In the mid-70s I started a reggae band called The Ravers. I was living in Boulder, Colorado and had recently discovered The Wailers, Toots and The Maytals, The Mighty Diamonds, Burning Spear and the rest of the great groups coming out of Jamaica. For me, rock and roll had died along with Hendrix, Morrison and Brian Jones. There was some light in the darkness radiating from David Bowie, Roxy Music, T Rex and Sparks but reggae gave me what I had been missing: short energetic songs with great hooks and messages of rebellion. For a year or so, The Ravers played a handful of clubs to small audiences who couldn’t quite wrap their heads around an all-white reggae band that played with a more aggressive attitude than our Jamaican idols. The original material was more profane than sacred with a rocksteady rhythm that didn’t swing as much as lurch. I didn’t know it at the time but the reggae experiment was just a launching pad for something that was a better fit for me as a songwriter and front man.
In 1976 I had my musical “come to Jesus” moment. The Ramones’ debut album had just been released and as soon as the vinyl landed on my turntable and the band came roaring through the speakers, my life’s calling shifted gears and I decided to start a loud, insane rock band. I called my bandmates and scheduled a meeting. That night I played The Ramones for David, Artie, Jon and whoever our drummer was at the time. These guys were terrific musicians who were listening to shit like Steely Dan and The Grateful Dead. Hearing The Ramones made them visibly uncomfortable. They didn’t get it. They thought I’d lost my mind. But I played the album again. And then again. And suddenly smiles were breaking out on their faces and they were beginning to pick up on the musical intelligence underneath the goofy lyrics. The relentless guitar surging over a skin tight rhythm section was superficially simple but actually very hard to execute. This was a different kind of virtuosity, one that was just as exacting as any flashy soloing of the bands that my group admired. I picked up the tonearm and we picked up our guitars and started playing our first Ramones-inspired riffs. Within a week we went from being a bad reggae band to being a pretty good garage band. We didn’t call it punk until someone else did.
Playing our brand of fast and loud rock and roll went over like the proverbial turd in a punchbowl in hippie dippy Boulder. Which just made me more determined. We played country bars and Italian restaurants. I’d take my clothes off and leap into the audience. Half the set was made up on the spot. I’d turn to the band and scream “give me an E” and we’d start vamping. I ran my vocals through an Echoplex and would holler gibberish. We developed a small group of dedicated fans. Weirdos and outcasts. One of whom, Eric, later changed his name to Jello Biafra.
The author in the throes of rock and roll dementia. Photo: Patty Heffley.
When The Ramones came to Denver, Colorado in 1977 to play a tiny club with the totally misleading name Ebbets Field, The Ravers were hired to be their opening act. Being the only punk band in the Rocky Mountain region had its upside. I was going to meet The Ramones. I was excited. On the other hand, I was also scared shitless of being crushed by the band we were opening for.
The night of the gig we were onstage covering songs by The Dictators, The Stooges, Tuff Darts and some 60s garage rockers as well as our original material. The venue was tiny with steeply raked bleacher seating. The front row was about three feet from the stage. The Ravers were playing “California Sun” (which The Ramones had covered) when The Ramones entered the room and walked right in front of the stage carrying guitar cases and staring at the ground. I swear Johnny was smirking. We probably looked like rubes. In that moment, I felt like one.
After our set we went to the dressing room we were sharing with The Ramones. The vibe was deeply uncomfortable. Nobody talked. I tried. The Ramones, with the exception of a Ritalin-deprived Dee Dee, were tight-lipped and sulking. The only thing anybody said for the half hour I was with the band was when Johnny started talking about an upcoming CBGB gig with The Cramps. He thought they sucked. Big time. He couldn’t wait to annihilate them. You could tell he knew what the rest of the world would eventually find out: That the Ramones were pound for pound the greatest rock band to walk the earth. Johnny was a competitor. All or nothing.
Two girlfriends were traveling with the band. One sat silently reading a novelization of Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS while the other was reading an Eerie comic book. Both wore leather mini-skirts with fishnet stockings and the same motorcycle jackets as the band. The whole thing was like a movie. That’s when it hit me. The Ramones were actors. This was theater. And it was perfect. Seamless.
