RIP Tommy Ramone
They were losers enjoying, suffering, and capitalizing on a sustained adolescence, crafting a crude but marvelous music embraced by several thousand other losers who knew good rock chords when they heard three of them.
Remove The Talking Heads from the recording studio, and you get a quartet of art school intellectuals. Give the New York Dolls’ frontman David Johansen a makeover, and you create Buster Poindexter. But take away The Ramones’ guitars and amplifiers, and you have four bona-fide punks. Forget about being there first, The Ramones might be the only true punk band, period.
Most bands are good for two or three excellent albums; the Ramones made three fine ones, in particular that first gem from 1976. There are 14 songs on The Ramones—a bounty of rock music, one assumes, before learning that few of the songs exceed two minutes; “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” at 2:35, is the epic. Each song’s verse-chorus, three-chord structure makes one tune sound much like the others.
That’s a good thing. Indeed, although there are only three chords, with an occasional fourth, they invariably are the right chords. After all, we don’t continue to chew bubblegum because we think it might taste different the next time.
Along with providing infectious riffs, their music succinctly conveys the Ramones’ grimly comic adolescent realm, lending alert listeners a punk’s eye view of the world. Side one of The Ramones opens with “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and although the confused imagery of the lyrics (much of which Tommy wrote) makes little sense, whatever is going on certainly sounds like the sort of thing any right-minded teen would want to be involved in.
That may be the essence of our adolescent years; nothing is required to make sense as long as something is happening.
A downside of that innate craving appears in “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” which articulates a simple fact that proponents of the war on drugs apparently still fail to grasp: “All the kids wanna sniff some glue. All the kids want something to do.”
"I wanna …" by the way, was The Ramones’ most frequently occurring lyric trope, employed for it’s goofy charm in most cases, although Tommy Ramone’s best effort, "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," is a sterling pop number that ought to have been a hit.
The preoccupations of the glue-sniffing, outcast male adolescent were always the Ramones’ special province: underground comics, street life, mental institutions, violence, freaks, teen romance gone wrong, lobotomies, and Nazis. By intensely focusing—if sometimes only for a minute and 40 seconds—on loneliness, betrayal, boredom, and the troubled psyche, the Ramones more than hinted that the young rebel has a cause. Still, it is often difficult to discern whether the “boys” in this band were bragging or complaining. That each member was pushing thirty-something at the peak of their popularity has nothing to do with it. Their first three albums induced teenagers to revel, not to mention rebel, in their youth.
The Ramones (at least during the 1970s) also had older listeners wishing they were young again, and legions of pop stars hoping they could rock again. It’s fun to be an angry teenager, but it might be more fun to be a perpetual teenager with a roaring guitar, aka a punk. That may explain why their music sounded so upbeat and thrilling, in spite of the dark preoccupations and sick humor behind it.
Punk rockers are just teenage outcasts who are going to have their fun or be damned, and if the music sufficiently moves them, the motivations tend to be forgotten. Consider the essential line from the Ramones’ signature track “Blitzkreig Bop” :
"What they want, I don’t know. They’re all revved up and ready to go”