The April 1997 issue of 16 magazine had the teen icons the Bay City Rollers on the cover. But inside, in her “Music Makers” column — amid textual analysis of the Sylvers and David Soul — a writer named Mandy answered the question “What is Punk Rock?” This was, no doubt, the first time many young Americans had heard this curious phrase. “Punk Rock is a term being applied to lots of different groups!” wrote Mandy. “Most Punk Rock groups have one thing in common — a good, loud, exciting hard rock sound, and a tendency to keep songs fairly short.” Actually, that’s two things they have in common. Regardless, nobody has explained it better since.
Two months earlier Mandy had gushed over “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” the new Ramones single, calling it “super romantic and sexy.” “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” like another Ramones song called “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” was in the grand tradition of “I wanna” records, dating back through the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Like other punk bands, the Ramones presented themselves as a return to what had once made rock & roll great, before it became soggy and serious and slick and stagnant. Punk set out to revive what it saw as simplicity, chaos, danger, irony, fun. So, throughout the middle Seventies, at such New York venues as the Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, bar bands and art bands full of dropouts and prep-school misfits and failed poets from Forest Hills and Rhode Island and Detroit ruled the roost, often glorifying being down and out, a condition that more than a few such scenesters consciously selected. They wore unusual haircuts and jumped up and down a lot. Most of these groups – the Mumps, Tuff Darts, Psychotic Frogs, Laughing Dogs – aren’t even footnotes anymore.
In 1976 the Ramones, one of the best and most famous of these New York bands, toured England and instigated an explosion. The Sex Pistols – vermin that had found their artistic calling while killing time at a respected bondage-and-rubber outlet called Sex, owned by a Situationist huckster named Malcolm McLaren – had played their first show in November 1975; a year later, their singer snarling as though he were burning himself at the stake, they issued “Anarchy in the UK,” their first single. Within months it seemed every other disgruntled resident of the United Kingdom under the age of 20 had joined a band and released a punk single of his or her own. (The her was important – like no rock before, punk inspired women to develop their own voices.)
The New York bands had sung with their tongues in their cheeks, but in the UK, punk was played as if far more were at stake than the future of rock & roll – the future of their nation, perhaps, or the human race. England, then, was where most of the enduring punk recordings – the early Pistols singles, the first Clash album, the Vibrators’ Pure Mania, the Adverts’ Crossing the Red Sea, X-ray Spex’ “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” – came from.
In 1977 people thought this stuff might take over the world, or at least the Top 40. In England, at least for a while, it did. Back in the USA., it didn’t even come close. But in both countries bands playing original material appeared in every borough, suburb and hamlet, having learned from the Ramones and Pistols that “anyone could do it” (which turned out to be a baldfaced lie, but what the heck).
Every town had its own punk-rock club; in 1982, Volume: International Discography of the New Wave listed more than 16,000 records by more than 7,500 bands on 3,000 labels, as well as 1,300 fanzines. Eventually, the music split into scores of factions, encompassing everything from Marxist avant-funk to revivalist rockabilly to power pop and techno-disco. But one congregation of stubborn souls insisted on remaining true to punk as it was played in 1977, and in 1990 the Ramones are still among them.
“There’s some of us here today that still fuckin’ remembuh rock & roll radio,” shouts Joey Ramone from the concrete stage, lamenting the passing of the Animals and Murray the K, beating a horse that’s been dead for decades. With the rest of his band, Joey is wrapping up the Cincinnati installment of Escape From New York, a summer package tour also starring Debbie Harry, Tom Tom Club and Jerry Harrison (the last two units billing themselves collectively as Shrunken Heads), graduates all of the Bowery punk milieu of the mid-Seventies.
Joey, still a string bean, exudes a warped charisma none of the thousand punk frontmen he inspired can touch. But it’s 1990, and it’s really hard to care. Behind him, bedecked with that classic Ramones emblem – an American eagle clutching a baseball bat in one talon and an apple-tree branch in the other – is a canvas sheet painted to look like a brick wall. The canvas could represent the urban hell from which this band supposedly sprang, or the Phil Spector Wall of Sound they electrocuted into a wall of noise, or the wall whose collapse they celebrated in their beloved Germany last year. Or what it may represent is the wall that’s held the Ramones at square one, the wall that’s kept them, and so very much of the music they fathered and grandfathered, safe.
To Joey’s left is C.J. Ramone, a bassist who these days moves around more than any of his proud pinhead siblings; onstage he is the new king of the Ramones legspread stance. C.J. wasn’t born till 1965, so he’s too young to remember rock & roll radio. Instead, he grew up on the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys and Metallica; he knew only one other punk rocker at his high school. When Dee Dee Ramone defected to rap, C.J. figured he’d never attend a Ramones show again, but then the band hired him to take Dee Dee’s place. C.J. was AWOL from the marines at the time. Joey says C.J. had the right attitude, but guitarist Johnny Ramone says he makes the band look young. That was a priority.
