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Gabba Gabba Hey: The Ramones Come to New Jersey
In dingy, sweaty venues from LA to New York, punk rock and new wave bands were re-telling the rock and roll story. In LA, it was X, the Blasters, the Germs, the Go-Go’s, and the Knack. In Boston, it was the Cars and Human Sexual Response. In London, it was the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, the Jam, and the Clash. In New York, it was Blondie, Talking Heads, and The Ramones. So, it’s a Wednesday night in the early autumn of 1979. We’re packed. Condor, one of my favorite bands, is on stage, and my brother yells in my ear, “I just booked the Ramones!” I’m like, “Who the hell are The Ramones?” I had never heard of them. The Revolution hadn’t quite reached Bergenfield yet. But then again, I had never heard of The Police either. A couple of weeks later, it’s the early evening, tables are wiped down, glasses are washed, and we’re getting ready for the sound check. The low hum of the PA oozes through the building. Out of the maelstrom (actually, out of the parking lot) and into the club strolls the personification of the movement, “Commandanté Zero” of the Revolution—Joey Ramone. He is the perfect combination of geek and cool. Six-feet-six in a worn black leather jacket and tattered jeans; his scraggly hair was falling over his thick, tinted John Lennon-style specs. He looks around. He looks at me. Then, he speaks. “Hey, man, got four quarters?” I went to the cash register, gave him the quarters, and watched him move toward the pinball machines at the far end of the club. Music-wise, the only thing I knew about The Ramones were the few songs I had heard on the tapes the promoters had given us. Nothing on those cassettes could have prepared me for the real thing. At about 10:30 that night, Joey Ramone leaned forward and yelled into the mike, “We’re the Ramones. Thank you, baby! One, two, three, four! One, two, three, four!” Holy shit! It was like a 747 taking off, and Circus-Circus was the runway. They started playing at 150 miles an hour, maybe 200 miles an hour, nonstop. One song rolled into another and then another. This was fast and furious rock and roll, stripped down to its barest elements and cranked up to 12—hard driving, power chord rock and roll. This was energy I’d never seen before, and I’d seen just about everyone. Just one Fender guitar, a Mosrite bass, a drummer, and a singer putting out huge, loud, white-hot sheets of sound. A small fortress of equipment pushed the driving music out to the furthest reaches of Bergen County—three Marshall heads running five 4 by 12 cabinets—three stage right, behind guitarist Johnny Ramone, and two stage left behind bassist Dee Dee Ramone, who was piloting two Ampeg SVT heads running two Ampeg 8by 10 cabinets, one on either side of the drums. Suffice to say these are the most powerful stage amps in the business. Now, imagine all of those amps turned up all the way. The audience members pogoed and bobbed their heads in hot, sweaty rock and roll delight. Even as their hair was blown back by the sheer volume of the music. After several tunes played in quick succession with no introductions, no onstage patter, and barely any breathing, the sound and lights blew out somewhere in the middle of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” No problem. The PA and lights were restored, they restarted the song, and off they went, continuing their sonic assault. In the middle of the tune “Rockaway Beach,” it happened again. The show came to a screeching halt, like a silent train wreck. Dee Dee was pissed; so pissed that he took his white Fender Precision bass and slammed it against the wall of the stage with full force. Shiny, hot pieces of the guitar cascaded into the audience—much to their glee. And that was the show. Even in the halcyon days of the late 70s, The Ramones rarely got the recognition they deserved. They were never heard on most US radio stations. Recognition and membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came only much later. Thirty years later, The Ramones’ music actually sounds tame compared to a lot of new grindcore and death metal bands. And, tunes such as “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” are staples on Disney Radio. There’s even a New York City street named after Joey Ramone, who passed away from cancer in April 2001. My affection for the Ramones runs deep to this day. I still feel like a punk when I hear their music now, even though I might not have even qualified for the title back in the day. For Christmas 2012, my sister bought me a book called On the Road with the Ramones. There, in the back of the book, is a long list of the dates, cities, and states where the band performed. They played about 250 dates a year in their heyday. Johnny Ramone kept a record of each and every gig. On page 296, you’ll see “October 2, 1979, Bergenfield, New Jersey.” That was us. That was that night. Whenever I go to a bar that plays live music, the first thing I do is ask the band to play a Ramones tune. And, of course, I brag that they once played at our club. The 20- or 30-something lead singer usually stares back at me vacantly, barely holding back from uttering, “Yeah, right, Gramps.”