In the early-1970s in America, the Vietnam War was raging on as conservatism squelched anti-war efforts, the Black Power Movement, or just about anything that stood in the way of its law and order agenda, ironically leading to one of America’s biggest political scandals on Capitol Hill, Watergate. The hippie dream of the 60s was unofficially disrupted with the murder of a concertgoer by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang at a Rolling Stones show at Altamont Speedway in Tracy, California. All over America, people were reeling from the effects of a debilitating recession, the first since the Post-WWII expansion; white families fled from major hubs such as New York City. As a result, urban decay ensued in large swaths.
To a relatively small portion of the population, the music scene shared a similar fate; the gritty spirit of rock ‘n’ roll – passed down by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and the British Invasion, among others – had been replaced by overproduced, formulaic, prefabricated bands, replete with self-indulgent musical arrangements. Rock ‘n’ roll had become a hopelessly excessive art form that was starting to devour itself.
As a result, America’s youth was bored and restless; a musical revolution was inevitable. As the decade barrelled forward, a new radical musical genre coined punk would eventually coalesce into some pivotal recordings during the mid-late ’70s. Sonically and aesthetically, its ethos was simple but profound: reduction. Two seminal albums that embody these economic principles utilizing common elements with differing outcomes are Ramones‘ Ramones and Devo‘s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!.
Largely inspired by the brashness and reductiveness of the New York Dolls and the Stooges and combining a desire to save rock ‘n’ roll with a DIY aesthetic, Ramones – comprised of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy, all assuming the surname Ramone – took the stage for the first time at an indiscriminate club called CBGB in downtown New York City in August 1974. Though developing their gifts took a while, Ramones eventually became a tight, competent, well-oiled unit. As they drew larger crowds at the downtown club, whose burgeoning scene would launch a fresh breed of intriguing acts, Ramones would expand their fan base outside the immediate NYC area and eventually sign to Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, releasing their eponymous debut in April 1976, the first declaration of American punk ethos. It was the sonic shot heard around the world.
In direct opposition to rock’s bloated aesthetic, Ramones brandishes 14 face-melting songs clocking in at just under 30 minutes, stripped down to their bare minimum, encompassing the raw energy of early rock ‘n’ roll but pressed to the floor to create something refreshingly unique. Lyrically, the songs on Ramones support a back-to-basic ethos, teeming with twisted lyrics about kids sniffing glue from boredom, beating on brats, chainsaw massacres, and turning tricks on a fabled NYC street corner. Dee Dee Ramone, the band’s principal songwriter and resident army brat, wove war and Nazi imagery into their songs, subversively crafting something bizarre as a sign of cultural resistance. He also did this to negotiate his traumatic past, weaving it into a celebration of life.
In contrast to much of the day’s pop music, e.g., Journey, Boston, and Foreigner, Ramones were “real”, singing about subject matter that was true for them, planted in the personal/social struggles of daily life, identity, agency, and freedom. Even their choice of wordplay exemplified defiance and individuality; they wanted to be your boyfriend but didn’t want to walk around with you; they wanted to sniff some glue but didn’t want to go down to the basement. Even the cover, a stunning black and white photograph where all four members are pitched gang-style against a graffitied wall, clad in unifying street garb – leather jackets, ripped jeans, tennis shoes, and t-shirts (much like their fans) – was a symbol of rebellion against the status quo, a rallying cry for disaffected youth who were dealing with the backlash of marginalization as a fallout of embracing individuality.
In this spirit of inclusion, Ramones forged an imperishable bond with an audience who were coming to terms with the disappointment, shame, and trauma of past generations’ legacies of unresolved family history and social injustice. In this way, Ramones – with its low budget, no-frills $6,400 production approach, stereo-separated razor-edge and blunt downstroke guitar and bass patterns, tight, economic eighth-note high hat drumming laying unsteadily under sweet melody-soaked, hook-laden vocals – all unique attributes at the time – was trailblazing on a musical and cultural path that virtually nobody knew existed, reclaiming rock from the mediocrity of overindulgence and commercialism.
