Eddie Cochran

The Ramones goes GOLD

photo — Long Island Music Hall of Fame

I remember when I bought this record, in 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.

I wasn’t surprised that Johnny listens to Led Zeppelin, but what is interesting in this exchange 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! Here is Jimmy Page and Led Zep playing punk rock in 1970:

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.

Brian Setzer

The wild and crazy Rockabilly cat has always been one of my favorite guitar players ever since he blasted onto the scene 30 years ago. Can you believe that? 30 rockin’, boppin’ years already? During that time I’ve owned almost all of the Stray Cats material save for the Greatest Hits stuff. I had the first import album and a couple of other releases that were hard to get in the USA at the time. The Stray Cats had a great sound, a great look and could really turn out pro performances, especially in the early days. I was introduced to the band when I caught their first performance on the old television show Fridays. Anybody remember that? I think that a whole lot of people saw that show and this performance as well as some of the other guests who were on. The show only ran for two seasons but featured a ton of great music and was the first appearance of Michael Richards (of Seinfeld fame) on television (I think). This was a really interesting time for music because the effects of the punk rock BANG! from a few years before had splintered into many different directions and were going mainstream in a big way. The Stray Cats hadn’t even had a record released in the USA at the time of this performance but by Xmas of that year I was able to find the imported first release that was recorded in England and produced by Dave Edmunds. Great record, probably there tightest ever and of course Edmunds was an idea producer for the band given his love for the Rockabilly style they were playing. While in England they were seen by many other big British superstars like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin because all of these guys had come of age when the original Rockabilly stars were releasing their records.  Here is the whole Fridays performance from 1981.

What was cool about The Cats was that they were able to blend the punk and new wave styles that were dominating then with a retro sound and look. It was really hard to tell where one left off and the other began because they were able to integrate the two seamlessly. While many people credit guys like Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and Henry Rollins for the proliferation of skin art (tattoos) in rock and roll, Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom deserve a lot of credit too because they were rocking the tattoos and were on national TV and MTV for at least a couple of years in the early 80s. While The Stray Cats weren’t as punk rock and hard-edged as some other bands of the time, they had a sound and a musical approach that appealed to many punk and alt-rockers, especially in England and Europe, where the sound of the 1950s never goes out of style.

Even at the young age of 22-23 when the Stray Cats came on the scene, Brian had obviously digested a lot of the finer points of playing rockabilly and swing guitar and was able to get a really GREAT sound with a pretty simple set-up: his trusty Gretsch, a Roland Space/Chorus echo and Fender Bassman amp. Whether it was on the records or in performance he was able to blow off a lot of really dazzling and fiery licks with a clean sound and that epochal slap-back echo. This combination resulted in a Great Big Presence and Awesome Tone and it worked so well with Slim Jim’s simple drum set-up and the slappin’ bass provided by Lee Rocker. Most of what Brian was doing and still does comes from his hands. He is able to alternate between picking and finger-picking at the drop of a hat just as he is able to alternate between playing standard rockabilly riffs, Jazz/Swing melodies, blues patterns and country styles. Mixing all of these different approaches gives him a very WIDE sound and is great for the tension that is always necessary in music. You just never know what he is going to do next. Here is an excerpt from his Hot Licks video. I have the whole thing and think it’s pretty boss. If you can get some of this stuff happening in your playing you will definitely expand what you’re capable of doing.

