Sheena Is a Girl We Never Met

Here’s one more repeat post, from 2004. 

I haven’t written anything here about the recent death of Johnny Ramone, or 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.

(Originally posted on September 23, 2004.)

10 thoughts on “Sheena Is a Girl We Never Met

  1. Beautifully put.

    What I love about music blogs is how much I can respect people who are passionate about music — even if we disagree about some of the details.

    And damn I wish I’d written the phrase “they were a rumble of distant thunder that never brought us any rain.”

  2. I bought my copy of Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols on cassette in 1987, when I was 14. As a burgeoning music geek, I read stuff about the onslaught of Punk and how great it was. Like you, I grew up in a place where Punk never happened, either…while in the same physical state of the Union as CBGB, there was a very long distance between Manhattan and the little town in northern New York where I lived that may as well have been thousands of miles.

    I played the tape when I got home…and all my father could say was, “That English boy sounds like he’s in pain.”

    About a year later, I “discovered” The Ramones via their LP Ramones Mania and a video they made for the song “I Wanna Be Sedated” that was played on MTV. I quickly watched Rock & Roll High School and enjoyed it because it was something that a 15 year-old kid was going to love. The group didn’t change my life either…but I did get to see them in concert during my college years and see them as a band that was fun. They didn’t appear to take themselves too seriously, and their three-chord, two-minute magnus opuses were quite a blast of adrenaline.

    I get the historical significance of Punk, but as a person who was still digging on Sesame Street while it happened — I was born in ’72 — I don’t have that frame of reference that made me see it as anything more than an interesting stop along the road in the history of music.

  3. JB – I love this post and every word you wrote. I couldn’t have said it better. Except for The Clash punk never did have the cultural impact Los Angeles and New york claimed it did. Good job.

  4. Another excellent post.
    I remember putting in my tape of “Never Mind…” in the car while driving around with my HS girlfriend. (This would have been in western New York, back around 1990.)
    “Oh, you’ve heard the Sex Pistols too?” she asked.
    “Yeah,” I said.
    “They really kinda suck, don’t they?” she laughed.

    Meanwhile, it took me ’til college to truly appreciate the Ramones — though I do appreciate them, as sort of buzzed-out, stripped-down heirs to the Sixties pop tradition.

    The “punk” acts I liked as a young man were the ones that came up during that period, and were linked to that period, but weren’t really punk per se — like Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and Elvis Costello.

    1. I would also add that the charming P.J. Soles’ portrayal of Riff Randall in the movie “Rock N’ Roll High School” could inspire most anybody to be a Ramones fan. But if you weren’t already a fan of the band, you probably didn’t see the movie.

  5. porky

    you know I enjoy this site but could never figure out how someone would go to a college radio station and still play the same music they listened to in high school. I’m from farm country as much as anyone who reads this site but everyone I grew up with went away to college and left behind their Styx, REO, Foreigner, Rush, Journey, Nugent etc.

    I found Ramones “Leave Home” in a cut-out bin in ’79 and my ideas about music changed from that day forward.

    1. J.A. Bartlett

      @Porky: I think it was because we weren’t interested in *music* as much as we were interested in *radio*. To us, doing good radio meant doing radio that sounded like the stations we admired, and the stations we admired were playing the hits.

      I remember reading an article in Rolling Stone sometime in the late 80s about college radio that disparaged the students who were it because of an interest in broadcasting. It claimed that the real “stars” of college radio were the kids who wanted to become managers, producers, or record execs. These kids, however, seemed more like starstruck Hollywood wannabes than people who were serious about a career. I suspect that we would have looked at them the same way at our school in the late 70s.

  6. Chris

    The so-called ‘punk’ scene could only germinate and semi-blossom during the musical-era black hole that was disco. The fact that the Sex Pistols are in the Rock Hall of Fame—based on a two-year association that produced one highly-exagerrated ‘influential’ album—should be enough to make grown men weep.

  7. PORKY

    as usual you make some very good points. It WAS the variety of music that led me to embrace college radio; if these stations had a couple of folks who could sound professional, all the better radio experience.

    Chris, if you recall The Pistols didn’t want to be inducted. They never showed up/refused to pay Jann Wenner his “ransom” to appear at his party. The less said about Wenner and his RNR sham the better (Bee Gees, James Taylor, Billy Joel and other “rockers” have supped at Wenner’s trough).

  8. bean

    JB, you and I are almost the same age and have had a very similar music appreciation and radio trajectory but the Sex Pistols were a big, big deal to me. I was a freshman at the University of Maryland in 1977 when their album came out and it was like a bomb went off around our little 10 watt radio station. I didn’t interview them but was there when The Clash came in to WMUC too and Tom Petty also, who was not yet a mainstream artist.

    Maybe that was the music the “cool” kids were all listening too and I certainly wasn’t that but I definitely remember buying those albums along side my Andy Gibb and K.C. & The Sunshine Band records and loving them all.

    As always, great column and I never mind re-reading when you post a re-run. They all hold up.

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