Making a great album is hard. Making an album that changes the very landscape of music is nearly impossible. You have to do something new and unique and wonderful, for starters, and on top of that, in order to really leave your mark on music, there must be a confluence of events beyond your control. You have to get to that innovative sound before anybody else and you have to leave a substantial influence. People have to point the finger toward you and say, “You made this happen,” and a musician can’t really control that. One such seminal album, an album that helped change the face of music, was made by four scraggly, scrawny dudes from Queens whose main goal seemed to be, at times, to finish a song as soon as it started. Forty years ago on April 23, the Ramones released their self-titled debut album.
The Ramones were majorly influential — if you’ve paid any attention to rock and roll music in the last 40 years, you know that. However, what is worth noting that, from the get go, they were the Ramones. Their legacy and signature sound was intact the moment they released their first album into the world.
Their debut album begins with “Blitzkrieg Bop,” for fuck’s sake! It’s still one of the iconic punk songs of all-time. It’s probably the most heard punk song ever, give or take “London Calling.” You’ll hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” more often at a sporting event or in an advertisment, thanks to its chant-ability and catchiness, so the edge probably goes to Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy. If that’s not enough for you, they follow it up with “Beat on the Brat,” “Judy is a Punk,” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” The album may not be all killer, no filler, but it’s a 14-song album of sonic attitude that clocks in at under a half hour, so at least they respect your time.
As great as it is, and it is great, it’s not ultimately the quality of Ramones that makes it so influential. It’s that you can probably safely argue that the record was the first true punk album to make any real lasting impact. Is it the absolute first punk rock album? That’s debatable, although anybody taking the technical route in such a debate would probably say, “No.” There were proto-punk bands such as the MC5 and the Stooges. The Dictators released an album called Go Girl Crazy! in 1975 that could be called punk. The Sex Pistols were out and about, but they didn’t release anything until 1977. When was the last time you’ve heard a musician list The Dictators as an influence?
The Ramones had a distinct sound, fast, loud, and energetic, that was a departure from what was popular at the time. They were zigging where most were zagging, and they did it in a way that impressed people. That’s why you are reading an article about Ramones, and not about some other album released by one of their contemporaries.
At the time, the album didn’t sell a ton, it only reached No. 111 on the Billboard 200, but isn’t that sort of the point? They were punk, they were different, and they were not what people were used to. That’s also why reviews at the time were mixed, though Robert Christgau loved it, whereas, in the intervening years, it has routinely been called one of the most important, influential albums ever. In a piece labeling Ramones the sixth most influential album of all-time, Spin declared the album “saved rock from itself and punk rock from art-gallery pretension.” Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that bastion of old school rock and roll music, said that the Ramones were the antidote to a rock scene that had gotten “bloated and narcissistic.” The Ramones turned rock music into a lean machine of sonic dynamite.
In their wake, a litany of bands who wanted to be faster and louder emerged. Both in the United States and over in the United Kingdom, bands sought to replicate the sound of the Ramones, and that desire continued for decades. You can find seven full-length tribute albums recording by a single band on Wikipedia, and also six other tribute albums. That only is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bands paying their respect to the Ramones. Simply put, to sit here and list all the artists who claim the Ramones as an influence would be tedious. All you really need to do is listen to rock music before the Ramones’ debut album dropped, and how rock music sounded afterward, particularly punk music. Hell, we weren’t even talking about punk music until after the Ramones’ debut. It is the point from which an entire branch of music stemmed. Bands didn’t really sound like the Ramones until the Ramones came along. After that, plenty of bands sounded like the Ramones.
This includes the Ramones, by the way. This may sound obvious, on its surface, but there is more to it than simple tautology. The Ramones always sounded like Ramones. They developed the sound, and they stuck to it. Many times, bands change their sound. They want to do something new, or they chase influences. The Ramones had their influences, but they also, in their own way, influenced themselves. They changed the face of rock music, and turned punk music into something viable, and they stayed true to that all the way to their last album. That certainly doesn’t hurt, legacy wise. If somebody says a band sounds like the Ramones, you know exactly what that means. It has meant the same thing since the days of Ramones. It was a dedication to an ethos to be admired.
Now, going back and listening to Ramones doesn’t feel seminal, but that’s only because of all the musicians who listened to the album in the interim. It’s still an excellent listen, and it’s impressive just how much like the Ramones they sound like in that first album. Right out the gate, they were locked into their sound, even though they were on the vanguard with it. They made great music on Ramones, which wasn’t new. What mattered was they made fast great music. They got back to basics, and then started new from there. In doing so, they changed music forever.