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How the Ramones made punk music history

BY Brendan Sainsbury

1st Nov 2023 Culture

4 min read

How the Ramones made punk music history
Across the pond from the UK's punk scene, the Ramones were pioneers of punk music in America whose legacy lives on today in post-punk bands and hipster t-shirts
Fifty years ago, a seminal music venue called “Country, Bluegrass, Blues & Other Music for Uplifting Gomandizers” opened its doors in New York’s grungy Bowery neighbourhood. Within nine months, the club—known colloquially as CBGBs—had morphed into an electrifying dive bar whose reputation rested, less on country and bluegrass, and more on a new energetic form of proto-punk that contrasted sharply with the decadence and ostentation of early-1970s rock
Leading the revolution was a loud, fast, wonderfully dishevelled house band from Queens called the Ramones.

Punks in America

While 1970s punk was primarily a British phenomenon, much of its early inspiration was drawn from across the Atlantic in a small underground music scene that emanated out of New York City. 
CBGBs, with its cramped interior and cost-cutting house rules (move your own gear and play your own songs) was a perfect breeding ground. Bands like Television, Blondie and the Patti Smith Group all cut their teeth in the unashamedly dingy club, but it was the Ramones, with their ripped jeans and heavy guitar-propelled songs inspired by 1960s bubble-gum and surf-rock, who personified the look, style, and attitude of the musical renaissance.
Joey_Ramone
In an era when everyone with a microphone wanted to emulate the androgynous postering of Mick Jagger, the band’s lead singer, Joey Ramone cut a conspicuous figure. Tall, gangling, and laconic, his face barely visible behind wild hair and dark shades, he looked more like a cartoon character than a rock god. Iconoclasts had finally found their folk hero.  
The Ramones weren’t the only proto-punk rockers testing the water in the mid-1970s—there were other provocateurs, especially in the UK—but they were the first to gain serious traction. Emerging from the small-scale garage rock scene of the Big Apple in 1974, they played their debut gig at CBGBs in August to a small, mostly bemused audience.
"Joey Ramone looked more like a cartoon character than a rock god"
Rock music was at a crossroads in 1974. After reaching a creative peak in the late 1960s, the genre had entered a period of pretension and decadence. Rock stars retreated to their grandiose suburban mansions with their hangers-on, ten-minute guitar solos became exercises in self-glorification, and the pop charts lost touch with the DIY ethos of skiffle and other early rock prototypes. In Britain, glam rock celebrated flamboyance and glitter, while in the US The Eagles implored everyone to “take it easy.” A noisy recalibration was long overdue.
The Velvet Underground had experimented with musical minimalism as early as 1967, but it was raw, stripped-down bands like MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges who were more inspirational to the CBGB sound. Over in Britain, a concurrent pub-rock scene led by Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods was fermenting a similar aesthetic.
Though all had their merits, nothing quite distilled the glorious adrenaline rush of punk as succinctly as the Ramones.

The rise of the Ramones

Comprising Jeffrey Hyman, Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, and Thomas Erdelyi (alias Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy Ramone), the band had stumbled upon their gritty pared-down sound almost by accident. The lean, back-to-basics approach was a result of cheap equipment and limited musical prowess (lead vocalist, Joey was a frustrated drummer who’d discovered he couldn’t sing and play drums at the same time), while the generous exposure they received at CBGBs came about because owner, Hilly Kristal wasn’t prepared to pay for more expensive prog-rock bands and their roadies.  
The band quickly hit on a dynamic formula: a brisk set of two-minute pop songs played at a breakneck speed, interjected by Dee Dee yelling “1-2-3-4!” Instead of “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, you got “Now I’m Gonna Sniff Some Glue”. Rather than kaftans and joss-sticks, you got leather jackets and sweat. 
Perspiration or not, outside of New York’s close-knit underground scene, the Ramones struggled to make a ripple. Their first eponymously titled album, released in April 1976, reached a modest 111 on the Billboard chart. 
But if the US wasn’t ready for the band, Britain certainly was. 
the Ramones performing in Toronto in 1976
As millions of Americans gathered around their barbecues to celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, the Ramones were in north London preparing for what would become one of rock music’s pivotal moments. Supporting The Flamin’ Groovies in front of 2000 people at the Roundhouse on a bill that included The Stranglers, the band boldly stole the show, crashing through a loud, guitar solo-free set of 17 songs in front of a highly receptive audience. Members of The Damned were in the crowd and glam rock icon Marc Bolan was invited on stage. The future had arrived with a bang.
Dreary Britain in 1976 was ripe for a musical wake-up call. A few weeks earlier, The Sex Pistols had whipped up a frenzy at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, while The Damned, soon to be signed to Stiff Records, were months away from releasing their first single “New Rose”. On the same night as the Roundhouse show, a mouthy four-piece from London called The Clash performed their first gig in Sheffield
"In a frenzy of lightning-fast barre-chords, everyone wanted to be Johnny Ramone"
Solidifying the legend, the Ramones followed their Roundhouse triumph with a slot at nearby Dingwalls the following night with Johnny Rotten, The Clash, and Chrissie Hynde in attendance. Though no one knew it yet, punk in the UK, invigorated by the scruffy invaders from New York, was about to rattle the gates of the establishment.
Punk might have gained a domestic foothold in the UK by 1976, but the arrival of the Ramones put everything into overdrive, providing an easy-to-master toolkit for every punk band that followed. Suddenly, guitar solos were out. In a frenzy of lightning-fast barre-chords, everyone wanted to be Johnny Ramone rather than Eric Clapton.
While never as commercially successful as Blondie or The Clash, the influence of the Ramones lives on, not just in a litany of post-punk bands from Nirvana to Metallica, Green Day, and Beastie Boys, but in an army of fashion-conscious millennials who have unexpectedly turned vintage Ramones t-shirts into trendy apparel. 
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