If everyone who ever bought a Ramones shirt bought a Ramones album, they’d be as big as fucking Aerosmith by now. But then, how many Aerosmith shirts do you see at shows? The glamour of cultdom was lost on the Ramones; they didn’t care about the margins. They wanted to be your Beatles. And in some slightly altered reality, they might have been. They had hooks tumbling out the legs of their jeans; a cartoony, all-for-one/one-for-all image; and a dogged work ethic that endured disastrous bills, lineup changes, and intra-band feuds. Even when it was clear that the radio had no place for them, they never broke kayfabe, delighting pinheads the world over to the tune of 2,263 shows: impressive for any band, staggering for a punk act. The Ramones took their place in pop history seriously, even if they didn’t always know what it was exactly. Weaned on glam rock and girl groups, Stooges and Stones, these knuckleheads concocted a throwback sound that was shockingly novel. They played rock and roll at twice the speed — stripping out the solos and the soul — in service of trash culture and real life.
It took a little convincing from Tommy Ramone (justly lauded in obituaries as the band’s architect), but the boys quickly went from flailing Forest Hills fuckarounds to punks with an eye on world domination. Previously taken by the glitter boom, they cannily swapped their lamé boots and velvet jackets for Perfecto leather jackets, tennis shoes, and cheapo pop culture tees, figuring that the kids in Middle America would find it easier to emulate them. Tommy’s 1975 one-sheet for the band touted their stock of would-be hits; they hadn’t even started recording the album. But they’d already arrived at their sound: punchy, streamlined rock and roll, with naggingly repetitive passages where the solos could’ve gone. Dee Dee thumbed along the chord changes; Johnny merged an au courant heavy tone with a speedhead’s sense of time, playing like he was paid by the downstroke; Tommy began waging a years-long campaign against fills of any kind. And Joey — gangly, jumpy Joey — was a frontman practically without precedent. His timbre was like a bottle of milk left to curdle on a suburban sidewalk, vibrato-free and clipped, an unmistakable Long Islander with a Brit inflection. Tough and tender, he embodied the romantic delinquent, whether he was courting or turning tricks.
When the Ramones started their run at CBGB, witnesses weren’t sure what they were either. What to do with four Long Islanders, outfitted in matching ripped denim, leather jackets and pageboy-gone-to-seed haircuts, tearing through twenty songs in as many minutes? Some believed they were seeing something closer to comedy than music; others, like the Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz, fervently believed the Ramones were art-rockers, like La Monte Young blasting the Nuggets box with only a bag of glue for company. Like everything, they had their precedents. There were the Stooges (Ramones minus charm), the Dictators (Ramones minus concision), the New York Dolls (Ramones minus tunes). There were hundreds of garage acts, yearning to smear a little post-pubescent angst on the Top 40 form; some of them succeeded.
The Ramones didn’t. Not by their pie-eyed standards, anyway; punk rock, with its circumscribed tier of success, didn’t exist when they strolled into Tom Erdelyi’s studio. Forget the art-school noodlers who they were supposedly set against. Their eyes were on Mick and Keith, the Who, the Bay City Rollers, the Beatles — if they made it, why couldn’t the Ramones? The Beatles in particular were an inspiration: the unified stage image, the airtight compositions, the count-in. The Ramones’ first LP even put the bass in one channel, the guitar in the other. And like the Beatles, the Ramones were top-notch songwriters, capable, in bursts, of melodicism and humor and punch every bit the equal as their idols. (Actually, “idols” may be pushing it; Johnny brought a bag of rocks to chuck at the Beatles during their legendary Shea Stadium concert, but they were parked on second base, and he settled for watching the show.) No one walked the line between smartass and dumbass better than these guys.
The Ramones’ genius was their willfulness. They loaded LPs with stormtrooper playacting, druggy excursions, and doofy love songs. They slagged Commies and Reagan; they wrote songs about Freaks and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Tipper Gore. At some point, it must have occurred to someone that songs about glue and sedation and roofies weren’t going to rock the charts, but they kept plugging away, hoping that radio would meet the Ramones halfway. It never did, of course, but the band’s punk-pop formula was an international language, spawning global. Crass are godheads, and they never inspired multiple bands to cover their studio albums in full. The Ramones’ purported influence on the nascent British punk scene is probably overstated (a lot of key acts had already formed), but as four guys who decided to pick up instruments and kick the world’s ass, they were a walking gauntlet. The Damned and the Stranglers caught onto their mordant humor, Joy Division (I can’t prove this, but still) picked up on Tommy’s approach to the drums, the Buzzcocks churned out lovesick anthems to rival their peers’. Anyone plowing pop-punk soil in the last forty years is walking the Ramones’ ground.
Time was kind to the band’s popularity but merciless on their relevance; their reputation was made on their first four records (recorded within an astounding 28-month span), but there was at least one world-beater on the next five. As early as 1984, they were talking in interviews about giving the fans that classic Ramones sound, which Johnny assumed was heavy guitars played fast. There was so much more, of course. There were Dee Dee’s allusive, confrontational texts. There was an ace sense of dynamics, an almost-pat movement from verse to chorus to bridge. And there was Joey, a giant wounded sneer on the mic, punk’s great bleeding heart, geek and sex symbol both. There was also the supporting cast: Marky Ramone, the longest-tenured drummer; C.J. Ramone, the anti-Newsted, who recharged the band’s battery for a few more years; Danny Fields and Monte Melnick, the indulgent, shrewd managers; and Arturo Vega, the truest believer, the man who created the band’s logo, provided their stage lighting, and phrased their appeal in mystical terms.
You know the drill: these are the Ramones’ studio albums, ranked in order of preference. Yours may differ — it almost certainly will, and it certainly should. To the end, the band was capable of shocking the system with an impeccable pop tune from Dee Dee or a delicious violation of taste (often from Dee Dee as well). Even as they turned their focus to the stage (where the hits and cash could be reliably found), they were still the Ramones, with all the attendant skill and humanity. Their cultists became conquerors, but their legacy wasn’t pop-punk or punk rock alone. Anyone who listens to nominal trash and discovers the truth inside is a worthy inheritor of the Ramones’ legacy.
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