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Late last night and into today, music lovers mourned the passing of Tommy Ramone — the last original member of the seminal New York band. Why the outpouring of affection for a group that never topped the charts? Although they weren’t the most popular, The Ramones were arguably the most influential band since the Beatles.
By 1976, rock music had run its course. The raw, raucous, rebellious teenage anthems of the ‘50s and ’60s had given way to plastic imitations. The Bee Gees and KC and the Sunshine Band played in the discos. The Bay City Rollers and “Afternoon Delight” topped the charts. The more serious listeners were wearing out pretentious LPs like Brain Salad Surgery and Tales from Topographic Oceans (the latter a double album with just four songs, carrying understated titles such as “The Revealing Science of God [Dance of the Dawn]”).
Rock had become overproduced, overwrought and no fun at all.
Four rough-looking misfits from Queens were sick of it. They took one of Paul McCartney’s pseudonyms, Paul Ramon, and named themselves after it — literally. The newly christened Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone brought only the distilled essence of rock. The songs were fast, loud and fun.
Rebelling against fashion-obsessed performers, they threw on torn-up jeans and black leather jackets to play dingy clubs like CBGB. Dee Dee would shout “1-2-3-4!” and the band would explode into a rapid-fire song of three chords and 4/4 time. After two or so minutes, they’d pause for a second before another “1-2-3-4!” launched them into the next song.
Their debut album, like most of their concerts, clocked in at less than 30 minutes. But that half-hour delivered more passion than the most bombastic rock opera.
The Ramones never broke it big, but they blasted through the sclerotic excess of ’70s music, clearing the way for thousands of other bands. The entire punk and hardcore scenes immediately followed their lead, spawning post-punk, new wave and the indie explosion of the ’90s. Metal bands sped up their songs and pampered rock icons stripped back their sound to the essentials.
In 2002, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As usual, Johnny Ramone used his speech to rebel against the self-flattering group-think of the entertainment industry.
Now that’s punk rock.