Thursday, April 21, 2011

Track by Track: ‘Ramones’ by The Ramones

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

By 1976, Rock & Roll was in dire shape. The best work of the genre’s old guard—The Who, The Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Dylan, The ex-Beatles—was behind them. Pretentious prog rockers clogged arenas with their endless bluster. Crushingly dull soft poppers polluted the top twenty with “Dream Weaver” and “Let Your Love Flow”. The dull mechanism of disco had already begun to grind. Then up from the underground swooped a quartet of troglodyte supermen from Queens, wearing matching rags, sporting matching mop tops and matching names. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo 15 years before them, and Kurt, Krist, and Dave 15 years after, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy did not set out to rescue Rock & Roll. They were just righteously fed up with the noodling, pomp, and wimpiness pervading the scene and decided to play the kind of Spartan garage rock they dug.


As bassist, chief composer, and chief wack-a-doo Dee Dee Ramone was heard to crow, “I think Rock & Roll should be three words and a chorus, and the three words should be good enough to say it all.” This was barely exaggeration. The Ramones stripped away all of Rock & Roll’s pretenses that had accumulated since Sgt. Pepper’s. No guitar solos; just fun. All tracks kick off in simultaneous fury (“1, 2, 3, 4!”), all have sing-songy choruses. Some are nothing but choruses.

Although The Ramones are famous— and were initially criticized— for their simplicity, Johnny Ramones’s neck-breaking down strokes require tremendous stamina and precision, as does the drumming of Tommy Ramone, who learned the instrument simply because the group he helped assemble needed a drummer. Speed, simplicity, catchiness, thunder. This music The Ramones invented wasn’t called punk yet, but it would be soon enough.

The Ramones didn’t just sound like the psychedelic era had never happened; they looked it too. Their jeans, leather jackets, Converse One Stars, and T-shirts could have been stripped off a ‘50s greaser. Johnny and Dee Dee's bowl cuts were strictly pre-psych Beatles.

Like John Waters, The Ramones collected the raw refuse of trash culture and defiant bad taste and molded it all into a monumental new art form. Horror movies, junk food, comic books, amusement parks, makeshift drugs, turning tricks, boneheaded agit prop, and sleazy violence all became pop fodder. Also like Waters, The Ramones paid tribute to a crime ridden, scuzzy city. What Baltimore was to the filthiest man alive, New York City was to the scuzziest band on the planet. Their debut album simply stinks of the city. Aside from the infamous “53rd and 3rd”, specific references are sparer here than they would be on subsequent records on which they’d praise Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, and the like. But Ramones sounds like New York. The grinding gears of a subway train. The quick snick of a switchblade. The expletive shout of a passing cabby. The wicked giggle of a purse snatcher. These sounds fester between the lines of all 14 tracks that comprise the only record that mattered in 1976. And it couldn’t have been cut in a more appropriate place: Plaza Sound studio in Manhattan’s landmark Radio City Music Hall. The track line up was merely transposed from their set list at CBGB’s, the Bowery scum pit that spawned all of the American bands that would rearrange Rock & Roll’s face over the next few years. But without Television’s pretty flourishes, Talking Heads’ art school angularity, Blondie’s radio-ready polish, Suicide’s electro freakiness, The Dead Boy’s cock-rock strut, or Patti Smith and Richard Hell’s Bowery poetry, The Ramones embodied New York Punk’s essence the best.

The group cut Ramones for just $6,400 over the course of 17 days. Johnny spent fifty bucks on the Mosrite guitar he played on it. It all sounded equally cheap. On subsequent albums, The Ramones sound opened up a bit, becoming less murky, less compressed… and losing some of its otherworldly magic in the process. Produced by novices Tommy Ramone and Craig Leon of Sire Records, Ramones sounds like it was belched up from Rock & Roll’s primordial muck.

Brace yourself.


Ramones by The Ramones
Originally released April 1976 on Sire Records
Produced by Craig Leon and Tommy Ramone

All songs credited to The Ramones.

