In previous Songbook posts, I’ve posed rock and roll against rock, and against hard rock in particular. So what about the punk rejection of 70s dinosaur rock? Wasn’t that a return to rock and roll fervor and simplicity? Why have I suggested that punk belongs to Rock more than it does to rock and roll?
If you positively dislike the Ramones, you either have pretty refined taste in music, or you have little tolerance for dumb fun. The first time I heard the “hey, ho, let’s go” of “Bliztkrieg Bop” being played at a baseball game, I had to smile at how fitting it was, and at how “my” generation’s punk-ety music had finally acquired a measure of mainstream acceptance.
And for scores of other reasons I could never deny that the Ramones have brought fun times into our lives. Some of the funniest lyrics ever, and the only punk show I ever went to that had a really positive vibe was a Ramones’ one. Some other time I might go into how they helped invent punk (which overall did not benefit our lives) and how they were an unexpected product, a sort of kitsch-art project, of the 70s Soho scene. For now, my focus is on their inability to really do what they said they wanted to, to bring back the primitive joy of early rock and roll.
When I mentioned in Songbook #12 that rock and roll was more difficult to play than meets the ear, I was pretty much paraphrasing something Carl Perkins said, and he should know. However, there’s no denying r n’ r has lent itself to amateurs’ enthusiasm, with “Louie, Louie” being the most famous example. There are thousands of Louie-like un-dug “nuggets” from the 50s/60s some of which might be dismissed as mere Elvis-imitation, Beatles-imitation, or Stones-imitation, but others of which really are great rock and roll songs, due to individuality, fortuitous mistakes, hidden genius, regional inflections, or what have you. A lot of young men, American, British, and even Western European (esp. Dutch!), apparently learned enough of the basics to make things shake. Just as everywhere you went in America circa 1936-1946, you would find young men practicing their horns and trying to cobble together a big band, everywhere you went in the 50s and 60s, you’d find the same thing with guitars, drum-sets, and small dance combos. It was to that extent a D.I.Y. music, but with absolutely no aim to remain underground. The main aim was a hit 45; the secondary one was at least getting one into the top 70 or so of a regional radio station, so as to draw crowds for dance gigs.
But if it wasn’t too hard to become a rock and roll minor hit-maker, or B-level hit-aper, it wasn’t entirely easy. One didn’t always have the chops. Record collectors had to sort through a lot of mediocre or worse stuff before they found the various gems that made up reissue series like Nuggets and Pebbles.
So here’s the take-away point of this post: the presence of a complex artistry in the rhythm and blues tradition, even practiced at its B-level, is negatively revealed by the (admittedly endearing) example of the Ramones’ attempt to recreate rock and roll magic by means of musical minimalism. They at times came close (“Oh Oh, I Love Her So,” for example) but it’s still no cigar.
Compare the dumb fun of, say, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, with the dumb fun of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The former (justice requires you to pump the volume up for this particular you-tube post) positively swings, and will accommodate young and old, male and female, good dancers and poor ones. It only seeks to be about dumb fun, but was only produced by apprenticeship in Afro-American music methods. The latter has energy,and to spare, but it only suits simplistic moves and young rushes of enthusiasm–it leads less to dance than to the macho (and fight-prone) mosh-pit. Both invite you to indulge your simplistic side (and both get played at baseball games), but the similarity ends there.
Joey Ramone said of the old rock and roll songs, “…we just couldn’t figure them out, so we decided to write our own, and we had to make them basic enough so we could play them.” I read that as mostly honest—as a true admission, but one meant to pre-empt the criticism I’m making here and to deflect attention from the large degree of choice involved in remaining inept and building their musical identity upon that ineptness. As Bayles says, the Ramones were a clever band, clever about how to be dumb in a hip way. But from the perspective of the Afro-American tradition of popular music, they were musicallyquite stupid, and in a regrettably contagious way. Ol’ Sam never pulled that kind of Sham.
It feels very un-Ramones-like, however, to end on a bitter note like that, so let’s wrap things up in the same way Bayles does in her book’s account of the Ramones, with a quote from Hilly Kristal, original owner of CBGBs (his first intention for the club is revealed by what the letters stand for: Country, Bluegrass, and Blues!):
“I thought it was very crude music. It was not that it was strange, but it was hard to take. …They were kids who used music—even if they couldn’t play their instruments—to express themselves. The fundamental thing was a form of expression. …They were making their own melodies, and it was very inspirational to have it here, though it was very hard to take, to listen to.”