Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Hiding In Plain Sight: The Low Sales Of The Ramones

A few months ago, Tommy Ramone passed away. The last surviving member of the original line-up of the Ramones. I could write here about the history of the band, talk about the hey-day of New York Punk, debate whether it started in America or England and go over hundreds of other points that I have far less knowledge than some other people might. Suffice to say that Tommy Ramone was a vital member of the band and without him, rock music would not be what it is today, but I'll leave the biographies and tributes to people who know more about Tommy than me. For example, Jon Wurster of Superchunk and Bob Mould's band wrote a really nice piece about Tommy and the band.

What struck me about the death of Tommy Ramone (Thomas Erdelyi outside of the band) was that he was the last living Ramone who played on the band's first record, 1976's “Ramones”. More shockingly, he was the only member who was alive to see it sell enough copies to be certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The record passed that milestone just a few weeks before his death. It's the only Ramones album, aside from 'best of' compilations, to have sold enough copies to qualify.

To people uninterested in the music industry's, self congratulatory award system, the term “gold record” may mean nothing other than a vague sense that a record has had some sort of commercial success. In terms of cold, hard figures, the RIAA certification for a gold record means that it has sold 500,000 copies in the USA. 500,000. That's half a million. In terms of today's sales, with the commercial music landscape decimated by illegal downloading and subscription streaming, that's a big amount to sell. Whilst albums like Taylor Swift's “1989” which is on course to sell 1.3 million in the USA by the end of it's first week, proves that giant, hit, pop records can still happen, commercial music sales are not what they once were. Any up and coming major label rock band would be pleased with sales of 200,000 these days and a band on an independent label would be happy with a fraction of that. But 1976 was the era of records like “Frampton Comes Alive”. Selling records back then was big business. Peter Frampton's live album was released in January of 1976 and had sold over 1 million copies by April. “Ramones” has taken 38 years to sell half that amount.

The biggest selling album ever in the USA (I'm using examples from America as the RIAA certification only covers sales in the US) is Michael Jackson's album “Thriller” which has sold 29 million copies. The Eagles Greatest Hits (1971-1975) has sold almost as many, whilst “Led Zeppelin IV” has sold 23 million. But these albums are all commercial behemoths from well known acts with big marketing budgets behind them, theres no way the Ramones could compete commercially with these records. So what about bands that are comparable to the Ramones? The Sex Pistols might be a good place to start. Another widely loved punk rock band who released their debut album in the late 1970's on a large independent label that was later swallowed up by a major. “Never Mind The Bollocks” had reached the 500,000 mark in December of 1987, 10 years after it's release and was certified platinum (sales of over 1 million) less than five years later. How about The Clash's eponymous debut album? Twelve years after it's US release in 1979 it had sold the requisite number of copies to receive a shiny, framed LP.  

So what is it about the Ramones that meant they didn't sell albums? They were certainly accessible enough. Compared to the sneering, untrained, “dirtier than thou” sound of the Sex Pistols or the righteous, class struggle war cries of The Clash, the Ramones were a pop band. “Blitzkrieg Bop” for example, is as catchy as early punk gets. The Ramones lyrics weren't about being the antichrist, or bold political statements. They were about life as a young person in New York. Sex and drugs (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, “53rd & 3rd”), girls (“I Don't Wanna Hang Around With You”, “Loudmouth”) and Juvenile delinquency all feature in the album somewhere. It's the very essence of what rock music has always been about. Mix this with a new, faster, dirtier sound and it should have re-written the rulebook. But change is always resisted. Read any account of the early days of punk and you'll find copious stories of bands being laughed at, rejected or worse. Even the Jon Wurster article I mentioned above talks about the Ramones being bottled off stage for being a punk band.

Yet the change did happen. Punk became accepted. The Ramones were on Top Of The Pops here in the UK performing the Phil Spector produced “Baby I Love You”. Johnny Rotten is now doing butter commercials on TV. The Sex Pistols sold a million records. So why haven't the Ramones? It's not as if the impact of their music has faded away. Bands have cited the Ramones as an influence since the late 70's. Hardcore punk bands like Black Flag and Naked Raygun took what the Ramones had started and ran with it. In the 90's Kurt Cobain named the Ramones as an influence in several interviews and members of Green Day, whose pop-punk sound owes a huge debt to the Ramones, named their kids after them. “Blitzkrieg Bop”, the first track on the first side of Ramones, has been featured on countless video game, film and television soundtracks not to mention compilation albums. It's presence is pervasive. It's recognisable around the world. Yet the album that spawned it has sold a fraction of the number of copies that the debut albums of Ace Of Base, Avril Lavigne and Linkin Park have.  

But maybe it's this pervasiveness that has damaged the Ramones sales. Perhaps once people had purchased the movie soundtrack or compilation with “Blitzkrieg Bop” on it, they didn't feel the need to go out and buy the album. Could the same fate have awaited The Sex Pistols if “Anarchy In The UK” had been a bit more radio friendly? The Ramones catalogue doesn't vary much. Especially during the early years at Sire. The songs don't all sound the same by any means but the band has their story and they're sticking to it. So perhaps consumers thought it best to just cherry pick the best songs rather than buy the whole album? What does it say that, “Ramones Mania”, a compilation put together by Sire after the band jumped ship for Chrysalis in 1987, has sold more than any of their full albums?

Maybe it was a question of availability? As with any type of commercial media, a record is usually most popular around the time of it's release. Especially in the era of vinyl when physical copies had to be pressed and distributed to stores, keeping a record that wasn't selling in print and available to buy was a cost that labels and retailers were unwilling to pay. If Ramones records were sitting around on the shelves of record stores, taking up valuable retail space instead of being sold, they'd be sent back. If a record company keeps getting records sent back as unsold, well whats the use in producing more? Up until the end of the 1970's “Ramones” was available in the US. But according to discogs, it wasn't until 1994 that it saw another pressing. It wasn't really until the turn of the century that the album became constantly available outside of the second hand market.

Now though, there is a very large amount of Ramones music out there. Box sets, compilations, live albums and a comprehensive re-issue program by Warner Records can all be found easily in any record store. In fact I would go so far as to say that the Ramones catalogue is a shining example of a major label getting re-issues right. Each of the bands albums for Warner was re-issued with bonus material and extensive liner notes in 2001. It showed, in my opinion, a level of care and appreciation for the band and it's music despite the fact the albums never produced big sales. A luxury not afforded many bands. Perhaps it was the constant availability of these reissues, as well as other versions that have come out on a variety of formats since then, that has pushed sales as high as they are now.  

Arturo Vega's design for the Ramones
Like Black Flag after them, the Ramones became victims of retro fashion long after their dissolution. T-shirts with the band's logo on started appearing in clothing chains in around 2002 and soon the Ramones image had been co-opted by people who knew little about the music. For me a perfect example of this was an appearance by Australian soap-opera-actress-turned-pop-singer Holly Valance on Channel 4's overly frenetic and loud morning show RI:SE. When asked by presenter Ian Lee if she liked the band, whose T-shirt she was sporting, she looked at him blankly and said “No, I just liked the design”. If anything, this moment sums up the Ramones place in mainstream popular culture. Ubiquitous and influential but also unheard. Hiding in plain sight.

It's this vast difference between the band's cultural impact and their sales that just seems so unfair to me, but perhaps I'm missing the point. The Ramones legacy is not about record sales. You can still hear the Ramones influence in rock music today. “Blitzkrieg Bop” has joined the likes of “Smoke On The Water” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the pantheon of classic, easy to learn, opening chords. They helped build a whole new type of music and paved the way for countless other bands. So what if they sold less records than Peter Frampton?

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