Track 1: Blitzkrieg Bop

No opening guitar lick. No opening drum beat to ease the listener into the onslaught. Everything pounding out in simultaneous, militaristic fury. The first track on the first real punk LP defines the genre as well as anything that would follow. No New York Dolls swagger. No Stooges windiness. No Modern Lovers cleverness. It’s grooveless, it’s short, and it is dumb. “Blitzkrieg Bop” is also
glorious, transcendent, thrilling. Anyone who can listen to this track without feeling the full-on religiosity of Rock & Roll needs to stick to their James Taylor records. Anyone who can listen to it without a racing heart is dead.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” introduces punk’s trademark pithy tempest while also setting the genre’s “What have you got?” rebel stance. Before groups like The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers legitimized punk politics with relatively thoughtful lyrics about social injustice, The Ramones were being offensive for the sake of being offensive in opposition to ‘70s “niceness”: The Carpenters, Donnie and Marie, Anne Murray, “Have a Nice Day” stickers, Smiley Face T-Shirts. And what could ever be more loathsomely anti-everything than Nazi imagery? Although Tommy composed the song as a tribute to Rock & Roll fans braving the deafening cyclone squalling from the stage as their favorite band plays, Dee Dee supplied the wicked touch that would win The Ramones their first flash of infamy. Were these nice boys from Forest Hills really fascists?

Douglas Glenn Colvin didn’t always live in Queens. Born in Fort Lee, Virginia, his family moved to Bad Tölz in Bavaria near Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat when he was a baby. World War II relics could still be found moldering in his neighborhood. The boy who would be Dee Dee developed a ghoulish fascination with all-things Nazi, much to his military-man father’s horror. When Dee Dee slapped the title “Blitzkrieg Bop”—“Blitzkrieg” being the Nazi “lightning war” strategy of attacking with a concentration of tanks, air bombers, infantry, and artillery— onto Tommy’s innocent tribute to the joys of Rock & Roll fandom, he created an entirely unprecedented beast and arguably inspired the ugly wave of neo-fascist posturing that would sweep peers such as Siouxsie Sioux, Sid Vicious, and Stiv Bators. That one move made punk more legitimately dangerous than all the screeching, gobbing, and safety pins in the world ever could. That Joey was Jewish and the utterly innocuous “Saturday Night” by The Bay City Rollers inspired the track’s “Hey, Ho, Let’s Go!” sing-along was completely lost on Ramones detractors.

Today, the fascist imagery and violence of “Blitzkrieg Bop” (“Shoot him in the back now!”) seems entirely cartoonish, especially in light of Joey’s reputation as punk’s cuddliest cornstalk and rep as a vocal liberal. But the band was regarded as scary enough in their anonymous early days to put the fear in Johnny Rotten, who was terrified of meeting the boys upon their visit to London in the summer of ‘76. Scared as he may have been, he was also galvanized to get involved in the new musical movement, as were his fellow country-people in attendance, who would go on to form The Clash, The Adverts, The Damned, The Stranglers, and The Vibrators. Like the reptiles that inspired the opening cut on their first album and their first (flop) single, The Ramones had blitzed Britain.

Track 2: Beat on the Brat

Just two tracks into building the punk ethos from the ground up, The Ramones produce what may be their most hilariously incongruous statement. Ask any wrinkly fart what a Punk is, and the likely response might be, “A spoiled brat in need of a good beating.” Apparently, this would have also been Joey’s answer. Bugged by the back-talking bambinos plaguing his Forrest Hills apartment complex, the sweetest Ramone composed this bit of parental disciplinary advise: “Beat on the Brat, beat on the brat, beat on that brat with a baseball bat.” The track’s combination of conservative parenting and corporal punishment would have been less odd coming from antisocial Republican, baseball fanatic, and horror nut Johnny Ramone. Go figure.

The barebones middle eight (“What can you do with a brat like that? What can you lose?”) and a few Beatlesque “Oh yeahs” round out the lyric. Sandwiched between a pair of speed-of-sound monsters, the more moderately tempoed “Beat on the Brat” feels downright relaxed. The Ramones allow themselves an epic 2:33 to repeat the anti-developed lyric and hammer out the stuttering guitar hook. Alternations between that hook, the tightly wound verse, and the slightly airier bridge are what pass for dynamics on Ramones.

Track 3: Judy is a Punk

Back at hyperspeed, Joey fashions a whimsical cartoon starring two local delinquents and alleged fans. Were the real Judy and Jackie really Ramones freaks before the group even released their debut record, or was the band already self-mythologizing? Perhaps we’ll never know, because the girls supposedly died in a plane crash later, making the grim refrain “Perhaps they’ll die, oh yeah” worthy of Nostradamus.

