“This was July 4, 1976, the two hundredth anniversary of America’s bloody battle to free itself from English rule. It was Independence Day for us, not them. Little did we know that together we were founding a new revolution — a musical one. We weren’t aware that we were about to launch an entire cultural movement. No one was.” — Mickey Leigh, I Slept With Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir
This is how Joey Ramone’s younger brother (and then–stage manager) described the Ramones’ first show in England. As the legend goes, every one of the 3,000 audience members that Sunday night at London’s Roundhouse went on to start a band, and it jump-started the careers of the Clash and the Sex Pistols. While the details might be slightly off or possibly even exaggerated, the true importance of the Ramones’ two English gigs cannot be overstated, nor can the beauty of taking one of the quintessential American bands and flying them across the pond on that historic date. As the band’s co-manager Danny Fields says in Leigh’s book: “On the two-hundredth anniversary of our freedom, we were bringing Great Britain a gift that was forever going to disrupt their sensibilities.”
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Thousands of miles away, in New York City, through the endless haze of chintzy Bicentennial products, red-white-and-blue everything, and the fierce, sudden patriotism that our much-publicized 200th birthday dredged up, Legs McNeil didn’t share the excitement for his friends in the Ramones. As he recounts in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, which he co-wrote with Gillian McCain: “I sat on Arturo [Vega]’s stoop on Second Street and waited for Joey Ramone to come home from England. Before he went, I said, ‘What do you have to go to England for? Don’t go to England. England sucks.’ ”
With the release of their classic self-titled debut a few months earlier, in April, the Ramones had (unknowingly) created a template for punk rock: short, loud bursts of power chords, with song topics ranging from Nazis and sniffing glue to male prostitution, as well as catchy sing-alongs inspired by the girl-groups of the ’60s. After Ramones, anyone — regardless of musical proficiency — could write a song about anything at any length. It was one of the most important milestones in music.
Unfortunately, very few people in the city at the time actually took notice of what the Ramones were doing in those dingy New York clubs, in particular CBGB. As cartoonist and author John Holmstrom described, “Everybody in New York was known as being too cool for school, so they’d barely even applaud. Most of the audiences in New York were other musicians and rock critics. And rock critics never applaud. It was kind of depressing, really, to see shows in New York. You’d see this great show by the Ramones and it’d be, like, crickets when they went off.”
“The Ramones couldn’t get a gig outside of New York City,” McNeil explains. “And whenever they played somewhere like New Jersey or Connecticut, there was only, like, 20 people. It was really kind of sad and awful.”
To combat this apathy (and in the hopes of hanging out with their favorite band, the Dictators), Holmstrom, along with publisher Ged Dunn and McNeil as their “resident punk,” created Punk magazine, the now-legendary independent voice of the scene. Equally inspired by the world of underground comics and the exhausting/exhilarating critical rants of Lester Bangs, Punk would document the history-making events of the day through a lens of irreverent teenage fandom. It would also help set the stage for the Ramones’ Roundhouse gig by spreading the word. “I always tell people, ‘Of course the scene in England was bigger, because they had three newspapers devoted to music coming out every week,’ ” Holmstrom recalls. “So every band in England would get more coverage than a band in America. The amount of press you got back then really mattered.” This was certainly the case for the Ramones, after a cover story in issue no. 3 of Punk quickly created a stir in Britain. “The thing about England is Rough Trade was distributing Punk all over the place, so there were more copies of Punk in England than New York.”
With the excitement building over the New York foursome, their co-manager Linda Stein — wife of Seymour Stein, the president of the band’s label, Sire Records — saw the possible opportunities in booking them across the Atlantic, capitalizing on the country’s own burgeoning underground rock scene. Two shows were soon set for London: the Roundhouse and a headlining gig at Dingwalls, on July 4 and 5, respectively.
While his friends were creating a musical legacy, back in NYC, McNeil was having a far less historic experience. “There was a lot going on that weekend, but no one invited us anywhere, so we didn’t have anywhere to go. No one’s gonna invite the staff of Punk magazine to their Fourth of July picnic,” he says, laughing. “And I don’t blame them. It would have been a disaster. I think we went to look at the tall ships, but we were so drunk.”
As 16 vessels from around the world descended on New York’s harbor for the Parade of Ships, so did families hoping to witness the spectacle. Around the country, giant fireworks displays and Bob Hope–hosted television specials filled the airwaves. Children of all ages and races waved tiny American flags at parades all across America. The Bicentennial celebration was a chance for a country still reeling from Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and an economic recession to join together and heal their wounds through patriotism and a new stars-and-stripes paint job. For the members of the punk scene in New York, including Holmstrom, it didn’t work. “We were not anti-American or anything, but there was so much hype about the event,” he says. “I guess it was our equivalent to the [Queen’s Silver] Jubilee in England they had the next year.”
It was this disillusionment with their environment that caused many young people to seek a new outlet of expression, which is how the punk rock movement began in the first place. “It’s funny that punk happened simultaneously in America, England, and Australia,” McNeil notes, citing distaste over the folk rock and easy listening taking over the radio. “I just think everybody was completely tired of the crap they were playing. It was just awful. In the ’70s, it was guys with beards playing long guitar solos. It was just crap.”
Instead of spending his weekend watching all-day coverage of parades or old ships, Holmstrom went to see his beloved Dictators on Saturday night at Club 82, a spot famous for its drag shows. “Handsome Dick” and the rest of the band even showed their American spirit with a warped take on “America the Beautiful.” On Sunday, Holmstrom went to see an on-their-last-legs New York Dolls at Max’s Kansas City, featuring ex–David Bowie band member Mick Ronson on lead guitar — another rock legend switching coasts for the weekend. (Frontman David Johansen’s banter on a rare bootleg recording of the show features his own strange nationalist pride: “As George Washington said as he crossed the Delaware, ‘Don’t you dare touch me!’ “)
After a long night of drinking, McNeil awoke that Sunday Bicentennial morning to a heated argument happening at the Punk headquarters between Holmstrom and a female friend, which sent Legs back to Vega’s stoop to wait for the Ramones. “I think I was really hungover. I just sat on the front stoop and smoked cigarettes, and kinda waited for Joey to come home. There was kinda nothing else to do. He was my best friend.