The Ramones’ performance that night in Denver in front of about 50 people had for those of us who were there much the same impact that The Sex Pistols had in Manchester in June of 1976 when they played to 29 people, most of whom went on to form groups of their own like Joy Division, Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Buzzcocks. From the moment they hit the stage and struck their first chord, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy were sublimely intense… and loud. Far and away the loudest band I’d ever heard. It was like an airplane landing in the room. But despite the massive wall of sound there were nuances in the music that came through. The Ramones could start and stop on a dime, commanded deft time changes, condensing and sculpting pure energy into a barrage of electricity that was surgical in its precision. The music was haiku simple but like haiku it contained enormity. I hate to say it for fear of sounding pretentious but The Ramones were avant-garde, revolutionary, modernists. They took traditional rock and roll forms and compressed and distilled them to their very essence. What Warhol was doing in the visual arts, The Ramones were doing in music: returning the marvelous to the familiar. Rock music had become dull, bloated and unnecessary. It was competing with itself. The Ramones threw themselves against the barricades and a surge of fresh air entered the sphere of rock and roll and for those of us who consider the music as vital as blood, this was deliverance.
The Ramones may have been loud, bratty provocateurs but they were also spiritual. Their songs were mantras, chants that summoned the dormant gods of rock and roll and transformed audiences. Whether you’re a Deadhead, a metalhead or jazzbo, you’ve been there—in that moment when time stops and the skies open up. The Ramones were the answer to their own question: What is rock and roll?
Eric—Jello—had come to the gig posing as my roadie so he could get into the 21 and over show. In a photo snapped that night, Eric had to hand his beer off to Joey so there would be no evidence of underage drinking.
In an interview from a few years ago, Jello described the what it was like to see The Ramones at the tender age of 17:
Out come these four, kinda degenerate looking guys in leather jackets—which is something you didn’t see very often then. One chord on Johnny’s guitar, and we knew it was going to be louder than anyone of us were prepared for. We braced ourselves and instead of being goofy, the Ramones were one of the most powerful experiences of my entire life.
We were three feet from the stage and forced to sit down, of course. Not only were they really, really good, but half the fun was turning around and watching the Ebbets Field, country-rock glitterati, the guys with the neatly trimmed beards, Kenny Loggins-feathered hair and corduroy jackets, with patches on the elbows, as well as the cocaine cowboys and their women, with their 1920s suits with flowers, because that’s what Joni Mitchell was wearing at the time—they looked horrified. They had nowhere to go. Because Ebbets Field was so small, you couldn’t go hang out in the lobby because there wasn’t one. They just had to endure the Ramones
Jello pretty much nails it. The Ramones rearranged our rock and roll DNA that night and we would never be the same. Almost 40 years later my sense memory of that night makes the hair on my body go erect. And at 65 years old any erection is a good thing.
Phil Gammage was also there that night. Phil went on to form Certain General in 1980, a highly regarded post-punk band that played every reputable rock venue in NYC and Europe. In 1977 he was living in Boulder and going to the University iof Colorado. One of a handful of outlaws at that respectable school. Here’s what Phil has to say about the Ebbets Field show:
Ebetts Field was a small club in downtown Denver that featured a variety of jazz, rock, blues, and country national touring music acts. Bands not big time enough to play the area’s theaters or arenas. I had already gone there a few times before when I drove down from Boulder that early spring weeknight to see The Ravers and The Ramones play.
The Ramones had so much discipline in their playing. There were no loose ends, no extra chords or stray drum beats. No slow songs, no long songs. No meandering jams. No prog rock style music frills. No encore. No rapping with the audience between songs. Their musical ideas were revolutionary. That night no one else within a thousand miles of Denver was playing music like that. I was hearing and seeing something very ground breaking and I knew it. Somehow, out of my curiosity I had found my way to be in that club that night to experience The Ramones, and I felt I was one of the ‘chosen few’ to be lucky enough to be there.
It would be the only time I would ever see The Ramones play live. I had numerous chances later, but there was something just so right and so perfect about that night in Denver. I didn’t want to mess with that mojo.
