On March 30th, 1974, the Ramones played their first rapid-fire set of two-minute songs at Performance Studios, New York City. By the end of the year, they were the leaders of a new and emerging sound, increasingly being referred to as “punk.” They released their debut album Ramones in 1976. The Ramones toured almost non-stop for 22 years despite achieving limited commercial success. Yet as time went on, their role as punk rock pioneers was steadily recognized – they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
From Rock and Roll to Punk Rock
While the foundations of rock and roll were established by Little Richard and Elvis Presley, the genre evolved in multiple directions. From the “garage” sound of The Beatles and The Kinks, to the psychedelic rock of The Beach Boys, and the hard rock of The Stooges. By the 1970s, the ingredients for punk rock – the aggressive aesthetic, pent-up energy, and rebellious spirit – were in the works. Then, in 1974, a four-man militia from Queens, New York emerged to mix them together.
The Ramones burst onto the scene and revolutionized rock and roll. Their short, punchy songs slammed the audience with relentless downstrokes, rapid-fire drums, and thumping bass lines. Combined with Joey’s stirring vocals, the Ramones represented something entirely new. Clad in their iconic black leather jackets, ripped jeans, and battered sneakers, Johnny, Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee changed the course of rock and roll history.
The Birth of Punk: The Ramones in Context
The Ramones first garnered public attention following their performances at the now legendary CBGB club in New York City. CBGB’s served as an incubator for the emerging punk rock / new wave scene, regularly putting on bands from Blondie and Television, to The Cramps and Joan Jett.
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Even amongst such esteemed talent The Ramones stood out. In 1975 they signed a record deal and released their debut album – Ramones – in 1976. The album received rave reviews, but was a commercial flop, failing to crack the top 100 on the Billboard Charts. The album’s two singles – “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” – failed to even chart.
Ramones remains one of the most influential records of all time and went on to shape an entire genre. While the album influenced the development of several styles of popular music, from Heavy Metal to Grunge, its biggest influence was on the establishment of punk rock as a genre itself.
The Ramones Blitzed London
In the mid-1970s, punk rock in the United States was more or less limited to the CBGB’s crowd and readers of Punk Magazine. The Ramones were barely known outside of New York City. The failure of Ramones to make waves in the US charts appeared ominous.
Everything changed in 1976 when the band played the London Roundhouse. Excitement about the Ramones’ striking aesthetic and raw sound preceded their hop over the pond – when Ramones dropped in the UK, English bands – The Clash and The Sex Pistols in particular – sat up and listened.
The Ramones’ stripped down, high-velocity sound provided the template for the emerging UK scene. Following two gigs in 1976 and a short tour in 1977 punk officially exploded in the UK before going global. Ironically, the English reinterpretation of punk rock went on to be a commercial success, while The Ramones continued to tank commercially.
Brothers in Arms?
The Ramones may have looked like a unified force but behind the scenes, they were far from brothers in arms. Serious personality clashes, politics, personal feuds, and lifelong trauma, plagued the band from beginning to end. Joey, behind his trademark sunglasses and mess of hair, was a starry-eyed, anti-war liberal. In stark contrast, Johnny Ramone was a brash, aggressive Republican, that referred to gigs as “jobs.”
Tensions between the two escalated when Johnny “stole” and married Joey’s girlfriend Linda (in turn inspiring Joey’s song “The KKK Took My Baby Away”). For much of the band’s 22-year history, the pair didn’t speak. Joey suffered from ill health and OCD. Dee Dee, the romantic soul of the band, suffered from bipolar disorder and a serious heroin addiction. In his own words, Tommy Ramone left the band in 1978 after four years of being “physically threatened by Johnny, treated with contempt by Dee Dee, and all but ignored by Joey.”
Pioneers of Punk Rock
The deadpan simplicity and upfront vocals of the Ramones spawned an entire genre. Songs such as “Rockaway Beach”, “Teenage Lobotomy”, and “I Wanna be Sedated” became punk rock anthems. The iconic chant of Blitzkrieg Bop, “Hey, Ho! Let’s Go!” signaled that the Ramones were a gang that anyone could join.
After Tommy Ramone, came Marky Ramone, Richie Ramone, and Elvis Ramone on drums. When Dee Dee left in 1989 to pursue a rap career, C.J. Ramone came in on bass. Over the years the Ramones produced 14 studio albums and 71 singles, yet never achieved a top 40 hit in the United States.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the world paid little attention to The Ramones. They broke up in 1996; were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002; and in 2014, 38 years after its release, Ramones was certified “Gold.”