You had to have been around in 1976 to appreciate how fresh the Ramones seemed at the time. Pop confections like Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” and Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” littered the charts back then; disco ruled in many places; and too many traditional rock numbers relied on longwinded, pretentious solos.
Along came the leather-clad Ramones, with an eponymous debut album that sounded as if it were made on the cheap—it was, for $6,200—and that contained titles like “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” and “Beat on the Brat.” The record’s 14 songs each clocked in at an average of about two minutes, featured just a few chords, and contained lyrics that didn’t exactly suggest verbosity. (“Loudmouth,” for example, employed only 14 words.) Though the Ramones ostensibly put away the amphetamines long enough to record “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” the album’s lone ballad, the rest of the record proceeded at a manic pace. It all sounded a bit like a joke, but it also sounded terrific.
The album certainly shook things up in 1976 but the group didn’t invent their music from scratch. It emerged from the same tradition that had produced the Rivieras’ 1964 hit “California Sun," which the Ramones covered on their debut, and Chris Montez’s 1962 smash, “Let’s Dance," which they got around to later, not to mention such singles as the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” and the Blues Magoos’ “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet,” from 1966 and 1967, respectively. You can also hear nods to the Searchers in the Ramones’ harmonies; and when Joey Ramone shouts “second verse, same as the first,” he’s quoting Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am,” whose lyrics were equally concise.
The band made at least two more classic albums after their debut, but they never outdid it. So the newly released three-CD-plus-LP 40th anniversary edition of that first record is most welcome, though portions of it arguably represent too much of a good thing. The first disc delivers a remastered copy of the original stereo release along with a new mono mix while the second offers 18 singles, outtakes, and demos and the third contains both of the band’s Aug. 12, 1976 sets at the Roxy in L.A. The LP serves up the mono mix of the original album on 180-gram vinyl.
It’s pretty much all great stuff, but one of the Roxy sets has been previously released, as have ten of the tracks on disc two. Plus, the Roxy shows are quite similar and, to my ears, there’s not enough difference between the stereo and mono mixes of the studio material to make the latter a must-have. And do we really need, for example, seven versions of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” including mono and stereo album recordings, mono and stereo single versions, two live readings from the Roxy, and the vinyl pressing? Probably not, but we definitely need much of this music, which still sounds thrilling four decades after it helped to launch the punk era in the U.S. and U.K.