Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Ramones
Why it’s daunting: Crawling out of Queens with a look that was half The Wild One and half The Music Machine, the Ramones seemed, aptly enough, like a biker gang doing an amphetamine-addled impression of ’60s garage rock. That is, with a little Stooges, Beach Boys, and girl-group pop tossed into the blender. In today’s pop-culture currency, that’s pure cash—but in the early ’70s, nothing could have looked or sounded more insane. And yet, the four original Ramones (singer Joey, guitarist Johnny, bassist Dee Dee, and drummer Tommy) not only found an audience, but also ignited the punk movement. The high esteem in which the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame-inducted group is held—and the monolithic homogeneity of its songs, a quality that’s exaggerated by both fans and detractors—can be a turnoff to the uninitiated. So can the deliberately mind-numbing brattiness of the Ramones’ music. Beneath the cartooniness, though, is a body of music that transcends punk. The group’s mix of innocence, belligerence, whimsy, idiocy, heartache, camp, and classic songcraft make for a palette as deep and broad as that of any artist in the pop canon. The Ramones just made it louder, faster, purer, and more fun than most.
Possible gateway: Rocket To Russia
Why: Striking the ideal balance between abrasion and melody, 1977’s Rocket To Russia—the Ramones’ third album in the year-and-a-half since their debut—distills everything that ever made the Ramones great into one half-hour, 14-song onslaught. But what a sweet onslaught it is. Among the simmering nihilism of “I Don’t Care” and the gum-chewing, ass-kicking fun of “Rockaway Beach” lurks an emerging sophistication—within the Ramones stark, utilitarian framework, of course—not to mention a sly self-awareness best summed up by the album’s nearest approximation of a hit, “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker.” With a breezy sway offset by Johnny’s relentless, searing downstroke, “Sheena” traps summer in a bubble. Rocket To Russia catches the band at the peak of its power.
Next steps: The birth date of punk rock gets contested a lot, but let’s cut the shit and get right down to it: By any true definition of the word, punk as a form of recorded music was born on April 23, 1976, the day Ramones was released. As epochal as it is, the band’s self-titled debut is not its best. True, songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat On The Brat,” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” are among the Ramones’ most familiar. But the album is marred by hesitant playing, murky production, and a lack of both experience and confidence—not just in the studio, but in the brave, new world of sound the band was opening up. That said, it’s still an absolutely essential album that contains the seeds of everything the Ramones would go on to do.
The other album the Ramones released in 1977, Leave Home, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Rocket To Russia; either could serve as the perfect gateway. Leave Home is the first true realization of how the Ramones really wanted to sound, and that euphoria shows in every slab of distortion, from the acidic kiss-off of "Glad To See You Go" to the dingy, scuffed, Coney Island romance of “Oh, Oh, I Love Her So,” an anthem to teenage lust that bears the indelible refrain, “I met her at the Burger King / We fell in love by the soda machine.” The original version of the album contains the fume-huffing tribute “Carbona Not Glue,” which was removed from the record to avoid a potential lawsuit, to be replaced on later editions by “Babysitter” and then “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker.” The inclusion of the latter only elevates Leave Home’s greatness.
By the late ’70s, the Ramones found themselves in an odd position; partly due to the fact that they were undeniably the fathers of the burgeoning punk movement, they were under increasing pressure to translate their stature into wider commercial success. Luckily, moving in a more pop direction wasn’t counterintuitive to the Ramones’ aesthetic. 1978’s Road To Ruin flaunted some of the band’s most sugary, gorgeous songs to date (“Don’t Come Close,” “Questioningly”) as well as raging paeans to brain damage like “I Wanna Be Sedated.” 1980’s End Of The Century was even more expansive, due in no small part to the production work of Joey’s hero, Phil Spector. Slathered in reverb and nostalgia, End Of The Century (which includes “Rock ’N’ Roll High School,” the title track of Roger Corman’s Ramones-starring movie of the same name) was by far the group’s most polished work to date—but it also showed how durable yet delicate the Ramones could be.
Although its track list overlaps with those of many of the recommended gateways so far, Ramones Mania is also worth owning. Not only does the 1988 compilation offer a solid, standalone mix of Ramones classics from the ’70s, it highlights some of the band’s best songs from the ’80s—including “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg” (the anti-Reagan song, later retitled “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down,” that caused a rift between the liberal Joey and the conservative Johnny), the keyboard-slick yet insanely catchy “Howling At The Moon (Sha-La-La),” and the sawed-off rocker “I Wanna Live,” in which Joey assumes the guise of a fictional “gypsy prince covered with diamonds and jewels.” The grim, poetic fantasy is a twist on Joey’s usual heart-to-the-grindstone stance, but it’s all the more poignant for it. To boot, it features some rare, raw, bluntly simple leadwork from Johnny.
As with Mania, the live album It’s Alive offers songs that can easily be found elsewhere. But the concert set—recorded on New Year’s Eve 1977 in London, just as a generation of Ramones-inspired punk bands were taking up arms—is nothing short of spectacular. From the blazing velocity to Dee Dee’s signature shouts of “1-2-3-4!” between songs, It’s Alive is, in many ways, the definitive document of the band circa its mid-’70s heyday. It’s also a great way to hear some of the immortal tracks from Ramones played at the tempo, tightness, and toughness that the studio album should have sported. (A video version of It’s Alive, along with other amazing onstage footage of the band, can be found on the DVD set It’s Alive 1974-1996.)
Where not to start: End Of The Century is the last of the Ramones’ masterpieces—and as such, it marks the end of the stretch of newbie-friendly albums. That doesn’t mean, though, that the band’s output in the ’80s and ’90s doesn’t have its highlights. Although scattered among poor production choices and stylistic shifts (and even vocal experiments by Joey on albums like 1986’s growly Animal Boy), there are plenty of gems, many featured on Mania and 2000’s Mania Vol. 2, to be plucked from the Ramones’ post-prime catalog. Even the group’s 1995 swan song, ¡Adiós Amigos!, features a handful of respectable tunes, including a cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” that’s heartbreaking in hindsight: Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee would all be dead within a decade of its release. (The excellent 2003 documentary End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones, captures the band’s glory years and final days with equal parts celebration and pathos.)
As vital as It’s Alive is, it’s the only live Ramones album a beginner needs. Concert bootlegs abound, of course, but the second-best official live Ramones album is 1992’s Loco Live, a rousing and hefty set that serves as a snapshot of the band settling into middle age with dignity (or at least as much dignity as the Ramones felt comfortable exhibiting). As the band disintegrated in slow motion over the years, various members dabbled in solo projects, most of which are the least necessary entries in the Ramones’ oeuvre. Yet, while far from perfect, Joey’s solo debut Don’t Worry About Me—released posthumously in 2002—is a deeply personal and occasionally beautiful album. Though an odd choice, his cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” is a fitting, affecting self-eulogy.