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How the ‘Ramones’ gave the world punk

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on April 10, 2021

Keeping it cool: The black leather jackets of the band members became a fashion statement for a whole generation of punk fans   -  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The iconic punk rock band took a whole generation along as they toured the globe for 22 years

* The Ramones were the first punk band to decimate a stage and jump all over musical equipment in their quest for just the right sound to drive the audience to the brink of slack-limbed ecstasy

* The music was minimal, stark, loud and pithy

* Their clothes became a fashion statement for a generation that wanted to identify itself with what had inarguably become more than just a musical genre, and had become a straightforward, unvarnished way to express emotion and angst

***

This is the story of the Ramones, often considered one of the first punk rock bands that existed. Borrowing their name from a pseudonym that Paul McCartney used while booking himself into hotel rooms — Paul Ramon — they are credited with doing an astounding 2,263 concerts, touring virtually non-stop for 22 years. They were arguably the first punk band to decimate a stage and jump all over musical equipment in their quest for just the right sound to drive the audience to the brink of slack-limbed ecstasy. Although they were divided over political ideology, notions of discipline and musical direction, five decades after their 1974 start, they still manage to be one of the most influential bands in music history, colouring the imagination of a whole generation of artistes, including Paul Di’Anno of Iron maiden, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Dave Grohl of Nirvana, to name a few.

But one must progress chronologically through the glittering career of the legends. The year was 1974. In the Queens borough of New York City, John Cummings met Thomas Erdelyi and decided to get together to form a high school garage band. Along with Douglas Colvin and Jeffrey Hyman, the band began to take shape. But it needed character. Colvin, the group’s singer at that time, decided to take on the name Ramone, inspired by the pseudonym that Paul McCartney used when The Beatles were still called The Silver Beetles. He called himself Dee Dee Ramone, and persuaded the others to take the surname so they could call their band the Ramones. Hyman and Cummings became Joey and Johnny Ramone, and the legend was born.

Dee Dee soon realised that he could not sing while playing the guitar, and so left the singing and drumming to Joey, who in turn realised he could not sing while drumming. So Joey took over duties in front of the microphone and left the drumming to Tommy. Dee Dee also took to counting off the song with his signature rapid fire “1-2-3-4!”. The four of them dressed in their black leather jackets as they delivered 17-minute end-to-end performances that induced suitable sounds of awe from their audience.

Commercial success on the album front, though, was scant. Their first album, Ramones, released in 1976 and, despite rave reviews from the critics, climbed only to number 11 on the Billboard charts. The imagery, though, was still white hot for a whole generation. Their 1985 single Bonzo goes to Bitburg was a protest against Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German military cemetery where SS officers were also buried. Their strident, minimal sound, and the stark messaging led The New York Times critic Jon Pareles to hail them as a band that “speaks for outcastes and disturbed individuals”.

This did not mean that all was roses and cream. While they were stridently waving the punk flag and leading the sonic charge, things discorded within. Johnny and Joey occupied parallel ends of the thought spectrum for much of their career. While Johnny had spent two years in military school and exercised iron fisted self-discipline, Joey fell prey to alcoholism and struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder. Joey was a liberal and Johnny a conservative — not really a recipe for peaceful coexistence. Dee Dee suffered from bipolar disorder and his repeated relapses into drug addiction were cause for much friction as well as frequent public flare ups, most notably on radio celebrity Howard Stern’s show in 1997, when two of the band’s member broke into an on-air fight.

Through it all, though, the band continued to make music that was minimal, stark, loud, and pithy. Their clothes became a fashion statement for a generation that wanted to identify itself with what had arguably become more than just a musical genre, and had become a straightforward, unvarnished way to express emotion and angst. Punk had been defined, and it was often spelt R-A-M-O-N-E-S.

From Green Day’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong naming his son Joey to pay homage to Joey Ramone, and the band’s drummer Tre Cool naming his daughter Ramona, to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett who openly acknowledged Johnny Ramone’s influence on his own thrash guitar technique, the Ramones have cast their shadow long and deep.

And all this sans significant commercial success, bereft of selling out big arenas, with only one gold record to their name, and that too 38 years after its release.

As Gene Simmons, legendary bassist and co-lead of the band Kiss, so succinctly put it, “We think of the Ramones as a classic, iconic band. They have one gold record to their name. They never played arenas; couldn’t sell them out. It was a failed band. It doesn’t mean they weren’t great. It means the masses didn’t care.”

Perhaps a lesson there for all of us, if we can hear intently enough.

(Mad About Music is a monthly column on contemporary music)

Sarthak Kaushik   -  Business Line

 

Sarthak Kaushik is a broadcaster and music programmer

Instagram: @sarthakfromradio

Published on April 10, 2021

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