January 23rd, 1977. Punk Poet Priestess Patti Smith trips over a stage monitor and falls 8 feet, breaking her leg. Smith cancels her next few dates, including a February 4th date opening for fellow New Yorkers Blue Oyster Cult at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. A frantic search begins for a last-minute replacement to open the show; preferably a local NYC-area act.
It probably made sense on paper. Just a few weeks after releasing their second album, ‘Leave Home’, the Ramones had barely left home themselves, with only about 20 gigs outside of the Tri-Sate Area under their belts. Outside of New York, reactions to their music and their …presentation were mixed; while at home they were spearheading a music scene that would literally change the course of Rock and Roll. Such was the unprecedented nature of their act that venturing outside of their comfort zone of CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City proved troublesome, as their version of Rock n’ Roll was considered either too avant garde or just plain terrible. But this last minute fill-in gig with BOC on Long Island was close to home, everything will be fine, they said…
Turns out that it’s not just where you play, it’s also who you play with. Or for. Fans in attendance that night had no idea they were witnessing world-changing genius; here’s an eyewitness account from an online Blue Oyster Cult fan site:
“Ramones opened up the show and a near riot broke out in our section as a guy tried to advance towards the stage to throw a chair he had separated from the row. He was stopped but nearly everyone was shouting/cussing and giving the Ramones the middle finger, it was a crazy atmosphere during their set. The Ramones played music that none of us had listened to before, it was fast, loud and really short songs but the sound was really crappy and garbled. A guy in our row later told me it was “that fucking punk rock!”
Ah, yes, that fucking Punk Rock. The Ramones practically invented the genre, which had just begun the process of turning Rock music on its ear.
To promote ‘Leave Home’, Ramones management had decided that the band needed to do just that; to break out of NYC and tour the country. The band spent the rest of 1977 spreading their minimalist musical message headlining clubs and small theatres, concentrating almost exclusively on the East and West Coasts, where the Punk movement was having the most impact.
A national tour promoting their third LP ‘Rocket to Russia’ at the start of 1978 with the Runaways was a step up, with the band playing slightly larger venues and proving that a ‘Punk’ tour could be a viable, money-making endeavor, lending credibility to the Punk movement in America. Fourth album ‘Road to Ruin’ was a deliberate attempt to get the band on the radio. But management felt that to truly break the band in America, Ramones needed to nab an opening slot with a major Hard Rock band… But who do you tour with when the music you’re playing seems to piss everyone outside of NYC right off? When the aesthetic you’re pioneering threatens the relevance of most of the arena-level bands of the day?
Since nobody was beating down the door at Ramones HQ with invitations to tour, the band’s management informed their booking agency, Premiere Talent, that it would take any available gig, and so a tour was assembled where the Ramones would either headlined a club or open for a more established act… Which resulted in some truly bizarro pairings, or truly memorable evenings, depending on your point of view. And so, before they became recognized as one of the most important bands of the Rock era, the Ramones bravely ventured outside the insular confines of NYC, and into the wider world of mainstream Hard Rock… where they were compatible with absolutely no one.
November 13, 1978: Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, GA w/Black Sabbath and Van Halen. It was the Sab’s 10th anniversary tour, and Van Halen’s first-ever world tour. Black Sabbath were trying their hardest not to say ‘Die’, but finding it hard with young upstarts VH blowing them off the stage every night. How both bands felt about The Ramones, with their machine gun attack of chainsaw bubblegum punk, hopping onto this date on the final leg of the tour, is unknown.
November 18, 1978: St Paul Arena, St Paul, MN w/Foreigner. Foreigner was riding high with their ‘Double Vision’ album sitting at #3, and ripping up Hard Rock radio with the ‘Hot Blooded’ and ‘Double Vision’ singles peaking at #3 & #4 respectively. Who better to open their gig in St. Paul than… The Ramones? A one-off fill-in set, much to the relief of the headliners, one may reasonably surmise.
December 1, 1978: Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino CA, w/Black Sabbath (Van Halen had dropped off the tour, as they could book their own arena gigs in the Cali area). Ramones hop on to Sabbath’s NSD tour once again. The local promoter of this concert advertised it in print ads, posters, and on local radio as “Punk Rock vs Heavy Metal”, getting it all wrong and exactly right simultaneously. The members of the Ramones actually felt their lives were in danger that night, and they were probably right.
