Yesterday I caught a review of the documentary film End of the Century, about the Ramones, and it reminded me that I hadn’t written anything here about the recent death of Johnny Ramone, and the fact that 75 percent of this pioneering American punk band is now dead. Here’s what I might have written:
The Ramones burst onto the American scene in 1976, when rock was dominated by dinosaur acts like Peter Frampton and Queen, and represented not just a breath but a blast of fresh air. Their thundering, three-chord, sub-three-minute anthems, such as “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” stand alongside the greatest American pop. While they did not receive the recognition other punk pioneers did, their music remains a vital force, and is fondly remembered by every kid who grew up in the 1970s.
There are two reasons why I didn’t write that. First, everybody else who wrote about the Ramones last week said approximately the same thing. And second, the Ramones are, to me, like one of those foreign film masterpieces everyone talks about–I’m sure it’s great, but it’s not to my taste, so I haven’t seen it, and I don’t feel especially deprived because I haven’t.
How does a 70s music geek like me fail to get the Ramones? Easy. I grew up in a world where punk rock never happened.
In my world, we heard about punk rock, sure. We read the reviews of punk records in Stereo Review and Rolling Stone, and it was hard to escape mainstream media stories about the Sex Pistols once they made their grand entrance. And I was probably one of the first people in Wisconsin, if not the whole damn midsection of the country, to own a copy of the Pistols’ legendary “God Save the Queen,” which my girlfriend brought home to me from Europe in the summer of 1977. Far from representing some sort of rescue from drowning, “God Save the Queen” was a novelty record in my world. It was hard to deny the menace of the record’s churning guitar onslaught, but Johnny Rotten’s vocals were so pre-literate that we dismissed it as something that would never catch on over here. It was loud, but it lacked the hooks we expected good music to have, and so it was mostly a curiosity. It didn’t make us want to hear more, from them or anybody else like them. By the time I got to college, the Pistols’ lone American album, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, had come out, hard on the heels of the band’s famous implosion during its American tour. My roommate owned a copy, but we rarely played it, and when we did, it was mostly for laughs.
The Pistols aside, I can think of only two or three people at college who were into punk in any way at all. The rest of us were still quite happy with Peter Frampton and Queen. Most of my friends and I were radio people, and our universe tended to be circumscribed by what got played on the radio. And because our campus radio station was trying to emulate the kind of stations we listened to and hoped to work at one day–as opposed to being an alternative to them–we had no interest in playing what wasn’t already getting played somewhere else. (Our idea of being “alternative” was, for example, going four cuts deep on the new Foreigner album instead of just two.)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sorry Johnny Ramone has passed, because he had a family and lots of friends who will miss him. And surely, icons of the 1970s ought not to be dying yet, because that means my number is going to be up before long, too. But I can’t write a love letter to the Ramones for changing my life, because they didn’t. In the world where punk rock never happened, they were a rumble of distant thunder that never brought us any rain.