As he finishes breakfast at a Bob Evans restaurant in Lafayette, Indiana, C.J. realizes this is the hometown of another early Ramones fan by the name of Axl Rose. Which figures – with his torsoful of tattoos, C.J. is the only Ramone who’d look right in Guns n’ Roses. Later that day, in Cincinnati, Robin Frantz, the seven-year-old son of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads, is running around wearing a Guns n’ Roses T-shirt. Robin says he likes G n’ R “the same” as Tom Tom Club; says most heavy metal is just good for pumping your fist but “Welcome to the Jungle” is good for dancing; says Donatello is his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ” ’cause he can hit things from far away,”; says he doesn’t have a favorite Tom Tom or T-Heads song, but his favorite G n’ R tune is “Sweet Child o’ Mine”; and says his mom doesn’t like G n’ R, because “Axl’s voice goes too high.” Tina Weymouth says she thinks Axl is cute and tells me she’s “sick of boring pseudo-intellectuals like David Byrne.”
Escape From New York is not, the principals will assure you, a nostalgia tour, but when ? and the Mysterians played Bookie’s Club 870 in Detroit in 1980, that was certainly nostalgia, and ? was a punk before CBGB punks were punks, and “96 Tears” came out in 1966, and the Ramones came out in 1976, and 14 years is 14 years, right? Johnny, clad in the band’s best shag and a U.S. Army Special Forces T-shirt, insists the Ramones aren’t relics, because “we never stopped putting out records, and when I watch us on videotapes from five or ten years ago, I find out we’re better now than we were then.”
And they’ve got a point – to a point. Though there are a few well-bred waistline casualties who look as if they had closed up the office early for the day, the Cincy crowd isn’t mostly old New Wavers out for memories; it’s kids out for kicks, scrubbed suburban brats in Smiths and 7 Seconds and Faster Pussycat T-shirts. The teenybopper girls in Cure and Depeche Mode T’s are way more lively than the rad boys in Misfits and Danzig T’s, but every last member of the crowd is involved, screaming at lung tops while standing on seat tops.
The Ramones have a very loyal audience, and all the way back to “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” Joey’s songs have suggested that he loves his disciples as much as they love him. “They know that we care about them,” he says. Their audience has evolved over the years, from post-Warhol art students in the early days to gobbing mohawk-wearers of yore to postmetal high-school students today, but all along it’s been a self-classified community of misfits – “Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us,” goes the Ramones anthem “Pinhead.”
An obvious comparison is to the Grateful Dead (an analogy C.J. likes, though Johnny can’t stomach it), with Joey as the punk Jerry Garcia. Could be. The extent to which these original punks are still children of the Sixties at heart – greasers and hippies – is surprising. Tina Weymouth uses the word Zen a lot; the Ramones stay tuned to the oldies stations. Still, it’s easy to understand why teenage newcomers keep joining the Ramones army – take the guns-on-automatic part, the five or six straight crash-bangs, at the end of their set. In concert the Ramones play the “hits,” like “I Wanna Be Sedated,” because that’s what the fans scream for. They play them like seasoned pros; the problem is, standing against seasoned professionalism is what once made this a great band.
And an important one, too, obviously. British punk can be read as a reaction to the dole queue and impending Thatcherism, but inasmuch as Ameripunk meant anything, it meant putting a generation of old farts out to pasture. At least that’s what it meant if you’re to believe most of the zillion words that have been written about it since – that the music had grown overblown and impersonal and corporate and soft, that the stars were all either blow-dried bores or black-tied jet-setters sniffing powder in the back seats of limos, blah blah blah. Punks defined themselves, or were defined, as the opposition; the New Wave audience identified itself as an “alternative.” Drummer Marky Ramone, all Brooklyn biceps beneath his War of the Worlds shirt, says how “in those days there were a lot of stuffy people who took rock way too seriously.” So punk rock, starting with the Ramones, changed the rules. It redefined “success.”
What does this formulation ignore? First, punk rock didn’t just “happen.” In New York, at least, it was a direct offshoot of glitter rock as typified by the New York Dolls, who were inspired by the British glitter of David Bowie, who was inspired in turn by New York’s Velvet Underground, which also largely inspired mid-Seventies Cleveland bands like Rocket From the Tombs and the Electric Eels, both of which also drew on late-Sixties Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5, which were inspired by the Stones and the Doors … and so on.
