I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that everybody thinks of the Beatles as the most influential rock and roll group of the 20th century. And as there were no rock and roll groups in the 19th century and there aren’t any as influential or universally beloved as the Beatles in the 21st century, it feels safe to call them the most influential pop band of all time. Indeed, it was John, Paul, George and Ringo who invented the self-contained band–a handful of musicians who would write, sing and play their own songs exclusively. During the 60s, the Fab Four were the biggest thing since sliced bread, but after their dissolution and into the 1970s, rock music took increasingly more theatric and ludicrous turns. Acts like Led Zeppelin opened the door for progressive rock (prog rock henceforth) and heavy metal, two genres less focused on songs and more focused on performances. These genres took skill and years of practice to get into, and were only amassing global popularity in the early 70s.
It was into this musical landscape that the second most influential rock and roll group of the 20th century was born. It was a time of guitar virtuosos and organ solos. When performers took to the stage, it was frequently in elaborate outfits. Rock music became less about rebellion and more about hobbits or satan. This was the environment surrounding four “middle class” New York boys determined to make their impact on the world. And to think, all Tom Erdelyi wanted to do was start a band. When he met John Cummings, Douglas Colvin and Jeffry Hyman through their mutual fandom for The Stooges, the pieces were in place for the Ramones to take over the world. Tommy had found Johnny, Dee Dee and Joey. All that was left was for them to convince him that he should play drums instead of being the manager. (He’d stay on as producer for their first four albums.)
Their passion came out of the New York Dolls, the Stooges and a rebellion (at least on Johnny’s part) against the idea that excessive displays of skill were a necessary part of being a rock band. Unlike their primary influences’ focus on clothing and makeup, the Ramones played strictly in jeans and leather jackets with outgrown Beatles haircuts. Their first shows were at a hole-in-the-wall bar in a New York abandoned by young urban professionals headed for the suburbs. CBGB was the only bar that would have them, and even then, their audience at their first shows was mostly comprised of the members of Television, Blondie, the Talking Heads. Being entirely unique in their style, there was no competition with the Ramones.
The first people to see the Ramones were deeply intimidated by their performance: 100% original material; striking appearances; squalling, ultra-distorted and far-too-loud sound. They threw guitar solos out. They wrote and performed songs between 90 seconds and two minutes in length. They would be booked for thirty minute sets and have to play all of the songs they had written twice. They would fight onstage over which songs they would play. If anything, their earliest live sets sound like they have the exact same live appeal of the Beatles, only with more discipline and intimidation of the audience. However, such a brutal assault of the audience wasn’t tolerated in America (a lesson Devo were learning at the same time, coincidentally). The band wasn’t making much of a splash outside of Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. So what’s a band with a great live show unappreciated in their home country to do? Go to England.
And this is where the titanic, vastly underappreciated influence of the world’s first punk band really cannot be oversold. In the audience for their July 4th, 1976 show in England were founding members of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Stranglers and the Damned. The first and biggest English punk bands. The Clash and the Sex Pistols even climbed over each other up to a second floor window to get backstage to hang out with the band. Paul Simonon, in conversation with Johnny Ramone, said they hadn’t played a concert yet because they weren’t good enough. Johnny’s response, in typical Ramone fashion, was to tell him to get out and play anyway, saying “Wait ’til you see us–we stink.” Johnny Rotten wouldn’t cross the threshold to see the band until he was personally assured by their manager that they wouldn’t beat him up. Audiences in England assumed they were just a street gang that had picked up instruments and started writing and playing their own songs.
Two years into their career, within a year of the recording and release of their debut album, the Ramones had started a movement that would go on to take over the world of rock and roll for twenty years. Yet, despite the fact that they’d been doing it first, the Ramones got nearly no credit for their musical innovations stateside. Their American tour is credited as the genesis of the entire punk movement of the 1980s, and thus early 90s SoCal punk rock and the ska revival by extension. American bands popping up in their wake included The Replacements, The Cramps, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and Bad Brains. These were the bands that would go on to write the narrative of punk rock in the 1980s in America–while the Ramones were sadly relegated to history and Argentina.
While their career would go on to be a sad string of attempted hits with several producer changes, their base sound would go unchanged. While the band itself got its start by watching the New York Dolls and wondering why they weren’t famous, the Ramones sound is basically 1960s girlpop, reduced to bare-bones minimalism and intensity and played with a white-hot combination of speed and volume. Their first record is likely the best exemplar of their sound. The guitar is single tracked, panned off to one side. The bass is nasal and edgy, off to the other side. The snare drum sounds like Satan knocking on your door to signal the apocalypse. And throughout the record, Johnny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee play with such incredible urgency to completely redefine the way you heard rock and roll.
The Ramones influence can be heard most directly in records like Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and The Clash’s debut album. Loud guitars combined with pounding drums, mixing with a profoundly rebellious teenage spirit come together to form the basis of the punk sound. These bands would go on to dominate the rock and roll landscape in the Ramones’ wake. And then when New Wave was the dominant genre of the 80s, the Ramones’ spiritual successors in the punk movement came out from the underground. Again, rockers were disillusioned with a world of make-up and showmanship and wanted to reduce rock and roll to its earlier simplicity–only this time, they called it grunge and it came from Seattle. And at the same time as the grunge movement was coming to life in the rainy metropolises of Washington state, punk refused to die. It had taken hold in the sunny, eternally teenage world of southern California and regained its pop-based roots to form a new wave of SoCal punk rock, with bands like Green Day, Blink 182 and my personal underground favourites The Queers.
In the early 1970s, fans felt entirely disconnected from the rock and roll that had been so personal to them in the past. The Beatles spoke candidly against authority at press conferences way back in the early 60s, but the only rock to make it to the mainstream after their heyday was distanced from its fans by excessive displays of skill, showmanship and theatrics. Gone were the days of the working class hero. Musicians were as similar to the common man as they had been in the classical era. But with the meteoric rise to fame of the Ramones, that changed. Rock stars were people again. Frequently crass, course and belligerent. Arguing with their friends over women, drugs and booze. The Ramones made rock and roll once more about the people in the crowd instead of the people on stage by making it the music of the outcast and the geek.
Sadly, for all of their efforts, they went entirely unrewarded stateside. Due to the influx of British punks into the American scene–people who spat on the crowd, drank and vomited with glee at live shows–the moral majority clamped down on the Ramones hard, assuming that since they started this punk thing, they were just like all the others. And despite their best efforts to the contrary–putting the most intelligent and well-spoken member of the band in charge of all interviews–they were branded as troublemakers and their concert appearances had such low attendance and such negative press that they were effectively banned from performance in the United States. This is in direct contrast with the riot in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1996 on March 13th when Ramones fans found out that tickets they’d camped out overnight to buy were already sold out.
The Ramones were rock and roll pioneers who revitalized a dying genre and brought the excitement back to rock and roll. It’s a shame that Joey Ramone was no longer with us when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And it’s a shame that they’ll never truly get the recognition they deserve from a culture so influenced by their presence. God bless the Ramones, and god bless America.