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Counterbalance No. 37: 'Ramones'

Hey, ho, let's go—talk quietly in the corner about the Ramones' self-titled debut and entry No. 37 on the Great List in this week's Counterbalance.



Label: Sire
US Release Date: 1976-04-23

Mendelsohn: Klinger, I can't decide whether the Ramones' Ramones is a complete work of genius or the second-worst thing I've ever heard while having to listen to albums that made it onto the Great List (the first being an album from another punk band, whose name I refuse to utter lest it lend credence to their perceived stature).

Klinger: I’m glad you came to me with this problem, Mendelsohn. You wouldn’t be the first one to have trouble with this, and I think I can help. Let’s start with the more controversial position, since my New Media Consultant tells me that’s the quickest way to get this column to go “viral” with the “young people”.

Now remember, there are no wrong answers here. What makes you say that this record—this landmark album that forever changed the face of rock and paved the way for some of the most exciting music of the past 35 years—is in fact, despite its iconic status and rave reviews, terrible?

Mendelsohn: You know that saying about putting 100 monkeys and 100 typewriters in a room and eventually you'll get Shakespeare? I think that if you gave those same monkeys a couple of guitars and a drum set, they could probably knock this album out in two, maybe three weeks, tops.

The whole album is just three chords per song, just in a different order and at slightly varied speeds. And don't get me started on the lyrics and song titles. "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend", "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement", "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue", "I Wanna Banana", "I Don't Wanna Go to the Zoo", "Now I Wanna Fling Some Poo". Repetitive much?

Klinger: But Mendelsohn, what you call repetitive, some of us might call primal. The Ramones knew that those three chords were what made rock ’n roll so great, and the music they cut their teeth on—music they loved the most—wasn’t expressing much more than pure id.

What made the Ramones (and Ramones) so great was the fact that they created a cartoonish persona and stuck with it. No winks to the audience, no breaking character. Over time, that was to become a trap for them, but in 1976 it was a brilliant bit of performance art.

Mendelsohn: And that's the rub, Klinger. On the one hand, it's just the same song, over and over again. You could play me "Blitzkrieg Bop" 15 times in a row and if I wasn't paying attention, I wouldn't even know. But on the other hand, "Blitzkrieg Bop" is an awesome song followed by songs that sound just like it and therefore are equally as awesome.

So last Friday night, I had a couple of beers and dropped the needle on this album. With every successive beer, it got better and better. By the second time through it, I've memorized all the lyrics (not hard to do) and I'm shouting along with Joey as they race through one perfect power pop number after another. But come Saturday morning, my head hurts a little, I feel queasy and listening to this record makes my eyes want to pop out of my head and find some where dark to hide. So who is right, Klinger? Friday-night-fun-time-Mendelsohn? Or Saturday-morning-shut-the-hell-up-and-learn-some-new-chords-Mendelsohn?

Klinger: That’s just it, Mendelsohn. The Ramones aren’t here to help you with your thinking. Go listen to Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway if you want sophisticated narratives and clever chord progressions (seriously, go do that; it’s a pretty good record). Ramones is as close as rock music gets to being an actual roller coaster—fast-moving, tightly controlled, and more than likely to make your head hurt if you’re not braced for it.

And the main thing about the Ramones, what I maintain sets them apart from the Sex Pistols or the early Clash, is that as fast and aggressive as their music might sound, they’re not about the anger. Strummer might have sung “No Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones” in “1977”, but the Ramones seemed to truly believe that they could be the Beatles—and the fact that they didn’t created yet another crack in their united front.

Most of their songs can be heard as pubescent larfs about how next time Joey will listen to his heart and that Jackie and Judy joined the Ice Capades. Even “Havana Affair”, which sounds like a set-up for agit-prop, is mostly about (as near as I can figure) spying on a talent show and picking bananas. If the makers of cheap American beer were asked to write a soundtrack for the consumption of their product, this is probably what they would have come up with. It’s custom-made for an evening of Friday-night-fun-time, Mendelsohn. Go with that.

Mendelsohn: In that case, I guess this album is a complete work of genius. I like it that way, because in reality, this album is really hard to hate. It's too infectious and fun. And as you noted, it isn't angry. I'd even be willing to call it old-fashioned. The Ramones pulled a neat trick by simply updating the early '60s rock model with more feedback and an edgier attitude. When you get right down to it, all of the songs follow that template—they are simple, to-the-point exercises in pop. The Ramones are in and out in two minutes and they even toss in some backing harmony on vocals. Lyrically, it's mostly run-of-the-mill innocence, except that one song where Joey sings about pulling tricks and then stabbing someone. The Ramones even update the '60s rock fashion model with matching outfits and haircuts.

Klinger: Ah, yes, "53rd and 3rd"—in many ways the wildest card in a deck that’s mostly wild cards. Dee Dee's true-life tale of turning tricks for dope money. And even that harrowing tale gets a sort of Brill Building treatment when Dee Dee steps up to the mic for the bridge, like he's their featured boy singer or something.

Of course, by the late 1970s, it seemed like there was no such thing as run-of-the-mill innocence, so Dee Dee's ode to a seedy underbelly was more appropriate than ever. Even so, it's important to keep in mind that despite the bubblegum charm of Ramones, the simple fact that they were referencing drugs, violence, and Nazis was sufficient cause for alarm. Even if they did so in a slightly silly way, and even if it sounds quaint today, it was more than just the tempos and doo-wop chord changes that caught the ear of the critics back in 1976. I realize that we shouldn't judge an album based on how shocking it was for its time—I'm inclined to believe that great art really should hold up regardless of its context—but what seems like dumb fun now was really a sort of ground zero 35 years ago.

Mendelsohn: How easily we forget. It almost seems passé to ascribe the notion that at one time, this album was on the cutting edge of shocking. But then, a lot of bands that caused a stir in their day seem quaint by the standards of the Internet Age. Elvis was once the poster child for everything that was wrong with rock, he played black music and shook his hips in a suggestive manner but now he's been banished to the Oldies stations. Then there was Madonna and her run of escalating sexual controversy. She's now a mother and role model for pop divas everywhere. Follow that up with hip-hop acts like 2 Live Crew and Ice-T—both have gone respectable with Luther Campbell entering politics and Ice-T playing a cop on TV. It seems there is a pattern here. No matter how shocking a group may initially be, time always seems to dull their cutting edge.

Do you think the passage of time might hurt the Ramones' cache down the line, once the context has been relegated to a footnote?

Klinger: For a while there, it looked like a lot of things were going to hurt the Ramones stature. Their post-1980 albums were a case study in diminishing returns. Their relentless touring meant that it was getting easier and easier to take them for granted (by the time I got around to seeing them in 1991, I did it more out of duty than anything else—although they still kicked considerable tuchis). And in the aftermath of a disastrous love triangle, Johnny and Joey were, by the end, brothers in name only [We see what you did there, Klinger—Ed.].

In the end, though, the tragic deaths of Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee in such rapid succession probably kept the Ramones' legacy permanently intact. Their deaths also reminded us that underneath the cartoon, these guys were actual flesh and blood human beings, with all the frailties that go along with that. So we'll sweep their '90s output under the rug and focus our love and attention on an astonishing run of albums that began right here. And given the band's penchant for finding that sweet spot between humanity and the macabre, I suspect that might suit them just fine.

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