It’s always been my dream to be in a band and play even just one show. Lacking any sort of technical prowess with an instrument or much of a musical ear or a voice that doesn’t sound like someone is punching a goat was seemingly always going to leave that particular dream, like a lot of others I’d had over the years (I never did get to be a professional wrestler), within the realm of delusional fantasy.
Hearing the Ramones changed my mind about that.
Most people when quizzed on their favourite Ramones album (and if you don’t have one, are you really giving 110% in life?), will point to their seminal self-titled debut or the more critically lauded Rocket To Russia, but for me it has always been their sophomore LP Leave Home, released in 1977.
The perfect extension from the foundation the Ramones had shot punk rock to the pinnacle of public visibility to on Ramones. It didn’t break ground but it didn’t need to. Nothing was broken and they didn’t fix a fucking thing, a principle the band would adhere with rigidity to for much of their career together.
There’s so much good on Leave Home and it’s such an easy and fun listen. No song of the 14 recorded clocks over three minutes, the longest being the Freaks-referencing Pinhead (the song that coined the famous “Gabba gabba hey!”) that runs for an eternal 2:42 (by Ramones time anyway). Full of no frills, militaristic chugging chords from Johnny Ramone with the fuzz cranked all the way up, a mercilessly pounding rhythm section in Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone, Joey Ramone’s unmistakeable sneering drawl.
The perfect blend of nihilistic punk in tracks like Gimmie Gimmie Shock Treatment and the cleaning solvent sniffing belter Carbona Not Glue, the sarcastic call-and-response middle finger to the armed forces in Commando and the ode to the girl who digs her music good and deafening in Suzy Is A Headbanger.
There’s romantic 50s and 60s throwbacks, shades of the Beach Boys and The Contours and the sound Joey Ramone longed for, with those idiosyncratic doo wop ‘whoa-oh’ choruses (although coated in a heavy layer of grit and grime) in I Remember You and Oh Oh I Love Her So. And of course, my absolute favourite track on the entire record (and it’s not even a Ramones song) in California Sun.
Originally performed by little known NOLA crooner Joe Jones and then made into a semi-hit by The Rivieras in 1964, it was the Ramones version from this album that first hit my ears, in typical teenage fashion watching Steve-O polevault himself into a palm tree on the first Jackass movie.
It was so entrancing; the summery chord progression and good-time lyrics that filled my 15-year-old head with images of Venice Beach and bikini babes and rolling down a highway in an MG convertible. I wanted to be “out there having fun in the warm California sun” more than anything in my life, a dream I wouldn’t fulfil for another seven years. It was also my introduction to one of my favourite musical subgenres ever in surf punk, even if I didn’t realise it at the time.
Most of all it sounded so simple, and I wanted to learn to play it the moment I heard it. I wanted to play everything on that album, three honest chords on a feedback-drenched electric guitar? Piece of piss.
Unfortunately, my aforementioned lack of instrumental talent reared its spotty head. At that point I had picked up a guitar and could play Smoke On The Water and Iron Man and Highway To Hell on one string like a chump, but things like chords and tabs were virtually Ancient Sanskrit to me and I spent many frustrated hours trying to teach my fingers to work a fretboard properly and using the word ‘motherfucker’ more than liberally.
It seemed so easy the way the Ramones played it that I thought anybody could learn it in about five seconds. Unfortunately that messy simplicity that emanated from the speakers listening to this album was a slight deception. It wasn’t that the Ramones were untalented at all, they certainly didn’t just pick up their instruments and start playing obviously, theyknew exactly what they were doing and exactly what worked and the way they put it together was almost suffocatingly precise after multiple listens. When I found I couldn’t play a goddamn thing of theirs I gave up playing guitar then and there and chucked my Takamine into a forgotten and dusty corner of my bedroom, because trying is the first step towards failure as somebody once put it.
It wasn’t until I moved in to my current house years later, where two of my housemates who are outrageously talented musicians actually sat me down and were patient enough to teach me the basics and how to employ them on a guitar, that I actually started to have fun with it and California Sun was one of the first songs I learned.
We put together the scrappiest, dodgiest punk band imaginable, headlined a house party/festival and California Sun was one of the songs we played. There may have been 35 people and a dog in attendance, we may have sounded like an absolute shit fight and I ended up passed out in a bin afterwards but it was still one of the few instances in my life where a dream was fulfilled and Treadlyfest 2013 remains one of the best nights of my entire life so far.
I listened to Leave Home with renewed reverence after that. I have it on vinyl and the CD copy I own is near unplayable after so many spins in my car. Leave Home is one of the records that so perfectly encapsulated that period in my life, one of the happiest I’ve ever known, and every time I listen to it I’m taken back there. To beer pong nights and jam sessions and house parties that ended in noise complaints, my entire life in that household at that time was like any Ramones song: simple, gritty and fun as all fuck.
I like to imagine those early records, and especially Leave Home, as the happiest part of the Ramones’ lives too. Four grubby punks from Queens who weren’t especially technically proficient who got together and threw down some of the most iconic and influential music of all time and help propel a genre into the mainstream. In an era where wanky prog-rock had been all the rage, they set fire to the conventions of being a musician and a band and gave so many people like me, who probably thought they’d never be able to write and play music, a shred of hope.
Everything may have fallen apart in later years (and if you want to cry I suggest checking out End Of The Century, which remains one of the best music documentaries of all time), but Leave Home is the Ramones at the top of their game and having fun, a sonic representation of my early 20s when everything was so easy.