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The Ramones are proof that it doesn't take great musicianship to create great music. Sounds a little counterintuitive, yes, but it's true. None of the four members of the Ramones—Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy Ramone (not their real names, amazingly enough)—weren't the best of musicians, by any stretch of the imagination. And they all knew this. When they first formed the band, in fact, they were still just learning how to play their respective instruments. And over time, their musicianship never gained much complexity. But that was precisely the point.
Together, these four misfits from Forest Hills in Queens set out to change the direction of rock and roll. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy became friends during high school, bonding over their love for the Stooges (think Iggy Pop). Despite the surname of "Ramone" that they all shared, they were not related. All four adopted this surname and gave themselves pseudonyms a.k.a. fake names. They despised everything about the hippie counterculture—which had slowly become more of the norm—that was so prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, making them outcasts at school. They believed that rock and roll music had lost its way. It no longer felt fresh and raw. By the 1970s, glitter rock was becoming more and more popular, as bands like Queen played shows in huge stadiums before thousands of adoring fans. In the eyes of the Ramones, everybody was becoming overindulgent in their playing. Long, overly complicated guitar solos had become the norm.
What exactly was rock and roll? This was a question the Ramones were busy grappling with. While reconsidering just what rock music was, the Ramones developed a musical style that went entirely against the grain.
Together, these four fictitious "brothers" in the Ramones crafted their own unique musical vision, creating an alternative road for rock and roll. Musically, the Ramones heeded the advice of 19th-century American essayist Henry David Thoreau: "Simplify! Simplify!"
They boiled down rock music to its very essence, cutting out all the unnecessary embellishments. This was no frills rock at its finest. This was partly a conscious decision, though it was also a utilitarian approach to music, making an advantage of what might otherwise have been a crippling deficit in musicianship.
Dee Dee was the original singer of the band, but he couldn't play the guitar and sing at the same time, so he switched to bass. Eventually the Ramones added the frail giant Joey Ramone to the band as lead singer. The Ramones proved just how much could be accomplished with limited musicianship. And of course, we would be remiss not to mention the tempo of this music. The Ramones played faster, shorter songs than anybody else. Their debut self-titled album included 14 tracks, and yet the whole thing clocked in under 30 minutes in length.
The Ramones formed as a band in 1974, and put themselves on the map musically at the now-legendary Bowery bar and music club, CBGB's, where a new music scene was developing in New York City. They first performed at CBGB's in August of 1974 and soon became effectively the house band, playing practically every night. They had the ability to absolutely captivate an audience with their incredible showmanship.
According to Legs McNeil, who witnessed an early Ramones performance and later founded Punk magazine, "They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song [...] and it was just this wall of noise... They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new." (Source)
With their ripped skinny jeans, black leather jackets, and tough personas, the Ramones were most definitely not hippies. Their live sets lasted a total of only 17 minutes, with each song melding directly into the next. But that was all the time the Ramones needed to get their point across.
The musical barrage began with Dee Dee screaming into the microphone, "one, two, three, four" before each song. According to Dee Dee, the reason he did this was because "we couldn't learn how to do the silent count" (source). At first some people thought that the Ramones were a joke. The music seemed too simple, and their stage personas were more than a little offbeat. And then there were their famous on-stage arguments.
But the Ramones were earnest about everything they did musically. If the songs sounded simple, that was the point. According to the original drummer Tommy Ramone, "[Our] music is an answer to the early Seventies when artsy people with big egos would do vocal harmonies and play long guitar solos and get called geniuses. That was bulls--t. We play rock and roll. We don't do solos." (Source)
This last bit about solos is not entirely true. In fact, the song "I Wanna Be Sedated" includes a guitar solo by Johnny Ramone. But Johnny's guitar solo is not set out to impress the listener with his virtuoso playing. No, this solo involves Johnny playing the same exact note 65 times in quick succession.
Now that is punk rock.
"Blitzkrieg Bop" epitomizes the Ramones' musical sensibilities. This is fast-paced punk rock that gets straight to the point. Following the vocal chant at the beginning, there is absolutely no playing around here: "Hey ho! Let's go! Hey ho! Let's go!"
Believe it or not, the Ramones were inspired to write this chanting intro after listening to "Saturday Night" by the Scottish boy band the Bay City Rollers, which includes the chant "S-A! T-U-R, T-U-R! Day!" It's just a bit odd, since the Bay City Rollers are precisely the type of band that the Ramones would seemingly have abhorred in the early 1970s. But apparently the Ramones wanted their own chant, just like the Rollers. And they got it. Nowadays you can't go to a sporting event without hearing "Hey ho! Let's go!" blasted over the loudspeakers in an attempt to get the crowd into the game.
Following the iconic chant, the brothers Ramone launch into what can only be called a full-scale barrage of sound. "Blitzkrieg" is a term used to describe Nazi warfare tactics during World War II. The literal translation from the German is "lightning war." Essentially, German troops used a combination of heavy artillery and mobile ground troops to quickly attack a small section of an opposing army. Once they broke this section of an enemy front, Nazi forces would proceed to attack the rest of the opposing forces. The armored tank and the combat aircraft were most commonly used in this blitzkrieg strategy.
It's hard to know whether or not the Ramones were actually writing this song about a Nazi blitzkrieg. It is entirely possible. After all, their 1976 album Ramones did include a song entitled "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World," in which Joey, a New York Jew, sings, "I'm a Nazi schatze, you know I fight for the Fatherland." Maybe the Ramones considered themselves the Nazis of rock and roll in the mid-1970s, the hostile aggressors in an otherwise neutral world.
Compared to the musical landscape of the time, the Ramones most definitely played aggressive, edgy music. And their musical philosophy of playing stripped down music as fast as possible was almost as dogmatic as Nazi political philosophy. Certainly a line like "shoot 'em in the back now" makes one think "Blitzkrieg Bop" could be a song about Nazi warfare.
But beyond this hyper-literal face-value interpretation of "Blitzkrieg Bop," the music itself sounds like lightning war. The full-scale barrage of Joey's vocals, Johnny's guitar, Dee Dee's bass, and Tommy's drums has the effect of a massive attack on the eardrums. The raw energy and emotion of these four youngsters from Queens in 1976 can still be felt to this day. It's entirely possible that this song is an ode to the fans that attended the Ramones' shows at CBGB's as they were just starting out. Lines like "The kids are losing their minds,""Pulsating to the back beat," "and "Blitzkrieg Bop" most certainly lend credibility to this interpretation. Most likely this song is just about having fun and allowing yourself to be completely transfixed by the music of your favorite band.
When listening to "Blitzkrieg Bop," it's impossible not to get swept away by the back beat. And that's the point.
The Ramones truly were the progenitors of punk rock. And like many other incredibly influential figures—whether musical, literary, or artistic—the Ramones remained largely unheralded throughout their careers. They single-handedly helped to jump-start what would become the massive British punk scene during a brief tour in 1976.
During a show at the Roundhouse in London on July 4th, 1976, members of both the Clash and Sex Pistols were in the audience. These two punk groups were hugely influenced by the Ramones, but they'd go on to achieve much greater success on the charts than the Ramones ever did.
But while they wouldn't have been opposed to mainstream fame and radio play, that kind of success wasn't really what the Ramones were about. The Ramones were in their natural habitat while playing before adoring audiences at CBGB's, absolutely melting people's faces off in less than 30 minutes. And despite the personal tensions that arose between Joey and Johnny Ramone, the band toured practically nonstop for 22 years, finally disbanding in 1996.