END OF THE CENTURY: The Ramones




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The Legacy

The Ramones onstage, with Joey singing to a crowd of fans.

“This music saved rock and roll and influenced millions of kids around the world.” 
—Legs McNeil, music journalist 
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As the first band in the 1970s New York City underground music scene to land a major label contract, The Ramones were also the first punk act to invade England—and the world. From footwear to fan clubs, it’s apparent that The Ramones’ legacy has long outlived the band itself. Find out how they inspired generations of musicians, music listeners and more.

The Name

Ramones fans have been theorizing on how the band got its name for decades. Legend has it that The Beatles’ Paul McCartney had checked into hotels using the name “Paul Ramone” in order to conceal his true identity. Dee Dee also claimed that the band liked Simon and Garfunkel producer Phil Ramone, while Joey was a fan of the 1950s girl band The Ronettes, named after their lead singer, Ronnie. In any case, the group members’ shared name alluded to a sense of unity and collectivity that was like a secret club—become a Ramone and get a new identity. Punk bands such as The Queers and The Nobodys adopted this tactic as well. In more recent years, The Ramones’ name has spawned such bands as The Donnas, an all-girl quartet that not only plays the straightforward three-chord pop punk pioneered by The Ramones, but whose members also all go by the shared first name pseudonym of “Donna.”

The Style

The Ramones, dressed in their trademark black leather jackets, jeans and long hair with bangs.

The Ramones shared style as well as surnames: bowl haircuts, black leather jackets and Converse sneakers. According to Tommy Ramone, the band’s uniform wardrobe was based on a philosophy of simplicity that echoed their stripped-down sound: “Eliminate the unnecessary and focus on the substance.” Regardless of whether or not the band’s collective style was truly in alignment with the members’ friendships—or lack thereof—The Ramones’ anti-glamour image made them accessible to new fans. The band was one of the first to visualize and popularize a punk rock aesthetic, and their style provided inspiration for punk symbolism and clothing for decades to come.

The Pace

Three albums in 18 months. Fourteen songs in under 30 minutes. Short and simple, frantic and full of hooks: The Ramones’ hectic pace was as evident in their music as in their work schedule. With their exhaustive and near-constant touring calendar, they were an inspiration to Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore as “troubadours… constantly out there going around the world.” Relentlessness, danger and mayhem became synonymous with The Ramones and with punk itself.

The Music

Legs McNeil sits on a bar stool, on stage, with a drum set in the background and speaking into a microphone.
Legs McNeil speaking at a 2001 tribute to Joey Ramone in CBGB's

When The Ramones first started playing in 1974, their sound was unlike any other. Mainstream pop was bland and cheery, like The Osmonds, while glam rock bands such as The New York Dolls ruled the ‘70s underground music scene. Without extravagant chord progressions or dramatic rock star posturing, The Ramones appeared, at first glance, to be exceedingly simple. But their bare-bones sound was nothing short of revolutionary, inspiring seminal punk bands such as England’s Sex Pistols and The Clash. The Ramones had unknowingly sparked a musical movement. They “weren’t just a glitter rock band like the other 50 glitter rock bands,” said Tommy Ramone. “This was something fantastic!”

Decades later, The Ramones’ recognizable pop punk style—catchy tunes, sing-along lyrics—was found in bands like Green Day and Blink 182. While The Ramones were calling it quits in the mid-1990s, their albums failing to achieve commercial success, these Ramones-inspired bands were climbing the record charts, touted as “alternative music.” The Ramones proved that a band didn’t have to crack the Top 40 in order to be popular, although they always yearned for best-seller status. As music journalist Legs McNeil asked, “[The Ramones’] songs were classic American pop songs. Why weren’t they played on the radio? Why weren’t they?”

The Shows

The front of CBGB’s, with a graffiti strewn awning and shutters and flyers pasted across the walls.

In 1974, rock concerts primarily took place in stadiums and other large venues, while bars were reserved for cover bands and other forgettable acts. When The Ramones took the stage at the Bowery bar CBGB’s, audience members were so shocked that they thought the band was a joke. Former CBGB’s employee Roberta Bayley cited the early Ramones shows as “like conceptual art or something. It was so great you couldn’t believe it could exist.”

Legs McNeil described the first Ramones show: “They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song. And they started playing different songs, and it was just this wall of noise… They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.” As New York City slipped into financial crisis in the mid-1970s, a new underground art scene was ripe in the making, and The Ramones were the right band to set it off.

The Kids

Johnny Ramone playing guitar onstage.

Although The Ramones were certainly talented musicians, the apparent simplicity of their early songs provided inspiration for countless hopeful rock stars. Joey noted that while touring England in 1976, “all these kids came over to us and told us how we were responsible for turning them on, to go out and form their own bands.”

If four misfits from a decidedly unglamorous Queens neighborhood could form a band, singing songs about being freaks and glue sniffers, then anyone could do it. As former Ramones manager Danny Fields explained, “They left a legacy of bands. Kids [that] thought we had no future: ‘Look at them. They can’t play. They’re terrible! They don’t know more than three notes… They’re big. They’re famous. Everyone can get laid. Let’s start a band!’ Every place we went to, there were bands that did not exist when The Ramones first played there, and when they came back, they did. [They were] pied pipers out there.”

The Fans

From inside the vehicle, a blurred image of fans mobbing a car carrying The Ramones, and running alongside the vehicle’s windows.

Joey Ramone walks down the stairs in the back of a theater.

Even in their 30s and 40s, The Ramones still embraced the teen punk angst that they popularized in their youth; their humble beginnings which solidified punk as a working class movement; and their self-deprecating positions as former teenage delinquents, pigeonholed as society’s “losers.” Unlike The Beach Boys, The Ramones’ lighthearted lyrics were often ironic, or parodies with a twist. In “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” for instance, a teenage girl eschews surfing and her friends’ dance parties to head to New York City and be a punk.

With their lack of pretension and their perpetual underdog status, The Ramones found a fan base in other young people on society’s margins. While touring South America, the band was mobbed by young Brazilian fans, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where an abundance of street kids in poverty identified strongly with punk, feeling like they had no future. As Metallica’s guitarist Kirk Hammett explained, “There were no standards after the Ramones. All you had to do was just be yourself. And that gave me a lot of self-esteem when I needed it. And confidence.”

In the end it was Joey Ramone that became a cult icon and, according to Danny Fields, a “liberator” for millions of people: “He liberated them from their own sense of failure, unpopularity. Joey was a hero because he overcame the odds. He triumphed over geekiness and he started off an alien in the world in which he was raised.”

Sources

RamonesWorld.com
I’m A Teenage Lobotomy!
The Punk Rock Shot Heard Around the World

Photos

Legs McNeil photo courtesy of officialramones.com.
CBGB's photo courtesy of bennytour.com.

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