Yet in the early Seventies, while Joey Ramone was biding time at Slade and Black Sabbath shows and not finding them impersonal in any way he can remember, Marky Ramone was still Marc Bell, drumming for a street-level speed-metal band named Dust. And as late as 1975 and 1976, AC/DC’s High Voltage and Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic and Ted Nugent’s “Free for All” were uniting punk volumes with punk tempos with punk attitudes with better-than-punk rhythm sections. And unlike the bands the Gotham media were falling in love with at the time, these bands were selling records – to high-school kids, of all people!
So was punk rock really new? Who knows! The Ramones combined old stuff, mainly power chords and bubblegum-surfboard harmonies, but they did it in a brand-new way. “Our music was structured like nothing else was ever structured before it,” says Johnny. “Ballroom Blitz,” by the Sweet, had gone Top Five the year before the suspiciously similar “Blitzkrieg Bop” hit the racks, but the Sweet never had the Ramones’ singleness of purpose. In Ramones rock, there was no respite, no letup; the slightest change – a handclap, a falsetto, an echo, a three-second Farfisa or a 20-second guitar solo – felt cataclysmic.
And nobody else had ever celebrated the fuck-up-at-life disease the way the Ramones did – nobody ever sang anything like “Sitting here in Queens/Eating refried beans/We’re in all the magazines/Gulping down Thorazines” before. “We always had this trademark,” Joey says. “I just figured it was some kind of chemical imbalance.” They gave a voice to the junk-food anomie of postaffluent American adolescence – like Chuck Berry or MAD magazine, only sicker.
The Ramones still don’t understand how this linked them with Blondie and Talking Heads and Television and Patti Smith. “I never thought we had anything in common with those bands,” says Joey. “We were the only hard-rock group there.” But Tina Weymouth claims that all the bands were making music that hadn’t been made before, that “the Ramones were an art band too, in their own way.” To be that “spontaneous” in 1976, to record your album in a week for $6,400, to adopt a common last name and common leather-jacket-and-ripped-jeans uniform, to create such cartoonish personas – to do all these things required a degree of meticulous thought unheard of in the land of AC/DC and Nugent and even Kiss. “What set the Ramones apart from all the hardcore bands that came later was their discipline,” says Weymouth. They chose to be primitive.
And, boy, did the idea ever catch on. “I bet the Ramones influenced more bands than anybody else on the scene today,” says C.J. Between speed metal and the Sex Pistols and hardcore and the whole idea of do-it-yourself, which spawned the whole idea of local scenes, which spawned the whole idea of postpunk independent labels, C.J. may be right. Consider, too, all the onetime punk rockers who wound up as stars, invariably playing something other than punk rock – Billy Idol, the Beastie Boys, Belinda Carlisle, Neneh Cherry, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, various members of Guns n’ Roses. And then think of the Ramones T-shirts you’ll find on the chests of guys in Def Leppard and Poison; then the Megadeth and Skid Row covers of the Pistols – sometimes it seems heavy metal simply absorbed punk outright.
But that hasn’t stopped the Ramones from rolling. They’re now into their fifth van in umpteen years (it’s a Chevy with transmission problems). Their 12th album, Brain Drain, released in 1989, has a song about not fighting on Christmas, a Freddy Cannon cover, some leaden playing, some heartfelt crap, even some bubble-headed rock poetry in “Punishment Fits the Crime.” Like every Ramones recording after their uncharacteristically scary “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” in 1985, Brain Drain is impossible to get excited about. Maybe they should try house music or something. As Johnny says, “In this ever-changing world the Ramones stay the same.” (Or as their tour manager, Monte Melnick, puts it, “The song Ramones the same.”) Only the Ramones don’t see it as a problem.
“We try to maintain what the Ramones are known for – hard, fast, crazy music,” says Joey. Unfortunately, in 1990, hard, fast, crazy, three-chord, two-minute alienation feels like old hat. Johnny says he plans to retire after 20 years, which means 1994, since this combo dates to 1974. Until then, he says, “we just have to keep doing what we do well, even though there’s no way we’re gonna shake the world like we did with that first record.” Sounds a bit like he’s surrendering, doesn’t it?
Instead of learning from Bon Jovi or New Kids on the Block, the way they once learned from the Ohio Express and the Trashmen, all the Ramones can do now is dismiss today’s teenyboppers as kids who “don’t know anything about real music and who just get suckered in by the radio” (according to Johnny) or who “buy records just because they like how the band looks” (according to C.J.). These nice guys are missing the boat, missing the joke, missing what’s fun, pretending the world has stopped turning. Discussing the contradictions inherent in Ramones-on-CD, Marky says: “You can’t fight progress.” These days punk rock is trying its damnedest to do just that.