This reclamation is evident throughout the album, from their amped-up version of Chris Montez’s 1962 hit “Let’s Dance”, to the background “oohs” and “ahs” adorning “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” all the way to the borrowed lines “second verse, same as the first” – popularized by Herman Hermits’ 1965 song “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” (as well as their resulting mock response “third verse, different from the first”) – in “Judy Is a Punk”. This also indicates that, above all, Ramones were fun, something that was reflected in their audience. As singer Joey once claimed, “the media and press are so stiff…but the kids, they know what they’ve come to see. They just want to have a good time, you know?”
Their brand of musical austerity bolstered their agency, drew the outsider in, and made the misfits feel that they belonged and start a band if they wanted to, something that much less accessible but “skilled” acts couldn’t necessarily aspire to. Ramones did this in spades, with a debut offering that sounded more like a greatest hits record, eventually serving as a wake-up call to the masses.
Concurrently, while Ramones were unknowingly turning rock on its head, a group of Kent State University students from Akron, Ohio, were experiencing their own disillusionment. They would be fueled by the horror of the May 4, 1970, military shootings that left four innocent students dead, as well as the irony that technological advances shaping the country’s future were actually responsible for its state of regression. One of these affected art students prophesied about the plausibility of a savage future much like its past; a “dumbing down of the population engineered by right-wing politicians, televangelists and Madison Avenue…where the capacity for critical thought and reasoning were eroding fast,” according to bassist and songwriter Gerald V. Casale.
This concept of “de-evolution” would soon be shortened to Devo. With like-minded creative co-conspirator Mark Mothersbaugh, they formed a band to represent their philosophies, resisting the failed promise of progress hawked by politicians and consumer culture.
Soon after, they shot their short manifesto film, directed by Chuck Statler, The Truth About De-Evolution, rife with bizarre, dystopian imagery and more mechanically-saturated versions of songs that would appear on future albums, plus the introduction of “Booji Boy”, an infantile character created and adorned by Mothersbaugh depicting the regression of Western society. Soon after, the group began their quest of ushering Devo to the masses; at a 1977 New York City performance, David Bowie proclaimed them the “band of the future” and promised to produce their upcoming debut album. But scheduling conflicts with his own album led to one-time Roxy Music keyboardist and eventual Grammy-winning producer-cum-experimental and ambient music artist Brian Eno assuming the role, a seemingly ideal match for Devo’s eclecticism.
The pairing led to the August 1978 release of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, an angular, sonically reductive offering in differing ways than Ramones. Though most of its songs boast a similar musical arrangement of guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, with occasional synthesizer flourishes – a formula that the band would ultimately flip on future recordings – Devo utilizes space to create tension within its songs, unlike the wall-of-sound urgency found on Ramones. Railing against the conformity and corporatization of rock ‘n’ roll, Devo took what they saw, repurposed it to preposterous degrees, and offered it back – much like the Ramones did with Nazi imagery.
Both bands borrowed from rock’s past and recycled it; Ramones used power chords, pop song structures, and catchy melodies, Q: Are We Not Men? employed the electric guitar as a vestige of humanity, with threads of sonic sensibilities borrowed from surf guitar and spy movie soundtracks that had fallen out of favor with the general public. While both albums sought to deliver something fresh and exciting to music by way of simplicity, their missions differ; Ramones uses reduction as a means to end, to bring rock back to its roots. Q: Are We Not Men? utilizes reduction as the end itself to mirror society’s decline.
Q: Are We Not Men? boasts the songs “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy”, two jittery rockers depicting man’s compulsory tendencies toward consumerism and violence, respectively, while “Space Junk” embodies a stiff, robotic middle eight that satires expressionless television news anchors, and “Praying Hands”, featuring vocals that bark orders, lampooning religious leaders and televangelists. “Too Much Paranoias” is a lumbering mechanical exercise – part horror flick, part commercial break – and “Come Back Jonee” a “Johnny B. Goode” spoof that addresses the broken promise of rags-to-riches as much as it does the failings of past administrations.
One of Q: Are We Not Men?‘s two centerpieces is “Jocko Homo”, the song that most clearly establishes the de-evolution credo in a wash of odd time signatures, stuttery, pulsing rhythms (courtesy of human metronome Alan Myers), pep-rally vocals (“Are we not men? We are Devo!”), lurching synthesizer treatments, and man-to-monkey lyrics and title lifted from Dr. B.H. Shadduck’s Christian anti-evolution publication from 1924, Jocko Homo Heavenbound. In essence, “Jocko Homo” is the glorious sound of things falling apart. During performances, it’s also the point at which the band physically devolves; before the break, the members of Devo strip themselves of their trademark yellow hazmat suits to reveal the more bare aesthetics of black t-shirts, mini-shorts, elbow and knee pads, and knee-high socks.
