Ramones By Nicholas Rombes (Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 series)
Why is it relevant to review a book initially released in 2005? Because (1.) the subject matter seems as relevant now as it ever did, and (2.) it’s still in print.
You can’t expect anything usual from the 33 1/3 series, that’s clear. All that matters is: Does it work? Does it help us, does it add to the LP in question..?
Given the huge influence that this first "Ramones" LP had on modern rock’n’roll music, it is with woeful heart that I report that Rombes is another academic. in 2005 he was Associate Professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy. (No, me either).
It was a worried frown that I found I disagreed heartily with the first two sentences, which hung out Rombes’ slate above his wares; "Ramones is either the last great modern record, or the first great postmodern one. Fully aware of its status as pop culture, it nonetheless has unironic aspirations toward art." I winced.
Surely not another academic with no clues as to actual context ..?
Imagine my surprise when I find that, not only does Rombes have ample clues, he has put together one of the most significant and highly readable books on punk in general. Not only were those rather annoying first two sentences the only two annoying sentences in the book, they also made a lot more sense once you begin getting into Rombes’ take, or comprehension of the band, and the LP.
I won’t try to condense his argument; to Rombes, The Ramones were a punk band - before there were punk bands - and they were, in effect, the first modern, attitudinal punk band. You can cite the Seeds, the Trashmen, all those bands on the Nuggets compilations, The Monks … but none of them quite had either the blueprint which was seized upon, the shock of the new gleefully seized upon by a new generation of musicians. You could say that The Ramones were the bedrock to a million splinters of musical niches.
Certainly you could make your case for the Velvets (arguably as influential nowadays), or the New York Dolls (whose "Old Grey Whistle Test" TV appearance on 27 November, 1973 galvanised a nation’s musically inclined malcontents so that, as the Sex Pistols began stirring things up, there were people who already had musical instruments, attitude and often rehearsing bands). You could make your case that the Sex Pistols were the first actual punk band - in the sense that they were the publicly-perceived pinpoint of the movement, even though they were merely the bouncing bomb which finally burst the Mohne Dam).
The first part of the book is the prehistory, rich and detailed, clever and involving, entertaining and - did I mention? - richly readable. And that’s the key, because a book on the Ramones should never have been academic in nature. It wasn’t that they were D-U-M-B, but they’d discovered a method of creating an elegant simplicity which, like a haiku, cut to the heart of their subject matter. I mean, take the lyrics to Pinhead. Do we really need further explanations?
Beautifully, because the band had written the songs for their first three lps by late 1974, Rombes is able to briefly discuss these songs in context. He’s also able to point to their later career, tho he doesn’t dwell on it. Descriptions from those involved in the recording process are invaluable and lovingly chosen.
I found it a bit surprising that Rombes does not, for some reason, quote or refer to the Ramones documentary "End of the Century" (2003), and although he touches cloth with the '60s girl bands (especially the Phil Spector stable), he mysteriously misses entirely their huge significance on the complex mixture of muted violence and romanticism that was The Ramones. Max’s Kansas City doesn’t get sufficient space, but hey, che sera sera. I always liked the comment in the film, "it was as if all the adults had gone and only the kids were left". (ED: THey were a CBGB band anyway, Robert.)
And that’s where I’ll leave it. Regardless of what I might consider faults, this is one of the few essential books on the New York "pre-punk" scene, and certainly an essential book on The Ramones. I ended up not disagreeing so much with the first two sentences, and you know how set in our ways us old lags can be. That's a result.
Of course, if you own a CBGBs tshirt and all the Ramones’ albums downloaded onto a memory stick which is "somewhere in your room" (but no actual CDs or viny) you won’t need this because you know it all already. The T-shirt says it all. This book is only for people who have heard of them and think, "I need to know more" or have heard the band and loved them. I remember reading a Stephen King book where he referred to the Ramones in a positive light - then quite rare for mainstream USA; King later wrote the liner notes for the Ramones tribute LP, "We’re a Happy Family" (no, me either).
and a packet of Twinkies.