As the 70s decade sped past the midway point, the sounds of funk began the gradual transformation into the soon to be dominant disco, hippie hero leftovers of the sixties mellowed into non-aggressive California songwriter rock, and the cynically prepackaged AM radio ready production line turned instead to the strong market for glossy, slick love songs. Considering this context, the RAMONES' first record could hardly have seemed to have come more out of left field. Even the burgeoning realm of teenage rock demanded a certain LED ZEPPELIN-codified level of bloated playing ability and also a modicum of heavily mixed aural sonic power. (Witness that the NEW YORK DOLLS and ALICE COOPER-influenced bombast of KISS would be routinely and absurdly ridiculed as invalid due to their wanting musicianship.) Inside this climate, their debut--stripped down with a determined primitivism, willfully applying, and almost flaunting, a near comical amateurishness--seemed so radical as to appear without precedent. That this was, in retrospect, not the case can hardly undermine the record's monumental impact.
The band drew from the British Invasion's brashness, though they quickly revealed leanings to pre-BEATLES pop (I Saw Her Standing There, however, is surely an overlooked template.) The raw, simplistic power of mid sixties garage rock plus the early seventies anti-virtuosity of the STOOGES, SLADE and the already mentioned DOLLS liberated them from musically aspirational anxieties. As well, the STOOGES first record, along with the MC5's Back in the USA and the VELVET UNDERGROUND's White Light/White Heat anticipated the debut's more claustrophobic sonic terrain. The DICTATORS offered an almost parallel development of their trash culture world view. Even BLACK SABBATH and LED ZEPPELIN, acts they seemed poised as antagonistic aesthetic responses to, figured as influences. Paranoid and Communication Breakdown can hardly be doubted as probable models of tempo and rhythm.
On top of all this, the RAMONES added the personality of their bizarre lyrics, forthright with stunted obsessiveness and gleefully full of twisted humor. This, not to mention their continual knack of inverting every sort of seeming personal shortcoming into bottomless wells of drawable power, endeared the group to a cult of fans that slowly swelled in numbers that eventually made their goal of widespread public acceptance immaterial- a phenomenon perhaps not noted by the band until it was too late.
In early 1976 the group entered studios at Radio City Music hall with CRAIG LEON, the producer and PR man who had secured their deal with SIRE. With the not inexperienced TOMMY looking over his shoulder, the lp was completed in 17 days, at a cost of under $6500, small peanuts in 1970s record company terms. The defiant sound of no guitar solos, minimalist bass and drums, unhomogenized (and even mispronounced(!)) vocals, with absurd curveball arrangements, basing changes on barre chord patterns instead of open E, A, D or G embellishments, triggered an empathetic wave worldwide, that much is certain. But what of the way the record sounds, listening back with hindsight ears?
Stylistic considerations aside, the most immediately noticeable aspect of the production is the total stereo separation of the guitar and bass- each completely confined to one channel. Early albums by the BEATLES often exhibited this trait, though the resultant benefits one might experience listening to arrangements where instruments are playing distinctively unique parts might not automatically translate in a group where often the guitars and bass are playing identical patterns. That it actually could result in sapping both instruments of overall punch and volume seems to not have occurred to anybody present. The error in judgement clearly was quickly realized, as the leadoff single BLITZKRIEG BOP was remixed so that bass and guitar are in both channels, an audibly satisfying improvement. The technique was never returned to, and the utilization of this production concept is an interesting misstep in vision from a group striving to free rock from unnecessary pretension.
With the early demos now readily available for comparison, it is now less debatable that the first lp's mix might have failed to meet the potential of the material. Certainly, that LEON was impressed with the demos was a key consideration in his involvement. Why then, was not a heavier mix achieved, or attempted?? Certainly the stereo separation experiment didn't help matters, but several of the demos are rooted in lower keys, suggesting that perhaps they have been slowed a notch. Why remains unclear- experimental usage aside, the varispeeding technique typically was utilized to perk up sluggish tempos, or as might be the case here, to lower the track to a more comfortable pitch for the vocalist. Assuming this the case, the demos might have in started off closer to the sound of the record, but became heavier in tone once the time was stretched down. (Ironically the record's tonalities somewhat resemble how the demos might sound sped up.) Finally, there is no question that the band wanted to wrap up recording as quickly as possible. With the trademark barrage of the group's sound, encountering misleading playback, or meeting confusion in the mastering process would have been far from inconceivable.
In the end, such idiosyncrasies and weaknesses matter very little, for conceptually the record succeeded as the RAMONES succeeded, improbably turning odd quirks into celebratory badges. Consider details such as the gallingly unglamorous cover shot (imagine ROCKET TO RUSSIA's cover more what they were aiming for) or the startling back cover cataloging of numerous song lengths under two minutes, or the ridiculous utilization of groovy 70's inner sleeve lettering for lyrics such as the 19 word LOUDMOUTH, or the endless repetitions of the word 'WANNA.' Just like the mid sixties ROLLING STONES' zitty KEITH RICHARDS photos, they all subconsciously communicated to their followers what the band would soon make concrete:We Accept You. One of Us.
And with the bulk of the next album's material written, the RAMONES raged ahead, dusting off the rookie lessons of their debut- but leaving us all reveling then, and forever, in the lunatic fuzzball of its imperfect perfection.
Photo by Roberta Bayley