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R.I.P. Tommy Ramone OR Nuff Respect to the Apotheosis of Smart-Dumb

July 13, 2014


There were of course enough people in the Ramones to make five or six sets of Ramones. They were a bit like Fragments of the True Cross that way. The idea that anyone could adopt the surname and the uniform and become a Ramone was fascinating. And of course profoundly untrue.

The eminment and somewhat overexposed historian Simon Schama once declared on Desert Island Discs that he preferred The Ramones to The Clash because he found The Clash a bit too intellectual. (Were this true, then the effective fan base for The Clash would have to retrench to a point where commercial viability became an impossibility.) But The Ramones were always very smart about playing dumb. They made the simple act of counting up to four look like an intellectual challenge.

Their strict surname and dress code policy made it look as though individual identities were to shed at the audition room. But of course the classic Ramone line up – whose passing we are now marking – the line up of Tommy-DeeDee-Johnny-Joey involved an extraordinary collection of rare and in many ways incompatible individuals. While mourning Tommy we’re also mourning the strangeness of DeeDee, the frailty of Joey (who suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome, something he may have shared with the heretically monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten whom he strongly resembled) and the compellingly horrible personality and politics of Johnny.

The Ramones were the high priests of Smart-Dumb because they found a way to say the unsayable. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys was particularly struck by “Beat on the Brat” and learned that a version of Rock and Roll offered a way to ventriloquise the unacceptable that needs to be acknowledged. The Ramones played Rock and Roll as though cops were about to burst on stage and drag them into a police van where they would all be savagely beaten. They had less than three minutes to say what they needed to say because the plug would be pulled any moment. All great punk bands played as though the cops were about to beat them and for a few of them, this dynamic was literalised.

Kids who could never have seen The Ramones still wear the shirt. A recent rather wonderful gimmick is to write off to a printers who will put your name and the name of three friends around the Ramones seal of office. Everyone can be a Ramone. There is no one so dumb, so worthless and so inarticulate that the Ramone identity does not beckon. There is no sentiment so dumb that it doesn’t deserve between two and three minutes expression. Except of course that this vision of communality and democracy is undercut by the fact that only four very very talented and exceptional people could really articulate it. That’s the Smart-Dumb genius of The Ramones – they occupied a liminal space between individualism and collectivism – they were only ever themselves but they were almost anyone.

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One Comment
  1. Liminal? I would describe them as limbic.

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