Try to imagine a world without The Ramones. Just close your eyes and try…. Okay, maybe you can do it, but I can’t. Poof! Several dozen scuzzy punk bands that played the soundtrack to my adolescence suddenly vanish. The Queens, NY band’s bratty take on 50s girl group pop and doo wop—played at double and triple speeds, harmonies chanted more than sung—saved rock and roll from its bloated, delusional self. They made dumb music for smart people, and if they tended toward self-parody in their later years, including the sad spectacle of Dee Dee’s abortive rap career, they can and should be forgiven.
In a disdainful swipe at seventies progressive rock, critic Robert Christgau once attributed to Chuck Berry the words “beware of middlebrows bearing electric guitars.” Catty, but it’s true that when budgets swelled and the music business boomed, rock went full-on MOR; The Ramones provided the perfect antidote. With songs like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Learned/I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed” they proclaimed themselves defiant lowbrows and proud of it. Both tunes show up on their first demo record, above (at 10:40 and 18:22), a gloriously fuzzy, lo-fi affair featuring a few cuts that didn’t appear on their self-titled 1976 debut.
Recorded in 1975—and some perhaps as early as ’74—these recordings capture the band at their most raw and unmediated. The blog Ramones: Humming a Sickening Tune has an excellent breakdown of each demo song, and sums up this precious artifact nicely: “[The early demo recordings] offer a fascinating alternative insight into how the eventual debut album might have otherwise sounded. Their dense, primal sound reveals the surprising amount of dilution that the first record’s somewhat conceptual mix wrought upon the quartet’s fundamental power.”
The increasing professionalization of the Ramones, and their gradual transition to almost-pop, has served to obscure the truly hypnotic, pounding, buzzsaw drone they made as complete amateur unknowns. Dare I say I like their early work better? If only because they made a sound every lo-fi DIY band from my youth, including my own high school garage outfit, strove mightily to emulate, whether they could actually play their instruments or not. None of this praise is meant to diminish the brilliance of Ramones, which cannot be called a traditional studio rock record by any stretch. Recorded for Sire Records in seven days on a $6,400 budget, the band’s first album is as lean and scrappy as major label product gets. But the demos above show us that they could do just as well, maybe better, with almost nothing but their instruments and sui generis genius. Or as blogger BuncombeShinola puts it: “crunchy and charged, these recordings make the six grand spent on The Ramones seem like a dubious extravagance.” Indeed.
Songs you can hear above include:
1. 53rd & 3rd Demo
2. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend Demo
3. Judy Is A Punk Demo
4. Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue Demo
5. I Can’t Be Demo
6. I Don’t Wanna Be Learned I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed Demo
7. You Should Never Open That Door Demo