The other standout track on Q: Are We Not Men? is their near-complete dismantling of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, a cover which bewildered Jagger and television audiences at first with its chronic, jerky quasi-reggae rhythm and Mothersbaugh’s signature stuttering yelps. After their treatment, all that remains are mere traces of the original melody and Richards’ signature guitar riff that Mothersbaugh repeats as if only by obligation at the end of the song. In concert, the guitar line receives some visual aid, with a distortion box haphazardly duct-taped to the singer’s Telecaster, with Mothersbaugh engaging it at the appropriate moment. It is at once an homage to their musical idols as well as a defiant statement of purpose. For Casale, “Satisfaction” remains one of the band’s shining moments and is arguably one of rock’s greatest covers.
Neither band enjoyed immediate success following their debut releases; they would be celebrated much later in their careers. Mixed reviews for Ramones and Q: Are We Not Men? may have aided in their relatively bleak chart positions of 111 and 78, but their audiences knew better. That the aim of punk was to send a jolt to the established order and empower youth provides ample proof that both bands ultimately succeeded in their respective missions. Where Ramones borrowed from the past but used sheer energy, volume, satire, as well as a blatant resistance to established musical norms in a reductive capacity, Q: Are We Not Men? skillfully challenged those norms by utilizing traditional themes – culturally and musically – by reductively subverting them. Its bizarre cover art serves as a fitting representation of these themes: a 1950s image of an “ideal” man in a sports shirt and leisure hat superimposed on a golf ball, all symbols of the empty promises of the Post-WWII American dream.
There would be many seminal albums in punk’s early days that would help define the movement that stood as documents of resistance; The Sex Pistols’ Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – arguably the most important album of the genre after Ramones – tackles issues through an aggressive, anarchistic lens, The Slits’ Cut and X Ray Spex’s Germfree Adolescents both informed the Riot Grrrl movement by 15 years and contained songs of feminism and anti-consumerism, respectively, the Clash’s The Clash takes on race, class, and big business, among other themes, Tom Robinson Band’s Power in the Darkness bespeaks social issues by chiefly championing gay rights, Stiff Little Fingers’ Inflammable Material reflects the grim life in 1970s Northern Ireland replete with songs about violence and police oppression, and the list goes on.
In their respective subgenres, however, Ramones and Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! were unquestionably trailblazing albums the likes of which the world hadn’t heard prior to their release; the former would shift the rock music landscape entirely, inspiring the formation of movements and genres like post-punk, alternative, grunge, riot grrrl, and indie rock, continuing to espouse individuality and creative risk-taking; the latter’s informing of an entire subgenre of punk coined new wave, its right-angled absurdism kick-starting the alternative ’80s, as well as pioneering the music video format.
Most significantly, both bands and their respective debuts were uncompromising and unapologetic in their simplicity, championing individuality and empowerment through DIY ethos, something devoid in the lumbering mainstream rock of the ’70s. While the Ramones held out hope with an open hand – where youth could experience personal freedom – Devo similarly exemplified real freedom as opposed to the manufactured kind, like advertising campaigns where the consumer is told how to do so. This is punk’s legacy, which continues to evolve with each generation of outcasts and misfits who pick up a guitar without prior experience to try and fit in. Indeed, as both the Ramones and Devo implied with their stunning and consequential debut records, creating a subculture takes a communal effort.
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Casale, Gerald V. “We Are Drowning in a Devolved World: An Open Letter from Devo”. Noisey, VICE. 6 December 2018.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. “The Philosophy of the Ramones“. European Journal of American Culture, vol. 37, no. 1. March 2018.
Domanick, Andrea. “The Truth About Devo, America’s Most Misunderstood Band”. Noisey, VICE. 29 August 2018.
Gaines, Donna. Why the Ramones Matter. University Press of New England. 2018.
Kinsella, Warren. Fury’s Hour: A (Sort-of) Punk Manifesto. Random House Canada. 2005.
Padgett, Ray. “The Story Behind Devo’s Iconic Cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction'”. The New Yorker. 25 September 2017.