Friday, July 11, 2014

Hey Ho, Let's Go!

This month's Band of the Month is the Ramones. This post is going to be different - because I have already written it, basically, back in 2004 - reviewing End of the Century and memorializing Johnny Ramone. And really - most of what I would say now, I said then - so I might as well just repost it. (Editing to stress the music, and the autobiography... I've cannibalized these things before, for comments on some of the others bands I've written about - but I can live with that.)

From the movie review:
Punk: I heard it late, and probably didn't really hear punk for a while - what I heard first were bands like the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello - The Cars, if that counts (and probably it does, in some sense.) I don't know what the first punk song I ever heard was. Probably "Train in Vain" - I knew the Clash was a punk band, heard that - thought, this is not so strange - this is just a bit rougher version of Tom Petty or Neil Young - this is pretty good! And then I heard "Lost in a Supermarket" and thought this is even more so than the last... And then I heard "London Calling" - that's when I realized what people were talking about with punk.

The Ramones I didn't hear until End of the Century came out - "Rock and Roll Radio". I found it to be just about exactly what it was meant to be - those big melodies, the big sound - I loved it, without thinking it was anything but just a great little updating of all those old pop classics you heard on oldies stations. When I was youngr than that, I rather liked bands like The Bay City Rollers, Shawn Cassidy - those cheesy pseudo Rock 'n' Roll teeny bopper bands... The Ramones struck me as making music like that that was, unlike theirs, original (in both the sense that they wrote it and the sense that, even playing this old fashioned sound, they sounded brand new, and completely real), and absolutely legit. None of the calculated crowd -pleasing - the feeling I got from the Ramones was of a bunch of guys who absolutely worshipped the music they were playing and were trying to express pure glee with it.

It is strange - it is hard to believe, thinking about it - the poor Ramones, never had a real hit - nothing huge. Nothing like, oh - "We Will Rock You". They never sold the records - but within a year or so, that song - "Rock and Roll Radio" was as inescapably part of the universal pop culture as "We Will Rock You" - just, somehow, divorced from the Ramones themselves... And while maybe nothing else from the Ramones has reached that level of popular penetration, their music has permeated pop culture. Everyone knows them, loves them, takes them - took them - for granted...

Sometime in 1980, the radio stations where I lived got cool. I don't know when or why or how, but that year, I heard everything - I heard the Ramones, the Clash, the Talking Heads and Blondie and The Cars and Elvis Costello and The Police, I heard the B-52s, Split Enz, The Vapors, Sniff and the Tears, The Greg Kinh Band, U2 - all of this alongiside, on the same station, I think, as all the AOR stuff around. Zep and the Doors and Stone and Hendrix - and a good dose of Bruce and Lou Reed... not to neglect Southern Rock - crappy metal (Ozzie, Ronnie James Dio, Def Leppard, The Priest) - party rock (George Thorogood) - art rock (Steely Dan to ELP)... This did not last that long. Radio in Boston, in 1981 or so, was similar - less classic rock, more punk, new wave, and edgier punk and new wave (you could hear Soft Cell and the Damned in those days... the FCC was not so curious - you could hear "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" on the radio...) All this stuff layered on top of my fairly well established AOR music tastes - I liked a lot of the newer stuff, though I still separated it from the old stuff. That started to change as U2, REM, and eventually groups like the Replacements and Husker Du entered my consciousness....

But the Ramones - yes, the Ramones. Somewhere in here (80 or so) the radio started playing older stuff - "I Wanna Be Sedated" - sometimes "Sheena is a Punk Rocker", covers - "Do You Wanna Dance", "Needles and Pins" - very rarely, though, anything deeper, harder than that. Much later I heard those songs - and then a buddy of mine got Ramones Mania, and we wore the tape out, driving around listening to it over and over. And so... years after that, on a drive to New Jersey with some people, we had only 2 CDs in the car, and listened to Rocket to Russia through 3 or 4 times - that was a very good thing. It does not wear out its welcome. Every time "Cretin Hop" kicks in, you think - should I tell them to turn it off? Why should I? who's going to regret hearing this again? And so - again....

And from Johnny's memorial:
I was heartbroken by the news of his death. That surprised me a bit - I was sad, but not heartbroken when Joey died, and he was a lot more likable. It’s probably the timing - I'd seen the movie, and was writing about the band, thinking about them - and then he died. It hurt - far more than most celebrity deaths (Marlon Brando, say) - almost as much as when my transcendent cultural heroes (Johnny Cash? Charles Schulz?) died.

