When you start a band, one of your expectations, besides getting laid a lot, is that you’re going to have your picture taken. When you actually do it, it’s not that easy. Like all groups, the Ramones started out feeling awkward about being photographed.
So they worked at it. They used their sessions with me, their manager, to learn how to be in front of a camera. I learned a lot too.
We had an unspoken agreement, where I was silently saying, “We hope these are going to be good pictures. You like my pictures, you like me, and I’m your manager so there won’t be any photographs that could hurt your career.” So we used this as a chance for learning the art of exhibitionism.
“Be as good at being photographed as you are at performing on stage.” They got it absolutely right, every time. They knew how to, and also that they had to.
Within weeks of the release of the first Ramones album, in April 1976, the Ramones had been booked to play at the Roundhouse in London (capacity 3,300 people; distance from NYC about 3,400 miles) on the weekend of 4 July.
This was an astonishing thing to comprehend; suddenly, everything was ten times more than it had ever been. We had never travelled more than 250 miles for a gig.
And how to measure the importance of playing outside the United States for the first time in London? Intangible, but between me and the band we gave it a multiple of ten again, thereby making the 4 July show 1,000 times more significant than any previous one.
By chance, I’m in London as I write this, seeing the preparations for punk.london – pitched as ‘a year of events celebrating 40 years of punk heritage’. There’s a headline in today’s Guardian about the Ramones’ “explosive impact” 40 years ago; and on the Roundhouse website is the announcement that in July it will have been “40 years since the Ramones played their seminal gig at the Roundhouse,” so the venue will be presenting a weekend of “music and spoken word fuelled by the vitality and energy of punk.”
Omigod, who knew? I might as well go ahead and square the estimate of importance that we gave to that Roundhouse gig when we first heard it was booked. Here goes: on the Bicentennial (1776-1976) Anniversary of the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence from England’s King George III, the Ramones would go to the capital of the mother country and play a show in London that was maybe one million times more important than anything they’d ever done. I’m sticking with that number; there’s all kinds of proof.
By the way, I don’t know how we became ‘punk’ because it was not ever the band’s idea to use that word as a label for what they attempted, presented, or achieved. That word! It was a style for some, a political stance for others, the name that was given to a new generation’s rebellion against the insufficient and lame culture that was there, in place.
Just as a four-letter word, it has such scene-stealing tendencies. I used to love hating it, now hate loving it. It’s about a power, you decide what sort. It’s automatically multi-media modern, useful, sounds like what it is, reads well (even from a distance), concentrated, brief and strong, like youth. Endowed with life.
For better or worse, there are not many such words in a century. The Ramones got called ‘punk’ and so it was. Forty years from now, there will be that much more chattering about what the word ‘means’, so we’ll just use it, as it is quite unavoidable in the end.
The Ramones disabused so many great musicians of the tyranny of having to be good musicians
So we went to London, with no idea whatsoever as to what we’d find. The city seemed near the boiling point for many reasons, not least of all because of the weather itself, one of the hottest summers on record. Businessmen were walking on Piccadilly in wife-beater undershirts. Of course there was no ice, but mainly no air-conditioning. Apparently they had never needed it until this very heatwave. The coolest city in the world, was, for us, way too hot.
Our lives were saved because the Holiday Inn where we stayed in Camden had the only air-conditioned interiors we found in four days in the world’s largest city. Thank the lord. And what a bonanza for the fans that were waiting for us at the hotel, wherever they’d come from. So a lot of them stayed there, and it was a party.
London had rock’n’roll in its blood and DNA, it was invented there. And the city was teeming with fantastic musicians, and groups at various start-up stages. But these proto-bands were self-conscious, thinking they had to be ‘better’ musicians, before going public. Also in the London DNA: showmanship. The Stones, The Who, Zeppelin, Bowie etc all knew that early on, but by the mid-1970s guitarists and drummers had this idea of being virtuosos, playing a lot of notes or hitting a lot of things per second. The Ramones disabused so many great musicians of the tyranny of having to be good musicians. I think that’s the important thing they really did in London.
There were two gigs in London that weekend – on 4 July they played the Roundhouse, and the next night Dingwalls, in a much smaller room. In the audience both nights were members of new bands – some of which had never, or hardly ever, performed in public – including the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Pretenders, and likely more.
The Ramones’ show was a very big deal for London’s young musical community: the Ramones’ first album was hot; it was known that there was a budding important music scene at CBGB in New York which had been reported on by the powerful British music weeklies New Musical Express and Melody Maker; and the always important teenage word of mouth was raging in England.
Thousands of curious fans showed up, thousands more were turned away; it was the first time that new music by a new band was attracting a significantly large crowd, and the established British music industry was paying attention to the “next thing” at long last.
Oddly, the Ramones were billed as support for the headlining Flamin’ Groovies, a pleasant band from San Francisco with a small but dedicated following, which probably would have done better opening the show. “We [the Flamin’ Groovies and the Ramones] agreed to alternate the closing slot,” Johnny Ramone recalled, “but when we got there, they insisted on closing both nights. We couldn’t care less. Everybody was there to see us.”
You must be some incredible musicians. I guess we haven’t rehearsed enough, or something
It was certainly always the case that the Ramones were a lousy opening act, a very hard act to follow. They raised the energy level so high when they played that there was no place to go afterwards but down. Most of the audience, already giddy and drained, were gone by the time the Flamin’ Groovies came on stage to do their show.
Among the most intrigued London musicians there were the members of The Clash, who were backstage with the Ramones the night of the Dingwalls show. Paul Simonon, The Clash bass player, was amazed at the buzz the Ramones had generated, and the thousands of fans who came to see them.
“What is it about you guys?” Paul asked Johnny Ramone. “We’ve played about two shows, and we can’t seem to pull in a full house even in small clubs, but you’re here for the first time with two sold out shows. You must be some incredible musicians. I guess we haven’t rehearsed enough, or something.”
“You’ve never seen us, right?” Johnny said. “You’re coming to the show tonight? You’ll see. We can’t play, we’re terrible musicians. But the kids don’t care about that; they want a show. So we give them a show, loud and fast. They love that. You guys going to keep rehearsing forever? Nobody’s gonna know. They just want to be blown away. So go blow them away, nobody gives a shit about anything else.”
Joe Strummer, lead singer and guitarist of The Clash saw that night what Johnny had been talking about. The show, said Strummer, “was like white heat, because of the constant barrage of tunes. One ended, the next began. You couldn’t put a cigarette paper between them.”
While a lot of people in the audience were expecting a sloppy mess – one definition of ‘punk’ was that you didn’t have your act together, and it didn’t matter and you weren’t supposed to care – their expectations were totally turned around. “They weren’t ready for a pile driver hitting them again and again,” said Joe Strummer. “It was unbelievable.”
They were nights to remember, those nights; it was the Ramones shows on that weekend of 4 July, 1976, that are said to have kick-started the great wave of bands and music that came to be known as ‘punk rock’. Beginning in the USA and the UK, and then on the European continent, in Japan, and South America – popular music was getting punk-ified.
Forty years later, in one form or another, punk rock is stronger and bigger than ever.■
My Ramones by Danny Fields is out in May, published by Reel Art Press (£29.95). See reelartpress.com