I kept The Ravers on my radar during the next few weeks. I wanted to see them play again, wanted to check out their scene. They were all a few years older than me, but they seemed like good people and approachable. Then one afternoon I picked up The Daily Camera newspaper and in the arts section was shocked to read the headline “The Ravers Say Goodbye to Boulder.” My fave local band was leaving town for good and heading to New York.
But that’s another story…
Another University of Colorado student Chris Murdock was at Ebbets Field that night. Chris too was moved by rock’s higher powers and went from observer to participant in the punk explosion when he formed legendary Colorado rockers The DefeX. The DefeX, like The Ravers, made the pilgrimage to CBGB. The acid test for any young band was whether they were gutsy enough to expose themselves to NYC’s 1970s trial by fire. The DefeX were for real. Chris sent me these previously unpublished photos from The Ramones Ebbets gig. The sparse audience really does have that deer in the headlights look. Maybe it was shock and awe.
Steve Knutson was also at the show. Steve formed one of the first punk bands in Colorado, The Front. He also worked at legendary Denver record store Wax Trax (yes that Wax Trax). This is such a cool anecdote. “After school.”
After school me and a friend picked up The Ramones at the airport, and drove them straight to Wax Trax. They loved the store and bought quite a few records. Johnny’s girlfriend was wearing a raincoat and I think nothing else. He kept asking her to cover up in the car. They wanted us to help them buy pot but we had no idea how to facilitate that. My memory is that Johnny played through double Marshall stacks at max volume. It was incredible. But I couldn’t sleep afterwards for a few days out of excitement and my ears were ringing really badly. Unforgettable.
Photo: Steve Knutson.
Miracles actually occurred that night. From Andy Snow:
I was at that show too with Phil Gammage, and yes, it was loud and completely rugged. After I left I realized my kidney stones had miraculously been sonicated!
Andy’s kidney stones.
I don’t write reviews. I tell you what I like and hope I do it convincingly enough that you’ll go out of your way to check out whatever I’m writing about. There will be plenty written about The Ramones 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. As someone who was there in the beginning of what was to become known as punk rock, it is impossible for me to be objective about the scene and how it altered my life. Writing about The Ramones dispassionately would be like dropping acid and Thorazine at the same time. What’s the point? There’s only been a handful of rock writers who write like the music feels. I believe the subject of the writer is always the writer no matter what the subject is. And when it comes to rock and roll, there is no topic more likely to be encrusted with a writer’s literary love juice. The Ramones debut album is second only to Love’s Forever Changes when it comes to albums that have never sounded less exciting to me than the first day I heard them. And both albums have been released in the same week in state of the art analog remasters. Vinyl is the new black.
So what do we have here? Three CDs, a book and a vinyl record. The CDs consist of a stereo remaster of the album and live sets from L.A. club the Roxy in 1976. Really good stuff.
But, for me, the heart and the soul of the package: a newly re-mixed and mastered mono version on 180 gram vinyl. This splendid mono release was produced by the album’s original producer Craig Leon at Abbey Road studios. Mixed from the original analog master tape, the record has a presence, a melt-your-faceness that will hit you like a tuning fork struck by the hand of God.
The Ramones with Rob Freeman and Craig Leon at the board mixing The Ramones first album in 1976.
In an email exchange, Craig described the process of remastering the stereo and remixing the album to his original mono specs:
The stereo version is a remastering of the original two track mix that we did on the last day in Plaza Sound. When we mastered the 1976 album this was altered to try and get as much level as I could on the vinyl and to apply compression simulating the “secret weapon” compressor that only the EMI studio at Abbey Road had at that time. I used it on the remastering this time rather than duplicate the one I used on the original vinyl. The compressor is an EMI modified Altec 124. It gives an incredible “in your face” presence and is easily recognizable as one of the main sounds of the Beatles recordings. George Martin and the engineers used it on almost everything the Beatles did. Wonder how Paul’s bass sounded so punchy and huge…that’s it. The whole mix is run through that. The mono is a remix recreated from my original notes and referenced against early monitor mixes that I did in ‘76. On the early monitor mixes the placement is virtually mono. The overall mix is done partially through an EMI TG12345 (great model number for this record!) console, API modules and the EMI Altec compressor. At that time the band and I wanted to go for two releases… a stereo that was extreme and attention getting but also showed the triangular approach to how the band would be set up live. Bass on one side drums in the middle guitar on the other. And a large impact mono. Like the dual versions of albums from the 60s. Of course this was deemed to be impractical because mono was “dead” in 1976. No one had mono players any more (at least in the U.S.). I find that as the years went on and different remasterings were done, the intention of the original album got diluted quite a bit. I’m really thrilled that Warner Music with a great push from Mickey Leigh and Dave Frey, gave me the opportunity to restore our intentions on this set.
