Nicholas Rombes - 33 1/3: Ramones [Book] (Cover Artwork)

Nicholas Rombes

33 1/3: Ramones [Book] (2005)


Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series is a treasure trove of rock and roll nerd-dom as traditionally educated voices dissect some of the most beloved and canonical records from the past. Nicholas Rombes gives his consideration to the monolithic Ramones eponymous album from 1975. Rombes is a writer and Professor of English at University of Detroit Mercy. In addition to his 33 1/3 contribution, he is also author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, multiple essays and works on film, and assorted works of fiction.

Rombes spends the first chunk of the book investigating the origin of the word “punk,” both as a descriptor of a type of person and how it came to define an aesthetic musical movement. Rombes draws on an extensive list of legendary rock critics, such as Lester Bangs, to trace how this particular type of aggressive, minimalist rock and roll was saddled with a moniker. As punk has evolved in the 40 years since its official inception, the author exposes its sometimes contradictory and paradoxical stances. In acknowledging punk’s progenitors in The Stooges, MC5, and Velvet Underground, Rombes highlights how early punks (including the Ramones) did not shy away from major label ambition, and in fact sought out widespread success perhaps in hopes of subverting mainstream tastes. It was only later that the DIY ethos overtook these initial overtures as the Dischord, Touch and Go, and Maximumrocknroll ideologies engulfed punk. Multiple archival interviews with the various members of the band reveal their aspirations to be rock and roll stars, to deflate the puffed and bloated corpse that progressive rock had rendered the music in the 1970s.

Another interesting aspect of Rombes’s work is the argument that punk was not necessarily founded on liberal, progressive principles as it is traditionally known for currently. He cites the Nazi paraphernalia sported by members of the British punk scene (notably Sid Vicious) as well as the forebears of American punk like the Stooges’ Ron Asheton and members of the Dead Boys. He argues that the adoption of fascist symbols could be variously viewed as ways to undermine their symbolic power, thumb the nose at hippie sentimentalists, or just in general to be obnoxious antagonists. He touches on the Ramones’ tinge of right-wing fascism, present in some of their songs on the classic debut. “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” contain allusions to the Nazis and are somewhat vague in their lyrical intents. “Today Your Love” especially depicts a “little German boy / being pushed around” who inevitably joins the “fight for the fatherland” as a “shock trooper.” Rombes contends that the Dee Dee Ramone-penned lyrics can be read as an ironic caricature of a right-wing youth or can be taken as an oppositional statement against traditional liberal values. “Blitzkrieg Bop” utilizes the German fighting technique as a metaphor for out-of-control, existential youth and appears less political in its commentary. The observation that Johnny Ramone remained a die-hard conservative throughout his life (with Rombes reminding the readers of his praise of George W. Bush at the Ramones’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony) further muddies the picture of the band’s collective political leanings. Rombes contends that generally these lyrics can be read with a sense of irony or satirical antagonism but admits that the band purposefully left their true feelings somewhat vague. Of course, the later, Joey-penned “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” aims a critical eye at Ronald Reagan’s failure to visit the concentration camps on a diplomatic visit to Germany as evidence of an internal schism within the Ramones on political ideologies. Also, the scathing “The KKK Took My Baby Away” was Joey’s middle finger to Johnny for stealing his former girlfriend.

Overall, Rombes spends a small portion of the book cataloguing the recording sessions and actual construction of the album in favor of discussing the origin of punk and raising interesting theories on the lyrical intent of the Ramones’ initial offering. It’s a brief overview of the history of punk, but for a more comprehensive take, I would recommend Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me.