QUEENS -- The only things that the Beatles and Led Zeppelin have on the Ramones is many more millions of fans, record sales and dollars. But before I expound on that statement, in the wake of Tommy Ramone's death last week, let me digress.
The first time I ever heard of the Ramones was probably in 1974, when I was 19 and in the schoolyard of P.S. 10 in Astoria, Queens, shooting basketball with four friends on a weekday afternoon. This was even before I paid attention to Rock Scene's coverage of the CBGBs/Max's Kansas City punk rock scenes. Rock Scene and its sister magazine Hit Parader were early on that coverage, as was Trouser Press, then known as the Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press. At the time, I read them all as well as Creem, Circus and Melody Maker.
Tommy Ramone Remembered
Anyhow, after about an hour of shooting hoops, we we still waiting for someone to show up at the court to be a sixth player, so we could play three-on-three games.
At around 3 p.m. that afternoon, we thought our sixth had arrived. Steve climbed through the hole in the fence and came over to our court. But as soon as we asked him if he was up for a game he declined, saying that he had been out all night and was just getting home. And then he turned to me -- because I guess he knew that out of all of us there, I was the most knowledgable on music. He told me that he had just been hanging with with a band of guys in Forest Hills, who all use the same last name, the Ramones.
"They swear they are going to be bigger than Led Zeppelin," he said. Now maybe the Ramones cited that band to Steve, or he was aware that Led Zeppelin was one of my favorite bands and tailored their comments for my consumption. But down through all these years, I always took that comment he repeated to me to be the literal truth of what they said; and only as I write this did the latter occur to me.
Either way, if you interpret that claim to mean sales, then clearly the Ramones missed the mark by a country mile. But if you are talking about influence on other bands, then the Ramones stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Led Zeppelin.
But even that early heads up wasn't enough to get me on board. Nor did I wake up when my friends and I began hanging out at Max's Kansas City, and occasionally CBGB's, in 1975.
I saw them somewhere back then, and still didn't get into the band. The details are fuzzy, but it was somewhere between 1975 and 1976. I thought it was at Max's Kansas City and my friend Richy Vesecky, who would later work for Celluloid, Virgin Records and Warner Brothers Records, thought it was at CBGB. Hey, there was a lot of alcohol and a few drugs in the air back then.
But we remember clearly the conversations we had after the show. My friends and I knew we had just witnessed something that was loud, raw, fast, abrasive and completely original. It was also funny in a fun way but we didn't quite know what to make of it.
It wasn't until the second album, "Leave Home," that I finally got the Ramones in all their glory. What I loved about that album was something that I had earlier realized: most of the punk bands were picking up from where the 1950's and 1960's left off, right up until about 1966. They were ignoring the entire evolution of acid rock, progressive rock, hard rock, early metal, and even country rock that started in the latter part of the 1960's and continued into the 1970's. The Ramones created music like the entire decade after 1966 never happened. They played 1960's style music in spades, with catchy pop melodies married to rock 'n' roll and garage rock, and some of their songs even had the catchy elements of the girl-group sound. The Ramones were the architects, defining what the band's punk descendants would draw inspiration from.
Still, while I love the Ramones, I can think of a dozen bands that I am more devoted to. But over the last 30 years, I have always understood their place in the hierarchy of rock 'n' roll's history. Another way to see the genius of the Ramones is to go back to the early days of the mid-'50's, when Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others were inventing rock 'n' roll. To a large degree most of the songs each of those artists wrote all sounded the same, with the same repetitive, catchy rhythms, and with the melodies and feel of their songs all fitting into the same basic framework. And like those pioneers, you could listen to each and every Ramones songs thousands of times and never get tired of them.
My aforementioned friend Richy always said the the Beatles and the Ramones were the two greatest bands ever, for exactly opposite reasons. "The Beatles were the greatest because you knew that with every album they were going to change, and deliver something amazing and new," he says. "With the Ramones, you knew what you were going to get with every album. All the songs were almost the same and yet each of them were compelling."