It's mayhem here today at Continuum HQ, as we scramble to reprint the only existing biography of the new Pope, formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger. I'm sure Ratzinger has always been a big fan of the Ramones, so perhaps he'll be interested in Nicholas Rombes' new book in the series, about their debut album. It combines a good history of the early days of punk with some more detailed writing about the making of the album itself. This extract is from near the start of the book...
One of the best discussions of the punk ethos appeared in the very first issue of Punk in January 1976 in the essay “Marlon Brando: The Original Punk.” Suggesting that punk is above all a sensibility, a way of carrying yourself in the world, the piece suggests that Brando’s films Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, and On the Waterfront “provided media recognition for an inarticulate, rebellious character type, til then ignored by the popular media. . . Brando was cool without oppressing the audience with too much sharpness. He was powerful without having to be invulnerable. . . Vulnerability in a leather jacket. Brando prowled, not as a predator, but as a formidable victim.”
The Ramones, especially, embodied this cool style that reversed the governing codes of 1970s macho rock embodied in the figure of the swaggering lead singer. Joey Ramone was the punk underdog, the impossibly skinny guy who hid beneath his hair and behind his sunglasses. In that same issue of Punk, in her two-page spread on the Ramones, Mary Harron was hesitant to use the word punk to describe the band (preferring instead “punk-type”), and when she did use it, she did so to describe a visual style and attitude, not a sound: “OK,” Harron asked, “why do you affect leather jackets and kind of a punk-type attitude on stage?” Tommy replied: “It keeps us warm, y’know? And the black leather absorbs more heat.”
In fact, groups like Alice Cooper, Kiss, and even AC/DC were written about as part of the mix of the punk and new wave scene. If today not many people would associate AC/DC as an element of the new wave that included art bands like Talking Heads, in the early-to-mid 1970s the categories of punk, new wave, hard rock, heavy metal, and pop were still blurred. As we’ll see later, this was due in part to the fact that record companies, promoters, and radio stations—which depended upon the fairly strict maintenance of generic classifications—had not yet absorbed the “new wave” into a commodity form. Writing about AC/DC in the New York Rocker, which was devoted almost exclusively to covering the punk and new wave scene, Howie Klein noted that “AC/DC doesn’t use safety pins, never went to art school, and they sure don’t limit themselves to 2 or 3 chords, but if new wave is a reaffirmation of rock ‘n’ roll’s traditional values, this band is an important part of it.” The Ramones themselves, although cautious of labels like “punk,” were variously touted as punk, new wave, hard rock, pop, pop-punk, and others. In a full-page 1977 ad in New York Rocker from their record company Sire, the Ramones were described as the “world’s foremost exponents of pure punk-rock and New York’s pioneer New Wave band.”
The Ramones, as was true of most bands of that moment, preferred to demonstrate the premise of their music rather than talk about it. When asked in 1977 about their feelings regarding the punk label, Johnny responded: “Whaddya gonna do? We don’t care if they wanna call us dat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other.” But very often the bands and their fans either rejected or simply ignored the label “punk.” In the documentary Punking Out, one fan at CBGBs in 1977 answers, when asked about punk, “[If] you want to talk about punk and underground it’s bullshit. You call ’em punk because you got nothing else to say about ’em, no other way to link ’em. But it’s like the heartbeat that links ’em.” In an interview with Mary Harron in Punk, when asked if he had a name to describe the music, Johnny Rotten said that “Punk rock’s a silly thing to call it” and “it means, like—American sixties rip-off bands.” And asked about whether he and the Ramones thought of the album that they were recording in 1976 as punk, Craig Leon, who produced Ramones, responded that “[I]f my memory serves me well, we never used this term at all. Seymour Stein nicked the term ‘New Wave’ from the 50s French film guys to describe the music but no one used ‘punk’ other than the title of John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil’s magazine of lower NY at that time.”