When you hear the term Punk Rock, what comes to mind? Many would imagine fans of chaotic music wearing dark clothing. Many people might see Punk Rock this way; however, those involved in the genre will tell you otherwise. This genre upholds ideals that resonate with many people. The genre of Punk Rock started in the 1970’s as one of the many expressions of garage band rock. Bands of this genre would usually play out of their garages as it was one of the only place they could play. The genre started to develop styles that would become staples later in the genre, the fast-paced rhythms, and rough vocals being examples of this. The genre then found its place in the mainstream during the mid- to late-70’s. The band spearheading this genre was the American group The Ramones. The story of this band’s music speaks to the journey of a developing music genre.
The Ramones band formed from modest beginnings. The original band members met in their middle-class neighborhood of Forest Hills located in Queens, New York City. Starting in 1965, Thomas Erdelyl and John Cummings were members of a band know as the Tangerine Puppets. They departed from the Tangerine Puppets in 1967, and were open to forming a new band. The remaining two members, Jeffrey Hyman and Douglas Colvin, joined with Thomas and Johnny in 1974. Jeffrey Hyman beforehand had also been part of a band called Sniper.1
They all shared a common interest in starting a new band. They were all competent musicians, but, like so many other rock groups, they were never properly trained. They learned to play mainly by being self-taught or by occasionally taking a lesson with a trained musician. Their new band also had a very simple thought on what they should be called. John Cummings liked the way musician Paul McCartney used the name Paul Ramon as his stage name in 1960, just as the Beatles were forming. So taking his cue from McCartney, he took the name Ramon and changed it to Ramone, and started using that as his name when playing shows. Cummings then encouraged the other band members to do the same, and soon every member shared the name Ramone. Douglas Colvin even took the alias further by changing his first name to Dee Dee, becoming Dee Dee Ramone, and Jeffery Hyman followed his example, becoming Joey Ramone.2 They performed their first show as The Ramones in 1974 at a bar in Downtown Manhattan called CBGB’s. That first show received mix reviews; however, it won the interest of a music journalist by the name of Legs McNeil.
The way The Ramones learned to play as a group illustrates a defining trait of Punk Rock. That trait was approachability, which later evolved into a sense of family. The genre of Punk Rock encourages anyone to enjoy listening to the music as well as playing it. Most of the early Punk Rock bands used simple minor scales and power chords for their music, which, with a little practice, can be learned in a short amount of time.3
The style that The Ramones played was not initially accepted by the masses, and those who supported the genre were often criticized for it. This drew Punk Rock fans closer together because of their love for this type of music and for being the only ones to identify with each other. This is evident through the release of The Ramones’ first album in 1976. Though it didn’t see immediate radio success, their subsequent live performances were regularly packed with fans eager to hear more. The band members grew closer together as well. Just as the fans had each other to identify with, the band members had each other to identify with. The Ramones, for instance, would practice together for upcoming shows for hours. They would spend a lot of time together writing ideas for music. When they performed, they interacted with each other like brothers. They would mess around on stage and tell jokes about each other during and after the shows. The band members became more than bandmates; they became close like family. This type of family connection is hard to maintain in other music genres of Rock, because of the way studio recording sessions split the production process. Most Rock bands record each of their instrumental parts separate from the other members’ parts. This makes sense. Recordings can then be mixed with far greater clarity than would be the case when recording all together. But split production also hinders connection when the “star” of the band records in advance. The producers or “stars” of the band desire a certain way for the music to be played. This could cause the other members to feel isolated from the creative process all together.4 The worst case being that members start to leave groups due to this isolation.
The Ramones continued to play shows and develop their skills as a band. They released their first two singles in February 1976: Beat on the Brat and Blitzkrieg Bop. These songs helped define Punk Rock as having fast-paced rhythms and sensitive lyrics. Blitzkrieg Bop, arguably The Ramones’ most signature song, pioneered Punk Rock’s style of rhythm. The tempo of the song was 177 beats per minute, and the guitar players played three chords for most of the song. Whenever there was a guitar solo in song, the melodies were very basic. Melodies were typically centered around the upper register of a minor scale. Many music critics and producers said that the song would never be popular and it was marking the end of the band’s career. Blitzkrieg Bop grew to be a huge success with the Punk Rock crowd as well as with many mainstream music fans. This set the standard for Punk Rock bands, to have a fast tempo for songs along with simple guitar melodies.5 The style of rhythm provided a change from the other music of the era. Most songs were written at 140 bpm or below, with variations to their melodies throughout the song. But because of the simplicity of their melodies, The Ramones, and other bands in the Punk Rock genre, made it easier for fans to remember their songs. The Ramones also saw success through their lyrical content, as is evident in their song Beat on the Brat. This song, along with many of the other songs released on their first album that April, caught the attention of many people. The song had lyrics that were unorthodox for the time, dealing with subject matters not usually accepted or used in the music scene. The Beat on the Brat is an example of such lyrics. The song is about a spoiled child that Joey, the lead singer of The Ramones, saw in a park. The song expressed anger and resentment at the child and at the parents for their lack of discipline. Through songs such as this, The Ramones paved the way for sensitive topics in music. Social reform, individuality, and rebellion became messages associated with their genre. They differentiated their music from the Rock genres that shared some of these ideas by focusing on their personal experiences or the experiences of others.
