In our first ever episode, we draw a line from the early music industry, starting with sheet music publishing, all the way to The Ramones debut at CBGB's in 1974. Characters ranging from Leadbelly to David Bowie are discussed.
In 2014, I remember reading that the 1976, Ramones, self titled, debut album had gone gold, meaning it sold 500,000 copies. I had one thought. Thats it? I knew that traditional successes had alluded the Ramones, but it seemed insane that one of the most influential albums of all time took a full 38 years to sell a mere 500,000 copies. Contrast that to the album Song Of Joy by the soft rock group The Captain and Tennille, which was also also released in 1976. Song of Joy went platinum, meaning it sold a million copies, the year it came out. Not forty years later. Does anybody remember or care about the Captain and Tennile. Hell no! The Ramones on the other hand, are still being listened to, and influencing people all of the world. Teenagers still listen to the Ramones. So, how is it that one of the most influential bands, and arguably the most influential band of all time, classic debut album, the one thats played at New York Yankee games, only sold 7,000 copies the year it came out, and took a full 38 years to go gold. Their next album, the even better, Ramones Leave Home sold even worse. Yet, every single big rock band that came after The Ramones was influenced by them. It’s true, that part of the Ramones legacy is helping to establish punk as an underground, renegade art form, outside of the mainstream. But that was not what they had in mind in 1976. They wanted to make it big. And many of their contemporaries, bands that they influenced did Blondie, The Talking Heads and The Clash. Those bands got huge. And it wasn’t just there contemporaries. Virtually every single successful rock band that came after them cited the Ramones as a major influence: Hair metal bands like, Skid Row and Guns and Roses, Thrash Metal bands like Metallica and Slayer, Grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, alternative rock bands like REM and U2, Pop punk bands like Greenday and the Offspring. All of these genres and these bands were hugely influenced by the Ramones. And to be honest The Ramones were much better than them all of them. Yet, despite their best efforts, The Ramones never had a big album and never they had a hit song. Whats up with that? In our debut season We’re going to explore this seeming contradiction, and much much more as we take a deep dive into the history of the Ramones. My Name is Harley Isaac Rother, and this is Guitars and Stolen Cars - The Renegade Rock n Roll History Podcast Season 1 - The Ramones ep 1 Do you Remember?
I’m not going to start the story of the Ramones, and punk music at the normal places. So stick with me on this one. We’re going to start in the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village New York in the 1950’s. But to get there, we’re going to need to ask why did this, or any other music scene happen in New York. The answer is sheet music. Before radio, sheet music was how a song would become popular. A musician would have to buy a piece of written music, and then perform it. There was no recorded music, and there was no radio, so for a song to be popular, it would have to be written as sheet music, and sold commercially to musicians, who would then perform the song.
New York was the nations business epicenter, and as such, was also the epicenter for sheet music publishing companies. Then, when radio came into existence and got popular, New York based companies NBC and CBS dominated the medium by extending their networks to national audiences. It was natural then, that when the technology to record music became an industry, New York was the place that it happened.
Early recordings were of Opera, Classical and show-tunes music. However, New York was a hustling, bustling immigrant city. It wasn’t long before ethic records started being made for niche immigrant markets. Italian music, Irish music, Chinese music, Greek music, Jewish music, German music. All of these New York immigrant communities all had their own musicians and musical traditions. The musicians could be recorded, and the records could be sold to members of their respective communities. As an example of this, here is the yiddish language, Jewish-American musicians Aaron Lebedeff and Alexander Olshanetsky, with Dave Tarras on the clarinet playing What can You Mach H’is America, recorded in 1925.
Pretty awesome. It wasn’t long before these niche city markets were expanded to include music made by rural Americans. New York Record companies would travel south and record music being made by the people who lived there, both black and white. Music made by white musicians was termed hillbilly and music made by black mucicians was termed race music. Here is an example of a “hillybilly” record, The Coo Coo Bird by Clarence Tom Ashley from 1929. Here’s an example of a “race” record, Statesboro Blues by Blind Willie McTell from 1928 . These niche rural markets became very auspicious by the late 1920’s. Until, the stock market crashed. With it, the market for niche music crashed. Most of these musicians were out of work and forgotten during the depression.
