The Ramones — Dee Dee (bass, vocals), Joey (vocals), Johnny (guitar), Tommy (drums, later replaced by Marky) — were the American punk band, an endless wellspring of noise, energy, attitude, humor and (sometimes forgotten) great songs, who helped reinvent rock ‘n’ roll when it needed it most in the mid-'70s.
Working for indie Sire Records in the mid-'70s, producer/talent scout Craig Leon became involved with the percolating New York underground music scene. One summer night in 1975 he went to CBGB’s and saw two bands, the Talking Heads and the Ramones.
"I went to that show and there were literally four people in the audience besides me, but the bands were phenomenal,” Leon said. "A lot of people didn’t even think the Ramones could make a record. There were weeks of preproduction on a very basic level: like when the songs started and when they ended. Their early sets were one long song until they ran out of steam or fought. You could see it as a performance art-type thing, where you had a 17-minute concise capsule of everything you ever knew about rock ‘n’ roll, or you could see it as 22 little songs,” he said. They went for the songs.
The Ramones’ first album (1976) is a roaring minimalist icon — the first real American punk record. Layers and layers of accumulated bloat and sheen were stripped away to reveal rock ‘n’ roll at its most basic and vital on songs like "Blitzkreig Bop,” "Beat On the Brat” and "Let’s Dance.” The Ramones’ sound was blazing early-'60s surf music played through the overdriven distortion of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. Yet, according to Leon, the Ramones saw themselves as a pop band. "In our naivete, we thought they were going to be bigger than the Beatles. They had even named themselves after Paul McCartney’s early stage name, ‘Paul Ramone,’” Leon said.
While most agree the Ramones’ astonishing first album — which cut through the competition like a 747 in a paper airplane contest — is their most important album, it isn’t my favorite. My favorite is one of the band’s most eccentric, "End of the Century” — produced by the enigmatic pop icon (and now murder suspect) Phil Spector — and the album that explicitly acknowledged such a thing as "pop punk” for the first time.
Recorded in 1979, the album made explicit the connection between early-'60s pop-rock and the punk band’s psyche, and holds up as both a Ramones and a Spector classic — Spector’s idiosyncrasies never overwhelm the roar of "Chinese Rock” or "Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” and the Spectorish "Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio” rollicks with just the right retro touches. The band’s remake of the Ronette’s "Baby I Love You” is as touching as it is fun, and shed a whole new light on singer Joey Ramone (who died in 2002 after a long bout with cancer — I sure do miss that guy).
The two-CD set "Hey! Ho! Let’s Go” is a spectacular overview of the band, with all of the above songs (except "Baby I Love You”) plus "California Sun,” "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” "Cretin Hop,” "Rockaway Beach,” "Teenage Lobotomy,” "I Wanna Be Sedated,” "She’s the One,” "She’s a Sensation,” "We Want the Airwaves” and many, many more.