There have been a handful of critics who have described the mono remix and master to be “non-essential.” These numbnuts have clearly not listened to the mono mix on vinyl. My bet is they’re listening to digital files through some shitty computer speakers. Listening to The Ramones mono version on vinyl is like placing your head against the band’s collective chest: You can hear the heartbeat of the music. And it pounds! My stereo system is comprised of a Thorens turntable, a solid vintage Technics receiver and Klipsch Heresy speakers. Play the record through a decent analog set up and you too will discover just how absolutely essential this slab of vinyl is. It holds it own against any of the recently released Beatles’ mono masters, and they are absolutely exquisite sounding.
The Ramones never referred to themselves as punks. They were a rock band with a unique vision who considered themselves to be part of a long tradition going back to Eddie Cochran through The Who, The Stones, The Stooges, David Bowie and every great rock band that kept it simple and pure. It’s a shame that Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy didn’t live to see their music mixed and mastered in a studio where The Beatles made their greatest albums. The Ramones wanted to be rock stars. And they were. No band has deserved it more.
The Ravers left for New York City a few months after opening for The Ramones. We had to get to Manhattan and see what was going on. We changed our name to The Nails. We played CBGB, Max’s, Danceteria, Pep Lounge etc. We got a major label deal and made records. I’d occasionally run into Joey Ramone at one of the rock clubs in the city. We were both drinking heavily in those years and the conversions were drunken and brief. I would bring up the Denver gig and he’d nod and mumble something. For me, that gig was monumental. For Joey, not so much.
This tall lanky guy that nervously hid behind his hair and slumped against the world like a drunken saint was not what you’d call heroic. But Joey was a hero to me. He and his band represented everything I expect from and respect about rock and roll: The Ramones stayed true to their vision, they didn’t sell out, they kept doing what they did best against the massive complacency of a music industry that was too small to contain them, but arrogant enough to dismiss them. It took Rolling Stone magazine 40 years to put them on a cover. 40 years for the band to earn a gold record. Punks might wail “who gives a shit?” Well, I can tell you the Ramones gave a shit. The Ramones wrote hits that never became hits. Dozens of them. Anybody who tells you they started a band just for the “art” of it is full of shit. Tommy may have initially conceived of The Ramones as a pop art concept (a latter day Warhol/Velvet Underground iteration) but the rest of the band were in it for keeps. The Ramones were conceptual as all get out, and smarter than most people realized, but three quarters of the band wanted to be part of the rock and roll pantheon along with Marc Bolan, John Lennon and Sky Saxon. And now they finally are. But they’re fucking dead. And that’s the sad part.
Tommy was the first to leave the band and the last to leave the planet. His vision of a one-off gutter version of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable ended up touring and recording for 20 years. He created a beautifully brutal monster.
Needless to say, I can’t share an analog version of the mono record with DM readers. Just go out and buy it. It’s worth every penny. And if you don’t have an analog stereo system at home, then this album is a good reason to get one.
Craig Leon and everybody involved in the making of The Ramones 40th Anniversary edition deserve all the love that rock fans can bestow upon them. And Rhino gets a shout out for being smart enough to put the mono remix on vinyl. What a gift.
I know people like to watch. Here’s what I consider to be the only live footage of The Ramones that comes close to communicating how powerful they were in the flesh. The Ramones live at The Rainbow, December 31, 1977. Play it fucking loud!!!