“On the two-hundredth anniversary of our freedom, we were bringing Great Britain a gift that was forever going to disrupt their sensibilities.”– Danny Fields, The Ramones’ First Manager
The 4th of July is just around the corner, and pandemic or not, it’s an exciting time to be a music buff in Camden that lives for the thrill of the live gig. With so many new shows coming up, my mind immediately goes back to the Independence Day Weekend of 1976, 44 years ago. The weekend that made punk rock history. I wasn’t alive (most unfortunately), but I can see it now, as clear as day in my mind. A young Joe Strummer and the rest of the gang in the now legendary punk band, The Clash, have found their way to the back of The Roundhouse. Eager to meet the four ultra-cool New York punk rockers that everyone’s been talking about – who are due to play their London debut that night, they hurl a rock at their dressing room window. The Ramones poke their heads out. After the initial surprise, they form a human chain, and help the young, British wannabe rockers climb up to meet them. And as the saying goes, the rest was history.
Back then, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, and Mick Jones were hungry (and thirsty) to get going. Due to play their first gig in Sheffield later on during the night of the 4th, they were full of energy, passion, swagger, and controversy. But they weren’t somebodies. Yet. Along with bands like The Sex Pistols, and The Stranglers, they blurred into the background scene of the prelude to punk. And like any young band starting out, The Clash we’re absolutely bricking it! They didn’t want to get it wrong or not be good enough. Yet it was through this meeting between The Clash and The Ramones at their dressing room that The Clash realised their confidence and identity. And understood that ‘getting it right’ was completely beside the point. Johnny Ramone said it best, as he gave Paul Simonon a punk pep talk that would inspire The Clash to go onto make music history:
“You’re going to see us for the first time. We suck, we can’t play. But don’t worry about it, just do it.” – Johnny Ramone of The Ramones to Paul Simonon of The Clash, 1976.
Fresh off a plane from the USA, leather jackets and long fringes in toe, The Ramones were about as humble as they come in the music world. They were totally unaware what they were about to unleash – the birth of the coarse, rude, and rowdy culture of British punk, and the music industry’s big slap in the face that rock fans had been crying out for since Rod (Stewart), Rob (Plant) and Redge (Elton John) hit the charts! Just like Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone’s brother and Stage Manager says in I Slept With Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir, “Little did we know that together we were founding a new revolution — a musical one. We weren’t aware that we were about to launch an entire cultural movement. No one was.”
When I think about The Ramones during that time, I think about the fact that they were completely different, because they were utterly unapologetic in their music, looks, and attitude, without trying to prove themselves. They weren’t even particularly aware, or noticeably bothered by the idea that they were responsible for jumpstarting a revolution. That had never travelled over 250 miles for a gig, for crying out loud! Cartoonish in appearance, with their shaggy hair, psychedelic shades, and leather jackets, their sounds were aggressive, affronting, and stimulating. They got people excited in a new way, they didn’t let them rest – quite literally. They played fourteen earthy, minimalist, three-chord tunes without a break in-between at their debut set at The Roundhouse. Songs that some audience members had reported to ‘all sound the same’. But that was exactly why it was so fantastic – you didn’t have to be a genius to do it. In a way, their music represented unity. As Gaye Advert from the band The Adverts recalls: ”The Ramones were amazing. You wouldn’t have known the lyrics from the gigs! Thirty seconds into the track and you would realise which song it was, and then the song was over.”
Their music was simple, it got to the point – and quickly! It embodied the soul of punk rock. That weekend alone motivated 3,000 audience members to kickstart their own punk bands. The primal connection that these new musical recruits felt to The Ramones music that night was incredible. It didn’t just inspire them, it brought them home to who they really were and what they truly believed in – the need to break convention, stand up for yourself, and be-your-damn-self! (no matter what the price). This was during a time, by the way, when politics didn’t understand what it was like to be young and creative with something to say – and didn’t care either. The Damned’s drummer Rat Scabies understood exactly what I mean:
“It was exactly what we were all about, three-minute pop songs about life. We felt an immediate connection and it was confirmation: we realised we weren’t the only ones doing it. What was important isn’t ‘who came first?’ but the fact the same thing was happening in different parts of the world. It wasn’t just London frustration, it was the next generation getting angry. It made us realise we weren’t alone.”
Years later, The Clash frontman Joe Strummer describes rock and roll as ‘a very deep, spiritual thing’, as he recalls the weekend that changed his life forever in an interview. You can see it in Strummer’s eyes that the result of The Ramones’ visit to Camden went a lot deeper than contributing to making a name for his band, as he tells the interviewer how much he learnt from them: that to make a real impact upon your audience, you can’t be afraid to put on a real show. You’ve got to shock, exhaust and excite your audience with your music AND your stage presence, all at the same time. The lessons that Strummer and the rest took from The Ramones can be seen throughout all of their lyrics, melodies and overall performance style. It’s unmistakable. From that weekend on, they weren’t afraid to kick-ass, not one bit.
For one band to influence another in this way through their live music was everything back then, it was the most radical force for social change that there was. It shaped people and their lives in a much more authentic way than social media platforms ever could hope to. It clearly matters immensely to Strummer that ‘The Ramones gave the youth of the world a lot of self-respect’. It taught the fans a hell of a lot. That despite what your parents said and the Queen stood for – it was alright to be a wild child, proudly wear edgy attire and a fuck-you-mum-and-dad attitude (and shout about it). The Ramones were there to give people the kick up the arse they needed to start a revolution and be a somebody.
Fast-forward to present-day Camden, and you can still feel the impact that these punk bands are having upon emerging new talent like Shake the Geek, Tiffany Twisted, Logan J Parker and Amber T, as they continue to breathe life into their sounds and stage presence. It’s amazing to think that chance encounters like that between The Ramones and The Clash are happening all the time in Camden. After all, we are in a town that is FULL of live music. As the world opens up once again for live gigs, fresh sounds will continue to spring out of this thriving musical hub, just like the once unknown Pink Floyd, The Stranglers and The Sex Pistols did, before their days of fame. This is a place that no matter how many years go by, the echo of The Ramones rambunctious sets at The Roundhouse and Dingwalls will still always be faintly heard.
Look out for these up-and-coming bands performing in Camden on the 4th: Shake the Geek, The Lonesome Frets, Tiffany Twisted, Logan J Parker, Albion, The Meffs, The Barking Poets and Max Bianco.