What can you say about the Ramones’ first album, other than that it is THE American punk album, an endless wellspring of monolithic noise, energy and attitude?
Working for Sire Records, producer/talent scout Craig Leon became involved with the percolating New York underground music scene. One summer night in ’75 he went to CBGB’s looking for Patti Smith, who was already signed to Arista. Owner Hilly Kristal suggested that Leon come back later that week to see a show with two bands named Talking Heads and the Ramones.
“I went to that show and there were literally four people in the audience besides me, but the bands were phenomenal. With the Ramones, I scouted them and then I had to develop them. A lot of people didn’t even think they could make a record. There were weeks of preproduction on a very basic level: like when the songs started and when they ended. Their early sets were one long song until they ran out of steam or fought. You could see it as a performance art-type thing, where you had a 17-minute concise capsule of everything you ever knew about rock ‘n’ roll. Or you could see it as 22 little songs.
“They had a very serious concept of what they wanted to do, but then we had to get the execution up to the point of actually being able to do it. It was the original drummer, Tommy [“Ramone” Erdelyi], who had the concept of what they should sound like, and what they should look like,” says Leon.
“After we worked out all of that stuff, we did the album very quickly in the studio. The studio, Plaza Sound, was great. Some early Blondie and Talking Heads stuff was recorded there too. It was the old NBC Symphony Orchestra rehearsal hall, and it had been turned into a studio. With the Ramones we had these three big rehearsal halls and we put their Marshall amps in separate rooms so they wouldn’t bleed.
“I remember the bass player [the late Dee Dee “Ramone” Colvin] and the guitar player [Johnny “Ramone” Cummings] standing in the hallway with their amps in separate rooms, and the drums in a booth way at the back of this immense studio. You could crank it up and still get isolation, which is why it sounds big and dry at the same time.”
The Ramones first album is a roaring minimalist icon – the first real American punk record. Layers and layers of accumulated bloat and sheen were stripped away to reveal the basic energy, drive, and primitive melodicism of rock ‘n’ roll. The Ramones’ sound was blazing early-’60s surf music played through the overdriven distortion of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. Yet, according to Leon, the Ramones saw themselves as a pop band. “In our naiveté, we thought they were going to be bigger than the Beatles. They had even named themselves after Paul McCartney’s early stage name, ‘Paul Ramone.’ In retrospect, it is almost miraculous that an album as radical as the first Ramones record – on a label, Sire, that was a small indie at the time (’76) – charted at all (it reached No. 111).
“The whole New York music thing was seen as an extension of the art scene, so we thought we were doing something cultural. It might have been pretentious, but what the hell, we were having fun. We really thought we were doing something groundbreaking and new. A lot of that is missing today.”