4 5 6 7—all good cretins go to heaven
The last time I saw the Ramones perform, it was in 1978 at a small Long Island club called My Father’s Place. We were pretty blitzed that night, and I was under the influence of something that impeded my comprehension of the two opening acts. One of my accomplices that evening, however, remembers the scene vividly:
“We saw two bands before JoeyJohnnyDeedeeMarky came out: The Young Adults, a strange big band doing funk/punk/jazz with a Wallace Shawn lookalike singing and honking the occasional sax. He wore a tigerprint leotard; the bass player wore a gingham dress. They did an excellent horn-soaked original called ‘Men’ that lambasted the male of the species and ended up with the theme from ‘The Magnificent Seven.’
The other band was Birdland, featuring Joey Ramone’s brother and, more significantly, fronted by the legendary Lester Bangs. As a big Bangs fan I was thrilled. The band wasn’t great, and Lester was a lousy front man, but it was something I'll be able to enthrall my grandchildren with.”
The Ramones held me spellbound, ripping through about twenty-five songs in a set that clocked in under an hour. They were masters of stripped-down rock, priding themselves on speediness but never sloppy. In my mind, they were wrongly labeled as a punk band, at least a ‘70s punk band, because their repertoire was based on ‘60s garage pop. But they were part of the fray nonetheless, that rough and tumble grassroots movement to reclaim rock (for the common guy who could barely play a guitar) from the manicured clutches of the Emerson, Lake & Palmers, Yeses and King Crimsons who were diluting its raw vitality with stiff Julliard pretension.
Two recent DVD documentaries profile the band, their popularity and history—one of them as straightforward as possible (at least as far as it goes in the land of glue sniffers and black leather jackets), the other on the Gonzo side, but both equally good and worth a look for fans or students of the decade: Jim Fields and Michael Grindelia’s End of the Century—The Story of the Ramones (2005), and John Cafiero’s Ramones—Raw (2004).
Loaded with vintage film clips, some 8mm home movies, and newly shot material, End of the Century travels back to the band’s inception in downtown Manhattan fleapits like CBGB’s and the Mudd Club where their doggedly basic style took shape. The 1976 debut album, Ramones exemplified the pared-down sonic assault in songs gleefully bouncing in dysfunction: “Blitzkrieg Bop, “Judy is a Punk,” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” Leave Home and the essential Rocket to Russia were no less relentless, the latter especially so with its glorious non-stop barrage: “Cretin Hop, “Rockaway Beach, “Teenage Lobotomy” (‘DDT did a job on me/now I am a real sickie/guess I’m gonna have to tell ‘em/that I got no cerebellum’), and “We’re a Happy Family” (‘We ain’t got no friends/our troubles never end/no Christmas cards to send/Daddy likes men’).
“I Wanna be Sedated” (off of the album Road to Ruin) was the closest they ever got to having a hit single. It segued to Hollywood, Roger Corman and a film built around Ramones mystique, Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)—a terrific b picture and the first hard evidence of mainstream aspirations.
In End of the Century, guitarist Johnny Ramone talks about the hope to break free from cult status for stardom. But despite all their best efforts, including a brief but disastrous association with Phil Spector (Johnny’s comments on him are alone worth the price of admission), the career manifested as a workaday grind, at least in North America. Parts of Europe and South America were inexplicable hotbeds of Ramones mania. A high point in Raw is the chilling scene inside a tour bus maneuvering it’s way through an army of aggressive Brazilian fans flooding the streets, cleverly (and appropriately) juxtaposed with footage of the attacking zombies in Night of the Living Dead.
Now, nearly thirty years after they began, it seems barely possible that the Ramones once existed. The things they went on about in their songs continue to flourish in Brooklyn, Queens, lower Manhattan…as well as the fevered dreams and unbalanced households of adolescents in Oshkosh. But the music itself is from a distinctly different time and place, and likely beyond the grasp of listeners raised on rap or hip hop. They may not have been the world’s greatest musicians, but the Ramones played hard, fast and tight. When I turn on MTV today, all I see are polished model types babbling about money and attitude, pointing their fingers in all directions without a musical instrument in sight. Could any of them play the three or four chords of “Rockaway Beach”? Could they appreciate its rebellious and nostalgic shadings? (Would they find it—gag!—“corny?”) Or am I still a teenage lobotomy?