To fully appreciate what the Ramones accomplished, you have to put them in context. Their eponymous debut LP came out in April of 1976, when the Billboard charts listed syrupy pop like Diana Ross’s “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?)” and the Bellamy Brothers’ fluffy “Let Your Love Flow.” The top albums that year included Earth, Wind & Fire’s Gratitude, the Eagles’ Greatest Hits, Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive, and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.
At least a few of these LPs contain excellent music, but all are a far cry from the elemental, rhythm-driven, rebellious sounds that characterize rock’s earliest tracks. By 1976, the music had evolved into everything from vapid pop to lyrically dense folk/rock to hard-rock with endless guitar solos. The Ramones wanted to get back to basics.
That they did on their debut album, which launched the punk movement and which reappeared in a 40th anniversary deluxe edition last year. Now come two more 40th anniversary editions, this time of their second and third LPs, both of which originally surfaced in 1977. Like the debut, those albums feature hard-driving music that is sufficiently fast-paced to suggest a heavy dose of amphetamines. No song is as long as three minutes, and some don’t even make it to the two-minute mark. Over and over, the Ramones deliver quick bursts of fuzz guitar, a heavy and predominant beat, and powerful hooks and harmonies—and then they bow out, almost before you know what hit you.
The group mixes in covers of a few oldies that make clear what turf they admire: Bobby Freeman’s 1958 hit “Do You Wanna Dance,” the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” from 1963, and the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins,” from 1964. (Last year’s reissue of the first Ramones LP incorporates the Rivieras’ 1964 smash, “California Sun,” and Chris Montez’s 1962 hit, “Let’s Dance”; later, on a 1993 album, they would cover such 1960s punk progenitors as the Troggs and the Seeds.)
As for their lyrics, the Ramones have quoted Herman’s Hermits’ “second verse, same as the first” (from “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”), which could have been their motto. All the lyrics for Leave Home barely fill a single page in the accompanying booklet, and those on Rocket to Russia aren’t exactly verbose, either. At least one song there contains a mere 10 words.
But the Ramones’ use of language is often as funny, clever, or sardonic as it is concise: In one song on Rocket to Russia, they rhyme “tell ’em” with “cerebellum” and, in Leave Home’s “Oh, Oh, I Love Her So,” they sum up a romance with “I met her at the Burger King / We fell in love by the soda machine.” Then there’s that album’s relatively wordy “Carbona Not Glue,” which begins, “Wondering what I’m doing tonight / I’ve been in the closet and I feel all right / Ran out of Carbona / Mom threw out the glue / Ran of paint and roach spray, too / It’s TV’s fault why I am this way / Mom and Pop wanna put me away.” Indeed.
Like the 40th anniversary edition of the Ramones’ debut, the new sets come fully loaded. Each features three CDs: the first offers two versions of the 1977 album (one remastered, one also remixed); the second delivers dozens of demos, rare mixes, and oddities, including everything from a “doo-wop mix” of “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl” on Leave Home to a Rocket to Russia radio ad featuring Joey Ramone; and the third presents a rowdy 1977 concert recording. (Leave Home serves up a CBGBs gig; Rocket to Russia taps a show from Glasgow, Scotland). For those who crave the full 1970s experience, all the 40th anniversary editions also include the remastered version of the original album on vinyl. In addition, the packages come with booklets that feature lyrics, credits, photos, and extensive liner notes.
As Leave Home and Rocket to Russia demonstrate, the Ramones remained true to their mission over time; unlike most groups, they clearly felt no need to grow, experiment, or become more sophisticated. Thus, their sophomore and junior efforts basically offer just more of what they delivered on their debut. But that doesn’t mean these records are dispensable; on the contrary, they include some of the group’s best-hooked and most irresistible rockers, such as “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” on Leave Home and “Rockaway Beach” and” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” on Rocket to Russia.
When the Ramones’ albums first came out, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of them, and they sold poorly: though Rocket to Russia did reach number 49 on the charts, the first two didn’t even make the top 100; and a hit single—a format they clearly admired—remained elusive. But the group persevered for 22 years, thousands of concerts, and more than a dozen LPs without ever losing their vision, delivering a single long guitar or drum solo, or to my knowledge laying hands on a mellotron. Eventually, they earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a position on many lists of the great rock groups of all time. The Ramones opened the door to outfits like the Sex Pistols—and then inspired such artists as the Pretenders, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Blondie, and U2 (who acknowledged the debt in 2014’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).”
Listening to Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, it’s not difficult to see why the band ultimately garnered such acclaim and proved so influential. Sure, it was all an act—Johnny, Dee Dee, Joey, and Tommy Ramone weren’t their real names, and they weren’t brothers—but what an act. No, the Ramones weren’t nearly as important as Elvis or the Beatles; but like those artists, they came along at just the right time, when music needed a shot in the arm. They delivered the medicine, and it helped to wake up a genre that was getting a bit too sleepy.
ON THE BOOKSHELF
Longtime rock writer Gillian G. Gaar walks us through Jimi Hendrix’s life and career in Hendrix: The Illustrated Story. This handsome coffee-table book begins with a detailed look at the guitarist’s parents and childhood and ends with information about his gravesite and the Seattle museum that memorializes much of his work. Also included are essays by Gaar and several other writers about Hendrix’s guitars and the albums he issued during his lifetime. Throughout, there are lots of photos—everything from a three-year-old Hendrix with his father to performance shots and images of concert posters. Supplements include lists of live appearances and an extensive discography. There’s also a bibliography of books and articles for those who want to read more, but I suspect this volume will suffice for many fans.