Hey! Ho! Debut Ramones album gets a gold star – nearly 40 years on

Three chords and the youth: Ramones’ simple punk formula changed rock

The Ramones: Gold standard

The Ramones: Gold standard


‘Voice, guitar, bass, drums. Simple, speedy, stripped-down rock’n’roll.” Eddie Vedder’s description of The Ramones’ eponymous 1976 debut album mimicked the band’s trademark music by saying it all in as short a space as possible.

Pardon my French, but screw The Velvet Underground, Elvis and The Beatles: The Ramones’ first album is arguably the most influential piece of popular music ever recorded. Ramones was a vertical shift in music’s evolution, split rock’n’roll history in half, was directly responsible for The Sex Pistols and The Clash (among many others) and its sound still retains holding shares in much of today’s big-name bands.

Just as an important building is “listed”, Ramones has long been protected by the US Library of Congress, which recognises it as “a sound recording that is culturally, historically or aesthetically important and/or informs or reflects life in the United States”.

That hoary old axiom about The Velvet Underground – that nobody bought their first album but that those few who did all ended up forming rock bands – can’t compete with the fact that while nobody initially bought Ramones (it sold only 6,000 copies in its first year of release), those who did didn’t just form bands; they helped change the course of music.

So it was a shock and a surprise to see reports this week that Ramones has finally, 38 years after its release, achieved gold status in the US: 500,000 copies sold. That’s one of the longest waits ever and an appalling aggregate sum for a work of such magnificence. By contrast, a band such as Green Day, who are very much the Donovans to the Ramones’ Dylan, regularly hit the 15 million per album mark, even though their work is essentially a crappy Tesco Value Brand version of the real thing.

The fact that Ramones is still selling nearly four decades on gives reason to believe. But the horrible truth about The Ramones is that they never sold many records and had trouble breaking the top 100 with most of their releases. Still, they’re a multi-platinum T-shirt band – their iconic Eagle T alone is believed to have sold nearly two million, most of them probably bought by people who wouldn’t know the difference between Blitzkrieg Bop and Stairway to Heaven.

By today’s standards, Ramones sounds like it was recorded inside a matchbox. However, its sonically hypodermic qualities are enhanced by the fact that the 14 tracks come in at 29 minutes in total, which is shorter than some prog-rock drum solos. No guitar solos, no instrumentals – it’s all heart/no head music that is almost stupid yet at the same time sophisticated in its simplicity.

Recorded in less than a week for about $6,000, Ramones is the Astral Weeks of garage rock. The now-iconic cover photo cost $125. The album was all but ignored or misunderstood on its release, and it was years before it was properly appraised and longer still for people to realise that these 14 tracks created a fissure in musical history.

The fact that Ramones has finally gone gold is significant. Rock bands have it arseways these days: they chase after and associate themselves with brands. The Ramones were their own brand. bboyd@irishtimes.com

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