Henry Rollins: The Ramones Rescued Rock and Roll
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]
Tommy Ramone passed away on July 11. He, Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny are all gone now. Losing the Ramones was a slow process, as prolonged as it was painful.
Sometimes, I would be in some ruined backstage area on a multimonth tour and feel strengthened knowing they were most likely out there somewhere, lighting up the place. I remember when I found out the band had retired. I was alone in a small room and it was like something had been removed from the world. I wondered if everything would be OK the next day.
A few years later, members of The Ramones started to die. They were too young to go, I thought. It was very tough. For many people, their records are close friends, the shows memorable nights of their lives. They met so many of their fans over the years, the loss was often extremely personal.
Just my personal opinion: The Ramones rescued and recharged rock & roll.
For countless young, pissed-off, alienated outsiders-for-life, The Ramones spoke the language of missed dances, bad dates and no friends. They were a perfect concept, like Devo; all the brilliance without the studied self-awareness.
The cover of their first album, the classic Roberta Bayley image, is a study in cool, unease and insolence. It is one of the greatest band lineup shots ever and looks exactly like the record sounds.
The Ramones are the lesson on how to do it. They worked tirelessly on the road and in the studio. They were great and they knew it. The challenge was bringing the world up to speed.
If you want to hear a band damn near kill their audience, check out The Ramones' in-concert epic, It’s Alive. They are almost sadistic in how they tear through the songs, seemingly bashing them senseless to get to the next one, as if each song will never be played again and must be given proper trajectory into the stratosphere. They truly achieve something that is bigger than the four of them.
If you never had the chance to stand in front of this band, I dare say you missed out on something truly spectacular. I will never forget the first time I saw them. When they walked onstage and, within 10 seconds, started playing, I thought I was going to explode. The show was the very definition of how powerful true rock music is. I couldn’t understand how they could keep going. It was as full-on a live experience as I have ever had and almost ruined me for going to other shows.
There is something you will notice, if you listen closely to the first three studio albums — Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia — and the aforementioned live album: The band is evolving. Not becoming softer or hollowed out, but refining and sharpening their attack. This is not only one of the most bomb-proof live bands of all time, they were writing truly excellent, memorable songs. Some, in a smarter, better world, are top-of-chart singles.
Besides Dee Dee’s songwriting going from great to amazing, Joey becoming a singular voice and Johnny’s tone and playing remaining absolutely peerless, check out Tommy. No matter what tempo they play at, he’s pushing the whole band forward from far back and way deep in the pocket, deftly putting the entire weight and velocity of the band right in your face, perfectly setting up Johnny’s razor-fisted, totally insane, all downstroke, sheet-steel chords. It is like getting cut to ribbons and smashed to pieces at the same time.
Watch live videos online, like the 1977 Rainbow show in England. Tommy’s right hand is beyond belief. Also, watch Johnny’s face, his eyes burning slits, teeth clenched. He’s so fuckin’ mad at the world and he’s going to tear it to pieces with his Mosrite guitar.
The Ramones were a band that, in my opinion, didn’t get enough credit for their musicianship and songwriting. Their stripped-down, almost purist approach showed how bloated and unnecessary rock music had become. They were the perfect reset.
Every several years, there is an almost Darwinian, utilitarian culling of the herd in the rock genre. Sadly, the bands that get taken out at the watering hole in the Serengeti of prevailing taste are not guilty of anything more than adulthood. They’re kind of screwed no matter what they do. When they strive to put more colors on the palette, they get ripped for losing their edge. When they try to remain in a state of arrested development, clinging to that brief period of time when they were the same age as their audience, they look ridiculous and ancient.
I almost felt bad for all the hair bands getting disemboweled in the early '90s. They seemed to be having so much fun. Getting all the chicks, the sunsetting Reagan-era liquidity. Remember how some of them got haircuts in an attempt to stay alive for one more album cycle? They never knew what hit them, and by the time they realized it was over, it had been for months. It was as if the entire world had changed and no one had told them.
One of the many great gifts of the better examples of music is that, while the recording is locked in the past, the listener can be completely free of concern as to age/time/place when the record plays. The music truly does live forever.
No matter what, from now until the end of your life, Ramones songs will never lose speed. They will always be as exciting as when you first heard them. As the years go on, it becomes more and more clear: The Ramones are one of the greatest bands ever.
Whenever I see a young person in a Ramones T-shirt, it is total vindication. They defined their territory so completely that nothing will ever be able to flip the script. The Ramones are legends. Giants. LAMF.
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