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 Clash’s “London Calling”

London Calling album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Clash’s 1979 album “London Calling” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician to improve my craft. It’s been a great week!

I got into The Clash in a rather backwards way. I grew up loving the video for “Rock the Casbah“, but that was mostly because of the armadillo. When I was about twelve, I bought a cassette of Big Audio Dynamite’s 1986 album “No. 10, Upping St.” at a dollar store. Singer Mick Jones had been kicked out of The Clash a few years previous and formed B.A.D. with Don Letts, who had directed several of The Clash’s music videos.  I went from there to The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut album, which is more of a reggae-aware punk album than the later “London Calling”. It’s difficult to categorize this album. There’s a mix of reggae, ska, punk, rockabilly, post-punk, new wave, pub rock, etc. No matter what you want to call it, it’s definitely the Clash.

The music on “London Calling” has a very percussive quality. In reggae music, the rhythm guitars frequently emphasize the offbeat. For most of these songs, the Clash rhythm guitarist strum hits on the quarter-note along with the kick and snare, emphasizing the beat rather than adding a hop to it. Sometimes the upbeat, the 2nd the 4th beat gets an emphasis, but more often it’s all four. The lead guitars are more likely to play the offbeat than the rhythm, which I find interesting. There are exceptions, of course, with some songs being decidedly more “reggae”, or the hit “Train in Vain” for which the rhythm guitar focuses on the offbeat; and then some sections hits on the downbeat. This change gives these sections a sense of “slowing down” even though the tempo actually remains constant.

The instrumentation and production on this album is very open and light. There’s space between the instruments, with each occupying its own space sonically. There’s also a lot of air. Instruments frequently rest, which makes the sound both open and rhythmic. Strums are muted, or quickly muted, as opposed to ringing out. There’s also not much “padding” to fill the space. It’s refreshing to hear all of this bounce and grit with breathing room.

Every track is fantastic, but “Jimmy Jazz” stands out as my favorite. Our son pointed out that this track may’ve been of particular influence to one of my heroes, Peter Doherty. I like how the song maintains a breezy feel, while still having the percussive quality. A bright acoustic guitar punctuates the beat throughout, with a flanged slightly distorted lead guitar plays on the offbeat. I also like the horns, which is not something I an often say. The lyrics vaguely tell the story of a character named Jimmy Jazz, being sought by the police. An outsider, apparently on the wrong side of the law.

The lyrics on this album combine story-telling with a sense of “sharing the news”. We learn about strange characters, romanticized like the Beats saw old movies and dime paperbacks. These cool scenes of outsiders populate some songs, while others are more like a street-punk standing in the street shouting to fellow rebels, “This is what’s happening, open your eyes, take a stand.” The album combines a multi-national perspective musically, with a boot firmly rooted in the British streets.