The Ramones fanned the flames of the punk movement and burned the rule book in the process. It’s been 40 years since the release of their infamous eponymous debut, which they throttled through with Shazam-like, flash-fire speed at a tinnitus-inducing volume.
Their fondness for redline amplification was legendary. Incandescent and luminous, the Ramones generated live-wire electricity during their live performances, tearing around the stage clad in motorcycle jackets, ripped jeans and slouchy T-shirts. Shaggy-haired singer Joey Ramone had all the grace of a beanstalk in his requisite CBGB performance uniforms.
It’s something of a paradox that four decades later the album is still a symbol of railing against the establishment with adolescent vigor, especially given the fact that in retrospect, The Ramones’ sound wasn’t entirely punk. The Ramones boasted short and poppy vignettes played at rapid-fire speed, upending the whole subversive punk paradigm with catchy bop-inducing beats. The songs weren’t complex, revolutionary or rocket science: They were simple three-chord numbers sped up to a breakneck rate. They were appealing. They were universal.
Journalist Jonathan Gold said that punk “is sometimes best read as a vigorous howl of complaint against one’s own powerlessness.” In the mid-’70s, the movement was a middle finger against the vice grip of politicians and corporate interests in the United States and Canada, and the class system in Britain. Ironically, the former location of the legendary punk venue CBGB is now home to luxury menswear store John Varvatos. And while punk’s message continues to compel today’s generations, they are likely too young to know the socio-political landscape of that era.
So what is it about the album that remains so timeless despite the fleeting nature of the punk rock genre? Perhaps today’s socio-political landscape is not too dissimilar from that of 1976. Certainly, today’s subversive minorities rail against corporate interests. The upper class bottlenecks the hyper-concentrated opulence of the one percent more tightly than when the album came out. Goth rock tweens from Los Angeles’ Highland Park to New York’s Queens wear uniforms not dissimilar to Joey Ramone’s iconic punk garb: Black stovepipe Levis, black Chuck Taylor Converse and slouchy T-shirts are just as popular today.
Interestingly, The Ramones only sold about 6,000 copies during the first year of its release. The album wended its way through the ensuing decades, gaining popularity until finally selling 500,000 copies and being certified gold exactly 38 years after its release by the Recording Industry of America. While the record sales may have been slow to build, the band’s influence has been far-reaching: The Ramones topped Spin’s list of the 50 greatest bands of all time in 2002, surpassed only by The Beatles.
2016 is a time of nostalgia for The Ramones, but sadly, none of its members — Joey, Johnny, Tommy, or Dee Dee — remain to enjoy it. Their hometown Queens Museum opened Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk on April 12. It cataloged everything from performance photos of legendary shows, Joey’s chicken-scratch cartoon drawings, and merchandise curated by Marc H. Miller.
The show opened to mixed critical reviews. In the The Daily Beast, Brigette Supernova posited that “The spirit of punk has been rendered mild, rather than wild” by the show, where “faded black biker jackets can be neatly checked at the front desk.”
The Ramones-influenced merchandise may have surpassed record sales, and perhaps the spirit of punk has, indeed, been rendered mild. But despite all that has come to pass in 40 years, something in the movement lives on — and will for generations to come.