Ramones’ “Ramones”

I’ve been listening to the Ramones’ 1976 self-titled debut album this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album definitely provides a contrast from the modal jazz of last week’s Miles Davis album. I got my introduction to the Ramones through the “Ramones Mania” collection. I liked most of the thirty tracks; However, the songs seemed musically redundant. I mostly wrote them off. When I met my wife 18 years ago, she reintroduced me to her favorite band the Ramones. Thankfully, they had a broader range than I’d originally thought. So, what about their debut album?

Some see punk rock as a rebellion against disco banality and prog rock excesses. Some focus on punk as a revival of rock n roll, from which disco and prog had originated but drifted far away. The Sex Pistols, especially Johnny Rotten, probably leaned more toward the rebellion side. The Ramones were more perhaps more revival. On their debut album, the Ramones music bears elements of their influences like the Ronettes, the Beach Boys, and 1910 Fruitgum Company. The members of the Ramones heard these pop bands on the radio through their childhood. By the mid-70s, they’ve also been influenced by harder music like “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin. The Ramones brand of punk music strips early rock n roll and pop music down to its basic elements; They create short songs with catchy melodies, simple direct lyrics on adolescent themes, I-IV-V chord progressions, and basic rhythms.

The drummer plays minimalist beats with little to no flourish. The bass further drives the rhythm staying almost constantly on the tonic note of each chord. The guitar, likewise, provides a nonstop barrage of distorted barre chords. These give the music a wash of rock n roll sound, creating a style by opting out of stylistic additives.

The band will emphasize two consecutive beats in some songs, which is a distinctly Ramones rhythmic technique. They achieve this usually through the following. Throughout the rest of the measure (or two), the bass will drive along with constant eighth notes while the guitar is likewise being played with non-stop down-strokes. The snare will hit every 2nd and 4th beat with a kick every 1st and 3rd and maybe a downbeat in-between. To emphasize the two beats, the bass will play quick quarter notes and the guitar will strike then rest on both.  Usually this will be the V and IV chords of the key. The snare will hit on both, accompanied by a cymbal. This pattern gets repeated every two bars.

Joey’s vocal make these songs worth listening to. His melodies are simple, yet catchy. His style incorporates a variety of approaches while always sounding very much like Joey Ramone. They are fed by a desire to mix early rock n roll with a 1970s New York cool. He’s often crooning like Elvis Presley incorporating vibrato and tremolo.  Lines are punctuated with odd rockabilly hiccups and sputters, and occasional spits and snarls. All of these style in the vocals keeps the songs engaging while the rest of the instruments provide a utilitarian background.

The song “Blitzkrieg Bop” opens the album as a perfect introduction. The Ramones “Hey Ho Let’s Go” gets us “revved up and ready to go.” The lyrics “What they want, I don’t know” combined with the earlier lines “They’re piling in the back seat, They’re generating steam heat, Pulsating to the back beat.” sum up a lot of the album. These songs are soaked in a mixture of energetic anger, adolescent apathy, world-weariness, 50s rock n roll mythology, and naïvety. There’s that sense of seeing that the adult world sucks, but we’re not children anymore, so we’re going to have a good time in between.

The mid-album track “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” differs from the rest of the album. This slow song overtly wears more of the Phil Spector inspiration. Johnny Ramone even shows off an ability to play guitar beyond constant downstrokes.  True, it’s still a I-IV-V chord progression, but the Ramones are built on stripped down rock n roll. I also like that this song features one of my favorite instruments, the glockenspiel. However, the mix buries the bells.

These are great rocking songs with the most basic of essentials. All of them work, not in spite of, but because of their simplicity.  These very direct songs get the job done and get out. On the other hand, listening to them several times a day for a full week started to get boring. So, I learned that you can do a lot with very little. I don’t want to say these songs are without substance, but there’s just not enough there to keep them interesting.

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds album cover

I spent the past week with The Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds”. I first listened to it about 20 years ago and fell in love instantly. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys accomplished things singularly special with this album. It’s difficult to listen to the Beach Boys music critically or analytically, because it so easy to enjoy. Whereas The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” had simple elements put together in complex ways, “Pet Sounds” has layers of complexity that suggest simplicity. Tremendous and inventive songwriting runs throughout the whole album. A closer listen rewards, even though it may be humbling. The songs highlight the singer’s great abilities. The use of voices on this album is something I can only admire from afar. What else can I, as a songwriter, learn from this album?

It’s worth trying instruments in unusual ways. Throughout “Pet Sounds” there are great examples of instruments performing a different function than usual. In my favorite song, “I’m Waiting for the Day”, the organ often provides the rhythmic beat when there’s no percussion. There’s actually large portions of this album with little to no percussion, especially of the typical drum kit variety. In the song “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, temple blocks provide a more melodic accompaniment than rhythmic; the plucky bass guitar fulfills that role.

I often either use bass to provide either a driving foundation for a song or to provide a a melodic counterpoint; the bass on several songs on “Pet Sounds” also provides rhythm in the absence of a kick drum. This is something I could easily put to try out. I’m taking the long sections with minimal percussion as a challenge to get away from constant pop percussion.

“Pet Sounds” reminds me of the importance of a good opening. The first 9 seconds of the album are joyfully engaging. A 12-string guitar plays a dreamy music-box like arpeggio, a single drum hit grabs out attention, and then immediately there are vocals with a jaunty accompaniment. Two accordions are played so much like rhythm guitar that I actually thought that’s what they were. The song progresses through several different sections, musically quite different from each other, that work perfect together. Mindboggling; A lesson in how different each section of a song can be, if there’s a sense of natural progression.

There’s so much I could say about this album, but I’ll stop myself here. It defies any attempt I can make at pointing out stand-out tracks, because they’re nearly all incredible. It’s true that I frequently skip the slower hymn “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”. I could point out that my favorites are “I’m Waiting for the Day”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, but that’s not fair to equally brilliant songs like “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows”. I believe that this may be the greatest album of all time.