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Music

The Ramones: An Appreciation

Hank Kalet

The Sex Pistols would sing of 'no future' with rage and desperation, wearing their fury against adult culture and the failing English economy as a badge; the Ramones turned their alienation into a joke.

I used to wear black canvas Converse high-top sneakers back in the early 1980s. And a leather jacket. And my hair was kind of long.

I was 20 and I listened to the Ramones.

I thought about digging out the pair of black Converse I bought a couple of years as a tribute when I heard that Johnny Ramone had died. Ramone, born Johnny Cummings, died September 15 at his home in California of prostate cancer.

He was the third of the band's original lineup to die. Lead singer Joey died of throat cancer in 2001 and Dee Dee, the bass player, died in 2002 of what was believed to be a drug overdose.

Johnny was in many ways the driving force behind the band, a fierce defender of the band's image. Joey and Dee Dee, were the chief songwriters, but Johnny was anchor that kept the band working, focusing on business and his rapid-fire guitar assault -� he attacked the chords on the down-stroke and eschewed solos were as responsible as anything creating the band's sound.

The Ramones were a seminal punk band, some would say the first, though bands like the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and the Stooges were playing what now should be seen as early versions of punk before the punk movement was born.

Four friends from Queens, N.Y., who took on the roles of juvenile delinquents and toughs, the band spent its nearly 20-year history playing an aggressive, visceral kind of rock and roll.

The Ramones' sound was simple and direct, combining Joey Ramone's wonderfully limited vocal range with Johnny Ramone's buzz-saw guitar and Dee and Tommy's amphetamine rhythm section to create a visceral and aggressive, no-holds-barred musical statement. It was a re-creation of an earlier rock-and-roll style, speeded up and played as loudly as it could be played.

The lyrics were stripped-down odes to teenage life in the mid-1970s, pictures of working class life in Queens, focusing on girls and drugs and boredom with a sly humor that kept it from falling into the kind of desperate nihilism that characterized much of punk. The Sex Pistols would sing of "no future" with rage and desperation, wearing their fury against adult culture and the failing English economy as a badge; the Ramones turned their alienation into a joke.

"They're forming in a straight line. / They're going through a tight wind. / The kids are losing their minds. / The Blitzkrieg Bop."

I saw the Ramones in the summer of 1981 at a show on the piers in New York City sponsored by WNEW, the New York rock station that had defined the spirit of rock radio for a long time (it died a long, slow, painful death during the 1980s and 1990s, finally giving way to a short-lived talk format).

It was an outdoor show and the volume was ear-splitting -� my ears rang for several days after the show -� and the imperative was speed. The show was like most other Ramones shows. There were a lot of songs (probably two dozen averaging maybe two or two and a half minutes), little talking and a lot of energy. Every six or seven songs, Dee Dee would kick start the music with his trademark count-off. It was an exhilarating experience.

"Our music is an answer to the early Seventies when artsy people with big egos would do vocal harmonies and play long guitar solos and get called geniuses," drummer Tommy Ramone told Rolling Stone during an early interview (12 August 1976). "That was bullshit. We play rock & roll. We don't do solos. Our only harmonics are in the overtones from the guitar chords."

It is an apt description of a band that challenged convention. At the same time, the implied amateurishness of the band's approach was as much an invention as it was the truth. The Ramones understood rock & roll history and used it to salvage a music that had become bloated and self-indulgent.

Borrowing heavily from early '60s styles like girl-group and surf rock, the band added a bit of mid-'70s attitude. Songs like "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and "I Just Want to Have Something to Do" are built on the simple three- and four-chord structures of the early Beatles and Beachboys.

They covered songs like "Let's Dance", "California Sun", "Surfin' Bird", "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Needles and Pins", cementing their connection to an earlier time, but running these songs through their own warped sensibilities to produce something new, loud and ecstatic.

California, however, was faraway, a mythical place. Queens, however, was real. It was sniffing glue and Carbona cleaning fluid. It was shock treatment and violence. Even their Queens version of Beachboys-style fun and sun, "Rockaway Beach", was grounded in the realities of mid-'70s New York City:

The song opens with an idealized version of summer fun -- "Chewing out a rhythm on my bubble gum. / The sun is out and I want some. / It's not hard, not hard to reach. / We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach." -� but quickly loses that sense of fun -- "Up on the roof, out on the street, / down in the playground, the hot concrete. / Bus ride is too slow. They blast out the disco on the radio."

The band created four near-perfect albums -� Ramones, Ramones Leave Home, Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin �- several real good ones and far too many on which the joke wore stale. There were drugs and alcohol and anger. Off stage, they were dysfunctional.

Dee Dee battled drugs. Marky, who replaced Tommy on the drums, battled booze and was in turn replaced by several different drummers before returning. Joey and Johnny stopped getting along back in the band's heyday �- in simple terms, Johnny was an arch conservative who disdained the excesses of the time, while Joey was the liberal hippie and dreamer. It was, as Tommy told Rolling Stone recently, a volatile mix.

"I think we all liked each other in the beginning, but the dynamics were overpowering," Tommy told Rolling Stone recently. "It's one of the reasons that I had to leave the band after four years in the van with them. I would have drowned. It could get very moody, very volatile."

None of this stopped them from performing and recording. And while none of the albums they released after 1980 were as good as those first four, they still managed to release good individual songs. Even on Adios Amios, their weakest and final album, there was Joey belching out his amphibian vocal above Johnny's thrashing guitar on the band's inspired version of Tom Waits' "I Don't Want to Grow Up." (Waits returned the favor on the tribute disc, We're a Happy Family, with his rendition of "Return of Jackie & Judy".)

Ultimately, though, it is the first four albums that claimed the band's place in the rock & roll pantheon, that earned them entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and will allow them to live long into the future.

Rest in peace, Johnny, and long live the Ramones.

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