The first time I saw the Ramones live was long after their peak. It was during the Escape from New York Tour in the late 1980's (the Ramones, Tom Tom Club, and Deborah Harry). After most of my friends bailed on going to the show, The Big Bopper agreed to come along for the free ticket. We called him The Big Bopper because he loved the teeny bop music of the time (New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, etc.). The Big Bopper reacted to the Ramones much in the way Pete Seeger reacted to hearing Bob Dylan go electric at the Newport Folk Festival. He rubbed his head in his hands, covered his ears and just generally squirmed throughout the whole show. This completely surprised me as the Ramones always seemed like one of the most pop-sounding bands with their catchy 2 minute songs with the same three chords. But those three cords were always perfect for getting you on your feet. Like a good Ramones song, Ramones by Nicholas Rombes is a short, richly layered book that is both fun to read and filled with meaning.
Rombes begins by giving context to the birth of the Ramones first album through a brief history of the origins and evolution of the word "punk" both in everyday language and in relation to music. Today when we think of the birth of punk and new wave, certain bands come to mind: The Ramones, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Stooges, The Talking Heads, and Blondie. However, at its birth, punk and new wave weren't so easily defined. Bands such as Kiss, AC/DC and Alice Cooper were all classified as part of the punk and new wave movement.
Rombes then imparts the social, political and economic environment in which U.S. punk was born. Although British punk was stridently political in the songs of The Sex Pistols and other early British Punk bands, the U.S. scene lacked the blatant political aspect. The U.S. punk movement had the seemingly political attitude that there was no future left for American youth, but rather than make this a call to arms for change or a method for voicing this dissatisfaction, all U.S. punk asked was that you accept the nihilistic, and give in to the moment. As Rombes writes, "Punk music's great strength- especially the music of the Ramones- was its ability to convey this sense of explosive joy while at the same time hinting at some larger idea that you could never really be sure was there."
The center of the U.S. Punk scene was New York City, and the conditions in New York City in the 70's helped give birth to the movement. The city was in bankruptcy and a policy called controlled shrinkage resulted. The city government slowly removed city services from certain areas to make those areas unliveable in an attempt to drive out poorer citizens from areas that could then be redeveloped. At the same time, the suburban youth who largely made up the members of punk's first bands began flocking to the city. The first punks found a great romanticism in strolling the abandoned streets of New York as part of the decline of the American Empire.