It’s odd, feeling sentimental about Johnny Ramone. Joey made sense - but Johnny? He was an asshole - no one liked him. He comes off very badly in the film - a sour, mean, bitter man, with a cruel streak - the way he turns to his wife and puts her on the spot about whether there was any tension between him and Joey, and won’t let her get away with uttering a platitude or too. His wife - the woman he took away from Joey, causing that break. Classy. But at the same time, he comes off as someone who knew what he had in the band - who knew, maybe even better than the others, how fucking good they really were (he says in the film that only the Clash were close to them - the only way to dispute that is to note that the Clash aren’t in their league.) He knew what he had, and respected it (The Ramones) immensely, to the point of realizing it was worth more than his petty feuds.

So, yeah, he was an asshole, but he was also a genius. Everyone says he inspired a raft of guitar players - true. And he and his band (but in a lot of ways, that is him - the sound of the band, if not their material, is really Johnny’s guitar, fully formed from the very beginning, pure and unwavering from that point on) did inspire a raft of musicians, making simplicity possible, making it possible for anyone to be in a band. I myself - I fiercely regret that I did not hear them in time. If I had heard them, instead of Kiss, in 1976? Where would I be? Better than I turned out, right? They were cool, they were simple, they were honest, they were perfect.

That is the last word on them: they were a perfect rock band. Very possibly the perfect rock band. And Johnny Ramone was, probably, the perfect rock guitar player.

So back to the Ramones - their place in the world of rock and roll, my reaction to them. About what they did - their sound, their importance...

The dirty secret is that I am ambivalent about them. Not really the Ramones themselves, but sometimes the propaganda about them, the propaganda that surrounds punk. You never hear anyone talk about the Ramones without talking about killing off the dinosaurs - and about simplicity and fun as if that were somehow antithetical to “seriousness” or virtuosity. That was not part of the first wave of punk. The Ramones' contemporaries were bands like Television - guitar noodling eggheads; Patti Smith - poetess; the midwest bands - Rocket From the Tombs, The Mirrors, the Electric Eels - coming out of the 60s bands, Stooges, Velvets, MC 5, the garage bands, the art bands (Captain Beefheart, Red Krayola, the Mothers, etc.) It was not monolithic - it was just devoted to freedom, aggression, to expression. The Ramones were part of it - it is a bitter pill to hear them being turned into another force of conformity.

I have to stop somewhere. I have the luxury here in blogland of developing whatever it is I'm saying over time. So I can come back. But I want to finish with this - something I wrote down back when Joey Ramone died. Punk changed everything - but it did more than kill off what was on the radio and replace it. (It didn't really do that - just exposed so much of what was on the radio as the shit it was.) It created plenty new - but it also changed what was already there. After punk - and when I say punk, I mean The Ramones - you could, if you were listening, hear the rock in the bloat of what came before. It didn't so much kill off all the Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths of the world as redeem them. Robert Plant once said that "God Saved the Queen" was a slowed down version of "Communication Breakdown" - which it is. But you needed punk to hear it again. It changed the way people listened to heavy metal - after punk, people could hear Bonham's drumming, Sabbath's drive and AC/DC's punch again. That is what punk did for me - I started listening to punk in earnest in the mid-80s - and it sent me as much for my old Zep and AC/DC records as for the punk-derived bands around at the time (The Replacements, Husker Du, Butthole Surfers, The Meat Puppets - my personal mid-80s favorites). I was not alone - as grunge would soon show us...

I can live with that... And so on to a top 10:

1. Blitzkrieg Bop
2. Rockaway Beach
3. Pinhead
4. Cretin Hop
5. I Wanna Be Sedated
6. Teenaged Lobotomy
7. 53rd and 3rd
8. Commando
9. Bonzo Goes to Bitburg
10. Now I wanna Sniff Some Glue

And video: a very great video for I Wanna Be Sedated:

Sniffin some glue in 1974, with that little Sabbath riff in the middle. (And 2 more songs in the 6 minutes of the clip.)

If you have an hour - live in Germany, 1978:

1980 - doing Rock and Roll High School and Rock and Roll Radio:

For a change of pace - a 1988 clip from Regis and Kathy Lee:

And right up to the end:

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