The Ramones really made an impact as well on their fellow Punk Rockers in England. The Sex Pistols, an English band, really delved into personal topics in their songs too. These topics ranged from the loss of family, to the realization that the dream of the 60’s, of the world becoming a peaceful and loving place, had faded away. These topics were more than just social commentary. The Sex Pistols wrote lyrics that dealt with their own personal emotions and concerns. They wanted to bury their emotions in their music, but little did they know, the music revealed them instead. The band appreciated the freedom that the genre they pioneered gave them. Steve Jones, one of the band’s members stated: “We gave it f***ing 200 percent and that’s it, I loved being a Sex Pistol.” He continues, stating “I was a tortured soul.” Steve Jones’ words illustrate that being a Punk Rock musician meant a lot to him.6 The fact he could express his feelings through music rather than talking about them eased him. The Sex Pistols set a standard for Punk Rock in England just like The Ramones did in the U.S. The genre then gained more meaning than just being rebellious music through this new wave of lyrics, bringing fans into a scene where others shared their feelings. Overall, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones continued to grow far beyond what they originally thought. The fact that the style that The Ramones were forming was crossing oceans is a testament that it resonated with a large audience.
The Ramones continued to tour and release new music until unexpected events occurred in the late 1970’s. Tommy, The Ramones drummer, left the band in 1978. This started to mark the decline of The Ramones. During the 80’s and 90’s the band struggled to continue with their music, due to the loss of Tommy. Most of their new material was then noted to be retreads of their previous music. The band tried working with new producers and musicians, to no avail. This period led to more members departing. Marc Bell, who had replaced Tommy, left the band within two years of joining the band. Soon after Marc’s departure, Dee Dee, the band’s bassist, also left. With the loss of two members, the remaining band members slowly started to drift apart. Ironically, before much of the band split up, The Ramones made a declaration in the movie Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Joey, the lead singer, sang the line “I don’t care about history cause that’s not where I wanna be.” He proclaimed he didn’t care about history, but little did he know that he and his band were making it.7 The Ramones may have started to decline, but the foundation they created would not falter so easily. A new generation surfaced to continue to add new ideas to the genre while keeping true to its roots.
Bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols laid the foundation for the Punk Rock music genre. Their influence is still felt to this day through new Punk Rock bands, such as Fall Out Boy. The band A Day to Remember mentioned that bands like The Ramones were an inspiration to them. They continue to develop the genre in new ways but are keeping true to its core. This can be seen through both their musical arraignments and lyrical content. A Day to Remember keeps true to the standard of fast paced rhythm. Most of their songs range from 160 bpm and higher, but their songs always build on complex melodies. Fall Out Boy on the other hand, keeps to simpler melodies for most of their discography. They contribute to developing the genre through their lyrics, their most memorable being “I got a loaded God complex, so cock it and pull it,” “Case open, case shut but you could pay to close it like a casket,” and “I am an arms dealer fitting you with the weapons in the form of words.” These examples further the focus of the Punk Rock genre that supports individuality, acceptance, and accessibility. Most of all, it isn’t afraid to be different.
- Jon Strtton, “Jews, Punk and the Holocaust: From the Velvet Underground to the Ramones: The Jewish-American Story,” Popular Music 24, no.1 (2005): 82. ↵
- Frank Meyer, On The Road With The Ramones (United Kingdom: Bobcat Books, 2010), 41. ↵
- American Decades, September 2001, s.v. “The Punk Rock and New Wave Movements,” by Judith S. Baughman. ↵
- Allan Hewitt, “Review of Music Production: A Manual for Producers, Composers, Arrangers, and Students. By Zager Michael,” Popular Music 26, no. 3 (2007): 536. ↵
- Dave Laing, One chord wonders: Power and meaning in punk rock (California: Pm Press, 2015), 4. ↵
- Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, Revised Edition: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (New York: Macmillan, 2002), 14-15. ↵
- Joseph M. Turrini, “Well I Don’t Care About History”: Oral History And The Making Of Collective Memory In Punk Rock,” Notes 70, no. 1 (September 2013): 59-61. ↵