Ramones Leave Home

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.

Critics Bloody Critics (Part 1)

As Black Sabbath nears The End, few would argue their status as the most important Heavy Metal band of all time. The passage of time and several generations has seen the Sabbath Mythos grow in depth and stature, and the band (or brand), regardless of its current configuration, is being honored in the mainstream press with overwhelmingly positive reviews for both their ‘comeback’ album ’13’, and the band’s live performances on their current ‘The End’ tour. The Sabs are enjoying a well-deserved critical pass, as fans heap love, respect and appreciation on their heroes, and rock critics everywhere take their seats on the bandwagon. It’s as if the mainstream press are hosting Black Sabbath’s retirement party.

But Black Sabbath’s relationship with the music press was not always so accommodating. In fact, if we move from ‘The End’ back to the beginning, we find that the mainstream music press absolutely despised Black Sabbath, from Day One. Seriously; it was brutal.

Keith Altham wrote in the New Musical Express, 14 April 1973:

When it comes to obvious targets for critical assassinations, then Black Sabbath are sitting ducks very loud, very basic, very brash… What is it that most critics seem to find so objectionable about Black Sabbath music or, more positively, what is that they miss which is enjoyed by their thousands of fans?

To fully understand the extend of the disdain directed at this band in their earliest days, we need a little context. What was American popular culture like when Black Sabbath arrived on the scene?

America, at the close of the 1960s: The flower-power era is over. The era of Peace and Love has ended, and will soon give way to the cynicism and disillusion of the early 70s. The cultural backlash against the Hippie idealism and the ‘free society’ social experiments of the previous decade includes a preoccupation with the occult, which pervades all areas of popular culture; occult-themed horror movies, the zodiac and the beginnings of New Age mysticism, witchcraft, and a flirtation with Anton LeVay’s Church of Satanism. The counterculture has fallen to the dark side.

0Black Sabbath, with their dark lyrical imagery, menacing music, and apparent embrace of black magic, were the perfect band for the time, although this synergy wielded a double-edged sword: the band capitalized on the dark zeitgeist of the day, while the rock press blamed Black Sabbath for killing the hippie dream.

There is an element of truth to this theory, however. As Ozzy says in the book ‘Louder Than Hell’ by Wiederhorn & Turman:

When I was a kid, I was hungry. I had my ass hanging out of my pants. I hated the fucking world. When I heard the silly fucking words, “If you go to San Francisco, be sure to put a flower in your hair” I wanted to fucking strangle John Phillips [of the Mamas and the Papas]. I was sitting in the industrial town of Birmingham, England. My father was dying of asbestos from industrial pollution and I was an angry young punk.

The churning, grinding, smoke-belching steel mills of Birmingham were a long way from Haight/Ashbury. Sabbath and their music delivered a bleak, desperate message: The swingin’ Sixties are Dead; or, to quote Blue Oyster Cult, This Ain’t the Summer of Love. For the rock critics and journalists who lived and loved the music and culture of the 60’s, Black Sabbath just pissed in their Cheerios.

Context: Heavy Metal in general, which was only recently becoming recognized as a distinct genre, was constantly dismissed by the ‘straight’ rock press as ‘puerile’, ‘primitive’, or worse. Creem Magazine described it in its early stages as ‘music for young men without a war of their own.’ When Sabbath emerged, they were one of a very few bands tagged with the HM label, a label which the music press quickly turned into a derogatory term. Black Sabbath quickly became the whipping boy for an entire genre; a genre uniformly looked down upon by the mainstream media of the day. The ‘straight’ press often to referred to the average Heavy Metal fan of the day in caricature, as in this piece from Sounds in 1973:

A Sabbath fan is a youth who sees his future as just a long dark alley with a row of hoods lined up in the shadows on either side, waiting with knives. The only escape is to go to one of the band’s concerts, get wasted mindless and let a black, menacing wave crash over you for the evening.

1More Context: The high of choice at the dawn of the 1970s is actually a low. The use of psychedelics is on the wane; Downers are now the ‘in’ thing. Depressants like ‘reds’, Valium and Quaaludes, are where it’s at. I was amazed at the number of times Tuinal was mentioned in the many contemporary articles and reviews on Sabbath that I read to prep for this piece. Mike Saunders wrote in The Rag in 1971:

Black Sabbath are ten times cruder… (They) sing lyrics about Satan and death and evil, and attract the most strung out 16 year-old-reds-users audience of any group around.

