The Birth of Punk
On August 16 the pioneering punk-rock band the Ramones made its debut at CBGB’s, a seedy Bowery bar that one French reference work extravagantly calls le temple new-yorkais du punk . Only someone who has never been to CBGB’s could use the word temple to describe it; in truth it was, and is, a miserable hole that you would compliment by calling a dive. Even today a visit will open the eyes of anyone who thinks a flannel shirt defines grunge.
To be sure, the 1970s CBGB’s clientele had its share of posers. As the Ramones’ drummer, Tommy Ramone, said in 1976, “We developed a small following of weirdos. Then we got the intellectuals. Now the kids are coming.” But the Ramones’ punk image was no act. The bassist, Dee Dee Ramone, was a dropout and former male prostitute with numerous knife scars, and all of them had been drug takers and general delinquents in their teens. (The members of the band were not related; they adopted a common last name because, as the singer, Joey Ramone, explained, “It had a ring to it, like ‘Eli Wallach’ does.”)
America was in sad shape in the summer of 1974. President Nixon had just resigned in disgrace, inflation and unemployment were skyrocketing, and dictators and terrorists around the world were spitting in Uncle Sam’s face. Worst of all, 1974 marked the lowest ebb ever for top-forty pop music. The week of the Ramones’ debut, the number one song in Billboard was Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died.” Other 1974 chart toppers included “Seasons in the Sun,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “(You’re) Having My Baby,” and “Kung Fu Fighting,” as well as two apiece from John Denver and Barry White. At this zenith of despair the Ramones came out of nowhere (Forest Hills, Queens, to be precise) to save mankind.
They weren’t the only punk band on the scene, far from it. Anybody with a secondhand guitar could start one; knowing how to play was optional. Yet somehow, amid all the din, the Ramones created something that no other band could match. The Dead Boys had the lifestyle but not the sound. Blondie was retro before retro was cool. Patti Smith wrote poetry; Talking Heads went to art school; Television played seven-minute songs. Marbles, the Miamis, Milk ’n’ Cookies, and dozens of others simply weren’t any good.
But the Ramones! They would come out on stage in torn jeans and leather jackets and rip through ten songs in a twenty-minute set that left listeners slack-jawed with astonishment. Part of the charm lay in their lyrics, like these from “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You”: “I don’t wanna walk around with you / I don’t wanna walk around with you / I don’t wanna walk around with you / So why you wanna walk around with me?”
As the guitarist, Johnny Ramone, later said, “We were new at writing songs and new at playing our instruments, so we couldn’t write anything too complicated, really.” Despite, or perhaps because of, this handicap, they made a vital discovery: Even if you know only three chords, all you have to do is strum them really fast in succession to create a chain-saw buzz that will irresistibly impel listeners to nod their heads back and forth 240 times a minute.
Skeptics said it would never last, and in a way they were right. It has been rare for any punk band to make more than two or three good albums, since success makes it hard to maintain the requisite level of stupidity. Nevertheless, the movement spread, and by the early 1980s punk had vanquished the terrible menace of disco. More recently, in an irony that no 1974 CBGB’s barfly could have foreseen, punk has become mainstream, to the point where the Ramones have appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and their song “Blitzkrieg Bop,” once known only to a handful of fringe characters in New York’s demimonde, can be heard on the PA system at baseball games.