The iJamming! 4th of July Download: The Ramones on the 4th Of July, 1976
In the spirit of Anglo-American relations, which always require some reflection on July 4, let me point you all to this MP3 download of the Ramones’ debut British show, at the Roundhouse, on the convenient date of July 4, 1976 – the USA’s Bicentennial. The Ramones’ performance that night has been cited over the years as a crucial moment in the development of punk rock, especially as members of the Damned, Clash and Pistols were all in the audience. The tape is revealing for a number of reasons, not least that the Ramones leave the stage almost as soon as they take to it due to sound problems (reportedly, the monitors weren’t working), and during the five minutes that an apparently recalcitrant sound crew get around to fixing the problem, a group of fans start singing Ramones’ choruses in terrace chant fashion: “Hey ho let’s go” and “Beat on the beat beat on the brat beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh yeah!” This inspires sardonic laughter from, let’s call them older members of the audience (there to see headliners the Flamin’ Groovies), and indicates the impending generational/cultural split in the UK. Punk was about to kick off – with the Ramones in the front line.
I spent a day in the Lincoln Center’s Performance Arts Library two weeks ago, perusing British and American music papers alike from the 1970s, and was struck by the conflicting impressions of the Ramones in the two countries. From almost their first gig at CBGBs in August 1974, the New York media immediately understood both the Ramones’ roots and their intent; the word “minimalist,” a throwback to Warhol’s 60s pop art paintings, was thrown at them regularly as acknowledgment that they were making some kind of art statement. Those writers also instinctively understood the humor of the Ramones, even as they understood that the Ramones were perfectly serious about what they were doing, and if few of them used the word genius to describe the Ramones’ MO, they all seemed to understand that the Ramones were presenting a novel take on rock’n’roll classicism that required at least a modicum of intellect.
In the UK, though, it was a different story. The preview paragraph for their July 4 debut, in the Melody Maker, called the Ramones “idiotic,” and in the next week’s paper, reviewing the Roundhouse gig, Allan Jones criticized their “fiercely retarded music…. With its moronic emphasis on a violently expressed nihilism.” The NME’s Max Bell must have been standing at the bar with him: “The Ramones’ appeal is purely negative,” he wrote, “based in their not being able to play a shit or give a shit… It’s first step moronorock strung across a selection of imbecilic adolescent ditties…”
Hey ho. Let’s go listen to the gig itself and form our own opinions shall we? Fifteen songs, thirty minutes, and although it’s a bootleg, the power and precision in the onstage performance (especially once it warms up after a few songs) is so evident as to be visceral. The idea that they were unable “to play a shit” is, frankly, laughable: you try playing music this hard, this fast, this relentlessly and you just might appreciate how much skill (and stamina) it entailed. As for Joey, the singer, well, 1976 was the hottest summer in memory in the UK, air conditioning was non existent, the Roundhouse gig was totally sold out (the Stranglers opened the bill, by the way), and from all accounts – including those of the Ramones themselves – it was hotter than a sauna inside. Joey Ramone kept his leather jacket on throughout. Stupid or cool? You decide.