. Very few of these writers would want to be diagnosed with cancer and have the doctor start applying leeches. Not only did music evolve because different people brought different influences and abilities to the table, but technology expanded the scope and scale tremendously. (Watch a Zeppelin video from the 70s and then watch a Beatles video from the first tour only 9 years earlier and consider only the technological differences) Changing social attitudes and the vibrant energy of each new generation continued to up the ante of what was possible — this is what humans do with everything. Why would rock and roll be any different? Here’s an exchange in a Johnny Ramone interview from 2003 that is an amazing bit of synchronicity given the profile I just did of Jimmy Page’s guitar opus Dazed and Confused.
Jones: A lot of punk and speed guitarists owe a lot to you. But, who inspires you?
Ramone: Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.
Jones: Jimmy Page! That’s the last reply I would have expected to hear.
Ramone: He’s truly unique.
Jones: It’s ironic: Almost every blurb I read explaining the appeal of the Ramones chalks it up to you guys reintroducing straight tunes in 4/4 time, two minutes, a return to the kind of stuff the Beach Boys or the girl groups from the early ‘60s recorded. That the Ramones were the antidote to the fifteen minute-long “concept rock” stuff from groups like Led Zeppelin.
Ramone: The Ramones were never anti-Led Zeppelin. Maybe “anti-groups-who-just-aped Led Zeppelin.” Everything in the ‘70s was moving towards all that. FM radio was promoting an album rock format. We wanted to record something kids could dance to. But, Jimmy Page: His playing is truly amazing. I could never play at that level. I don’t try to imitate him, but I listen to him a lot.
The most interesting this about this exchange (I wasn’t surprised that Johnny listens to Jimmy) is this idea of The Ramones as “a return” and “an antidote.” That originated in the music press, because obviously Johnny never thought that way. Maybe The Clash did…LOL. I would be willing to bet that a number of people who parroted this “antidote” meme over the years are those same people who never bought The Ramones album…bastards! Watch the following clip and notice two things: the way Jimmy Page throttles the low E string on the riff (it’s all downstrokes) and at about 3:30 the kids banging their heads. At least 2 full-blown styles of music (punk and metal) originate with this song; from the musician standpoint (Johnny Ramone playing all of his slashing rhythm guitar with downstrokes) and from an audience standpoint (how people react). Johnny, of course, was Page’s complete opposite when it came to guitar technicality. He decided very early on that he had limited abilities, wanted to create music the kids would dance to and had no interest in anything beyond 2-3 minutes of jump-around thud. This is rock guitar playing reduced to it’s most primitive elements: energy, attitude and song-craft. So Zeppelin’s video and Page’s wizardry is important for the influence and as a historical moment, but the credit for following through on his own vision with mega-conviction belongs to Johnny. He could’ve said, “I’ll never be able to play like Page”, sold his guitar and opened a pawn shop or gotten a degree in anthropology. But he didn’t. It takes a pretty big set of balls and a lot of self-discipline to play only what you can, for no longer than you can, and do it with complete and total conviction. (We all know how hard that is don’t we fellow guitarists?) Less is way more, and Johnny became an icon for his ability to do just that. Of course, audiences responded and boatloads of future guitar players would take Johnny’s approach and run with it… just as he had done… just as people always do.
While I have known some Ramones fanatics over the years — they had the shirt AND the records and loved the band immensely — in the late 70s and early 80s most people looked down on punk music and thought it was stupid. But at parties even die-hard haters enjoyed listening to Beat On the Brat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sometimes while jumping around like lunatics. Even if one couldn’t take it seriously as an art form it was great fun when it was time to let loose. In my early days as a guitar player I was a chord strummer and not much else. I kind of sucked. Later, I started hanging out with people who played guitar really well and while their favorite bands were Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC and Rush, they all liked playing the Ramones and other punk rock for the same reason. It was great fun!! (It’s also much harder to pull off a great 20-minute version of Dazed and Confused at that age). One of the first lead guitar lines I ever played was the break in Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. It was in my friend’s basement and there were maybe 10-15 people there drinking beer and it was awesome. I had gotten a Peavey 50 watt amp over the Christmas holidays a few months before and I played Glue and the intro to Whole Lotta Love over and over.
Throughout my life my musical tastes and guitar abilities have been completely intertwined and related. As my abilities grew and my ears expanded I have continually sought out new horizons for both my ears and my hands. I think this is true of many people, musicians, artists, parents…Because of this reason, and as I explained in this post, I was never a total 100% punk rock fanatic. Those people are a special breed and I admire their dedication and commitment. I played in a few punk bands over the years and saw loads of punk shows and had lots of fun, but have always played (and listened to) many other styles of music. Living in the neighborhood that was the birthplace of The Ramones allowed me to see the whole thing from a unique angle and participate in some of the excitement and good times and for that I will always be grateful. It’s a shame that Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee didn’t live to collect their Gold Records. They certainly earned them. They were idols of an era that has passed, but lives on every time a group of youngsters or oldsters count off a fast 1234 and blast headlong with abandon into a 2 minute rock and roll anthem.