Ramones 40th anniversary super-deluxe edition review – rock boiled down to its absolute essence

Despite having percolated through rock and pop almost continuously for four decades, the most influential punk album of them all can still provide a prickle of danger and discomfort

Forty years ago this month, the Ramones played their first British gigs – in Camden Town in north London, supporting the Flamin’ Groovies at the Roundhouse, and headlining at Dingwalls. They were, by some distance, the biggest shows they had ever played; moreover, they were an event. In the US, the debut album packaged here as a super-deluxe reissue – three CDs, a vinyl LP and a hardback book in a numbered box – had been released to good reviews but almost negligible wider impact. In Britain, it had been played in full by John Peel, provoked a degree of tabloid outrage and had enough impact that a band who struggled to draw 150 people in New York found themselves playing to audiences of 5,000, with plenty of stars, both nascent and recognised, in the crowd: the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and Wire were there; so was punk’s most vociferous supporter among the rock establishment, Marc Bolan.

There’s a sense that the album was simply viewed differently on either side of the Atlantic. In America, the Ramones’ small group of devotees saw them as bratty, suburban good fun – “a combination of everything we were into: television reruns, drinking beer, getting laid, cheeseburgers, comics, grade-B movies”, as Punk magazine’s Legs McNeil put it – and a return to the innocent, basic musical values of the late 50s or early 60s. You could understand why. In their first interview they had lavished praise on Elvis Presley. Most of their peers in the emergent US punk scene were dependent on a degree of technical virtuosity – the interplay between Lenny Kaye’s guitar and Richard Sohl’s piano in the Patti Smith Group, Television’s intricate guitar filigree, Robert Quine’s jazz-inspired soloing in the Voidoids – but Ramones was filled with music anyone capable of holding down a barre chord could play. It was mixed like a Beatles album from the days before they realised the possibilities of stereo – bass in one speaker, guitar in the other (the original, abandoned plan was apparently to release the album in mono as well, a state of affairs rectified with a mono mix on this reissue). In the midst of the startling, breathless, four-song segue that concluded side two came a cover of Chris Montez’s 1962 hit Let’s Dance.

Watch the Ramones in It’s Alive!

But in Britain, Ramones seemed to tap into something darker and more potent than just nostalgia for a golden age of rock’n’roll. There had been rock music that reflected the hard times of the mid-70s – the Count Bishops and Dr Feelgood’s tough R&B; the bootboy glam of the Jook – but Ramones was the first rock album on the market that, albeit unwittingly, captured a weird undercurrent of disaffection that had started creeping into other areas of British popular culture around 1976: from the increasingly amoral violence of homegrown horror films, to graffiti (“it used to be We Hate Pompey or We Hate Derby. Now it’s just We Hate,” noted a Nottingham teen in Street Life magazine in November 1975), to 1976’s big comedy succès de scandale, Derek and Clive (Live), the selling point of which was the opportunity to hear Peter Cook and Dudley Moore screaming “you fucking cunt” at each other. A certain nihilism had even affected children’s comics. Among that year’s tabloid furores was Action, dubbed “the sevenpenny nightmare” by the Sun. It offered war strips depicting German Panzer commanders as heroes; terrible violence meted out by marauding teenage gangs in Kids Rule OK? and a column of ostensibly fascinating facts headlined “SO WHAT?”. COMMIT SUICIDE ran the cover line of its 23 October issue, which was subsequently pulled from sale and pulped.

And Ramones was more or less Action comic set to music. For all its apparent simplicity, it was a strange cocktail. On one level, its contents seemed weirdly kid-friendly: Blitzkrieg Bop’s chant was based on Saturday Night by weenybop idols the Bay City Rollers, while their tunes’ hooky sweetness was rooted in the band’s love of the bubblegum pop of the 1910 Fruitgum Co and the Wombles. At odds with the melodic buoyancy of the music, and the flippancy of Joey Ramone’s vocal delivery, there was violence of varying degrees in Chain Saw, Beat on the Brat and Loud Mouth, and an ambiguous attitude to the second world war. “I’m a Nazi schatze, y’know I fight for fatherland,” sang Joey Ramone on Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World; a demo version included here demonstrates this was very much the toned-down version of the lyrics. And there was a gleeful failure to attach any kind of moral to Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue or 53rd and 3rd, two songs that presented drug abuse, prostitution and murder with a shrug: so what?, as Action would have put it.

Watch the Ramones play Chain Saw in 1976.

At the time, more outrage was caused by the former song – it occasioned punk’s first shock-horror headlines, in Glasgow’s Evening News – but 40 years on, it’s the latter that retains its power to jolt. We live in a world where the 29 minutes of music on Ramones, by some stretch the most influential punk album of all, has almost continuously percolated through rock and pop for four decades; where Blitzkrieg Bop is used to advertise a website that sells washing machines. It’s almost impossible to conjure up the boggling disbelief with which the album was by all accounts greeted in 1976 – how could music like this have been happening in New York while Radio 1 was playing Smokie and The Old Grey Whistle Test was showing the Ozark Mountain Daredevils? – but you can still feel a prickle of discomfort, rather than a glow of familiarity, listening to 53rd and 3rd: the album’s zippy pace slowed to sludge, the vocal anguished and off-key, the lyrics a grim saga of a luckless, conflicted rent boy who murders a client to “prove that I’m no sissy”.

But not even overfamiliarity can really dull the rest of what’s here. The box set carries a distinct whiff of die-hards only – the mono mix is nice but inessential, the best of the demos have already been released, as has the first of the live shows, while the second was recorded later the same night and sounds virtually identical – but the music at its centre is about as inarguable as you can get. Listen to My Heart or Judy Is a Punk boiled rock music down to its absolute essence: they don’t sound like songs so much as one long chorus. What was left was absolutely vital, in both senses of the word.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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