While I’ve always dug Brian’s playing I found a new appreciation for it when I started playing Gypsy Jazz and Swing music, because the Jazz, Bop and Swing lines one finds in Rockabilly come from those great players of the 30s, 40s and early 50s. In THIS post I traced an old song from Django Reinhardt to Les Paul to Carl Perkins and George Harrison. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker were two other cats who had a huge influence on what 1950s Rockabilly and Rock and Roll cats like Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran would mix into their playing. I recently listened to a couple of Charlie Christian CDs and it’s really astonishing how not only his electric playing revolutionized the sound and presence of the guitar, but also how his lines show up EVERYWHERE. While Django had an almost 30-year recording and performing career, Charlie Christian was only on the scene for a couple of years before he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1942. His recorded material is pretty scarce and I haven’t been able to find any film clips of him. He attained legendary status within the jazz community while jamming at Minton’s, the Harlem club that attracted all of the best players of the day, including people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who would go on to completely turn music on it’s head later in the 1940s. Charlie’s lines anticipated be-bop and almost all of the popular music styles we know today. They have filtered through other people over the years but so much guitar as we know it started with Charlie and Django it’s amazing. I remember reading an interview from Guitar Player with Brian and he related that he learned to play from “guys on Long Island who knew how to play that old swing jazz in Eb and F”. The old-time jazz lines and CHORDS! really take an ordinary three-chord song and make it something special and because of this early training and his love for this sound, Brian has always sounded completely different from most of his contemporaries, although he does have a lot in common with someone else I’ve written about…Chris Spedding. Personally I’ve always had a complete and total love for the way jazz chords sound against a heavy beat and how they can be used to motor through the song. Once a player is adept enough to know how to cycle through changes and mix in single string lines, string bending, vibrato and double-stops there is really no limit to where a song can be taken save for the player’s imagination. Brian demonstrates this in the Route 66 video at the bottom. It’s all about how much you can HEAR and then execute. It has always thrilled me to be able to watch or listen to someone like Brian or Chris Spedding tear up a song in this way. Notice that in the following Brian Setzer Orchestra clip Brian is still using the set-up that has been his mainstay for almost 3 decades. Don’t change what works!

The Stray Cats broke up in 1984 but have reunited numerous times to record new records and tour. Some of the stuff on those releases was really good, some not, and perhaps Brian always felt a bit limited by the restrictions of a three-piece band. He tried branching out in the late-80s with solo efforts like The Knife Feels Like Justice and Live Nude Guitars, which were more mainstream, roots-rock offerings, but neither release did very well. He has played as a guest with a superstars like Robert Plant, Dan Hicks, Paul Rogers, Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks and has always gotten big ups for his ability to bring the swing to the song. But it was with the formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1990 where he finally found his niche and was able to build on his earlier successes. BSO broke out at the height of the early 90s swing revival and have been able to keep that popularity alive through this past decade. Not only is Brian a great player, but he is also a very keen arranger, which is probably why he’s won Grammys for instrumental performances of Sleepwalk, Caravan and My Favorite Things. The fact that he has great players working with him helps out a whole bunch too. Usually the toughest adjustment for any young guitar slinger is how to mature, stay fresh and keep an audience while adding new fans as the years go by. Forming the BSO has made this possible for Brian and it’s a brand of entertainment that is part Rockabilly, part Vegas, part old-time supper club, which suits him perfectly.

When the Stray Cats reformed in 2004 they did a tour of Europe that was captured on film and became the Rumble in Brixton DVD release. I have this and think it’s Really Cool Daddyo because it shows they are still capable of rocking the house just like the old days. All of the good stuff is here including some of my personal faves: Double Talking Baby, Fishnet Stockings, Ubangi Stomp, Blast Off, That’s Alright Mama, and Please Don’t Touch. All of the hits are on here too and the only downer is I Won’t Stand in Your Way, which is very rushed for some reason. Shame, because it was such a well-written ballad on the Built for Speed record back in the day. The Stray Cats really bring the swing and boogie and on several songs Brian stretches out and plays some magnificent stuff — Sleepwalk is a bona-fide guitar hero performance. The DVD comes with a bunch of extras and a new song and is a great testament to a trio of guys who have a lot of love for a great style of music and have kept at it for over a quarter century. It’s really cool that Brian continues to thrive and expand what he began back in the 1970s and that shows not only his talent, but the power and appeal of this very American style of music, which continues to move people all over the world.