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The Kids Are Losing Their Minds: The Ramones' Debut At 40

 (Courtesy of Rhino Records)closemore
(Courtesy of Rhino Records)

I remember the first time I heard Ramones. It was the first Saturday after its April 23, 1976 release date, back when I was 14 and working weekends at the House of Guitars, Rochester, N.Y.'s greatest and still thriving record store/musical instrument shop/freak magnet. I and the other employees who fostered my teenage music education — particularly Greg Prevost, who'd soon front The Chesterfield Kings and other feral garage bands — had been awaiting this latest installment from the CBGB scene; we'd learned about it from Lisa Robinson at Rolling Stone's hipper competitor Creem. Previous CB's dispatches — Patti Smith's Horses, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy! and Television's "Little Johnny Jewel" — had already blown our receptive minds: While the guitar salesmen naturally favored pickers like the Allman Brothers and Ted Nugent, us record clerks spun those CB's discs alongside kindred Krautrockers Can and Amon Düül II, vintage Velvets and The 13th Floor Elevators.

So when the needle hit "Blitzkrieg Bop," I was more than ready. Yet I still recall the shock that shot through me as the blare pummeled throughout the store. Every song was blurs and slurs, stopping and starting, sneering and leering, one after the other, and right away they gave me that exhilaration that other radical new music took repeated plays to glean. That gloriously flawed '70s NYC they were singing about, and, more crucially, that joyful squall of sound that suggested cheerleaders with chain saws, was a home I wanted to live in. It moved faster; my brain thought quicker while engaged with it. I'd already tried pot, but felt nothing. This was my new drug, and like the other record clerks, I jonesed for more, and so we'd flip the record over and over again.

 (Courtesy of Rhino Records)
(Courtesy of Rhino Records)

What I don't remember was when the fights began. The guitar salesmen hated Ramones like I hated Eat a Peach, and rather than growing on them, the record exponentially rubbed them the wrong way, like a mosquito bite that itches the more you scratch it. I can't remember if Greg — who wore makeup daily as if his entire life was a rock and roll show — was ever hit, but words were definitely exchanged: The guitar dudes would send the vinyl flying down the basement stairs, and a fresh copy would hit the turntable like replacement troops in a war. Customers would alternately love it and loathe it; every copy sold felt like a victory.

Where you stood in the store determined how you experienced it. On the left side, you heard Dee Dee Ramone's bass; on the right roared Johnny Ramone's guitar. Unlike today's rock records that are often nearly mono to maximize their loudness, Ramones accentuated extreme stereo separation, just like Capitol's crude mixes of those early Beatles albums. As producer Craig Leon explains in his notes to Rhino Records' newly released 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, this was intentional. Each of the few elements in the mix were engineered to be heard as an entity distinct from the others, yet interlocked through mostly simultaneous performance. There are overdubs, but not nearly as many as what would soon appear on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. This was rock and roll as minimalism meant to vanquish prog-rock, bourgeois folk, and other maximalist movements that defined the decade.

Yet what's usually downplayed even today is the album's unabashed love of the emphatically upbeat styles they stripped. By marrying surf rock, British Invasion, '60s girl groups, garage R&B and bubblegum to incongruous tales of beating on brats, serial killers and sniffing glue, they reinvigorated and reanimated them all. The buzz of Johnny's guitar was undeniably brutal, but you couldn't call the vocals macho: The Bowie influence in Joey Ramone's delivery on "I Don't Care" — the first demo on the new deluxe edition and a song that would be included on the band's third album, 1977's Rocket to Russia — is undeniable. By the subsequent Leon sessions that comprised the band's debut, he sounds like an angry Ronnie Spector with a Queens native's approximation of an English accent.

In Joey's snarls and hiccups you could hear the history of rock's flamboyance from Little Richard onward; married to the band's primal sound, they defied gender. Joey personified "punk," and though he may have been sexually straight, his back-alley slang of strangled sighs suggested that word's earlier meaning as representing a younger, receptive, street hustling partner in homosexual anal intercourse. Dee Dee Ramone's semiautobiographical song about prostituting himself to other guys, "53rd & 3rd" made those implicit associations explicit, right down to song's (hopefully) fictional ending in which he slices his john with a razor to prove that he's "no sissy." The Ramones subverted masculinity as much as they celebrated it: Back in the day, not playing guitar solos long enough to microwave a potato just wasn't manly.

Like the cross-dressing New York Dolls before them, John Waters or their KISS-loving champions at Creem, the Ramones were smart people playing dumb, which confused dim-witted folks and seduced intellectuals: Rolling Stone's initial review of the album cited Cahier du Cinema in the very first sentence, and then compared the band to auteur directors like Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller. As Leon confirms in his liner notes, their severity was meant to move rock forward, but you couldn't explain that to most adults. You lost them with "punk," which inspired thoughts of guys f******, possibly in prison. You lost them the same way the previous generation alienated their elders with the simple phrase "rock and roll," which was similarly rooted in the erotic vernacular. Nearly every original U.S. punk band was born to lose, which of course made them more punk.

In England, where everybody roots for the underdog and even old-line squares are titillated by queers, punk was glam's next logical step: All those deliberately dippy T. Rex, Sweet, Slade, Gary Glitter, Suzi Quatro and Mud singles that mostly flopped here were nearly punk already. The Ramones sincerely thought they were going to be the next big thing after Scotland's reigning boy band, the Bay City Rollers. Just like them, they had a uniform and ridiculous chants: "Hey ho, let's go" shifts "Blitzkrieg Bop" into high gear just as "S-a-t-u-r-d-a-y NIGHT" kicked off the Rollers' then-recent and biggest U.S. hit. Immediately hailed as rock saviors, the Ramones intended to make innovative pop, and indeed that's exactly what it was, albeit not pop that the era's gatekeepers could comprehend. To them, the Ramones were niche, and so the band had to tour England — where niche genres have a long history of going mainstream overnight — to find their true audience; future musicians.

But in Rochester, it was only outsiders who understood them, which of course estranged me further. I'd never imagine 40 years later there'd be a four-disc set based on that half-hour album. A new, additional mono mix — here duplicated on vinyl and CD — finally unites Dee Dee's bass with Johnny's guitar, while demos, single versions, both of the band's virtually identical August 12, 1976 performances at L.A.'s The Roxy, and the 12" x 12" hardcover packaging all add up to an extravagant tribute to a band that fetishized simplicity. It's bordering on profane, but those extras do stoke my memories.

In 1978, the band finally played our local biker bar, where my friend and I couldn't get in because we were still too young. So we knocked on the back door, and like out of some fairy story, it was opened by the actual Ramones, who welcomed us in. We hid among our older friends until we couldn't contain ourselves, and then we pogoed like the English punks we'd read about. This was probably the greatest thing that had ever happened to us. But that extra elevation exposed us to the bouncer, who grabbed us by our collars, hoisted us into the air and threw us out of the club. We were the brats being beat.

Now when I pull out my Rocket to Russia LP, which was signed at the House of Guitars earlier that same day by all four original members, I get choked up: How can it be that they're all dead when Ted Nugent's still alive? It took until 2014 for Ramones to earn gold certification, but their T-shirts must've long ago gone multiplatinum: That one with the eagle and the baseball bat shows up routinely on kids even younger than I was in 1976. They don't know the Bay City Rollers or even the Allman Brothers; they know the Ramones. That makes me happy.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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