#33: Ramones, "Ramones" (1976)

33 Ramones.jpg

In May of 2004, End of the Century: the Story of the Ramones premiered at the Times Cinema in Milwaukee, WI and I went to see it with my dad after dinner on a school night. It was hot, the first flex of summer that brought the promise of cicadas on the other side of a strong rain. We walked. En route, my dad told me about the first time he saw the Ramones, and the second time, and the third. That was the summer my listening opened like a flower; the initial jolts of agential choice. I began to grasp the power and privilege one has in building their own sonic environment: a decision that to this day remains profound and humbling. Hearing my dad expound with such excitement about a feeling I would come to crave was tactile; I felt the rush and thrill of the noise and crowds, the lights and sheer power wrought by four sets of jeans and leather jackets burning through a setlist like a bandolier. The feeling was raw and real and then I was pulled back by the hiss of a hydraulic hinge and the rush of AC as we entered the cold breath of the theater.

I should preface here by saying that while my parents nurtured different tastes, music was always a focal point in our household because they loved what they loved in the same way. They taught me how to think about what I heard and how it fit together: what each member of the Beatles uniquely lent, the fact that Dee Dee’s bass was always cued to the L, and that new wave and power pop are both hills worth dying on. I would become a detective, a surgeon, a fan, but back then it was just beginning.

The seats at the Times were wood and cool to the touch. As the lights dimmed to a hush, the crest of a bald eagle with a baseball bat gripped in its talons blinked onto the screen. I remember watching in rapt silence as footage of the Ramones’ early days in Queens rolled past: grainy shots of New York City ravaged by negligence, the dank and hallowed ground of CBGB, cut with numerous snippets of time spent on the road, a van their choice mode of conveyance. What culminated was an understanding that the individuals behind the Ramones (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy; and later Marky, Richie, Elvis, and C.J.) were disparate parts that made a cohesive whole. They harbored opposing views on politics, drugs, culture, and control; yet were able to hold together in the service of a unified vision. They were amateurs who through sheer force of will became legends.

It has been years since I truly listened to the Ramones; being the pretentious boob that I am now I tend to eschew traditional punk for its post- and proto- iterations. Of course I knew “Blitzkrieg Bop,” but it wasn’t until recently, and after a hearty course of humble pie, that I came to view it as the perfect foil to understand the Ramones as a band, and frame punk more broadly as a lens through which the world was changing.

The song functions as a call to arms, forecasting a sea change in the way music was conceived of and performed. It’s unrelenting, encouraging, and inclusive in its desire to establish and dismantle order. As a listener, you’re one among a formidable array of bodies in lines and backseats stomping and sliding toward the breaking of new ground, proudly defiant in the face of the unknown. The Ramones were attempting to build something new through the destruction and perversion of the old, and en route struck a raw power roiling beneath the bored and dejected “tight wind” of youth culture.

When I revisited clips from the End of the Century to ensure accuracy for this piece, I was quick to note a flaw in my recollection: that no such eagle emblem appears at the beginning of the film. Rather, it opens with a clip of Dee Dee reflecting on what can best be summed up as disappointment: how life to a certain extent did not unfold how he or the band envisioned; “anybody else [would] probably be happy with what we have,” he says, following the observation with bemused laughter. This is followed by footage of the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony where the Ramones were honored the first year they became eligible, the honorable Eddie Vedder presiding. Joey Ramone had succumbed to lymphoma less than a year prior, and Dee Dee Ramone would die of a drug overdose three weeks following the induction.

Why did my mind place the emblem at the beginning of the documentary? Much time has elapsed since my initial viewing, which places an even greater distance between the Ramones in their heyday as a band, and their post-breakup status as a brand consumers can select when considering where they fall on the gradient of socially acceptable rebellion. A fitting image for a sound steeped in Americana that at its core is a rejection of its systems. Was the first punk show in America a tea party in Boston? But who goes all the way to the harbor when you can palm airplane glue for the price of a smile?

Memory is fallible, but I suspect it’s something more complicated. Conveniently, “Blitzkrieg Bop” serves as a prime example of how the forces that dictate our world manage to swallow all that meet them in opposition. Think how the song’s anthemic nature was so easily co-opted by stadiums and marketing campaigns. Or more broadly, how the band’s emblem of a bat-wielding bald eagle can be found on T-shirts in chain stores and on the backs of suburban mall punks with their parents’ credit cards. Did the song in some way anticipate the lockstep adherence popular culture must take to serve the gears of growth? Did the Ramones, through their strict adherence to the same sound that broke them as the one now used to date them, become quaint?

Then again, perhaps “Blitzkrieg Bop” still resonates as a counterpoint to the way of life it set out to lampoon. That regardless if it’s paired with a fast car, cued to the strut of an athlete, or plucked from a spinning disc, there will always be defiance in its very DNA. A pervasive sentiment for those tuned to the right frequency, a message both amorphous and eternal, outlining the window of time where freedom is allowed to briefly ring before succumbing to a gaping throat. A blitzkrieg is a thing which is rapid and unrelenting. A reminder that if you capture lightning in a bottle it can be used to see at night. That when we are feeling flat and defeated, the recordings are wells we can bend our ears to and drink.

It’s difficult to watch the footage and not think the Ramones gave their lives in service of a thing we all feel entitled to but few can summon forth. Rock and roll, as both a bastion and simulacrum of American culture, promises the potential for escape and the possibility of becoming the most in-demand commodity around. But punk rock was something different: a defining sound for outcasts, misfits, and miscreants. A wolfbane to polite society who predictably recoiled in horror. That by tethering fast tempos and loud guitars, and dismantling the requirement for discernable musical technique, a genre equally precocious and pugnacious was born. A sneering Icarus with wings of glue and gob, and a scene littered with those who flew too close to the sun.

I don’t remember the film ending. Just that my dad was beside me once again but this time we were both talking excitedly about the Ramones as if we had just swapped a crowded club for the warm hush of night air and the droning whirr of cicadas in the trees. We walked, and as our shadows lengthened in the streetlights we reminisced about how a band had helped us lose our minds, and agreed that in those moments they were truly brothers. When I think about the Ramones I am still in the same body that walked home from the theater, the streets awash in freshly fallen rain and water eddying audibly toward the open mouths of the sewer. And when I think about that night I wonder how it might have changed.

—Nick Graveline