Let me establish first that I hold actual, you know, musical opinions about the Ramones that keep me from enjoying with the abandon typical even of the stodgiest formalists their huge discography. For one, it doesn’t need to be as huge as it is: even if they hadn’t lost their ‘it’ ten years into their run, that ‘it’ sustained itself on the lie that recycling the same three pop chords means you’re also allowed to repeat yourself. And I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened to their sound had they stuck it out long enough to hear Kim Gordon not attempt to harmonize with Thurston Moore not attempt to harmonize with Lee Ronaldo. I even once had a dream that Mick Jones wrote their first pithy lyric, but woke up with “Lost in the Supermarket” on repeat.
But selfishly and unfairly (and crucially - if you read this blog you deserve to know certain biases that disrupt whatever passes for objectivity in music criticism) I protest the consistency of their identity and, in extension, their status as the first punk band. Here it is: I will never accept Johnny Ramone, a dyed in the wool conservative, as a punk rock god (not that punks should have any use for icons, anyway).
Yes, I understand that pop doesn’t demand of its stars that signifier match up with signified: Dylan rejected the counterculture, Lennon wasn’t a feminist, Madonna wasn’t all that slutty, Michael Jackson wasn’t black, Kurt never endorsed a deodorant, Shady isn’t a blonde. But in none of these cases is the lie tied intrinsically to the artists’ actual or implied aesthetic virtue. Dylan is a well-read populist whose ambiguities could just as well been adopted by the Right; Rubber Soul isn’t exactly required listening in W&GS; pop is conservative if it isn’t apolitical, etc.
But punk rock isn’t a genre as much as it’s a political ethos: it’s the tour van commune, corporate excess rejected with pop irony, DIY integrity for the sake of it, and, if it isn’t Left, it’s pissed off - at some stinking mold of a status quo.
Johnny Ramone on the other hand is a guy who called Reagan the greatest president of his admittedly short but long-enough-for-gods-sake lifetime, and blessed Bush and his hideous wars at his Rock HOF induction. Since the Ramones were communal in credit if not necessarily in politics, we’ll never exactly know who wrote most of their songs - but the presence of an arch-conservative in their founding ranks has me asking: is “Rockaway Beach” ironic commentary on New York’s wealthy or… not?; is the closeted dad in “We’re a Happy Family” gay because the nuclear unit is a white myth or because someone in the group just hated fags?; is “Blitzkrieg Bop” the most ironic pop melody ever or just a pop melody with an alliterative title?; is “53rd & 3rd” anti-war or anti-woman?; why did they call it Rocket to Russia?
I don’t love the Ramones because the only kind of irony they proved capable of was this.