Looking Back At The Ramones' Debut: They Were A 'Bunch Of Weirdos From New York'

Dec 28, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's been 40 years since the Ramones' self-titled debut album was released by Sire Records, which has marked the occasion with a deluxe edition that includes outtakes and demos and was remastered by the original producer, Craig Leon. The album was, in its own way, confrontational and divisive, as our rock historian Ed Ward found out firsthand at the time. He's going to tell us that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLITZKRIEG BOP")

RAMONES: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Hey ho, let's go. Hey ho, let's go. Hey ho, let's go. Hey, ho, let's go. They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind. The kids are losing their minds. Blitzkreig Bop. They're piling in the backseat. They're generating steam heat, pulsating to the back beat. The Blitzkreig Bop. Hey ho, let's go, shoot'em in the back now. What they want, I don't know. They're all revved up and ready to go.

ED WARD, BYLINE: In 1975, those of us living far from New York City were hearing rumors of an unconventional rock scene emerging in New York. I knew one of the people involved, Lenny Kaye, with whom I'd written an article for Rolling Stone some years earlier and who I'd seen performing with Patti Smith shortly after she'd self-released her first single. They'd played upstairs at a record store in Berkeley, and shortly thereafter, Lenny introduced me to his friend Chuck, a photographer.

In those days, print magazines needed time to typeset and print each month's issue. So those of us in the rock press got albums early. It was very exciting to get the Ramones' first album. As somebody who'd championed the Stooges debut in print, I responded to it immediately, not as arty as the Stooges, but as simple musically and with a weird cartoonish overlay. Of course, it was commercially doomed in an era of Seals and Crofts and Peter Frampton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUDY IS A PUNK")

RAMONES: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Jackie is a punk. Judy is a runt. They both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades. And oh, I don't know why. Oh, I don't know why. Perhaps they'll die, oh yeah. Perhaps they'll die, oh yeah. Perhaps they'll die, oh yeah. Perhaps they'll die, oh yeah.

WARD: There was no way this would ever get on the radio. But someone would have to try. And by an astounding stroke of luck, I got to watch it. In those days, I occasionally wrote for a magazine called New West, which was New York magazine's attempt at a California edition. I pitched them a story in which a photographer and I would follow a radio promo man for a week, watching his attempts to get records played. The photographer was Lenny's friend Chuck. The promo man worked for ABC, the label that distributed Sire. His name was Jack Ashton (ph), and his beat was FM stations in Los Angeles.

I flew down to LA. Chuck was already living there. And we started Jack's week with him at the Monday meeting. There, he was presented with the albums he'd be taking to the radio stations starting the next day. There was a Bobby Vinton album, an album by Poco, a country rock band on their way down who'd just signed to ABC, and a couple of albums on Sire, one by the Climax Blues Band, an English outfit, and one by a bunch of weirdos from New York, the Ramones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE")

RAMONES: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Now I wanna sniff some glue. Now I wanna have somethin' to do. All the kids wanna sniff some glue. All the kids want somethin' to do.

WARD: The next day, Jack was inconsolable. I can't take this around, he said, listen to what they're saying - sniffing glue, hitting kids with a baseball bat. I can't ask people to play this. I have a rapport with these stations, and this will destroy it. But we got into his Pontiac Firebird - Jack was from Detroit, after all - and hit the streets of Los Angeles. It proved to be a disastrous week for him.

Despite the fact that my story reported, factually, that Jack didn't do unethical things, that I reported he did his best and won some and lost some, he was fired for giving us access. But he was right about one thing. Nobody did play the album. It peaked at 111 on the Billboard charts that summer of 1976. The Ramones, for their part, went to London with Patti Smith opening and played the Roundhouse in London on the Fourth of July. Two days later, The Damned played their first show, and punk was born in England. In August, the Ramones showcased at the Roxy in Los Angeles, informing the other coast what New Yorkers already knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA SUN")

RAMONES: This one's for all you (unintelligible) out there. Hang ten. (Singing) One, two, three, four. Well, I'm going out west where I belong, where the days are short and the nights are long. And I'll walk a little walk. I'll twist a little twist. I'll shimmy a little shimmy. I'll fly a little fly. Yea we're out there having fun in the warm California sun. Well, I'm going out West...

WARD: Everything worked out fine, though. Jack went back to Detroit with his hairdresser girlfriend and helped her open a chain of salons. They were quite successful. Chuck eventually became a bodyguard for Ozzy Osbourne. I went back to Northern California and starved a bit longer. And the Ramones became icons and, at least in some circles, the most beloved band in America.

GROSS: Ed Ward is the author of the new book, "The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963." He played music from the Ramones' 40th anniversary deluxe edition set.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year with Francis Ford Coppola, which we recorded after he published the notebook he kept while making "The Godfather." He told some great stories about how he cast and shot the film. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.