If the Stooges and the New York Dolls were the parents of punk, then the Ramones were the wild, screaming infant — fresh, new, untamed and purely driven by primal instinct. Though born two years earlier in the middle-class neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, the Ramones truly came of age when they entered the recording studio for the first time in early February 1976. Released two months later on April 23rd, their self-titled debut took three-chord simplicity and mixed it with New York City attitude, breakneck speed and a hell of a lot of amp wattage. The opening salvo of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat,” and “Judy Is a Punk” offered just a taste of what was to come. In 29 minutes, the Ramones stripped away two decades of musical experimentation and left behind the pure clarity of industrial-strength rock.
The album sold poorly upon its release, but Ramones made rock stardom accessible to more than just a handful of virtuosos, and served as an invitation for generations of kids to grab a guitar and join the party. The album’s reputation as a pioneering punk work grows with each passing year. We salute, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and their music with this collection of little-known facts.
The band had enough songs for three albums by the time it recorded Ramones.
It wasn’t unusual for a Ramones set to clock in at under 20 minutes when the band were cutting their teeth at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s in downtown New York City. When a longer concert was necessary, they simply took it from the top and repeated the performance.
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But by the time the band recorded their first studio album, their set list had swelled considerably. “We had the songs for the first three albums when we did the first one,” recalled Johnny. “We already had 30 to 35 songs, and we recorded them in the chronological order that we wrote them. I didn’t want the second album to be a letdown by picking through all the best songs for the first album and using the lesser songs for the second album.” Even with the wealth of songs, the 14-track debut blows by in a brief 29 minutes and four seconds.
They recorded the songs in the same order they played them live.
The Ramones famously borrowed their moniker from Paul McCartney’s early stage name, but that wasn’t the only cue they took from the Fab Four. Much like the Beatles’ 1963 debut, which was recorded in a single marathon session, the Ramones wanted their first LP to have the excitement and spontaneity of their legendary live sets.
To this end, the band performed their stage-tested set in the studio over the course of seven days — three for backing tracks, four for vocals. “We recorded the songs in the same order that we played them in our live set at the time,” said Johnny. It was a pattern they would continue for their next two albums, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. Producer Craig Leon even considered making the record a single track with no breaks between songs, a technique he employed to a smaller extent between “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” and “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.”
Although it harnessed the fury of their club dates, the album was not designed as a concert replica. “Capturing the energy of the live shows was quite important,” says Leon. “But if you jump to the conclusion that the sound of the recording was just the sound of the band live, you would be mistaken — even though that’s what I was trying to convey. The album is quite layered and structured and took full advantage of the studio technology of its time.”
The album was recorded in the same building that houses Radio City Music Hall.
For 40 years, the sounds on Ramones have induced visions of downtown NYC at its grittiest. But in reality, this monument to musical abandon was recorded upstairs at Manhattan’s ritziest venue. Plaza Sound studios was located on the seventh floor of 55 West 50th Street, the same building that houses Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall. The Art Deco masterpiece has played host to the most prestigious performers in history, and serves as a home for the Rockettes dance troupe. In short, it’s possibly the least punk location in existence.
Sound engineer Rob Freeman paints a vivid picture of entering the studio:
“The trek up to Plaza Sound Studios followed its usual path: an escape into the warm refuge of Radio City Music Hall through the stage door entrance, a slow creep up the private elevator to the sixth floor, a trudge up another flight and a half of stairs — the seventh floor, which housed the recording studio, was suspended on steel springs and cork in order to acoustically isolate it from the great hall below, hence no elevator all the way up — a dizzying meander through a labyrinth of battleship gray corridors, a delightful pass by the Rockettes’ dance rehearsal rooms filled with the usual blend of perfume and sweat and the thunderous commotion of a hundred tap-dancing showgirls, and, finally, a disappearance through the black, unmarked door that led to the sanctuary of Plaza Sound’s control room.”
“Blitzkrieg Bop” was equally inspired by the Bay City Rollers and the Rolling Stones.
With its frantic four-on-the-floor rhythm, slicing power chords and immensely shout-able refrain, “Blitzkrieg Bop” is one of the best album openers of all time. It’s undoubtedly a punk anthem, but the song had its genesis in pure pop.
“I think we wanted to be a bubblegum band,” says Johnny of the Ramones’ early days. “At one point, the Bay City Rollers were becoming popular. They had written ‘Saturday Night‘ and we sat down and said, ‘We have to write a song with a chant in it, like they have.'” The Rollers’ “S-A! T-U-R, D-A-Y! Night!” planted the seed, but they needed something with more voltage.
Tommy Ramone thought on it. “I wanted a rallying song,” he remembered. “I was trying to think of a good rally when I remembered the Rolling Stones’ version of [Rufus Thomas’] ‘Walking the Dog,‘ where Mick Jagger sings the line, ‘Hi Ho’s nipped her toes.'” The line morphed into “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” — a rock rallying cry for the ages.