New York during the depression was home to political radicals, artists and intellectuals. Many of their ilk were turned off commercial culture, but were drawn to the hillbilly and race music, as it seemed an authentic American art-form. The music was played by musicians without professional training, who learned to play and picked up their repertoire, not from conservatories or sheet music, but from their own community. The New Yorkers termed this music folk, instead of the derisive labels, hillbilly and race. Some folk musicians began to move to New York. They could make a career playing folk music to the leftest and intellectual crowd.
One of these performers was Aunt Moly Jackson, who was involved in the Harlan county wars of 1931 in Kentucky, when the coal minors union battled the coal company and law enforcement. Aunt Molly Jackson sang the Appalachian folk songs she learned growing up, as well as songs she had composed herself about the struggles of Harlan County coal miners and their union. Here’s Aunt Molly Singing, Hard Times in Colemans Mines. Jackson very much embodies the connection between leftist politics and folk music.
As did Woody Guthrie, who also moved to New York in the 1930’s to play to the emerging audience for authentic American music. Woody was from Oklahoma, and had traveled as a worker to California after the dust bowl. He had seen, and lived the poverty of the migrant worker, the hobo and the refugee. Like Aunt Moly Jackson, Guthrie sang folk songs that he learned growing up, as well as songs he had written about his experiences in the dust bowl and union movement. Here’s Guthrie Playing I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore.
John Lomax, who worked for the Library of Congress archiving American folk songs, was instrumental in bring these “authentic” folk musicians to New York City, and helping them establish careers there. Another performer who Lomax helped bring to New York in the 1930’s was Leadbelly. Leadbelly was an inmate serving time in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for attempted murder. After being discovered, he sung his was out of prison and, got a pardon from the governor. Here’s Leadbelly singing Take This Hammer.
The club these performers most often played at was called The Vanguard and it was in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The club was racially integrated, and drew a crowd of artists, radicals and intellectuals that wanted to hear real authentic American music, not commercial pop.
As a music scene started to develop around the Vanguard, and the musicians who played there, native New Yorkers started to play folk music. One of those was Pete Seeger. In early 1941, Seeger started a group called the Almanac singers to play folk music at political events . In May of 41’, they played to an audience of 20,000 striking transport workers and their supporters. Here is Pete Seeger’s group the Almanac Singers, singing the union song Which Side Are You On.
Later that year, on December 7th 1941, the Japanese attacked the Navy base at Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. Pete Seeger was drafted, and The Almanac Singers disbanded. But the folk music scene in Greenwich Village continued to grow. After the War, Seeger returned to New York started a new group, called the Weavers, who also played at the Vanguard Club in Greenwich Village.
The Weavers were generating a lot of buzz and drawing big crowds. Decca records, known for pop music, got wind of this and signed them. In May of 1950, The Weavers had the number one song in the country with Good Night Irene, a song they had learned from the recently deceased Leadbelly. <Good Night Irene by The Weavers> The Weavers version of Goodnight Irene was so popular that even Frank Sinatra recorded a cover of it. A string of hit folk songs followed for The Weavers. But when asked about his success Seeger commented that “I felt kind of silly. To me, I was a bigger success nine years before when when the Almanac singers sang for the striking transport workers union”.
Shortly after the Weavers initial success, in June of 1950, a publication appeared called Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence on Radio and Television. It mentioned Seeger by name thirteen times. The FBI started following Seeger, and Weavers concerts started getting canceled. By 1952, Seeger was named in The House of Un-American Activities as a communist. That ended the record contract with Decca, and that ended radio airplay. Still, the Weavers introduced millions of Americans to their own, American folk music. And by now, the ever growing folk scene in Greenwich Village was being supported by folk radio shows, folk magazines and folk record labels. Labels like Folkways, Vanguard and most importantly for our story Electra.
The same year that Seeger was blacklisted, Folkways Records released the Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith. Smith was an artist, experimental film maker, and record collector who lived in the Chelsea Hotel. Thats the same Chelsea Hotel that Dee Dee Ramone would later live in, the same Chelsea Hotel that Sid Vicious would allegedly murder his girlfriend Nancy Spungun in. But we’ll get to all that later.
