The attribute that seems most applied to the Ramones' music is that it was "simple." While that's true from a sheet-reading standpoint, it's not the reason the Ramones and their self-titled debut were so amazing. The Ramones' were not, perhaps the greatest band ever, because they were simple. The Ramones were the Ramones because they knew exactly what was needed to make a song, what wasn't, and how to pack layers of complexity into three chords and four words.
Ramones was released in 1976, an era when bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles were reigning supreme. In the case of ELP, the band might have 11 chords per song and fiddle about for 23 minutes, but through all the baroque meanderings, they didn't manage to really say anything on an entire slab. In the case of Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles, rock had become so neutered, so tame, so lukewarm that the firepower of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Elvis had extinguished.
Inspired by the founders and bored by AM pop wheezing, the Ramones decided to record a record that kicked ass like the earliest rock records. With its very first note, Ramones sets the tone of the album, the band, and punk rock itself. Johnny Ramones' buzzsaw guitar storms in and kicks out a charging melody that is but a few notes. But masterfully, he fully understands what makes a song good, boils out anything superfluous, and uses the remainder to make maybe the catchiest riff every written. Simultaneously, Tommy Ramone smashes down on his drums in an aggressive, but meticulous fashion, driving the band forward, but keeping them tight. Dee Dee Ramone's bass merges with Johnny's guitar, cementing the band's monosonic, brutish, snap. And then, Joey Ramone's baritone, a combination of teenage desperation and ghostly wailing comes over the top, with lyrics juxtaposing having a blast at a concert and Nazi tank warfare. And then, it's over just like that. No time to get boring, no time to repeat the obvious. Make the point and on we go. This is the same bottled energy that drove Little Richard, but instead of it being rooted in church-revivalism, it's drawn from the street conflict of Forest Hills, Queens.
But, then, just as the theme is established, Ramones show why the band members are geniuses. Instead of repeating the same trick over and over, the band slips in the different aspects of being a young misfit in a tough town between their three chords. "I wanna be your boyfriend," finds Joey crooning away in the tradition of Dion or Frankie Valli. Despite the tough scowl on the album's cover, Joey wears his heart on his sleeve and lets the tremble in the back of his throat do all the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, the band creates a facsimile of the doo-wop chorus- bit instead of mimicking it, they create something else entirely- a pastiche that mashes together a lack of training with mounds of enthusiasm.
Then, just as the lover's rock ends, the band flips to the whimsically grotesque "Chain saw." As Joey has fun bending the words "Massacre" and "me" together, a chain saw sound effect rips in the background. That is, the band is laughing at the concept of people getting cut up, inspired by the gore of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But, while songs like "Chain saw" and "I wanna be your boyfriend" are basically good time songs, more or less, at times, the band submerges into a darkness so black that perhaps it still has never been rivaled- thanks to Dee Dee. In contrast to the bubble gum story telling of "boyfriend," "53rd & 3rd" details Dee Dee's early days as working as a male prostitute. And if that scene isn't black enough, Dee Dee even admonishes himself (through Joey's voice) as "you're the one they never pick!" Then, just as it seems if it can't get any more bleak, Dee Dee ends the song with, "Then, I took my razor blade/then I did what God forbade/ Now the cops are after me/but I proved that I'm no sissy." Being that Dee Dee was famously obtuse, the ambiguous, self-referential, almost comical lines "I did what God forbade" and "I proved that I'm no sissy" could each be the subject of a doctorial thesis themselves.
No content to pair the sunny against the sinister, the band elevates the pure sound higher by flirting with dangerous concepts that really, hadn't been used in a similar way before. "Havana Affair," the closest the early Ramones got to politics finds the band telling the story of a Cuban spy helping to set up coups and assassinations- and he's happy to do it for the cash. Even more dangerously, the band flirts with Nazi imagery. Of course, "Blitzkrieg Bop" uses German tank warfare as an introduction to partying. But, "Today your love, tomorrow the world," inspired by Dee Dee Ramones' years of being a boy in post-war Germany, starts with "I'm a shock trooper in a stupor/ yes I am/ I'm a Nazi schatze/Y'know I fight for the fatherland" only to end in a plea for love. Just as the band wavers between the heavy and dreamy in their subject matter, the juxtaposition brings the whole thing full circle and suggests that perhaps they're linked.
The Ramones may be simple, but there are layers upon layers here to be dissected. The music is snappy, but the genius of it, due to the band's phenomenal understanding of how a song is written, and unsurpassed. They master the skill of how to use just enough lyrics to perfectly describe their vision and the result is that the music never, ever wears out. The contradictions and word play result in a record that can be savored, but never truly understood. Almost forty years later, bands are still trying to catch this fire.
Unsurpassed. Essential for every music collection. This is as good as it gets.