By Neil McCormick
12 July 2014
The sound and the fury: the Ramones (From left: Johnny, Tommy and Joey)
Hey ho, they’re gone. The last of the original Ramones, Tommy Erdelyi, has died aged 62, finally bringing to an end the saga of one of the most loved bands in rock and roll history, New York’s original cartoon punks.
Masquerading as inbred cretin siblings, singer Joey Ramone, guitarist Johnny Ramone, bassist Dee Dee Ramone and drummer Tommy Ramone emerged from the CBGB’s scuzzy art rock scene in 1976 with a sonic blast that reverberated around the world. They boiled rock down to its very essence: three chords and a beat. It was so fantastically dumb it could only be a work of genius.
The Ramones are one of the few groups of whom it can be said that they changed everything. They certainly changed me. At 16, the Ramones self-titled debut was the first punk album I purchased. When they played in Dublin, I was down the front, thrashing about in the throng. I formed a band at school, and the first song we learned was Glad To See You Go, track one, side one of their second album, Ramones Leave Home.
When we felt we had mastered that, we learned the rest of side one, flipped the record over, and moved on to side two To be fair, the Ramones were ideal start up material for a young band: their chord progressions were simple and arrangements essentially boiled down to everyone playing the same notes at the same time as fast and loud as possible, yet the overall effect was fantastically dynamic. It was a style completely at odds with the prevailing Seventies trend of floridly attired, quasi-operatic, lead-soloing, progressive rock.
The Ramones had an image of iconic purity: long hair, black leather jackets, T-shirts, ripped jeans and sneakers. They blasted out short songs over a non-stop, tom-tom dominated beat with basic melodies and repetitive lyrics, an approach developed to overcome technical deficiencies. Many of their songs were indistinguishable from each other, a fact not helped by Joey’s peculiar enunciation, in which words were strung together by syllables alone, consonants jettisoned in the frenzy. They did, however, print lyric sheets, allowing scholars to study such gems as Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, which contains the following four lines repeated as many times as possible in two minutes flat: “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.” Debate and discuss.
I loved it all and love it still: Blitzkreig Bop, Beat On The Brat, Sheena Is A Punk Rocker, Teenage Lobotomy, Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World, songs with ridiculous couplets like, “There’s no stoppin’ / The cretins from hoppin’.
For me, Joey’s gulping, weeping voice could break your heart even when he was singing about murder and mental illness. I heard symphonies of electric sound in the overloaded chainsaw buzz of Johnny’s guitar. I was so enraptured by the whole Ramones’ oeuvre that I never even questioned their comical self-mythologising, taking it on trust that they were, indeed, the inbred geek spawn of some mutant family from the industrial wastes of New Jersey. I was devastated when I learned that the Ramones were not actually related.
Critics had a more intellectual appreciation. Essays were written about their grasp of sonic dynamics; use of melodic guitar distortion and the conceptual simplicity of a three beat drum break. The Ramones were heralded as brilliant musical minimalists. They served as catalysts and inspiration for hundreds of emerging bands. Wide-eyed future members of The Sex Pistols and The Clash were at the Ramones’ first London gigs. You can still hear the echo of their sound in rehearsal rooms around the world. Every time rock starts getting bloated and needs to reset its dial, the spirit of the Ramones is invariably invoked.
And therein lay their strength and their weakness. When you have condensed something to its purest form, how do you improve upon it? The Ramones are one of those groups who should probably have broken up at the height of their powers, or better still, spontaneously combusted on stage. Tommy departed after Rocket To Russia in 1977 to follow a career in production, already cognisant that the group really had nowhere to go. The Ramones tried to develop but each additional chord change betrayed their fundamental raison d’être. Johnny’s guitar solos demonstrated what a limited player he really was. Lyrics got longer without getting any better. They tried light and poppy and big and heavy. They embraced the emerging hardcore scene, with bassist Dee Dee ranting tunelessly over thrash-metal. And eventually they reverted to what they knew best, becoming the Status Quo of punk. They never really achieved the commercial and financial success their influence warranted until one by one they shuffled off the stage. Joey died in 2001 aged 49, Dee Dee in 2002 aged 50, Johnny in 2004 aged 55. For a band who perfectly encapsulated the dumb essence of rock’s eternal youth, perhaps old age was never an option. Tommy, the first to leave, was the last to go.
“Hey Johhny, hey Dee Dee, Little Tom and Joey ." They were fast. They were loud. And all the songs sounded the same. Those of us who emerged from the blank generation may never experience rock this pure, this sweet and this ridiculous again.