Joey imagines Judy and Jackie digging themselves out of their Forrest Hills rut to pursue two possible futures: one as Daddy’s-little-girly girls pirouetting at the Ice Capades (the Berlin Ice Capades, no less; a perverse Dee Dee-esque stroke) the other as Patty Hearstian lefty revolutionaries in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). In what Joey likely intended as little more than a punky nursery rhyme (emphasized by references to “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” and the music hall doggerel standard “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am”) he inadvertently illustrates the new path The Ramones were hacking for their followers and peers. What’s it going to be, teenyboppers? Donning your tutus to yawn along with The Carpenters, or arming yourselves (preferably with “axes”) to join the new Punk revolution? Perhaps you’ll die either way, so what’s a little risk?

As a call to arms, “Judy Is a Punk” is irresistible. The candy-coated revolutionary message is euphorically matched with a tune that could have slipped off Brian Wilson’s piano keys circa 1963. Dee Dee’s barely-on-mic “E-I-E!” creates a cheeky counterpoint to Joey’s hiccupped prognosticating. Wordless coos sit in the pocket that would have been filled with superfluous guitar solos by another band. Sire may have actually scored a hit for their new boys had they issued “Judy Is a Punk” as a single…

Track 4: I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend

…Instead, the record company followed up the incendiary “Blitzkrieg Bop” single with the “safest” track on Ramones. Down tempo and driven along by Byrdsy jingle-jangle rather than deadly power chords, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” could have come off as a sardonic parody of pop love songs. That Tommy’s lyric essentially consists of the title phrase over and over and over doesn’t necessarily support that theory, since the same could be said of half the songs on Ramones. Rather this is a sincere—even pretty—romance in the tradition of Ramones idols and near-namesakes The Ronettes. Indeed, Joey seems to owe his trademark hiccup as much to Ronnie Spector as Buddy Holly, and would later record The Ronettes’ hit “Baby I Love You” as a controversial over-production under the guiding claw of Phil Spector. Dee Dee’s girl-groupish “Ooooh waaaahs” sweeten “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” further. A nice track and a needed change of pace, but hardly representative of the wanton destruction that was The Ramones’ main allure. But representative of the real boys behind the denim? Maybe so, maybe so…

Track 5: Chain Saw

One shrill buzz chops the previous track’s heart-shaped box of bon bons to shreds. The guys’ adoration of horror flicks banishes romance for good and sets precedent for the horror-punk subgenre that would soon slither through the work of The Damned, The Misfits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cramps. The Ramones’ grinning performance implies Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a Little Shop of Horrors-style romp rather than the ordeal it is. You can almost hear Joey and Dee Dee rolling their eyes as they belch their knowingly retro “A whoa-whoa-whoa!” in the track’s opening seconds. Slowed down a bit and delivered without the violent lyric or Joey’s barking, this could pass for a Danny and the Juniors B-side. While “Chain Saw” will never be confused for a heartfelt ballad like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, Joey typically gives this ode to grindhouse horror a teenager-in-love slant by lamenting that “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took my baby away from me…” (singing “massacree” like Bugs Bunny, either to force a rhyme or because he didn’t know how to pronounce the word). Five years later, Joey would give this jokey hook a new twist when he changed the movie title to “KKK” in reference to rightwing-racist Johnny’s stealing of his girlfriend Linda, causing a permanent rift between the two. Such future turmoil is nowhere in site on “Chain Saw”, which is as joyous a performance as any on Ramones. The boys be-bop into the fade with Joey’s garbled “Oh, yeah” answering Tommy and Dee Dee’s girlish “Oh-oh no” with infectious dumb-guy glee.

Track 6: Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue

Around the recording of Ramones, Dee Dee wrote a song called “Chinese Rocks” on assignment from Richard Hell, who challenged him to “write a song better than Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin’” (Please Kill Me). Whether or not he succeeded, Tommy nixed Dee Dee’s ode to smack scoring, because according to Ramones insider and designer Arturo Vega, overt drug songs were antithetical to the image Tommy carefully constructed (Dee Dee then passed “Chinese Rocks” along to The Heartbreakers, and would not record it with his own band until a couple of years after Tommy left the fold). Songs about softer substances that any thirteen-year old could procure, however, were apparently just fine by Tommy.

“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” celebrates the pleasures of huffing model-airplane adhesive from a paper sack with the drippy-eyed inarticulateness of a kid who’s huffed more than his share. “Now I wanna sniff some glue, now I wanna have something to do; All the kids wanna sniff some glue, all the kids want something to do” reads the lyric in its entirety. Passing the empty hours of teenage indolence by murdering brain cells is a suburban tradition. Sniffing glue to snatch a buzz was a favorite of Dee Dee and Johnny in their younger days, and the results of such pursuits are apparent in this track. Shouted in unison like a football chant, the lyric is repeated as if the guys forgot they’d sung it several times already. When they retard to allow Tommy to thump his toms a few times after the first verse, its like they’re pausing to recall the song they’re playing. Johnny plucks the album’s sole solo, although its willful simplicity makes it more of an anti-solo.

