Tracing the roots of punk rock is a popular pastime among rock critics and genealogists. The usual proto-punk suspects—MC5, the Seeds, Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith—are invariably cited. I could go on, but it would be fruitless. We’d end up breaking it down to my favorite obscure garage band when I was a kid, and you’d counter with these guys you knew who were smoking everyone at the time—at least on your block. And finally, we’d have to grudgingly admit to each other that that wasn’t really punk, but it sure as hell influenced it. And we’d both be right, no matter how we knew in our individual heart of hearts that you were wrong and I was right, or vice versa.
None of it really matters. Punk is one of those languages that have existed since our prehistoric ancestors first banged sticks on skulls. It’s the stuff of anarchy, sure, but it’s a tribal anarchy that only found sputtered voices here and there through the years—a stuttered lyric here, a buzzsaw chord there—before those voices opted to pursue loftier ambitions. If not that, the anger consumed them, and they left this world too soon. That’s how rock and roll tosses the dice.
Still, there has to be that one moment where something coalesces, and it can be defined, as anti-punk as that may sound. It happened in 1974 in Queens, New York, and it was called the Ramones. Once Jeffrey Hymans, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin and Thomas Erdelyi transformed into Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone, they unwittingly transformed rock and roll forever. They put rock back into its adolescent roots—Joey couldn’t play drums and sing at the same time, Dee Dee couldn’t play bass and sing at the same time, and Tommy, who was the band’s manager, had to resort to doubling as the band’s drummer once nobody who auditioned for the gig could get the chops down the way the band wanted. Joey ended up being the singer, Dee Dee stuck to playing bass and Johnny continued to play guitar.