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: a classic case of diminishing marginal returns.
Minimalist Rockers Blitzkrieg through Houston
The Ramones in concert November 16, 1979 at The Palace, Houston, TX
The Ramones are dumb. Their fans are dumber. They can’t play. They never rehearse. They make noise, not music. They stick safety pins through their eyeballs.
The Ramones’ triumphant concert at The Palace Friday night reminded me of the near total impotence of American popular music journalism. Because this New York based 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 Ramones shows the old cliche, “The place is hopping tonight,” is literally true.)
Now, none of the Ramones are 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 Ramones are — despite all their imitators — unique.
Here’s a fan’s appropriately literal-minded video for the Ramones’ first single, which the half-German Dee-Dee entitled “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Around 1976 rock music looked like it was heading for a collapse as spectacular as the one that decimated jazz in the Fifties and 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 Band might not have been an uplifting aesthetic experience, but at least you could dance to their disco music.
In 1976, the Ramones released 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.
The Ramones had isolated the crucial elements of rock (for instance, catchy chord progressions, simple melodies, and the big beat), like Mondrian had exposed the underlying structures of painting through his white canvases gridded with red, blue, and yellow rectangles. Of course, the Ramones crank 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, Rock and Roll High School, has won them a wider following.
That points up a paradox. The average young American finds 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 Rocky Horror and Night of the Living Dead.
Still, their fans love them for the innocence lying beneath their National Lampoonish exteriors. The Ramones started the current revival of Early Sixties music — the much maligned era of surf music, girl groups like the Ronnettes and the Shangri-Las, and the Twist and the other teenage dance crazes. All of their cover versions (e.g., Sonny Bono’s “Needles and Pins”) were written back then.
Even the Wall Street Journal has declared that disco is now on the verge of succumbing to terminal boredom, and that the next great dance music will be — rock and roll. America won’t stop dancing and it appears that new wave and its stylistic ancestors will provide the beat. In New York City eight discos have already junked their thump-thump records in favor of recorded rock and roll.
In this era of The Cars, the Ramones’ fundamentalist approach sounds dated. Still, there is little disputing that they started the revitalization of rock and roll.
The Palace has replaced the Texas Opry House (which will soon reopen as a chairless disco, not a roller disco) as Houston’s “showplace club.” Why? Granted it would make a hulking big warehouse, but it’s a mediocre place to see a band.
The flat floor means that if the fanatics in the front rows stand on their chairs, everybody must stand on their chairs to see. An ideal club has a sunken dance floor, terraced rows of tables, and an overhanging balcony. Doesn’t Houston deserve as much?
The opening act was, of course, Houston’s own Legionnaire’s Disease. They were intensely terrible. Their vocalist doesn’t even try to sing, and their riffs plod along like those of the most boring heavy metal band. They don’t even exploit their only asset: a hefty, blonde Brunnhilde of a rhythm guitarist who ought to wear a horned helmet and armored breastplate. —Steve Sailer