Track 7: I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement

Dee Dee’s wiry bass is way up front in this taut paean to paranoia. Side A of Ramones concludes with another tribute to B horror. Probably inspired by the 1973 asylum thriller Don’t Look in the Basement, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” makes some of the best use of stunted lyricism on the record. Unlike other songs that feel lazily underdeveloped (particularly the track that follows), the incessant repeat of “Hey, Daddy-O! I Don’t Wanna go down to the basement. There’s something down there…” heightens this track’s tension. That cat does not wanna go down to the basement! And his fixated lyric sounds like the cry of a spooked toddler, the hipster jive of “Hey, Daddy-O” easily transforming into a plea to ones parent simply by losing an “O.” Meanwhile, the guys crib something other than “Louie Louie” when they pinch the opening riff of David Bowie’s “Hang On to Yourself”. Eclectic!

Track 8: Loudmouth

Less sensitive listeners can fob off Dee Dee’s Nazi imagery as punk shock schlock. His tales of girlfriend abuse are tougher to dismiss since they are based on fact. Of course, the towering Connie Gripp probably outweighed scrawny Dee Dee by a good fifty pounds and was known to beat her beau and once stabbed him after catching him in bed with her fellow junkie, occasional prostitute, and violence-victim Nancy Spungeon. Such real-life ugliness is barely hinted at in The Ramones’ cartoony rock. “Loudmouth” certainly does an inadequate job of illustrating the band’s true dramas. Instead Dee Dee gives the subject no more attention than his songs about glue sniffing and B-horror movies (the full lyric reads: “You’re a loudmouth, baby; you better shut it up. I’m gonna beat you up”). The most generic and unmelodic track on Ramones, “Loudmouth” would be a weak launch to Side Two even if it wasn’t handicapped by its lyric.

Track 9: Havana Affair

The Ramones get back to tempering potentially off-color material with goofy humor on “Havana Affair”. Dee Dee and Johnny whittle a typically terse character study about a Cuban banana picker hired to spy for the CIA. The broken English lyric (“I used to make a living, man, picking the banana”) is surprisingly restrained, and the political message is thankfully muted considering Johnny’s conservative disdain for communism. He’d 86 such subtleties when titling the band’s third album. So we’re left with a minor track, though one with more to recommend it than “Loudmouth”. The spy’s assignment to peep on Cuban go-go girls suits The Ramones’ puerile humor and penchant for retro trash. Joey’s staccato delivery of “ba-na-na” is priceless. Still, this isn’t the catchiest thing on the record, and the guys would make worthier use of the track’s central riff with “Pinhead” on their next record.

Track 10: Listen to My Heart

Johnny doffs his mop top to Dave Davies, skidding down the neck of his Mosrite à la “I Need You”. Then the band power into a British Invasion bounce; Joey crooning heartbroken woes worthy of a John Lennon throwaway. Connie and Dee Dee’s intense relationship inspires yet another song. Much sweeter and self-pitying than “Loudmouth” before it or “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” after, “Listen to My Heart” is a pop self-help trifle, and the catchiest thing on Side B so far. The between verses handclaps add extra pep-rally spunk to an already exciting track. Dee Dee’s mocking echo of Joey’s “cry-ing” at the end of the bridge serves as a self-aware wink to any listener who thinks he’s gone soft. He has not, as evidenced by the next track…

Track 11: 53rd and 3rd

Not long before Roger Corman presented him to the world as a cutesy cartoon character, Dee Dee Ramone was prowling 53rd and 3rd, doing what he had to do to support his smack habit. Turning tricks for drug money ain’t pretty, but it was a dirty reality for a lot of punks, including Jim Carroll and Television’s Richard Lloyd. Dee Dee played coy about his days as a street hustler years later, but he also told Legs McNeil that his ode to hustling on 53rd and 3rd “speaks for itself. Everything I write is autobiographical and very real” (Please Kill Me). If what he said was entirely true, Dee Dee’s past was even more sordid than McNeil reported. Jacking off johns is the least of the crimes described in “53rd and 3rd”. Dee Dee describes a Vietnam vet/rent boy never chosen by the chicken hawks circling the infamous intersection. When he finally gets picked up, he slices up his trick with a razor blade to prove he’s “no sissy.”

