My favourite quote about the Ramones comes from Richard Hell, the New York provocateur who, along with Tom Verlaine, formed the art-punk band Television in 1974 and – with the help of threadbare clothes held together with safety pins, on account of the fact they were too poor to buy any more – was already busy changing the sound and look of rock & roll in a Bowery club called CBGBs.
“The first song the Ramones wrote was called I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You, the second was I Don’t Wanna Get Involved With You, then came I Don’t Wanna Be Learned, I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed, soon followed by I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement,” Hell wrote in Hit Parader in 1976, just before the release of their self-titled debut. “So Dee Dee says, ‘We didn’t write a positive song until Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.’”
So much for lyrical content. The music? “It gives you the same sort of feeling you might derive from savagely kicking in your smoothly running TV set and then finding real thousand-dollar bills inside,” Hell went on. It is impossible to overstate, 40 years after their first album, just how exciting the Ramones were when they first appeared on a flaccid mid-’70s rock scene, even if you’d already heard the Stooges.
Not that I was there. Being in short pants in the year punk broke, it wasn’t until I was in high school 10 years later that a friend (Mathew Wilkie, I owe you a drink every day for the rest of your life) dubbed me a cassette of the first two Ramones albums. Blitzkrieg Bop roared out of my parents’ stereo. And so another Pinhead was born. “Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us!” I’d found my tribe.
It soon became apparent what the Ramones did want: Something to do. To be well. To live. Shock treatment. Everything. They also graduated to Carbona, Not Glue – a song that had to be pulled from their second album, Leave Home, after Carbona decided they didn’t want to be associated with a song that extolled the virtues of huffing their solvent in desperation after “ma threw out the glue” (and roach spray, too).
Most famous of all was I Wanna Be Sedated, a song written after singer Joey suffered third-degree burns inhaling steam from a boiling kettle to clear his nasal passages ahead of a show in London. Johnny, the Ramones’ short-tempered guitarist who ran the band like Mussolini with politics to match, plays a 10-second guitar solo in which he hits the exact same note 65 times.
That was the essence of the Ramones: military discipline and economy, from the uniforms to the haircuts to the music in a flabby age. It was a revolution because, it seemed, anyone could do it. Lots of people did. The greater revelation, after four decades, is the realisation of how few did it well, and that pretty much no one has come close to those utterly perfect first four albums between 1976 and 1979.
Like all the greatest bands, they each had individual personas. Tommy, the drummer, was the thinker, original spokesperson and conceptual artist that recognised the band’s technical ineptness as secondary, or essential, to the brilliance of the idea. Spindly lead singer Joey was the hero and the romantic. He was one of punk’s best singers (he even had lessons – not very punk at all!) and wrote the sentimental songs.
Then there was Dee Dee, the bass player and resident idiot savant. It is no exaggeration to call him the Hank Williams of punk. His lyrics were unsparing and brutally plain-spoken. The black humour belied bipolar disorder (Teenage Lobotomy, Psycho Therapy, Go Mental, Bad Brain – the list goes on), drug addiction (Chinese Rocks), teenage hustling (53rd & 3rd) and mental torment. I Don’t Wanna Live This Life Anymore, an unjustly forgotten B-side, is practically a suicide note set to music.
Richard Hell tells one more anecdote about Dee Dee – that in the early days of Television, he auditioned for the band as a guitar player, an instrument on which he was a complete non-starter. Told they would play a song in the key of C, Dee Dee gingerly fingered the neck of the guitar, looking at the others with his big pleading puppy-dog eyes for affirmation. “No, no, in C!”
It’s so easy to take the Ramones for granted in an age where every mallrat wears their T-shirts in the belief that Arturo Vega’s iconic logo is a clothing brand. That won’t ever stop me wearing mine (hey, anyone got a spare a safety pin?). I can remember when wearing one was a signifier of difference, not conformity. These days, though, I derive comfort from the band’s ubiquity and belated acceptance into the pantheon.
That’s because, for me, the Ramones mean constant reassurance, long after all the original members are gone. Their music always makes me feel better, no matter what. If I’m happy, I can put on the first album or Leave Home (which may just have the edge on their celebrated debut) and feel ecstatic. If I’m down in the dumps, I can put on Road To Ruin, and be soothed – sedated, even – by its cracked anguish.
Being a Ramones fan means never being alone.
If all else fails, I can put on Rocket To Russia and crank Joey’s greatest song, Sheena Is A Punk Rocker. People talk about desert island albums. If I could take just one single song, it would be Sheena, and the sound of Johnny hammering those opening chords and that first line – “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go” – would be more than enough. I cannot think of another song that fills me with such joy.
People talk about the Beatles and the Stones. For me, it’s Beatles, Stones, Ramones – and not necessarily in that order.
First published in The Age, 21 April 2016