Right now, Harry Smith was one of the NY artists who hung around the folk scene at Greenwich Village. And In1952, he compiled the Anthology of American Folk music. Featured on the the Anthology were choice selections of the “race and hillbilly” music that had been recorded before the great depression. Harry included gospel music, both black and white, cajun music and anything that he felt was a part of American Folk music. This anthology become the canon of the burgeoning folk music revival. Here’s my favorite track on the Anthology - Chubby Parker and His Old Time Banjo doing king Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O. <Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O by Chubby Parker and His Old Time Banjo>
In 1956 Elvis Presley appeared on TV, and rock and roll took over the air waves. But rock n roll was viewed by most Americans as a fad for kids, and it largely passed after a few years. By the end of the 1950’s, folk music was back on the charts with clean cut acts like Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, Ian and Silvia and Peter Paul and Mary - all having hit records in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Most of these acts were based in Greenwich village. Peter Paul and Mary even stuck it to the man by having a hit record with a song written by the blacklisted Pete Seeger, If I Had a Hammer. <If I Had A Hammer by Peter Paul and Mary>
Folk music had changed quite a bit since the 1920’s. Here’s two versions of the same song. First is the “Hillbilly” artists Grayson and Whitter doing the song Tom Dooly in 1929. <Tom Dooly by Grayson and Whitter> Now here’s The Kingston Trio version, which was a number 1 hit song in 1958, thirty years later <Tom Dolly by The Kingston Trio>. As you can see the music had gotten much more commercial.
With all the success happening in the Greenwich Village folk scene, musicians from all over the country started to flock there, to jam at Washington Square Park, play the ever expanding club scene, and hear the established artists perform. And It wasn’t only clearcut pop folk that one could hear at the village. Many of the original performers who recorded in the 1920’s, and then had faded into obscurity had been to be rediscovered. They traveled north to restart their careers after a 30 year hiatus. This included some of the artists who were featured on Harry smiths Anthology, like Clarence Tom Ashley and Mississippi John Hurt.
Not everyone was happy about the folk scene in Greenwich Village. The president of New York university noted, “There was a time when a folk singer was a person who sang folk songs; most people enjoyed his contribution to community life. Now a folk singer may or may not be able to sing. Sometimes he is a hoodlum: many believe he indulges in abnormal sexual behavior.” Another concerned citizen noted “the residents of Washington square do not want to see this lovely, traditional, refined community become a skid row for beatniks, degenerates and mongrels masquerading as folk singers”. Despite these reservations from squares, the village was booming as a hub - not just for folkies but for beat poets, jazz musicians, comedians and artists of all kinds. The clubs were the Gaslight and Gerdes Folk City, the Bitter End, Cafe Bizarre and many others.
A new generation of folk singers was starting to emerge in the 60’s. Singers who were influenced not just by folk music by also by the beat writers. This new crop of folkies included Judy Colins, Odetta, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Phil Ochs, Buffy Saint Marie and most importantly, Bob Dylan. This new crop of singers made an impression not by playing the traditional songs, but by following in the footsteps of Guthrie, Seeger and others who also wrote songs, often about current events. Here’s Bob Dylan utilizing a folk style song with poetic lyrics - The Times They Are A Changin’ from 1964. <The Times They Are A Changin’ by Bob Dylan>
Also in 1964, Beatles hit America. Rock and Roll was back on top, and this time it wasn’t going away. A little over a year after the Beatles exploded, folks music’s most promising champion, Bob Dylan did the unthinkable. He started playing rock n roll! When Dylan went electric, it gave rock n roll music a credibility that it didn’t have before. Rock n roll could now be artistic and intellectual in the way folk music had been.
In California, the Byrds combined the rock sounds of the Beatles, with folk songs from Greenwich Village and had huge hits with Bob Dylan’s, Mr. Tamborine Man and Pete Seeger’s, Turn Turn Turn. Earlier rock songs were about dancing or teenage romance but now anymore. Here’s The Byrds doing Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn <Turn Turn Turn by The Byrds>
Back in Greenwhich Village, former folkies started playing in this new style of mixing folk and rock. Some of them had success like The Lovin’ Spoonful, and The Mammas and the Poppas. Others were more avant guard, like the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs. Folk music clubs started booking rock bands, and folk record labels started signing rock artists.
One guy who had already played both acoustic folk music, and electric rock n roll was Lou Reed. Reed’s new band, The Velvet Underground, was as influenced by Bob Dylan as everybody else, but they sang about taboo topics like drug addiction and S&M Sex. The Velvet underground were also unique because of the presence of John Cale, who wasn’t a rock n roller or a folkie. Cale was a classically trained viola player who was influenced by the avant-guards composer John Cage. The Velvet Underground were looking for gigs, and the Greenwich Village folk clubs were looking for rock bands. The Velvet Underground got a residency at the former folk club, Cafe Bizarre.
