The 33 1/3 Odyssey: Generating Steam Heat!

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the eigth installment of one reader’s quest to read all 55 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 10 of 55: Ramones by Nicholas Rombes (#20 in the series)

For a series focusing on influential and/or seminal albums, including Ramones is a given. I was a few years late getting into the Ramones (Rocket to Russia was a birthday gift in 1980, officially making me the oddest kid in my 7th grade class in Maine) but it seems like I always knew about this album. Heck, everyone did. If you were into this newfangled punk rock thing, it was essential. If you always wanted to start a band but didn’t know how to play an instrument, this was the record that said you could do it anyway. And if you hated punk rock… well, you still knew about this album. “‘Blitzkrieg Bop” called attention to punk’s unsettling fascist undertone by title alone, and the likes of TIME and Newsweek breathlessly (and humorlessly) leapt to warn of the coming menace. The Ramones sounded like nothing that came before; it was — and is — the absolute bare minimum of musical elements, fused together for the singular purpose of providing a sing-along hook at breakneck speed.

The odd thing about the album is just how few people caught on to how openly calculated it all was, and Nicholas Rombes makes a point of this while still loving the album (“‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ is the best opening song to any rock album”… no fence sitting there!) The Ramones, of course, were a lot craftier than they looked. The band settled on the trademark leather jacket, torn jeans and bowl haircut look after experimenting with glam, and the earliest Ramones shows still featured remnants of their gold lame and platform shoe phase. But once they got the sound and the look locked in, it was locked in. Popular culture changed around them while they remained static, and if you perceived a change — at least in the early records — you were only seeing reflections off the band, not changes within.

When the band began to add a bit — y’know, a tiny bit — of ornamentation to the music, the “sellout!” cries started coming. Which is laughable, because the band couldn’t really sell out; the whole point was to sell. They wanted to make as much money as possible, and be as famous as possible. If their look and sound was cartoonish, it’s because their influences were Phil Spector pop and Mad magazine; it wasn’t about politics. This came into pretty sharp relief when they later did try a hand at Reagan-bashing, and is probably why “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” came off so ham-fisted. It’s inevitable if your whole schtick is being a bunch of hams — albeit hard rocking ones.

If you pick this album up now, you’ll likely be getting the remastered version. Kind of odd, really; the first thing that struck me about this album was how grindingly awful it sounded, at least to a suburban kid who was used to Bad Company records. Doesn’t remastering it miss the point? I asked the book’s author, Nicholas Rombes, for his take on this:

KEXP: Ramones was reissued recently, in remastered format. Does the upgraded fidelity take away from the rawness of the original? It didn’t sound “huge” when it came out, but it sure sounded unique.

Rombes: Compared to the original vinyl release, the remastered version sounds terrible. Harsher, thinner. During research for the Ramones book, I interviewed Craig Leon, the album’s producer, and he agreed and said he hoped to someday release a remastered version that’s in keeping with the original, glorious sound of Ramones. I really think Leon deserves a lot of credit for the full-throttled sound on Ramones, especially since so many other punk bands from that era failed to come across on vinyl.

The reissue people pick up now has bonus tracks as well; do you think they distort the essence of what Ramones was when it came out? If a classic novella was reprinted with extra material that the author had purposely edited out at the time he or she turned it in, people would be crying foul.

I’m of two minds about the bonus material. As a fan of the album, I prefer to remember the album the way I originally experienced it: it was short, fast, and loud. “Extras” were the last thing it needed; isn’t the whole point of punk to dispense altogether with the extras?

But as a writer, those bonus tracks (plus other bootlegs, etc.) were helpful in trying to paint a larger picture of how the album came about and how the Ramones experimented with their sound and refined it. The demos produced by Marty Thau — which really helped pave the way for their eventual record contract — are fascinating to listen to compared to the Craig Leon versions. But in the end, I don’t think the bonus tracks do anything. The album’s mystery and strength derive from its shocking simplicity.

Has the perceived legacy of the band as ‘punks’ been tainted by all that’s been revealed in recent years? Johnny Ramone’s proclaiming “God Bless George Bush and God Bless America” recently, that sort of thing? Or do you think there are plenty of Ramones fans who are they themselves conservatives, and it’s elitism to assume those folks shouldn’t find an attachment to this “punk” band as well?

This may sound cornball, but great music — like great movies, literature, art, etc. — transcends the politics of its makers, as well as the politics of those who listen to it. I don’t think the music is tarnished one bit by our understanding of the politics of the Ramones as individuals. Plus at the time the album was made, espousing “conservative” sentiments was radical, especially in the U.S., where the values of the hippie, counter-culture movement had been absorbed into mass culture.

The conservative, reactionary stance was–in the early 1970s–really a way to stick it to the hippies who were, by this point, making terrible music and recirculating once radical ideas as the New Orthodoxy. But in the end, what matters is the music, which shatters tyrannies of meaning.

When the Ramones started, their motivation… do you think it was for the money, the fame, or the art?

All of the above. I think it’s easy to romanticize the punk era as somehow being motivated by “purer” instincts than other types of pop music. The Ramones were in it for everything: art, fame, money. Although, I think they mostly just loved what they were doing — creating. The whole “indie” label, anti-corporate stance certainly became a part of punk later, but early on, many of the CBGB bands scrambled to sign with big labels, as did the Sex Pistols, the Clash, etc.

As Craig Leon and the Ramones themselves have said, they really did think they were making a “pop” album in 1976, one that would re-capture the sense of fun and danger of many of the 1950s and early 1960s bands they liked. In lots of interviews from 1976 on, the Ramones are always sort of surprised and mystified that they didn’t “catch on” like they hoped they would. Of course, they are legendary and iconic now, and their sound has been picked up by so many bands, so it’s easy to forget how strange they sounded in ’76, and how much they wanted as many people as possible to hear that sound.

And as they continued on, several albums in… same question. Art, fame, or money? Not that they have to be (or usually are) mutually exclusive.

It’s interesting how their first three albums have virtually the same sound, although Leave Home (#2) and Rocket to Russia (#3) are more polished. In the end, I think there was a real love and passion for making music and for performing that kept them going, especially on Joey’s part. He always remained such a quiet, modest guy, hidden behind that hair. Although they experimented with different producers and slightly different sounds, the Ramones never changed their music to suit popular tastes. Some say this lack of change doomed them to the margins for a long time. But it didn’t doom them to that; it doomed them to greatness.

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  1. Posted April 16, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    And of course, the often unreported element to the history of rock and roll (which The Ramones are, never just punks) is the live show, which Henry Rollins didn’t exaggerate about when he said it could crush your senses.

  2. Ted
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I love the Ramones. Even when I hear fratboys sing ‘Hey Ho Let’s Go!’ at UW football games, I still love the Ramones.

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