“Beat on the Brat” sprung from Joey Ramone’s desire to do just that.
Given the Ramones’ rough-and-ready attitude, it’s easy to forget that Joey Ramone hailed from the relatively affluent area of Forest Hills, Queens. This comfortable upbringing inspired one of his most anarchic songs. “Beat on a Brat,” the second track on Ramones, sounds like bubblegum classic “Yummy Yummy Yummy” rewritten by a sadistic Buddy Holly.
Joey later recalled that the idea for the lyric emerged when he lived in Forest Hills’ Birchwood Towers complex with his mom and brother. “It was a middle-class neighborhood, with a lot of rich snooty women who had horrible brat kids who were obnoxious. There was a playground with women sitting around and a kid screaming, a horrible kid just running around rampant with no discipline whatsoever. The kind of kid you just want to kill. You know, ‘Beat on the brat with a baseball bat’ just came out. I just wanted to kill him.”
Musical brother Dee Dee Ramone has a slightly different, but no less violent, memory of the song’s origins. “Joey saw some mother going after a kid with a bat in his lobby and wrote a song about it.”
Producer Craig Leon sang backup on “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.”
The band’s second single nailed the power pop sound so perfectly that the Bay City Rollers themselves wanted to cover it — or so claimed Dee Dee Ramone in his memoir. The song is held together by girl-group-style backing vocals, courtesy of producer Craig Leon and engineer Rob Freeman. “We tried it with Doug [Dee Dee], and he’d get spit all over the microphone, he was so aggressive,” Leon laughs. “After a lot of torture — it was supposed to be sweet — we did it.”
Joey Ramone’s brother, Mickey Leigh, also performed backing-vocal duties on the song, as well as “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Judy Is a Punk.” None of these contributions were noted in the album’s original liner notes. When a disappointed Leigh asked why, Johnny Ramone had a simple explanation. “We didn’t want people to get confused with who’s in the band or who’s not,” he said. “It’s our first album, you know, and we didn’t want people to get confused.”
Johnny Ramone admits he rushed through the recording of the album.
Sire Records shelled out $6,400 on the Ramones’s debut. It was a hilariously small figure even for 1976, when spending half a million dollars on an album was not uncommon. Recording was completed in just seven days. Punk aesthetics aside, there was a more practical reason for speed: The band was paying for the studio time out of their advance, so every minute counted.
“We were rushing through it because I was conscious that whatever money we wanted was ours and that we just had to pay all this money back,” Johnny wrote in his autobiography. “So whenever the engineer would ask me how I felt about a take, I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s the best I ever played it. I don’t think I’ll ever play it that well again.’ And we’d move on.”
The original cover concept was a tribute to the Beatles.
In yet another nod to John, Paul, George and Ringo, the original album art for Ramones was inspired by Robert Freeman’s arresting cover photograph for Meet the Beatles. Sire Records spent $2,000 — nearly a third of the album’s recording cost — on a photo shoot, but the results were deemed unsatisfactory and the idea was scrapped. The band desperately searched for an alternative.
They had recently posed for Roberta Bayley, then a staff photographer for Punk magazine, against the brick wall of a community garden around the corner from CBGB’s. “The photo that ultimately became the album cover image was just one of those perfect moments when everything came together,” she remembers. “The frame before it and the frame after it aren’t that great, but for that one moment everyone looked right — exactly like the Ramones. Then when I was changing film, Dee Dee stepped in dog shit.”
Trailblazing punk journalist Legs McNeil was also present for the occasion. “If you look at the contact sheet, you see Dee Dee trying to wipe the dog shit off his sneaker with a stick,” he recalls. “Then he chases everyone with the dog-shit stick, and the photo session is over.” But they got their shot. The photo initially appeared in Punk, but Sire purchased it for $125 — a steal for one of the most recognizable album covers ever.
Johnny didn’t expect his middle finger to make it to the cover shot.
A number of factors make the Ramones cover so iconic, but Johnny Ramone’s finger is certainly a major one. The guitarist can be seen slyly slipping fans the bird while his hands are in his belt loops. “I never thought they would use that one,” he said later. “I was really trying to sneak it in. I felt like I got one over on everybody. But I guess they just expected it from us.” Although glad he got away with it, Johnny also voiced disappointment that not enough people noticed — or were outraged by — his “secret” obscene message.
The album went gold — 38 years later.
Ramones was not a financial success when it was first issued in April 1976. It only reached Number 111 on the Billboard charts and sold a paltry 6,000 copies in its first year. But the album’s reputation has grown exponentially with time, and it’s now hailed as one of rock’s most sacred artifacts — even earning a place in the Library of Congress.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that its sales figures matched its cultural significance. On April 30th, 2014, almost exactly 38 years after it was released, Ramones was certified gold by the Recording Industry of America after selling 500,000 copies.
Additional reporting by Hayley Cuccinello, Colin Groundwater, Aren LeBrun, Livia Paula. Evan Romano and Anita Wu