One of the biggest names in art at the time was Andy Warhol, famous for his pop art and experimental films. He wanted to expand and was looking for a rock band to work with. Warhol liked that the Velvet Underground’s music was unique, and made people uncomfortable, just like his own art. In February of 1966 Warhol announced that he would be collaborating with the Velvet Underground “Combining music, art and films all together.” The eventual result was called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which featured live music from the Velvet Underground, projections by Warhol and performance art by member of Warhol’s factory.
The regular nighttime hangout was for Warhol and his entourage, which now included the Velvet Underground, was Maxes Kansas City. Maxes’ was a bar and grill owned by Mickey Ruskin. Ruskin had owned and sold various coffee houses, in where else but Greenwich Village. When he sold his most recent coffee house, it had a no compete clause meaning Ruskin couldn’t open another business in the Village. So, when he wanted to open another business, he had to find a new neighborhood. He found a location on Park ave, between 17th and 18th st. He called it Kansas City because they served Kansas City style steak and Max’s because it sounded catchy.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a success in New York. The show next went to LA where it didn’t have quite the same level of impact. However, one person who saw the show in LA 1966, and was influenced by it, was Jim Morrison, the lead singer of a new band, The Doors.
The Exploding Plastic inevitable returned to New York, and the Velvet Underground started working on their debut album - produced by Andy Warhol himself. But Warhol and Lou Reed had a light fallowing out when negotiating royalties for the album. The album release was delayed, and when it finally did come out, it flopped. Warhol went back to making films, and The Velvet Underground went back to playing shows without the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Here’s the song Heroin an ambiguous ode to the drug off the Velvet Underground’s 1967 album produced by Andy Worhal. Note the folky guitar player, droning viola playing and poetic lyrics. <Heroin by The Velvet Underground>
Even though they were no longer working together, Warhol, his entourage, and The Velvet Underground were still hanging out at Max’s Kansas City. Another member of Warhols crew that hung out at Max’s was Danny Fields. Fields got a job writing about pop music. He got the job by responding to an ad for a writer that knew about pop. Danny thought they were talking about pop art, and since he was hanging out with Warhol, who more qualified than Danny? Turns out they were talking about pop music, but they hired him anyway.
Now remember how I said in the wake of Bob Dylan going electric, folk record labels were signing rock bands? Well one of those labels was Electra Records. They had just signed the The Doors. So now that Electra was selling this new type of long haired, drug fueled, rock n roll music, they needed a long haired, drug fueled, rock n roller to help them promote it. The guy they hired was Danny Fields.
After doing publicity for the Doors, Fields went to Detroit on behalf of Electra, to check out a band that were drawing 4,000 fans to their shows without a record deal. This band was The MC5. The MC5 were notorious for being the only rock band to play at the protest at 1967 Chicago Democratic convention. It ended in a riot. They were managed by the Political radical John Sinclair. Sinclair founded a Black Panther support group called the White Panther Party, and advocated a total assault on the culture by any means necisary - including rock n roll, dope and fucking in the streets.
Fields was impressed by the MC5 and their crowd. He was also impressed with a band that hung around the MC5, called Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Danny signed both bands to Electra records. He got the MC5 for twenty thousand dollars and the Stooges for five thousand dollars. The MC5 recorded their live show and put it out as their first album. The album opens with a radical introduction followed by explosive guitars. <Ramblin’ Rose by The MC5> The Stooges were more primitive with songs that repeated the same chords over and over - and a singer who was barely singing <Now I Wanna Be Your Dog by Iggy Pop and The Stooges>
Like the Velvet Underground, The MC5 and The Stooges both released debut albums that flopped. Danny Fields was fired from Electra, and both bands were eventually dropped. However, signing and then dropping the Stooges and MC5 isn’t the last thing that the folk, turned rock, label Electra did that is relevant to us. In 1972, they commissioned Lenny Kaye to put together an anthology of forgotten rock bands of the 60’s. Just like Folkways had commissioned Harry Smith to put together an Anthology of forgotten folk music of the 1920’s. Nuggets, the resulting anthology the 60’s music is important for two reasons. One, it hi-lighted bands from the 60’s who would eventually be looked at as precursors to punk and the Ramones. Two, it described this music as punk rock in the liner notes of the album. The back of the album says “Most of these groups were young, decidedly unprofessional, seemingly more at home practicing for a teen dance, than going on a national tour. The term that has unofficially been coined for them, punk rock, seems particularly fitting.” Here is one of these 60’s punk rock bands to be featured on Nuggets. The Seeds and their song Pushin’ Too Hard from 1965 <Pushin’ Too Hard by The Seeds>
So We have the Greenwich Cillage folk label, Electra Records to thank for the MC5, Iggy Pop The Stooges and codifying the term punk rock.
