The Ramones as Haydn

September 27th, 2004  |  Tags:

As a young undergraduate, I listened mainly to late Romantic, fin-de-siècle, and twentieth-century orchestral music. I had a generally provincial attitude toward earlier music: it was good only insofar as it foreshadowed or anticipated Mahler, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Shostakovich, &c. I gave late-period Beethoven a pass because of the overwhelmingly clear line of succession to Brahms; early-period Beethoven got a (partial) pass because one could at least argue that those works were composed by the same person as were those of the late-period Beethoven.

I got older and a little smarter, and found myself listening to and appreciating a wider variety of music. This wasn’t merely because I made the obvious Sorites argument that I could listen to, say, Stamitz, because there was a chain of the “foreshadowed-by” relation leading to some acceptably over-the-top Romantic composer. Rather, I found myself appreciating earlier (and later) music as a thing in itself.

Haydn was the first beneficiary of this shift. Haydn ceased to be merely a curiosity, a stop on the force-march to the unsubtle excesses of the Romantics, and I had an important realization: I recognized that I enjoyed Haydn’s work not in spite of its humor, economy of motive, scale, and material, and general lack of preoccupation with Love, Death, and The Artist, but because of these factors. I still enjoyed (and still do enjoy) works of Romantic composers, but I made time to listen to (and laugh with) Haydn string quartets.

The recent death of Johnny Ramone prompted a deluge of articles in both the “old” and “new” media. Most of the new-media accounts were intensely personal and evocative of the best kind of teenage-foolishness nostalgia. I hadn’t really listened to the Ramones since I was in high school, but I was inspired to revisit some of their songs, as well as reëxamine how I regarded the way that the Ramones fit in to popular music.

As a kid, I regarded the Ramones as being of primarily phylogenetic interest. They had been groundbreakers, and had cleared a path for the sort of angry, noisy, fast punk rock that I really enjoyed. However, they fell short of my youthful aesthetic ideals in almost every way, and were thus deemed unworthy of close investigation.

The Ramones lacked the “musical sophistication” of the punky reggae that bands like Bad Brains played, and they fell far short of the “lyrical sophistication” of the ideological rant songs penned by straight-edge and political complaint bands. (Of course, my criteria for “sophistication” have drastically shifted.) They were unsuitably well-known; most people had heard of the Ramones, and they had appeared in a movie that one could rent from Blockbuster. Clearly, they weren’t “indie” enough. The Ramones also lacked the teenage nihilism of bands like the Dead Kennedys and the all-out loudness and speed of a Minor Threat or an Operation Ivy. I remember looking down my nose at Ramones fanciers: couldn’t you people find something a little more confrontational or at least less simple?

In the years since then, though, the Ramones have pulled a Haydn. The traits that once caused me to scorn them as unsuitable — their systematic avoidance of pretentious pseudointellectualism, their sense of fun, and their compositional economy — had been transvaluated. These aspects of their oeuvre, which I had regarded as evidence of terminal naïveté, had become commendable musical goods.

If given the choice now, I’d certainly rather hear Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee than just about any of the crap I listened to in the personal aesthetic wasteland of high school.

I’m currently listening to Fernando Moreno Torroba: Nocturno from the album “Four Centuries of Spanish Guitar” by Alirio Diaz