Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ramones 33-1/3 by Nicholas Rombes

As I’ve said, I like the concept of this series, though the execution isn’t always stellar. I really enjoyed the MC5 Kick Out the Jams book, but I’m not so sure about this particular installment.

Having lived through the original punk movement and having previously loved the bands that influenced the scene, the fact that over half of this small tome is dedicated to background on punk in general doesn’t inspire me. I really wanted to learn more about the actual sessions, rather than the standard “it was recorded in 17 days for $6400”. (Funnily enough, while that was a miniscule sum at the time, since then many, many bands have made albums for far less time and money. I’ve probably recorded 3 albums or more for that!)

Rombes spends several pages debating the original use of the word “punk”, it’s pop culture significance and when it first was used in terms of r’n’r, all of which is fairly silly and slightly pointless. Obviously, there were many precursors to 1977 punk, but the Ramones were the first band to start this new music genre that has become known as punk rock. Sure, some people like to argue this point, but to do so is senseless and a tangent that I felt unnecessary for the book.

I understand that this series does require some background to fit the record into its proper perspective and maybe it is just my age that makes me think this way, as I did not feel that in the MC5 book. Maybe I felt this because the background here was overall more general and not directly related to the Ramones. But some of it is interesting and engaging. That said I do believe that there should be limits to the tangents.

Since my sense of chronology is always faulty, it is interesting to note certain pop culture references that were current at the time, or just before, the recording of this album. Movies such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Taxi Driver were recent releases and Performance (with Mick Jagger) and Russ Meyer’s Super Vixens were playing theaters as the Ramones were playing CBGBs. So, it wasn’t simply 60’s pop culture that they were taking their ideas from – it was the world they saw every day.

In referencing the album itself, Rombes doesn’t get into much technical detail, unfortunately. It is mostly his own feelings regarding the songs interspersed with a few reminiscences from producer Craig Leon (which are interesting). Nicholas is of the philosophy that the song-writers intentions are not as important as the listener’s reactions. As such, he spends almost two pages on Joey’s “second verse, same as the first” line in “Judy is a Punk” without once mentioning – or seeming to think that it is relevant – the blatant fact that Joey is using this Herman’s Hermits reference to wear his influences on his sleeve and as a touchstone to people who might not otherwise understand their pop sensibilities.

It is somewhat fascinating and perplexing that Nicholas continues to push the idea that punk was more conservative than most people think. Sure, there were some conservatives in the scene - Johnny Ramone being the most obvious example - but overall, it was, and remains, liberal. There are probably more cons these days, since the hard core movement brought the jocks into the picture. But as a general rule, it was usually more non-political or progressive than right-wing. Apparently, he brings this up to question whether the Nazi references in their music are serious, but I don’t know of anyone who ever thought that.

He does end the book with the observation that "selling out" was not a part of the original punk legacy. Bands – especially the Ramones - wanted to make it - be popular, make money! There was nothing wrong with that and people who now equate “selling out” with “earning cash” miss the point completely. “Selling out” once meant turning your back on your artistic vision for the sake of money – not simply being able to afford to eat! Musicians want people to hear their music – that is part of the point of this art form! Anyone who says anything different is either lying or deluding themselves.

The book is not bad, and there are many other books on the band available these days that do go into far more detail, but I felt that this does not really explore the album in as much depth as is expected from this series.


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