How long does a band require in order to change the world? How fast can they affect that change? The Stooges managed to change a lot (in the styles which were called the norm in rock) in their time together; in their first seven-year run, they laid out the groundwork that much of both punk and rock continue to operate upon to this day. Their influence is omnipresent, in many regards; in punk and rock and metal, hard rock, hardcore and pop, it’s possible to find musicians who will cite The Stooges as one of their first influences. In that same way, Jane’s Addiction had a great first run from 1985 to 1991 too; they were responsible for getting the spotlight cast on alt-rock and on bands including Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers and many more and got them all far better exposed than they had been previously. Again, in much the same manner, The Offspring (along with Green Day and NOFX) smashed the world over the head (pun intended) so hard in the Nineties that they not only made Epitaph Records a household name, they helped punk to both infiltrate and leave a lasting impression on the mainstream.
In their own ways, all of those events listed above proved to be instrumental in the ongoing development of both pop and rock musics, but their realization wasn’t immediate. It took some time for the efforts of those albums and the bands who made them to really show through; in some cases, it took years. The Ramones‘ first album accomplished the exact same thing at comparative light speed. It takes thirty minutes and four seconds for the album to play from front to back and, seemingly right away upon its release in 1976, The Ramones seemed to inspire new bands and sire scenes in Cleveland, Toronto, and Los Angeles, to name only a few.
To this day, thirty-nine years later, The Ramones’ first album is able to capture a listener’s imagination from the moment “Blitzkrieg Bop” opens the album’s A-side with the ‘All together now’ battle-cry, “Hey ho, let’s go.” Right from there, everything The Ramones were and would ever be is laid out simply; Tommy’s drums emerge, keep time with the perfect regularity of a metronome and laying a blueprint for ‘oompah drumming’ that scores of drummers would follow, Dee Dee’s bass shuttles out – all down-struck quarter notes – under Johnny’s buzz-saw guitar which plays like the closest equivalent to sonic adrenaline ever committed to tape and Joey’s thick Noo Yawk accent crests in on top , tied tightly to an A-B couplet rhythm. Some would call the first salvo represented by “Blitzkrieg Bop” simple; others would call it elemental and all would be correct. The way that “Blitzkrieg Bop” plays is the perfect bait to get pretty much any problem child and every pop connoisseur to pay attention, and the band follows it by issuing a series of simple, similarly-bent and unrelenting anthems which are easy to remember because they’re short (about two minutes on average) and poppy; although skewed to present a voice which was completely different from what was the average pop standard at the time. That ever-so-slight schism between the pop norm and what The Ramones were doing continues in “Beat On The Brat,” for example, as it both plays to and mocks the average Brit-pop chanteur’s melodramatic vocal duende (think Bowie, Bolan and John and you’re on the right track) with a brick-thick instrumental track in very much a similar vein to “Blitzkrieg Bop.” “Judy Is A Punk” advertises punk rock’s revolutionary beginnings (“Jackie is a punk/ Judy is a runt/ They both went down to Frisco, joined the SLA”) as being perfectly accessible to EVERYONE and the sort of thing that even the girl next door is getting into, before “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” embodies teenage boredom as only a song by boys from Queens could write it (“Now I wanna sniff some blue/ Now I wanna have something to do”) before “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement” closes the side with the closest thing The Ramones would ever make to a genuine meltdown (it’s also the longest song on the record at 2:35).
When is it comes time to flip the proverbial disc, listeners will find they’re totally engaged and energized by what they’ve heard (even if they’re sitting alone in a room, listening on their own). Therein lies the proof that, even in this earliest going, The Ramones awereready. They wouldn’t do much more developing of their sound, really (well, not in any good ways – Phil Spector would “help” the band by upping the production value of End Of The Century in 1980, but that was no great boon) and the A-side of their debut is classic through and through.
The B-side further fleshes out the band’s persona and plays pretty well as it goes along, even if it isn’t quite as mind blowing as the album’s A-side. Right off, “Loudmouth” plays well, if not exactly at the caliber of the album’s A-side, while some of the band’s surprisingly Republican-flavored politics (Johnny’s influence) seeps into “Havana Affair” in the least objectionable way. Five years before Reagan would take to office the concerns with Cuba and the missile crisis to every American dinnertable, Joey Ramone wraps himself in the American flag (telling lyric: “Now I’m a guide for the CIA/ Hooray for the USA!”) while simultaneously painting a pretty two-dimensional image of Cuba with the words, “PT-boat on the way to Havana/ I used to make a living/ picking the banana.” While pretty cringe-worthy by 21st Century standards, the songs might have played a little more acceptably as social criticism in 1976, particularly because, with punk being so relatively new, there weren’t a lot of political songs to play it against for comparison.
After “Havana Affair,” the mood begins to lighten as “53rd and 3rd” examines the finer points (pun intended) of street crime in New York City in a way that is so hands-off it would be hard to call it social criticism. The Ramones then cover Chris Montez’ “Let’s Dance” in a manner which is perfectly consistent with the sound of the rest of the album, but plays weaker because it’s a cover, and an unnecessary one at that. While neither of these tracks will ever be mistaken for an overlooked gem in The Ramones’ catalogue, both show that the band was capable of more than that which won them their audience; “53 rd & 3rd” isn’t just a party song and it’s obvious by how Joey sings the song – all hesitation and worry instead of boldly worded and heated hubris. The same is true of that Montez cover; were anyone else to have done it, the song would be regarded at a fairly ill-conceived novelty but, for The Ramones, there actually feels as though there’s some emotional stake vested in the song. Here, while the song is just a throwaway sock hop chestnut, Joey Ramone’s vocal part features some surprising care put into his rethought vocal performance and Johnny doesn’t just erect a wall of unrelenting sound with his Mosrite as he does elsewhere on the album. While these two songs remain the weak links on Ramones, they’re still worth hearing because they present a desire to reach further into dynamic arrangement and composition than any of the other songs do.
With the amount of energy already expended in the presentation of their debut and given that “53 rd & 3 rd” and “Let’s Dance” do show signs of wavering, listeners may have begun to wonder if “this punk thing” was going to hold up in 1976 but, happily, Ramones collects itself and ends strongly with “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” and “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World.” While these two songs might seem a little fluffy in 2015, each has more in its cannon than they initially let on; “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” bravely defies the “teenaged guy seeking love” paradigm and presents a character who is willing to walk alone proudly, and do it against a backdrop which is an inimitable Ramones standard. It might sound simple, but that’s an important precedent for punk; it plays bucks tradition bravely, but doesn’t make it look ambitious. The same is true for the obviously “in-love” work which is “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World”; backed together as they are here, these two songs defiantly imply that love – both the desire for it and/or disinterest in it – is basically irrelevant and little more than a subject for a song. In this case, those subjects are played really well, and played really well against each other.
With all of the above in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their debut album catapulted The Ramones to the top of the first punk pile and cast them as the poster boys for the music. If so, then why does it feel revelatory to call the 2011 vinyl reissue of it a classic? Well, that’s a little more difficult to justify, but this writer’s justification does make a certain amount of sense – because Ramones has been remixed, remastered and repackaged so often, the album had lost some of the bite it had when it was first released. Different departments have tried to make the album something it never was in the beginning (with a ‘bigger’ sound, a ‘beefier’ mix and any number of minor changes made to simply make it sound “different” and/or “better”) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it didn’t always do the music a service either. This most recent reissue takes Ramones back as close to the fine, lean and muscular point at which it started in ’76 as the album has ever come, and it hines brilliantly for it.
The 180 gram Sire/Rhino vinyl reissue of Ramones is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.