By BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 3/18/16
The Ramones’ self-titled first album came out in April 1976, and by sales standards alone it was a flop, reaching only No. 111 on the Billboard chart.
But with its raw sound and extremely bare songwriting style, “Ramones” became a founding document of punk rock. For its 40th anniversary, the album is being celebrated with an expanded reissue due this summer from Rhino Records and an exhibition, “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk,” opening at the Queens Museum on April 10.
None of the original band members — Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone — survive, but some of the people involved in making the first album recently recalled the early days of the band and its rushed but calculated time in the studio. Here are edited excerpts from their comments.
Formed in 1974 in Forest Hills, Queens, the Ramones — named for a pseudonym once used by Paul McCartney (Paul Ramon) — dressed in leather jackets and ripped jeans, and began to make a name for their chaotic, lightning-fast shows at CBGB.
SEYMOUR STEIN (co-founder, Sire Records) They had a special gig for me, but I had the flu. So the next day, I rented a rehearsal studio for an hour. In 20 minutes, they had gone through about 20 songs. I fell in love with them.
CRAIG LEON (producer) Until we made the record, they literally hadn’t rehearsed how to end songs.
STEIN Joey was so sweet; the songs he wrote were so tender. Dee Dee was Dee Dee. Tommy was the brains. Johnny was the Paul McCartney of the group; he was the one who held the band together.
MICKEY LEIGH (brother of Joey Ramone; uncredited backup vocals) John was dominant. My brother was easily intimidated, as John knew, but he had his talent.
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DANNY FIELDS (co-manager) They loved the Bay City Rollers. Dee Dee’s favorite band was Abba. They were trying to be Abba. They were hoping to have an album that would sell six million copies so they could retire for life.
In February 1976, shortly after being signed to Sire, the band spent less than a week in Plaza Sound Studios, a cavernous space above Radio City Music Hall where Arturo Toscanini had once rehearsed the NBC Symphony and where the Rockettes still practiced.
LEON I got us four days in the studio and a long weekend to mix the record. My budget was $6,400.
FIELDS Relative to the amount of time, money and effort that went into a standard album in the mid-70s, it was so short as to be mythically concise.
LEON I’m glad it sounded raw at first listen, but it was calculated to be that way. We used the best equipment we possibly could. Every kind of mike we used on the Ramones, I later used at Abbey Road on the London Symphony Orchestra.
There was a lot of studio trickery. There are several songs where there is much more than one guitar. There is a triangle on “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” We overdubbed a bomb sound on “Havana Affair.” It’s a tom-tom drum tuned very low and held under a piano, with someone holding the sustain pedal down so that it would ring when something hit it.
LEON Artificial tape delay was a technique perfected by the Beatles to slightly change the pitch so that it sounds like two people singing along on the same part: If you listen to “It happened once before …,” and then “Hey, little girl, I wanna be your boyfriend,” it’s the same effect.
LEIGH Tommy wanted to have a fidelity that would be competitive with what was coming out in that period. John didn’t want it to be slick.
FREEMAN When you asked them what key they’re in or could you tune that up a little bit, they just weren’t interested. If you asked them to play it up an octave, they would just play it exactly the same way.
LEON Tommy played to a modification of what we now have as a click track. It was a little metronome that would click, and a little orange light would go off. He turned off the click sound and put it right in front of the drum kit, with him staring at the light like a robot. He would count off with sticks and then Dee Dee would go, “One, two, three, four!,” and they’d start.
A Lyric Controversy
During the sessions, Mr. Stein objected to the lines “I’m a Nazi, baby” in the song “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.” The band changed the line (but kept another Nazi reference), though today those involved disagree about exactly what happened.
STEIN It was shocking to me, I’m sorry. I’m a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.
LEIGH Seymour got them to change the words. It was almost a deal breaker. I was not offended by it. I thought it was kind of a perfect way to portray the mind-set of a Nazi youth. It was funny.
STEIN The strongest language I could have used was “Wait a minute,” something like that. It’s greatly exaggerated.
It took 38 years for “Ramones” to go gold, but the album’s influence has been incalculable. “Hey, ho! Let’s go!” from “Blitzkrieg Bop,” for example, has become a sports stadium chant around the world. Mr. Leon, who later built an extensive career in classical music, once shared the Ramones’ music with another famous artist he worked with: Luciano Pavarotti.
STEIN I got hate mail. The manager of two of my bands threatened to sue me if I didn’t drop the Ramones.
FIELDS When you’re in the middle of it, you can’t see that you’re making the revolution. You go to Kansas City, and there are kids saying, “You changed my life.” That’s gratifying. It will not make you rich overnight, but the influence was immense.
LEIGH That didn’t happen until decades later, when bands like Soundgarden and Green Day started alluding to them as being their inspiration.
LEON Sometime around 2000, we were hanging out at Luciano’s house in Pesaro, drinking wine. He started singing football songs from Modena, his hometown, and said he would love to make an album of football songs.
I said, “Let me sing you an American football song by a band I recorded.” I took the guitar and sang “Blitzkrieg Bop”: “They’re forming in a straight line, going through a tight wind.”
He said: “This is great! It’s like football formation.” I taught him the song, and he was singing “Hey, ho! Let’s go!”