Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gee, Officer Ramone

It's not just tight jeans and leather jackets they have in common. West Side Story photo from Ramones photo from

Took a road trip this week, tooling down the Columbia River Gorge listening to a Ramones compilation CD. It's only recently that I got into the Ramones; for a long time, I avoided them. I'd always heard them described as "loud," "tough," "punk," "attitudinal," etc.--and I have delicate sensibilities! But what no one ever told me is that, deep down, the Ramones are pop. I love how they take chords, choruses, and other motifs from old girl-group and bubblegum pop, rev them up and play them with a gleeful irony. They may be loud and tough, but their songs are always catchy-melodic and their playing always precise. They may sing "Beat on the brat with a baseball bat," but you never honestly believe that they are going to break into your nice suburban neighborhood and beat up your kids, the way you fear that death-metalheads will kidnap your children and use them in satanic rituals.

I'm surely not the first person to mention the pop antecedents of the Ramones--for instance, that the first two lines of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" virtually copy the Beach Boys' "Fun Fun Fun." But I bet I am the first person to hear the song "We're a Happy Family" and say "It's just like 'Gee, Officer Krupke' from West Side Story!"

Stylistically and thematically, the two songs are close cousins. In both, tough New York street kids sing about their hilariously messed-up family lives in a tone of faux innocence. The Jets interject "Golly Moses!" and "Leapin' lizards!" and pretend they're blameless. The Ramones insist "We're a happy family!" despite all evidence to the contrary.

Here's some excerpts from Action and the Jets (via Stephen Sondheim):
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.

My father is a bastard,
My ma's an S.O.B.
My grandpa's always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!
And here are Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy:
Sitting here in Queens
Eating refried beans
We're in all the magazines
Gulpin' down thorazines

We ain't got no friends
Our troubles never end
No Christmas cards to send
Daddy likes men

Daddy's telling lies
Baby's eating flies
Mommy's on pills
Baby's got the chills

I'm friends with the President
I'm friends with the Pope
We're all making a fortune
Selling Daddy's dope
I doubt this similarity is intentional--more likely it's just something in the New York City air and attitude. I've heard the Ramones called the first urban rock band. And West Side Story might have been the first urban (as opposed to urbane) musical. You can hear it in both these songs.

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