Revisiting the Ramones’ Influential Debut Album
The Ramones sounded like everybody and nobody else. When their self-titled debut album was released on April 23, 1976, the punk music scene wasn't what it would become a year later, and the band's ancestral forefathers – at least as far as bands playing guitar-fueled garage rock – were few and far between: MC5, the Stooges, maybe some of the groups found on the Nuggetscompilation.
But the Ramones' link to the past went further back, and deeper, than that. They were into girl groups. And beach music. And monster movies. And the dumb rock 'n' roll of the '60s that skirted the lines of talent and taste.
As sessions began in February 1976, Ramones emerged as a 29-minute distillation of all these things. And by putting them all in the blender and turning up the volume and speed to near-maximum levels, they created a masterpiece that sounded little like the big rock albums of the day (for comparison, Boston's self-titled debut, Rush's 2112 and Peter Frampton's gargantuan Frampton Comes Alive! were all released in 1976).
While other groups of the era aimed bigger (Rush, Queen), the Ramones pared their music down to its basic elements: essentially, guitar, drums, bass and voice. The fact that they were all somewhat limited in their ability to play their chosen instruments added to the album's force. They worked and reworked the same two or three power chords on the LP's 14 songs, many of which started with the hoarse shout of bassist Dee Dee Ramone counting "1, 2, 3, 4!"
They weren't too far removed from the garages of some of their '60s influences (but born and bred in Queens, N.Y., they didn't practice their sound in an actual garage; instead, a friend had access to a Manhattan studio). Less than two years after they came together for the first time in 1974, the four members – Dee Dee, singer Joey, guitarist Johnny and drummer Tommy, all of whom adopted the surname of Ramone for their band – were recording the songs that would make up their debut album.
In addition to more than a dozen originals on Ramones, most written by Dee Dee, the group tears through a cover of Chris Montez's 1962 Top 5 hit "Let's Dance" (from the start, the Ramones exposed their roots more proudly and blatantly that any of their "punk" peers). But it's those originals that stand out, especially the first three songs, which come and go in a little more than six minutes total: "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Beat on the Brat" and "Judy Is a Punk." They're still influencing kids today.
And unlike so many other artists from the era, the Ramones weren't into rock-star poses. They sang about being misfits, and they sang it like they meant it, because they were misfits. There's a real sense of alienation in many of the songs that the group's four members embraced. Stacked against so much other music released in 1976 (again, the era of Boston, Rush and Queen – not exactly bands known for their restraint), Ramones sounds cheap (the album was recorded for $6,000), juvenile (they sang about sniffing glue) and like a knockout wave of something new on the horizon.
Punk eventually crossed over, and the Ramones – like many of their grimy, guitar-wielding New York City contemporaries – were tossed into the movement. It didn't mean a thing for sales (the album stalled at No. 111; the group never sold a ton of records anyway), but the buzz steadily grew over the years. For the rest of the '70s, the Ramones turned out one album after another, pretty much following a similar template – short, snappy songs with three chords max about how they just didn't fit in – until they ran into Phil Spector at the top of the '80s. By then, their soon-to-be legend was secure. It was just a matter of time until everyone else caught on.