“53rd and 3rd” is quite unlike anything else on Ramones. Grittier and more graphic than its LP-mates, the track eschews Dee Dee’s “three words and a chorus” formula to tell a complete story. Its detail indicates that Dee Dee really had something to unload, and his willingness to discuss personal business most other rockers would do everything in their power to bury is near heroic, even if the murder flourish is embellished (he claimed he never actually killed anyone). Needless to say, Dee Dee was never a green beret, and the omnisexual lifestyle he continued to lead suggested he didn’t really care whether or not anyone branded him a “sissy.”

“53rd and 3rd” is also uncommonly complex in its structure. The halting rhythm of the verse stands in heavy contrast to the rest of the record’s speedy chugging. The rhythm threatens to open up on the chorus, yet somehow remains equally cramped. Joey steps aside to allow the song’s composer to sing the bridge in his elfin, damaged warble, providing the scariest moment on the record. A dramatic pause precedes the demented vamp that stretches through the fade. Getting pinheads to pogo was the ultimate Ramones agenda, but this incitation to curl up in a fetal position may be their masterpiece.

Track 12: Let’s Dance (Jim Lee)

Convinced they’d terrified their listeners enough, The Ramones hop out of the pits of Hell to deliver the most frivolous and one of the most fun tracks on their debut. The brief window in the early ‘60s before The Beatles transformed Rock & Roll like a quartet of skinny sorcerers rarely gets its due. The Ramones worshipped that era of gloriously disposable bubblegum and surf rock, covering The Ronette’s “Baby I Love You”, The Rivieras’ “California Sun”, Jan and Dean’s “Surf City”, and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”. Their version of Chris Montez’s big 1962 hit “Let’s Dance” provides Ramones with a sweet antidote after the paranoid breakdown of “53rd and 3rd”. The track perfectly suits their style, and sounds more like a Ramones song than the original that preceded it, even if it adds the uncommon ingredient of Radio City Music Hall’s Wurlitzer organ to the mix. In true Ramones style, Craig Leon doesn’t play it very well. Perfect.

Track 13: I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You

Dee Dee takes one last stab at Connie, reducing their sick relationship to fodder for a schoolyard taunt. The Connie trilogy reveals an interesting arch: the violence of “Loudmouth” gives way to the morning-after self-pity of “Listen to My Heart” and resolves with a curt break up. After “53rd and 3rd” Dee Dee swings back to inarticulate snottiness: “I Don’t wanna walk around with you, so why you wanna walk around with me?” is all there’s left to say. It’s almost amazing that The Ramones were capable of wringing nearly two minutes of vinyl out of a piece without any lyrical or musical development aside from the one-note bends Johnny chokes out after the third repeat. No matter. The finale is a killer…

Track 14: Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World

“Eins, zwei, drei, vier!”

The Ramones finish off their opening statement by returning to the shock-value Third Reich jokiness that kicked it off. “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am. I’m a Nazi schätze and I fight for fatherland.”

Dee Dee’s bad-taste so repulsed Sire president, Ramones champion, and fairly unoffendable guy Seymour Stein that he asked the group to change their lyric. The guys refused to compromise and wrote the song off as nothing more than an example of their “dark sense of humor.” Is that an adequate defense for a song in which Joey—who, let’s remember, was Jewish—plays the role of a Hitler-paraphrasing “Nazi schätze” (“sweetheart”)? Your call. This sort of “humor” was not completely new to Rock & Roll: John Lennon wanted to include Hitler on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s; Brian Jones once posed as a Nazi in a photo he later defended as a protest against fascism.

Regardless of its lyrical abrasiveness, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” is a totally exciting track, careening from the band’s signature attack to a scary, fist-raising coda. Dee Dee uses Hitler’s megalomaniacal rant “Today Germany, tomorrow the world” as a metaphor for the band’s goal of conquering the Rock & Roll scene, taking back the airwaves from the purveyors of top forty pap. Were they successful? In a commercial sense, not really. At least, not initially. Terrified of The Ramones’ thuggish persona and fondness for peppering their songs with references to drugs, man-whoring, domestic violence, and Nazi schätzes, radio stayed away. Did they change Rock & Roll for the better? Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. The Ramones did not end epic indulgence or bland niceness for good, but they did scythe a path for a new horde similarly fed up with the state of popular music. In that regard, The Ramones conquered the world many times over.

This Saturday is the 35th anniversary of Ramones.
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