Never Mind The Anglophilia, Here’s The Queens Brothers

Jun 27th, 2007 // 24 Comments

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Ed. note: Every two weeks, it seems, some magazine, TV network, or blog releases its “Top 100 so-and-so music things of all time” list. Often, these rankings simply recycle the same set-in-stone music-geek beliefs that were established years ago–Pet Sounds rules, as does London Calling, etc.–but because there are often shifts in the critical canon, we’ve asked alarmingly frequent Idolator commenter (and occasional guest editor) Chris “dennisobell” Molanphy to start keeping track of them for a column we’re calling “Canon Fodder.” In this column, he explores a 20-year battle over the greatest classic-punk album.

As we mentioned in our first “Canon Fodder,” rock critics have this thing about classic albums and years ending in seven. They like to honor albums that came out in such years, and they tend to poll each other in years ending in seven, too. Boomer critics are most obsessed with 1967 and the Summer of Love, but get them talking about the birth of punk, and England’s “Class of ’77″ will eventually come up.

In August 1987, the editors of Rolling Stone counted down “The 100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years.” Setting an arbitrary timespan of 20 years was a quick and dirty way to ensure the dominance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–by taking competing 1966 favorites Pet Sounds and Revolver out of the running completely–and sure enough, the Beatles’ 1967 disc topped the poll. No surprise there.

More notable was the U.K. foursome that landed just behind the Beatles: 1977′s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols came in at No. 2. You could tell the Stonesters were proud of themselves for being hip enough to rank a punk album among all that classic Boomer fodder: “[T]he Sex Pistols captured second place, and that’s only the first of many surprises,” reads the contents page. Actually, the only real shocker was that RS editor Jann Wenner allowed a Pistols album to place above the Stones (Exile on Main Street came in at No. 3). But all in all, it was interesting that, in the middle of the Madonna-and-Bruce decade, the U.S. critical establishment so revered old-school British punk.

They were less kind, however, to its American equivalent. The Ramones’ self-titled 1976 debut appeared way down at No. 69 on the RS list. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy placed below a slew of U.K. punks and postpunks, including the Pistols, the Clash, Elvis Costello, and even Graham Parker; the Ramones came in even under Television and Talking Heads*, their U.S.-based CBGB peers. What did the band that arguably invented what we now call punk have to do to get a little respect?

Just stick around, apparently. In 1995, SPIN compiled its first official book, Spin Alternative Record Guide; the book contained its own editor-curated Top 100 albums list, one that leaned toward hipper, Gen-Xier tastes. Ramones placed at No. 1 on SPIN‘s list, and the New York foursome’s third album, Rocket to Russia, made the top 50 as well.

What about the Pistols? In what had to have been an intentional flip of the bird at Rolling Stone, SPIN slotted Bollocks at No. 100, below everything from Freedy Johnston’s Can You Fly? to Moby’s Everything Is Wrong.

Had the Sex Pistols actually fallen that far in estimation in less than a decade? Surely not–the two polls say less about these albums than they do about the pissing match between U.S. rock rags. We also shouldn’t read too much into lists that were so massaged and tweaked. (The ’87 Stone poll reflected the opinions of just 17 writers and editors; rumor had it the SPIN list was overseen by a fraction as many people.) Nonetheless, this move by SPIN took two peacefully coexisting punk albums and turned them into a litmus test. The question for ’90s Gen-X record geeks wasn’t “Are you a Beatles person or a Stones person?” It became “Ramones or Pistols?”

In the end, by a hair, the Ramones won. And they did it in the most punk way possible: hanging out and letting the rest of the world come around.

The ’80s marked rock’s last decade of unmitigated Anglophilia, both on the radio and among record geeks. The mainstream perception then was that, whoever invented punk, the Brits did it better and had permanently co-opted it. What’s more, Never Mind the Bollocks tidily fits cultural commentators’ perception of what Great Albums are supposed to sound like, both as statement and Zeitgeist-shifter. Critics who like albums with messages clearly favored Bollocks, whose pose of nihilism masked a core of post-’60s moralism. From “Bodies” to “No Feelings” to “God Save the Queen,” Bollocks was an inspired piece of pop political theater that captured the U.K. economic malaise of the ’70s at its height. A decade after its release, in the midst of Thatcherism and the MTV-fueled Second British Invasion, the album must’ve looked positively prescient.

But the ’80s were also the decade of the burgeoning hardcore and SoCal punk scenes–genuinely American forms that flew under the radar of pretty much every established rock critic except Greil Marcus. And then, in the ’90s, something seismic happened: punk “broke.” After Nirvana’s 1991 explosion and, later, the 1994 breakthrough of Green Day, punk reclaimed its place in the rock canon as a distinctly U.S. creation.