As for Danny Fields, he went back to hangin’ at Maxes and writing about pop music, which at the time was rock n roll. But Max’s was changing. In 1969, they started having live music upstairs. It was a small club that could have about 130 people, but a lot of legendary artists played. Bob Marley and the Wailers made their US debut opening for Bruce Springsteen at Max’s. Neither act was big enough to pack the small room. Waylon Jennings played his first shows in New York at Max’s, with Billy Joel opening. In 1973, Iggy Pop and the Stooges returned from recording in England with David Bowie and played Maxes. Iggy rolled around in broken glass cutting himself up, with Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper in the audience.
Live music at Maxes meant that even more musicians were hanging out. Two musicians that hung out at maxes were David Bowie from England, and Lou reed from the Velvet Underground. In 1972 Bowie released Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie also produced a solo album from the Velvet Undergrounds’ Lou reed that came out the same year. This new music had a new fashion associated with it. Glamorous, shining, glittery, clothing. In New York, they called it Glitter rock and local bands were adopting the style.
The biggest local glitter stars were the New York Dolls. Another band that was part of the early 70’s New York glitter scene was KISS, but that’s another story. Anyway, The NY Dolls combined these new fashions with low grade rock n roll influenced by the first wave on ’50’s rock. The Dolls played at Maxes, but they really made their name by playing a space called the Mercer Arts center every Tuesday. New York Dolls lead singer David Johansen remembers of the music scene, “It was real easy to take over because there was nothing happening. There weren't any bands around so we just came in…we were the only band around really, so we didn't have to be that good.” But the Dolls were good. Here is the song Trash off their debut album. You can hear the 1950’s sound mixed with Glitter Rock sleaze. <Trash by The New York Dolls>
One guy saw the Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center, was folkie turned rocker, Tom Verlaine. Verlaine liked how the Dolls played at the same venue every Tuesday, and how it created a scene, because you knew that every Tuesday, the Mercer Arts Center with the New York Dolls was the place to be. He wanted to create a scene like that for his new band, Television.
One day Verlaine walked by a club in the Bowery, a neighborhood famous for its homeless population, and saw a guy putting up a sign for a new club. CBGB OFMUG. It stood for country, bluegrass, blues and other music for undernourished gormandizers. The club was new and looking for bands. They thought country music would draw people to the bowery. I didn’t. So they were receptive to Television playing there every Sunday, because it might bring in people. The club’s main cliental up to that point had been neighborhood drunks and Hells Angels, so anything to get more people in was welcome.
Once television started playing at this new club, other bands wanted to play there too. The Mercer Arts center had literally collapsed. Like the building fell over. There were only a few clubs to play original music in, so musicians were paying attention when a new venue opened.
When Television started, they auditioned a bass played name Doug. Doug didn’t get the gig because he didn’t know the names of the notes on his bass. Still, Doug kept in contact with the guys in Television. When Doug, who was now going by Dee Dee, heard about this new club that Television was playing, he asked them if they could get his new band, The Ramones a show there. On August 16th 1974, The Ramones played their first show at CBGB’s. They had done one show before as a trio at a rehearsal space. But now they were a four piece, and they were playing a real club. Although, The club was mostly empty. The handful of people there didn’t know what to make of the Ramones. They were on stage for about 40 minutes, but 20 of those minutes were them arguing. When they finally played a song, it was short, a minute or two. It was played fast, and didn’t have any guitar solos. The songs all had weird names. Like, I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You, I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement. I don’t wanna do this. I don’t wanna do that. Most of their songs had I Don’t Wanna in the title. The singer would fall over during songs. People didn’t know if this was a joke. Was this a parody? Was this for real? Who were these guys? It was kind of like a train wreck. But you couldn’t take your eyes off it. The Ramones played GBGB’s 25 times between August and December in 1974. And every-time more people showed up.
Who was this weird band playing, playing weird music, in this shitty bar, in a shitty neighborhood? We will get into all of that, and much more in our next episode. I know we didnt talk much about the Ramones much but stick with me. We will be talking a lot about the Ramones in the coming episodes.