Intentional or not, for some, Sabbath’s music was the aural equivalent of a handful of barbiturates, and the journos of the time applied adjectives like ‘plodding’ and ‘droning’ to describe the Sabbath sound ad nauseam. Bill Ward acknowledged the connection and defended the band against the ‘downer rock’ tag in Rolling Stone in ’71:

Most people live on a permanent down, but just aren’t aware of it. We’re trying to express it for people.

Strong elements of psychedelia are present in Sabbath’s early sound, and the down-tuned, dirge-like qualities of much of their music lent itself to the ‘downer’ stereotype thrown around by Sabbath’s critics at the time. ‘Heads’ were an instant and obvious audience for Sabbath’s music, and this made the band an easy target.

3Forty years ago, the young Sabs were not viewed by the press backward through the lens of four or five decades of rock and metal history, as they are today; rather they were a new band with a new sound, and could only be critically assessed against the bands of the day, particularly their ‘heavy’ contemporaries: Cream, Purple, Zeppelin, and Hendrix. When Sabbath first visited the U.S., they toured as an ill-fitting opening act for Cactus, Mountain, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, Jehtro Tull, ELP, and Grand Funk Railroad, and later, headlining over Yes, Nazareth, Three Dog Night, Humble Pie, and Wild Turkey. Black Sabbath spawned a thousand imitators along the arc of their career, but in those early years, they were an anomaly; a band apart.

Sabbath’s first single, ‘Evil Woman’, failed to chart in any territory. While it reached #4 in the UK, the ‘Paranoid’ single peaked at a dismal #61 here in the States. ‘Iron Man’, released as a single in the U.S. only, actually charted higher, peaking at a still-lowly #51. In fact, Black Sabbath’s next 5 singles would all fail to chart anywhere. Each of the band’s first 5 albums, however, went Top Ten in the UK, and Top 40 in the U.S. Suffice to say Black Sabbath was not a ‘singles’ band, and did not need the support of mainstream rock radio to sell records. The fact that Sabbath was able to achieve such success while working outside of the established ‘system’ further confounded the Sabbath-haters, who were utterly incapable of grasping just what it was about this band that made then so successful.

There were some in the media who made note of the vehement bashing of Black Sabbath by the mainstream press. Here’s an excerpt from a piece called ‘Black Sabbath: Nobody But The Public Digs Sabbath’ by Keith Altham, from Record Mirror, 30 January 1971:

There would seem to be a lot of unnecessary resentment over Black Sabbath’s success in this business. And even outside it by those bastions of public musical taste who regard any kind of youthful success on an inflationary scale as some kind of obscene hype.

The word ‘resentment’ in Altham’s piece was well-chosen. By 1972, Black Sabbath were one of the biggest bands in the world. 1971’s ‘Master of Reality’ had shipped as a Gold record on advance orders alone. It reached #8 in the U.S. (#5 UK), and it’s success pulled both ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Paranoid’ back into the Hot 100. There was no ‘hit single’ associated with ‘MoR; both singles pulled from the album, ‘After Forever’ and ‘Children of the Grave’, failed to chart anywhere. ‘Vol 4’ went Gold in three weeks, and became their fourth consecutive platinum album. Radio did not support them, as most Rock stations in the U.S. at the time ran with a Top Forty-based format, and the ‘Paranoid’ single only reached #61. So how did Sabbath achieve this level of success, without the support of radio or the press? Critics just couldn’t figure it out, didn’t understand the Black Sabbath phenomenon, and so they resented the hell out of them for their success.

2Touring the States repeatedly (eight times in 16 months) was part of it, but perhaps an even bigger factor was word-of-mouth. Sabbath was regarded as a ‘people’s band’, meaning ‘regular people’ dug them but the critics just didn’t get it (Grand Funk Railroad was perhaps the first band to be assigned this title; more on them in Part II). This ‘outsider’ status was pivotal to Black Sabbath’s early success… and every time a critic published a piece about how terrible Black Sabbath was, their legions of fans just loved and supported them even more. Black Sabbath did not just succeed despite the constant critical drubbing; in part, they thrived because of it.

Perhaps a 17-year old David Harris of London’s Putney district said it best, when he responded to Keith Altham’s question about the consistent trashing of Black Sabbath in the music press in that 1973 NME article:

I read some of the musical papers and I’ve always thought they’ve had a rotten deal from the critics, because they are not playing for the benefit of reporters they’re playing to us.

 


(In Part 2, we’ll look at contemporary reviews of Sabbath’s first handful of records, 1970 – 1975. And I’ll explain that Grand Funk thing.)