My last couple of years at
Rice U., I was the rock critic for the college newspaper. This was an easy job for me because
Houston was about a year behind my hometown of
Los Angeles in music trends. The record companies would subsidize the up and coming bands to swing through
Houston, a potentially huge market for them, but they couldn’t yet charge high ticket prices because few
Houstonians had heard of them. So, I’d go see, say,
The Police for $3 in a beer hall and report back to my
Rice readers, “The
Police are going to be big. You’re going to hear so much about this guy
Sting that you’ll get totally sick of him.” (Well, actually, the last part is an exaggeration.)
Judging by the number of young people I see to this day wearing
Ramones t-shirts, I was definitely on the winning side of the argument over the
Ramones, which I spelled out in 1979 (below). From the perspective of 2015, though, I wish we hadn’t won such a complete polemical victory. Johnny
Ramone made a refreshing rebel, but his musical theories make a less interesting orthodoxy.
The Ramonesin concert
November16, 1979 at
Ramonesare dumb. Their fans are dumber. They can’t play. They never rehearse. They make noise, not music. They stick safety pins through their eyeballs.
Ramones’ triumphant concert at
The Palace Fridaynight reminded me of the near total impotence of
Americanpopular music journalism. Because this
New Yorkbased quartet is probably the most influential rock band of the second half of this decade, they’ve been exhaustively analyzed in print. Yet, because commercial radio is afraid of them, no group suffers from more idiotic misconceptions.
I realize it’s futile, but I’ll set the record straight one more time.
First, few acts put on a tighter, better rehearsed concert. Friday they played about 30 songs in 75 minutes, at times rattling off eight tunes in a row with no break in between except for
Dee Dee Ramone’s traditional “One!— Two!—Three!—Four!” This time around they had finally overcome their lack of spontaneity: previously they had concentrated so hard on precise timing that their stage movements were but an anemic reflection of the pogoing insanity they inspire in their fans. (At
Ramonesshows the old cliche, “The place is hopping tonight,” is literally true.)
Now, none of the
Ramonesare going to win scholarships to the
Juilliard School, but so what? They play well enough to effectively express their revolutionary concepts. The groups with instrumental prowess and no original ideas are numbered in the thousands. The
Ramonesare — despite all their imitators — unique.
Around 1976 rock music looked like it was heading for a collapse as spectacular as the one that decimated jazz in the
Sixties. In that period jazz, long the most popular music in the world, became absurdly elitist. Not only did it become uncool — not to mention well-nigh impossible — to dance to jazz, but certain artists started performing with their backs to their customers. Not surprisingly, jazz musicians totally lost their grip on the mass audience when the artistically inferior but far more vital rock and rollers appeared.
By the middle of this decade, the rock establishment had lost faith in rock and roll. The acceptable modes were schlocky mellow ballads, tired blues-based heavy metal, and pretentious pseudoclassical progressive quasirock. Once again the barbarians were camped outside the gates: K.C. and the
Sunshine Bandmight not have been an uplifting aesthetic experience, but at least you could dance to their disco music.
In 1976, the
Ramonesreleased their first album and nothing’s been quite the same since. Attempting to strip away all the other styles — blues, R and B, country, folk, etc. — that have influenced rock, they distilled the essence of rock and roll.
Ramoneshad isolated the crucial elements of rock (for instance, catchy chord progressions, simple melodies, and the big beat), like
Mondrianhad exposed the underlying structures of painting through his white canvases gridded with red, blue, and yellow rectangles. Of course, the
Ramonescrank out their music with a primal vigor that few of their minimalist colleagues in the visual arts can muster.
Since unadorned minimalism has seldom appealed immediately to anyone besides jaded intellectuals, the
Ramones’ audience was for years limited to young professional musicians, post-doctoral students, and other large groups. Recently, their hit midnight movie,
Roll High School, has won them a wider following.
That points up a paradox. The average young
Americanfinds offensive songs like “Gimme
Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Cretin
Hop,” and “I Wanna
Be Sedated.” Yet, this same paragon of good taste revels in movies — sound and vision — like
Still, their fans love them for the innocence lying beneath their
National Lampoonishexteriors. The
Ramonesstarted the current revival of
Early Sixtiesmusic — the much maligned era of surf music, girl groups like the
Shangri-Las, and the
Twistand the other teenage dance crazes. All of their cover versions (e.g.,
Sonny Bono’s “Needles and
Pins”) were written back then.