Photo by Shinko Music

Dangerous and Safe

Why ‘Ramones’ remains the one perfect punk album

It annoyed DJs at the time. New York radio jock Vin Scelsa recalled playing it for the first time, hating it, and then going on the mic to announce, “‘What is this crap? What is this noise?’ I took the needle off the record. I took the record off the turntable and flung the record across the room. I said, ‘We don’t need this junk. This is just noise.’ And I went and played a Billy Joel record.”

Even some critics who penned glowing reviews had their reservations. “I love this record — love it — even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality,” wrote The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau. In a rave in Rolling Stone, critic Paul Nelson acknowledged, “[the band’s] perversity and peculiarly Old Testament view of retribution carry the day.”

But 40 years after its release, Ramones now stands as one of the few perfect records, its reputation only growing over time. Yet, as a fancy deluxe edition of the album prepares to be released on September 9, what’s funniest about Ramones is how thoroughly integrated into the mainstream this edgy, angry record has become. It’s an odd paradox: The Ramones made deeply melodic music about how alienated they felt, becoming somewhat safe symbols of anarchy without losing their underlying cool in the process.

First hitting stores in April 1976, Ramones was the debut from four Queens kids who renamed themselves in honor of Paul Ramon, the fake name Paul McCartney would use when he checked into hotels. Jeffrey Hyman, who started out as the band’s drummer, became the frontman, calling himself Joey Ramone. Guitarist John Cummings was rechristened Johnny Ramone, and so on. In the mid-1970s, the nascent quartet (which also included drummer Tommy Ramone and bassist Dee Dee Ramone) formulated their sonic aesthetic by deciding what they didn’t want their music to sound like. As Johnny later explained, “What we did was take out everything that we didn’t like about rock ’n’ roll and use the rest, so there would be no blues influence, no long guitar solos, nothing that would get in the way of the songs.”

The 14 tracks that make up the 29-minute Ramones are pure punk: It’s all bad attitude, screamed lyrics, brash guitars. It’s also unimaginably catchy. This is rock music made for dancing and short-attention spans, each track ending before you’re done — compelling you to listen to the next song. The band repeats this trick again and again until the all-guns-blazing finale, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.” Decked out in bowl haircuts, leather jackets, dark jeans and sneakers, the Ramones looked like tough dorks whose gift for surefire pop tunes seemed like some sort of put-on.

From the beginning, that was the band’s endearing inconsistency. Fans of lighter acts like the Bay City Rollers and the Beach Boys, the Ramones figured out how to marry aggression and accessibility. In their hands, songs about violence and rebellion came bearing sing-along choruses. Referencing the recently released horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and saluting getting high by sniffing glue, Ramones transformed the quartet’s urban angst into escapist ecstasy, creating a community for all the unloved misfits.

But the real genius of the group’s less-is-so-much-more approach was how it boiled simple sentiments into taut songs that suggested a world of feeling in two-minute chunks. The one about sniffing glue is called “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” (The entirety of its lyrics: “Now I want to sniff some glue / Now I want to have something to do / All the kids want to sniff some glue / All the kids want somethin’ to do.”) There’s a song about Joey wanting to kick some annoying kid’s ass — that one’s called “Beat on the Brat.” Many songs are brief declarations: “Judy Is a Punk,” “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You.” The album’s longest track is 155 seconds; the shortest is 90 seconds. They’re not tunes so much as they’re concentrated emotional outbursts contained within the confines of a rock song.

At the time of its release, Ramones was condemned for allusions to Nazism and indiscriminate violence. “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat.” “Shoot ’em in the back now.” “You’re a loudmouth, baby / You better shut it up / I’m gonna beat you up.” In “53rd & 3rd,” a Vietnam vet returns home, becomes a gay prostitute and then kills one of his johns: “I proved that I’m no sissy.” This was hardly Hallmark stuff. In fact, the band’s label balked at “I’m a Nazi schatze / Y’know I fight for Fatherland” in “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.” (Sire Records boss Seymour Stein supposedly told the Ramones, “You can’t sing about Nazis! I’m Jewish and so are all the people at the record company,” not knowing that half of the band members were Jewish, too.) As Johnny Ramone once put it, “There were so many offensive things in our songs that people would’ve been in an uproar about — if we’d actually been selling records.”

Ramones may not have been a chart-topper, but it ushered in the cut-the-crap sensibility that informed later groups such as the Sex Pistols, Nirvana and Green Day. The melding of danger, pop hooks and artfully inarticulate adolescent anxieties combined the best of the Ramones’ two grand predecessors — the songcraft of the Beatles and the attitude of the Rolling Stones — into an exciting new hybrid. And the album’s personification of scruffy New York urgency paved the way for hip-hop’s bare-knuckle East Coast rawness in the 1980s. (Run-D.M.C., also from Queens, borrowed the Ramones’ jackets-and-jeans sartorial sense.)

Later punk bands like the Pistols and the Clash introduced political commentary into the mix, which isn’t to say that the Ramones weren’t socially conscious. If anything, Joey embodied the prototypical disaffected young man: flailing at love, feeling scorned by the world around him, dreaming of a shift in the social order that was never going to come. Maybe that’s why the group’s potentially problematic lyrical content, especially now, doesn’t feel very shocking. Ramones wasn’t so much an invitation to riot or a promotion of violence as it was a ranting about powerlessness — a fantasy in which the combustion of loud guitars and drums was enough to soothe the teenage misery for a little while.

And perhaps that’s why, unlike their punk peers, the Ramones are now fully embraced in everyday life. You can go to sporting events and hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” blasting from the speakers. You can see the very fashionable Tracee Ellis Ross rocking a T-shirt with the band’s iconic logo on Black-ish. In popular culture, the quartet forever symbolize a flawless brand of rock ’n’ roll anarchy unblemished by time, lame reunions or changing styles. On one hand, that revered status is due in part to tragedy — all four original members are dead. But on the other, it’s because we as a society look at Ramones as an unstoppable encapsulation of being young and unsatisfied. Plus, you can dance to it. The Ramones made more albums afterward, and some of them are good, too. But they were mostly just copying Ramones. Myriad rock bands that have come along since have, too.