Why The Ramones Half-Hour Of Mayhem Changed Everything

Read the post by Mitchell Cohen at Medium.

Nothing prepared us for the Ramones. If you were in New York City in 1975 and happened to stumble into one of their CBGB gigs, the audacity of what they were up to was a shock. It was familiar in some ways; it had elements of garage rock and bubblegum pop, with the beat of the British Invasion groups. But no one had ever mashed the influences together in that way, so it felt brand-new and radical, brash and funny, conceptually ingenious.

You took in everything all at once because they left you no choice; their songs were short and came at you without a break, and before you knew it, the set was over and you were left with flashing images. Joey’s Gumby-as-rock-star posturing, Johnny’s spread-legged crouch, Dee Dee shouting “1–2–3–4!” as the only transition between songs, Tommy slamming away. They were unmistakably a band. Or a street gang that somehow found itself holding musical instruments.

They were not, it would be fair to say, universally beloved in their time, but history has caught up with them. I think now and then about how much Joey in particular would have reveled in the belated reverence people have for his band. I can imagine him walking through the rooms of the “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk” exhibition—coming to L.A.’sGRAMMY Museum in September after a run at the Queens Museum in New York—and thinking, Of course: this is what was meant to be.

A celebration of the 40th anniversary of the release of their still-stunning debut album, the exhibition is important because it acknowledges that the Ramones were as much an art project as a musical one. They understood the power of visual imagery, of having a great look (Roberta Bayley’s photos are reminiscent of Astrid Kirchherr’s shots of the early Beatles in Hamburg), and a great logo. They were the rock and roll version of a scrappy black-and-white B-movie that runs at the bottom of a double bill in your local theater and has 10 times the impact of the Cinemascope-and-Technicolor main feature.

What was startling (and still is) about the Ramones’ debut is how against-the-grain it was. It felt like nothing else surrounding it in that bicentennial year. They were a counter-response to all the rock music that was elaborately constructed and fussed-over. Ramones, like Patti Smith’s Horses, pointed in a different direction, and was a reminder that rock could be, probably should be, off-the-cuff and of-the-moment.

With about a week’s worth of studio time and a four-figure recording budget, the band and producer Craig Leon made an album that was like a technologically enhanced snapshot of their live shows, and was the antithesis of the obsessive multilayering of bands like Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and Boston, who were tinkering for months and months in the studio and spending mountains of cash to fulfill their creative visions. The pursuit of trashiness, Ramones suggested, could be a noble goal. If you were a young musician, you might have turned on AOR Radio, heard the laborious, expensive trappings of corporate rock, or the virtuosic meanderings of prog-rock, and thought that music was dull and out of reach. The Ramones said, Think again. The album was a succinct Declaration of Principles, 14 songs in under 29 minutes.