Music

Three Chords and the Truth: The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash

Ask most punk fans today to name their top ten punk songs and bands and it's likely that the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash will still be there.

As much as punk exists as a subculture, style, attitude, and artistic aesthetic, it is—first and foremost—a musical phenomenon. But what constitutes the sound of punk rock? And how far and wide should the net be cast in capturing songs that can credibly be designated punk? Can punk be mapped when the borders and districting are so regularly contested geographically, historically, and artistically? In assessing the journey of punk—from its foundations to its mutations and manifestations—critical consensus must ultimately take a back seat to reasoned subjectivity. Few, though, would contest that when drawing the map of punk, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash must be penciled in as capital cities from which the genre's suburbs and exurbs have subsequently developed.

The Ramones, Pistols, and Clash are presented here as the foundational pillars of punk rock; they are chosen not in dismissal of other candidates but in recognition of the more central roles these three bands played in determining and influencing the musical features and traditions of the genre's high season from 1976 to 1978. Ask most punk fans to name their top ten punk songs or bands and it's likely that these three originators will feature in their lists. Ask which of the early punk bands have withstood the test of time and continue to inspire punk-oriented artists and again these three will likely feature in the discussion.

In considering these axes of punk, each can be regarded as equally significant, if for different reasons. It's hard to imagine the sly "dumb" humor, pop sensibilities, and minimalist guitar assault of punk rock without the Ramones; it's equally difficult to imagine the streets-via-art school nihilism, cynicism, and rage of punk rock without the Sex Pistols; tough it is, too, to envisage the social conscience, protest chic, and rebel rock rallying of punk rock without the Clash. All were united by an excess of youthful energy that infused and transcended their respective musical output; and each drew a line in the sand that metaphorically promised, as Joe Strummer sang, "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977" (The Clash, "1977", CBS, 1977).

Journalist Legs McNeil recounts the first time he heard the Ramones at CBGBs in 1975: "They counted off a song—'ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!'—and we were hit with this blast of noise, you physically recoiled from the shock of it, like this huge wind, and before I could even get into it, they stopped. Apparently they were all playing a different song…. It was amazing. [They] played the best eighteen minutes of rock and roll that I had ever heard" (McNeil, Legs & Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me, Penguin, 1996, p.205). Few critics have better captured the magnificent mayhem of the band live. In his recollection is a recognition of how shocking they initially sounded, how gloriously amateurish their performance seemed, and how concise and concentrated the energy of the sonic assault was.

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With only the road available to spread their gospel, the band's next challenge was to capture their primal performances on wax. This they did with typical brevity, recording their eponymous debut album in just a few days for only $6,400. It became, as Joey Ramone recalls, "an album that really changed the world. It kicked off punk rock and started the whole thing—as well as us" (p.229). As heard live, the album's 14 tracks featured their familiar down-strum distortion-soaked guitar sound over a bare-boned backbeat of rudimentary drum beats and driving bass. More decipherable and discernible for those unable to find nuance within the "blast of noise" of the live sound, though, was Joey—his deadpan vocal high in the mix—delivering succinct tales of teen tedium and disaffection. McNeil had picked up on the "sarcastic" aspects of the band live, but few realized how hilarious their street slob gestures were in lyrical form (p.206). "His dumbness was so smart," assesses Richard Hell of Dee Dee Ramone, the band's principle songwriter (p.212). Recalling the album's series of "I Don't Wanna" negation numbers, Dee Dee wryly comments, "We didn't write a positive song until 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue'" (p.212). Critic Steven Wells is hip to how Ramones-style caricature humor has been as much a ubiquitous feature of punk history as any other trait, stating, "Punk was just as much about taking the piss as it was about smashing the system" (Punk: Young, Loud & Snotty, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004, p.6).

Also attentive to the wit and wallop of the Ramones were the would-be punks of London, many of whom had attended the band's gig at The Roundhouse in 1976. Soon after, the Damned, as Tom Verlaine suggests, "copped" the sound of the Ramones while developing their own more animated brand of physical humor (MOJO, "Television: New York Art-Rockers", Punk: The Whole Story, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2006, p.142), and Sid Vicious prepared himself to be a Sex Pistol by consuming copious amounts of speed before staying up all night and learning to play his bass guitar by repeatedly playing along to The Ramones record (Jon Savage, England's Dreaming, St. Martin's, p.194). The Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Vibrators, the Adverts, Generation X, and the Lurkers are just some of the first-wave British punk bands that crafted "their" sound by listening closely to that album. "Common throughout" early UK punk, explains Jon Savage, "is the Ramonic style which became the standard definition of punk" (p.588). To MOJO, the debut Ramones release established "the whole blueprint for punk", one that "would soon be much aped" (p.211).

Even the Sex Pistols, whose songs were stylistically slower, were clearly inspired by the Ramones' lyrical parodies of youth boredom and negativity. Instead of "I Don't Wanna" songs, though, Johnny Rotten wrote "No Feelings" and the "No future" incantation in "God Save the Queen". The band even made the Stooges' "No Fun" a staple of their live set. As much as Rotten has since tried to deny ever listening to or paying attention to the Ramones (or to US punk in general), their influence—based on the musical evidence—is within earshot.