Tour manager Monte Melnick says of that show: “Playing with Sabbath was dangerous. Their audience didn’t want to have anything to do with us. It was scary. It was bad.” Joey Ramone added: “We didn’t fit in. Our new booking agent thought it would expand our audience. The local promoter booked it like a battle of the bands. 20 minutes in and everything started coming at us. We were able to dodge it all, and no one got hurt, but we said fuck you and got off the stage.”
December 4, 1978: Long Beach Arena, Long Beach CA, w/Sabbath. A popular bootleg recording of the Ramones set from this, their third show on the Sabbath/VH tour, showcases the *ahem* ‘warm’ welcome the Ramones received during their brief opening sets. Where the audience can be heard during what little space there is between the songs, a rising level of hostility and impatience is apparent. At least they were able to complete their set. Barely.
December 5, 1978: Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, AZ. Their final show with the Sabs. Three of the remaining four Never Say Die shows were to take place in Texas… The Ramones wisely opted out of the remainder of the tour.
December 28-31, 1978: Four more West Coast dates; two nights with The Tubes, one with Eddie Money, and one with Derringer. Happy New Year?!
January 26, 1979: Louisianna Civic, Lake Charles, LA. Some idiot booked The Ramones to open for Toto. Toto? Toto! Hit single ‘Hold the Line’ was sitting at #5 on the Billboard singles chart; what a great opportunity for the Ramones to widen their…. NOPE. Here’s what a Ramones fan had to say about the event on a Punk Rock message board:
“Three songs before the crowd had a chance to process what they were witnessing. Once they did, a wave of bottles, cups, shoes and other debris rained down on the band, which only caused them to play faster and louder. Johnny stood on a monitor yelling “F**K YOU!” at the bottle throwers and Joey flipped them the bird. Bobby Kimball, lead singer for Toto and a Lake Charles native, came out and profusely apologized to the crowd for having to endure such a ‘horrible band.’”
July 2, 1979: Canadian World Music Festival, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. With Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Johnny Winter, AC/DC, and Nazareth. I’ll let Johnny explain the debacle:
“We played on a bill with Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Johnny Winter, AC/DC, and Nazareth to a crowd of forty-six thousand people in Toronto… I saw the other bands we were playing with and I thought, “This isn’t gonna work.” I complained to Premier, our booking agency, about it, and they said, ‘We’ve been in the business a long time, we know what we’re doing’…”
“About five or six songs into the set, the whole crowd stood up, and I thought it had started to rain. Dee Dee thought the same thing, but they were throwing stuff at us – sandwiches, bottles, everything. Then, all of a sudden, I broke two strings on my guitar in one strum. I thought it was a sign from God to get off the stage, because I’d rarely break a string, maybe once a year. So I just walked to the front of the stage, stopped playing, and gave the audience the finger – with both hands. I stood there like that, flipping them off, with both hands out, and walked off. The rest of the band kept playing for another ten or fifteen seconds until they’d realized I was walking off, and then they did too. I wasn’t gonna stand there and be booed and have stuff thrown at us without retaliating in some way. We had to come off looking good somehow, and there was no good way to get out of that.”
Tour Manager Monte Melnick: “We were happy to be playing these big festivals, but as soon as they started playing, all this food and junk gets thrown onstage. It was horrible. They played an abbreviated set and walked off in a hail of sandwiches. It was depressing.”
Changing the world is dangerous business.
By the summer of ’79, fellow Bowery denizens Blondie topped the singles chart with ‘Heart of Glass’ and Talking Heads hit the Top 30 with ‘Take me to the River’… while the Ramones battled projectiles hurled by an angry mob of 46,000 stoned air guitarists. But Blondie had ‘gone disco’, and that Talking Heads song was a cover… The Ramones, however, never took the easy way out of the underground, as many of their fellow CBGB alumni did. Consider the courage and commitment it took for the these guys to present their act under these harsh circumstances.
The Ramones’ radically minimalist reinvention of Rock music made them critical darlings in the US (and conquering heroes in the UK) but in mainstream middle America, ‘that fucking Punk Rock’ was generally rejected as an obnoxious annoyance. And so the Ramones travails also illustrate the single-mindedness of the average 70’s rock fan; the same passionate rejection of the Ramones was levelled at Disco during the ‘Disco Sucks’ era. Peaceful coexistence was just not possible. But was the gulf between the Punks and the Hard Rockers really so wide? Hopping on to the Black Sabbath/Van Halen tour, where the band that invented Heavy Metal appeared with the group that was re-inventing it, may have seemed a bit misguided, but take a quick listen to both ‘Paranoid’ and ‘(I Wanna be) Sedated’ back to back and tell me what you think.