613 Great Jewish Works of Art: #1 – Ramones

Ramones – Ramones

Punk is Jewish. Not Judaic. Jewish, the reflection of a culture that’s three millennia old now. It reeks of humor and irony and preoccupations with Nazism. It’s all about outsiders who are “one of us” in the shtetl of New York.

Steven Lee Beeber in The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs

Given that the Ramones perfected the (sometimes sub-)two minute pop song, it’s striking that they’re rarely praised/damned as a “great singles band”.

That’s partly because of their lack of Actual Hits (their three charting singles in the US failed to crack the top 60), but also a testament to how incredible their early albums were.

Their LPs didn’t sell much better than the singles, but their first four albums are absolutely perfect. There’s not a beat out of place or second of wasted space on the 54 songs that make up Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin.

“Tommy had the whole concept already planned,” producer Craig Leon told Uncut years later. “He designed the sets like one long art experience rather than a bunch of songs.”

The quality control plummeted as the ’70s ended, though End of the Century is a half-brilliant album that’s underwritten rather than overproduced. And there’s at least one song on every Ramones album from Pleasant Dreams on that makes it worth shelling out for.

Ramones – Ramones

Even if the Ramones had split after their debut they’d have already done more than most bands could dream of. Recorded in seven days at Plaza Sound above Radio City Music Hall in New York for $6,400, it’s the ultimate punk manifesto.

Leaning on the violence of The Stooges and degeneracy of the New York Dolls, Ramones stripped everything down to a distillation of frenetic pace and raw power.

Everyone knows the formula: 1-2-3-4! This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Johnny’s buzzsaw guitar, Dee Dee’s relentless bass, Tommy’s pounding drums. And above it all, Joey’s utterly unique vocals. Half teenage primal scream, half headcold.

The lyrics are about all those pop perennials – (un)requited love, dancing, glue sniffing, struggling to sell sex before killing a john to prove you’re not a sissy, nihilism and Nazis.

Ramones isn’t just The Best Punk Album, it’s also the best ’50s/’60s pop album of the 1970s. The Sex Pistols brought more phlegm and The Clash broadened the sound with their rock and reggae influences, but no-one could touch the Ramones for purity of punk purpose.

Jeffrey Ross Hyman was born on May 19, 1951, in the Forest Hills district of Queens, New York City, to art gallery manager mum Charlotte Mandell and trucking company boss dad Noel Hyman. Both sets of grandparents were born and raised in Brooklyn.

“I was a misfit, an outcast,” Joey said in Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of the Ramones. A stranger in a strange land.

Like any good cantor, he knew that if you needed to stick in a few extra notes to make a verse work then that’s what you had to do. This was a man who rhymed “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with “took my baby away from me”.

Joey Ramone bent words around the phrasing to fit a melody the same way he contorted his 6ft 6 in frame over a microphone stand.

Tamás Erdélyi (or Erdélyi Tamás, depending on your source) was born on January 29, 1949, in Budapest, Hungary.

“My parents were professional photographers and they had liberal, artistic friends who protected them,” Tommy told Steven Lee Beeber for his nating and inspirational The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs. “But most of my family was murdered in the Holocaust. I am barely here.”

The bruddas birth as the Ramones is often highlighted as a moment of reinvention, but this was nothing new to Tommy. In the face of antisemitism in Hungary, his dad had previously changed the family name from Grunewald to Erdélyi – and when they moved to the US in 1957, Tamás changed his name to Thomas on arrival.

The Erdélyis settled in the Bronx and Tommy was bundled off to a local yeshiva¹. Then came a move to Brooklyn and a less happy year at a hasidic institution. Redemption came with a final move, this time to Queens, and the family settled at Verona Estates in Forest Hills.

In 1974, Yes released Relayer, a 40-minute album of three songs. It opened with ‘The Gates of Delirium’ (21:50), loosely based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It followed the previous year’s double concept album Tales from Topographic Oceans, which gave each of its four songs a side to itself and clocked in at 81:14.

Ramones is 14 songs in twenty-nine minutes and four seconds. That’s an average of 2:06 a song. The longest, ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement’, is 2:35. The shortest, ‘Judy is a Punk, is 1:30.

In the midrash² Genesis Rabbah 38.13, amoraic sage Ḥiyya bar Abba tells the story of Abraham smashing all the idols in his father’s store, before cradling the stick in the largest idol’s arms.

“Our music is an answer to the early seventies when artsy people with big egos would do vocal harmonies and play long guitar solos and get called geniuses”

Tommy Ramone to Rolling Stone.

The Nazi stuff? Unlike the snotty, shlock tactics of their British successors (Joy Division, Sid and Siouxsie’s swastikas, Sex Pistols’ ‘Belsen Was A Gas’), at least the Ramones’ WWII-fixation didn’t feel contrived.

Dee Dee was the son of a stereotypically Aryan German woman and an American soldier who was part of of the post-war occupying force. He moved to West Berlin when he was a kid and stayed there till he was 15, rebelling against his violent dad by collecting Iron Crosses and swastikas. Tommy and his parents barely escaped the Holocaust.

You can’t ignore or excuse Dee Dee and Johnny’s habit for collecting Nazi paraphernalia on tour. Worse still were the antisemitic insults Johnny threw at Joey over the years.

Beeber argues the case for Johnny as Tommy’s own personal golem³, and of Dee Dee and Johnny being ersatz Jews because of their outsider status in Forest Hills.

That doesn’t convince, but with Joey as the frontman and Tommy having the strongest claim to being the band’s architect, the Jewishness of the Ramones was nevertheless undiminished.

When it came to the band’s image and the WWII references in the work itself,the Ramones reeked of Commando and Weird War Tales comics rather than anything more sinister.

And anyway, the only people more fixated on Nazis than antisemites are Jews.

When the Israelites were in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt, they sent 12 spies to survey the land of Canaan. Ten of the spies reported back that – despite God’s pledge to his people – the land would be unconquerable.

As punishment entry to the Promised Land was delayed, with the Israelites forced to wander the desert for 40 years, until the most of the spies’ generation had died out.

In 2014, with Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny already gone and just weeks before Tommy died, Ramones went finally went Gold in the US, having sold half a million copies in 38 years.

¹ A yeshiva (literally “sitting”): a Jewish school or college where students study religious texts.

² The midrash (literally “exposition” or “investigation”): the body of commentaries on Jewish scripture.

³ A golem is a creature from Jewish folklore made from clay or mud that is brought to life, often by using a scroll inscribed with one of the names of God.

⁴ Blitzkreig Bop’ was written by Tommy as ‘Animal Hop’ before Dee Dee gave it a lightning jolt (“Blitzkrieg bop… Shoot ’em in the back now”), but it’s still essentially a song about dancing. ‘Today Your Love Tomorrow The World’ was apparently toned down on the insistence of Sire Records boss Seymour Stein, with Tommy changing the words. The lyrics shifted from “I’m a Nazi baby” (though Joey still sung this live sometimes) to “I’m a Nazi shatzi” (German for sweetheart) and “I’m a German soldier” became “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor”.

Published by Mayer Nissim

Pop culture and communications.

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