Yet, whereas the Ramones address alienation and negation in a playful, almost child-like way, no such "light" creeps into the Pistols' humor. Relentless in his scathing assaults on any establishment he can find, Rotten sings, as Dave Marsh notes, "like a man picking a scab" (The Heart of Rock & Soul, Plume, 1989, p.73). Nowhere is this more apparent than in "God Save the Queen", the band's second and most successful single. Arriving on the eve of the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, at a time when most citizens were content to withdraw into a time-warped delusion about when Britain was "Great", the Pistols slapped the nation back into facing up to the reality that its youth had been deposited in the "dustbin". Highlighting the generational divide like no performer has since Bob Dylan in the early '60s, Rotten establishes an "us versus them" dichotomy, calling on his fellow youths to transcend the national "dreaming" that keeps them as "moron[s]" with "no future". Critics have often (reasonably) charged the band with nihilism, noting the song's closing "no future" mantra, but they ignore the "don't be told" sections of the song that call for action, dissent, and resistance. "I don't think anything about the Pistols was nihilistic," argues Rotten. "Quite the opposite. It's very constructive because we're offering an alternative" (Rotten, Picador, 1994, p.83).

This "alternative" was, as critic Greil Marcus observes, "Refusing the future society has planned for you" (Wells, p.5). And this refusal took myriad forms, both musical and social in nature. Rotten refused to let his band become the '60s tribute act they would likely have been if left in the hands of the other members; Rotten refused to allow his manager to reduce his band to a mere bourgeois art experiment, instead making street realism the backbone of the band's authenticity and credibility; Rotten refused to sing like other singers, structure lyrics according to pop/rock conventions, or perform with customary stage moves, his radical choices establishing innovative options others continue to adopt and apply today; and Rotten made the Pistols an archetype for punk's artistic future, one dedicated to social questioning and a theatrics of rage.

All of these successors share the Clash's lyrical approach, too, which starts with the question, "what's going on?" The answers come from a sensory purview of the eyes and ears. On The Clash, released in April 1977, are 14 songs of tower block rock, each containing "concrete" images of observation, each revolving around slogan-titles like "Garageland", "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A.", and "White Riot", all chorus tags tailor-made for terrace-style communal "folk" chanting. But unlike on the Ramones and Sex Pistols debuts, where distorted guitar overdubs offer a full, fat sound, the instruments on The Clash are more subordinate to the singing, allowing the lyrics and ragged voices to be fore-fronted. The guitars have more treble and less distortion, while the drums merely shuffle in the background. Some have criticized this production, finding the overall sound weak and limp compared to their peers'; but arguably by sounding less produced, cracks are not papered over by wall-of-sound guitars and an authentic amateur quality shines through, "a rough, rushed feel" of urgency, according to critic Stephen Wells (p.27).

A few exceptions aside, the punk groups that immediately followed the Ramones, Pistols, and Clash mostly offered variations on the songwriting principles and methods laid down by these three bands. Moreover, even these three trailblazers produced little thereafter with the kind of tectonic shifts created by their groundbreaking debuts. The Ramones had their sound, style, and vision fully formed before they even entered a recording studio, and their releases and performances over the next 22 years reflect little willingness or desire to depart from that original model. A stronger case can be made for the Clash in regard to transcending punk in 1976; yet, despite the qualities of 1979's London Calling, it can hardly be called transformational.

Like the Sex Pistols in 1996 (and then again in 2002 and 2007), many 1976 punk bands have reformed in recent years, introducing new generations to that old school sound. Dismissive shouts of "sell out" and "flogging a dead horse" have met many of these efforts, but they also reflect a yearning that still exists for the kind of energy, force, and humanity too often lacking in contemporary rock and pop music. If nothing else, these revival tours remind us of what punk proper both introduced and drove out. Critic Jon Savage pinpoints the keys to its legacy, arguing that "its original, gleeful negation remains a beacon. History is made by those who say 'No' and punk's utopian heresies remain its gift to the world" (p.541).

Just as significant is the spirit of independence that 1976 punk set off, such that by 1978, much of the most original and provocative music was being released on independent labels. Trapped on majors, the Sex Pistols and the Clash may not have walked that walk, but their songwriting assaults on their corporate bosses ("EMI", "Complete Control") were still inspirational to their successors who vowed not to make the same mistakes.

That legacy of independence was far-reaching, too, as 1976 punk introduced a DIY mentality, not only to music making but to management, media, merchandizing, and image-making. And within these ancillary areas more outsiders stepped inside, bringing more presence and authority to women, working-class, and LGBT+ punk enthusiasts. In subsequent years and decades these ostracized constituencies have come to dominate and determine many of the detours punk has made both within and beyond music. That social and artistic legacy is quite an achievement, considering its origins reside in a musical philosophy and practice that promised little more than three chords and the truth.

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