None of this should have any bearing on the two records’ merits, but great albums don’t exist in a vacuum.

If you’re a rock critic looking to enshrine the Ramones, the natural thing to do is pick a favorite album. This is harder than it seems. Their first three records–Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia–are all roughly similar in sound and strengths, and their most beloved anthem, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” isn’t on any of them. (That’s on their also-fine fourth album Road to Ruin.) The seminal debut Ramones is the most obvious totem, but it doesn’t read as an indivisible album. On your iPod, you could swap its “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” for, say, Leave Home’s “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and be equally satisfied. And isn’t Rocket‘s “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” maybe a little better than Ramones’ “Judy Is a Punk”? In short, the Ramones don’t lend themselves to album-based canonization.

The Sex Pistols don’t have that problem. Picking a favorite Pistols album is like picking a favorite Ralph Ellison novel; the band broke up after only one proper record. But by the mid-’90s, with Thatcher gone, Vivienne Westwood out of fashion, and Britpop reaching back to pre-punk forms for inspiration, Bollocks became charmingly dated–even, to quote Eric Wesibard in the SPIN album guide, “bloated” and “sluggish.” As for the Ramones, what was once a handicap became a virtue: the punishing sameness of their material. To a generation feasting on a new wave of catchy thrash, Ramones‘ clarity of purpose–loud, intense, succinct–looked like the real revolution.

Since then, the two records have achieved a kind of happy equilibrium. Critics seem no less fond of the Pistols’ single-album blaze of glory, but the Ramones’ 2001 acceptance into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the sad, near-simultaneous deaths of Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny have deepened critics’ affection for them and their output. In Rolling Stone‘s massive “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” list (2003), Ramones and Bollocks place less than 10 slots away from each other. This time, however, Ramones places higher. It’s No. 33 to Bollocks‘ No. 41–a final, tiny victory for the band that, surprisingly, has fewer original members still roaming the earth than the Pistols do.

Not that any of this matters, mind you: the highest-ranked punk album on the 2003 Rolling Stone list is the Clash’s London Calling (No. 8). We’ll talk about those guys some other time.

Final note: By a nose, your guest Idolator prefers Ramones to Bollocks, but it’s close.

Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Albums From 1967 – 1987 [Timepieces]
Spin Magazine Alternative 100 [Timepieces]
Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Albums of All Time [Rock On The Net]

* Want to know how revered Talking Heads were in the mid-1980s? Take a good look at that 1987 Rolling Stone poll–they appear four times, second only to the Stones and Bruce Springsteen. (The four albums–Remain in Light, More Songs About Buildings and Food, ’77, and Fear of Music–all fall below No. 50, but still…) It really is a snapshot of David Byrne at the height of his worship by rock critics; no other major album poll taken by any group features this many Heads records so prominently. (Go back.)

idolator

  1. Michaelangelo Matos

    There wasn’t anything arbitrary about the 20-year span of that Rolling Stone list–it was one of the magazine’s 20th anniversary issues.

  2. Charlie Kerfelds Jetsons Tee

    Fantastic feature. Highly enjoyable!

    In short, the Ramones don’t lend themselves to album-based canonization.

    Bingo. That’s been my prevalent feeling on the subject.

    To be fair, I was six years old in 1987. The only music I listened to was the “Pops in Space” compilation and the first three tracks on “1984.” I can see how being more aware of popular music at that time would’ve shaped my opinion as to the Ramones v. Pistols debate. Naturally, I really fell in love with music in the early 1990′s – hence, I’m more of a Ramones fan.

  3. iantenna

    wow. freedy johnston. that dude sure dropped off the radar. such a classic example of a good songwriter loved at the time and then subsequently forgotten, mostly due to horrendously dated production. lloyd cole anyone?

  4. the_marquee_de_lafayette

    Glad you at least mentioned London Calling – even if it did take most of the article to get there. It’s punk for people with brains that still function.

    CKJT seconded here – greatly enjoyed. And looking forward to “more later” on said Clash album.

  5. KeBove

    Awesome post! Ramones s/t has been on my iPod for a while, but I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. I guess I’d have to say I prefer The Ramones to The Sex Pistols, but like a lot of other people who think that way, I only started getting into music in the 90′s. Really interesting post.

  6. Darth Funk

    Judy>Sheena. If I have a choice, it’s the last song I want to hear before I leave this world.

  7. mike a

    It’s easier to canonize the Ramones if you think of the first three Ramones’ LPs as one “album.”

    Having said that, it’s clear to me that Rocket to Russia wins by a hair; it’s got “Rockaway Beach” plus some of their best obscurities (“I Can’t Give You Anything,” “Locket Love,” “Ramona”).

  8. Lucas Jensen

    I love the Pistols, but I honestly see them as the fourth or fifth tier band of their generation. The Ramones mop the floor with them.

