Main lineup: Tommy Ramone: river fluke. Joey Ramone: getting streets named after him. Johnny Ramone: conservatism. Dee Dee King: oh god. Marky Ramone: markiness. Funky Ramone: cocaine. George W. Ramone: guitars.
There are few albums in the history of rock surrounded by more critical chaff than the Ramones’ debut. The great irony, of course, is that the most obvious thing about this album is how unassuming it is, a collection of simple pop tunes such as might have been churned out by any garage band of the 60s.
Actually, there is one obvious innovation here: the famous “buzzsaw” guitar tone, in which traditional rhythm guitar is replaced by a constant dull roar of distorted eighth-notes. It’s distinctive (or at least, it was in 1976) but it doesn’t particularly enhance the songs musically. In fact, it functions as a sort of anti-enhancement, ensuring that the guitars can’t possibly do anything too unexpected.
The ultimate message of this album (if any such thing can be stuck to it) was a sort of grassroots “anyone can play guitar” anti-heroism: don’t just sit there and let the music industry vomit culture onto you, go out and make it yourself! It was a fine, unpretentious political statement that required no sloganeering, and the band doesn’t provide any. The problems began to arise pretty much immediately, however. Perversely, the superficial “style” of punk—banality and extreme technical simplicity—was treated as an end in itself. “Less Is More” became “More Is Less.” Artists who took the influence of the Ramones in other directions were shunted off into other pigeonholes, turning punk into just a new kind of conformity.
Retroactively, this humble little album has become the symbol for everything that went right and wrong with punk. But ultimately, it can only be listened to as a bunch of songs. And on that level, it’s…y’know, okay. I mean, what do you expect? It’s a garage rock album. Like so many of the 60s acts who inspired this album, the Ramones managed to come up with a couple great tracks and then filled out the rest with less memorable replicas. At least there are no stiff Chuck Berry covers.
No song here is bad, exactly—the formula is so tight that there’s just not much that can go wrong. But there’s also not much that can go right. Actually, my favorite is the lone ballad “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, on which the band slows down a little to show off their sexest melody. Beyond that, there’s hardly any reason to discuss any particular song here. If you love the Ramones’ style, you’ll love ’em all. If you don’t, it’s probably not because you’re missing something; there’s not much to miss.