The Ramones Classic Debut: Producer Butch Vig Offers a Personal Remembrance
With the 41st anniversary of the Ramones self-titled debut album fast approaching – the LP was recorded in February 1976 – we decided to scour the web for some choice bits about the landmark LP. One article that jumped out at us was a remembrance offered earlier this year by Garbage drummer and Nirvana producer Butch Vig. Speaking with Teamrock for a piece titled “How the Ramones Changed My Life,” Vig says that when he first heard Ramones, he “was floored” by how amazing the band sounded. The musician-producer was living in a frat house on the University of Wisconsin campus when he picked up the LP, on the very day it was released.
“I had a kick-ass sound system – it didn’t sound particularly good, but it was really loud – and I swear to God I listened to that record five times a day,” recalls Vig. “I’d get up in the morning and blast it before I went to class. We’d get back in the afternoon and I’d blast it again. Then we’d go to the clubs and everyone would come back around midnight, we’d play it another three times, and everybody was just bouncing off the walls. We’d sing it at the top of our lungs all the way through, after numerous pints of beer.”
For Vig and others, the Ramones were more than something new. The band harked back to rock and roll’s rebellious beginnings, and served as a vehicle through which that music’s primal energy was again being expressed. It’s worth noting that, in 1976, rock and roll was barely two decades old, and already the music was in danger of becoming flabby – weighted down by disco, soft-rock, and “progressive” bands whose ambitions were a far cry from the likes of Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry. Today, with punk rock thoroughly woven into the fabric of contemporary music, it’s easy to forget just how startling the Ramones’ sound and style was when the band first hit the scene.
“There were all these bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer that would do these extended muso solos,” says Vig. “The Ramones were the exact opposite of that, they were so stripped-down and bare-boned and so fast. It was a breath of fresh air, an adrenaline shot. In some ways I look at it as an analogy to when I produced Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s the same kind of thing, where the music sounded fresh and vital and really shook up the music scene. The difference being that Nirvana sold out about 25 million records …. For all [the Ramones’] credibility, they never got played on the radio and thus never sold many records.”
A quick re-examination of the Ramones’ first record reveals just how thoroughly the LP broke the mold, with regard to the prevailing music styles of the mid ‘70s. Clocking in at under 30 minutes, the album featured 14 tracks, none of which came near the three-minute mark. (The shortest song sported a scorched-earth running time of 1:30.) There were no ballads, no guitar solos, and no variations from the “loud/fast” ethos. Lyrically, the content rarely ran deeper than an ode to a punk girlfriend or a cartoonish command to beat on a brat with a baseball bat.
Recorded in just one week, at a cost of $6400, the record was later praised by Rolling Stone as “perhaps the purest expression of head-first rock velocity in the music’s history.” “I love the whole album, from start to finish,” says Vig. “We have a bunch of Ramones albums back stage at Garbage shows, and two weeks ago I cranked [the debut] up before the show and it sounded amazing. That’s the Ramones: just turn it up, keep going up. Like most albums, it fades from your memory from time to time, but it always comes back. There’s always a point where I get excited about it all over again. One of these days we should try and write a pure Ramones song: eighth-note guitars and two minutes long. And get Shirley [Manson] to shout over the top.”