  9. antistar

    I love both bands, but for one album, you have to give it to the Pistols. They represent more of what punk rock is, or is supposed to be. The Ramones were a great “rock” band period.

  10. rinjonjori

    Sex Pistols were over rated for their music but perfect for image. When I was 16 I sported some stupid Sid Vicious t-shirt. I was trying to convey and image. My music was all Black Flag and SST bands. I don’t understand how anyone outside NY “got” The Ramones. They were basically 4 guys from Queens, who sang pretty much about queens.

  11. Anonymous

    Another great post! I think it is also worth noting, though, that in a genre that focuses so intently on “cred”, I think something else that has hurt the Pistols in their slide from the top spot is that fact that they have none. The more stories that come out about Malcolm McLaren and how they really were just a fabricated band, the further they are going to slide on best-of lists.

    That, and the fact that the first PiL single completely nullified everything the Pistols had previously done.

  12. sleazysean

    How about we just agree that Damned Damned Damned is better than both?

  13. coolfer

    ramones are canonized by era, not by album. the first three albums were nearly simultaneous (three albums in two years).

    their legacy is built upon their first four albums (and possibly “it’s alive”) released ’76 to ’78 while the pistols’ legacy comes from a short outburst around that same time span. not too different, if you think about it. although the ramones had a long life, their reputation and influence comes from their pre-’1980 ouput. (you hear lots of ramones imitators, but none of them sound like “rock and roll radio” or “this ain’t havana.”)

    if the band’s longevity had anything to do with their later popularity and influence, it probably came from their stubborn refusal to change (e.g., johnny never let dee dee wear anything but a leather jacket even when he wanted to go glam) and decades worth of ramones t-shirts circulating worldwide.

    though as a lifelong ramones fan, i appreciate all of the bands eras and incarnations. i love “pleasant dreams” and “too tough to die” as much i love the earlier albums.

  14. Charlie Kerfelds Jetsons Tee

    @rinjonjori: Although I’m not from Queens, I can definitely see the point you’re making.

    I have a VERY hard time seeing viewing the Ramones as a punk band. They were a bunch of neanderthals ripping through early 60′s pop tunes. It’s almost as if the amps made the band – they used the same guitars (Mosrites and Fenders) as the Ventures and countless other clean-cut 60′s pop groups did, they just ran them into big bad Marshall stacks.

    Boom. “Punk Rock.”

    It always seemed like the Ramones never aspired to be much of anything. Clearly, the same cannot be said about the Pistols.

    What’s more “punk” than really, truly not giving a shit?

  15. Ned Raggett

    @sleazysean: I’m with ya there, dude.

  16. The Illiterate

    I’ve never been sure that the Pistols should even be regarded as an album band. Their “album”, after all, is four great singles, a few other great songs (“EMI” and “New York”, especially, though I suppose “Bodies” and “Problems” might rank up there with the best) and some other tracks of various quality (most of it good). The Ramones, though, made albums–their records had an ebb and flow to them and were obviously carefully programmed, even if all the songs did sound the same at first. So for albums, I have to give it to the Ramones, but for sheer impact nobody else in punk came close to the Pistol’s first four singles.

  17. Hertz32

    Too bad the Stooges did it better than either of those bands and still doesnt get the proper kudos from either of those rags. Same with the Velvet Underground.

  18. Feh Am Legend

    @Hertz32: Stooges, sure, but Velvet Underground? Same vibe I guess but kind of a different set of influences.

    I guess that’s why these lists are so ultimately useless other than the heated debated that ensues.

    Nice piece, sir.

    And, yeah, The Damned knocked it out of the park.

  19. Feh Am Legend

    I’ll just add, I’ve always been a Ramones fan, esp. when I was young and wanted to be a badass. I still listen to the Ramones but I’m pretty sick of Bullocks.

  20. budro

    What about the Dolls, man? The Dolls!!!

  21. Mike Barthel

    I too am tired of rock critics continually underrating the Velvet Underground.

  22. heyzeus

    How can a band as critically lauded as the Velvet Underground be underrated? They’re rated. Very highly and properly rated as a groundbreaking band, both lyrically and sonically. But just because a band was groundbreaking doesn’t make them punk. And this article is about punk.

  23. Hertz32

    Sonically the VU didnt invent the sonic template to punk the way the Stooges did, but the VU did provide a pivotal influence on punk music in general. I will give the Pistols cred because they inspired alot bands (mostly good). But I think the Ramones were very overrated. Wheres the love for the Australian underground at that time? Nobody ever mentions Radio Birdman or the Saints in the discussion of late 70′s punk.

  24. fbomb

    The Ramones were, and always will be a timeless band. The Sex Pistols captured a moment nicely, but for my part, I can’t stand em.

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