Five years to the day after half a million rain-soaked hippies grooved and swayed to the psychedelic sounds of the Grateful Dead at Woodstock, four young men from Forest Hills, Queens, took to the stage of an East Village dive bar in jeans, motorcycle jackets and Converse high-tops to launch a two-minute sonic attack on everything those 60s icons stood for. The date was August 16, 1974, the bar was CBGB’s and the band was the Ramones, giving their debut public performance. The rapidly shouted words with which they opened that show and launched the punk-rock revolution were, as they would always be, “One! Two! Three! Four!”
One eyewitness to the scene was music journalist Legs McNeil, the future co-founder of Punk magazine. “They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song…and it was just this wall of noise,” McNeil later recalled. “These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.” The guys responsible for this new sound were Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, Thomas Erdelyi and Jeffrey Hyman, better known to the world as Dee Dee, Johnny, Tommy and Joey Ramone. The Ramones’ sound didn’t even have an agreed-upon name until McNeil’s magazine codified the term “punk rock” in 1975. But the group’s members knew right from the beginning that they were out to provide a bracing antidote to the tamed and bloated corporate rock and roll of the mid-1970s. “Eliminate the unnecessary and focus on the substance,” was the way Tommy Ramone expressed the group’s philosophy many years later.
Following their now-historic debut performance on this day in 1974, the Ramones quickly became a force on the burgeoning underground rock scene centered in the downtown Manhattan clubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. With the release of their self-titled debut album in 1976, the Ramones may have failed to score a true hit, but they managed to inspire a whole new movement across the Atlantic, as groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash rushed to embrace their loud, fast and unstudied approach. When they toured England in 1976, Joey Ramone would later say, “All these kids came over to us and told us how we were responsible for turning them on, to go out and form their own bands.” As the Ramone’s manager at the time, Danny Fields, put it when assessing the impact of punk’s founding fathers, an entire generation of future punks looked at the Ramones and said, “Look at them. They can’t play. They’re terrible! They don’t know more than three notes….Let’s start a band!’