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Entry Level: Don Anderson on ‘Ramones Mania’

Don at Museum

I think it was sometime in 1986 when I first heard Yngwie Malmsteen. A foreign exchange student from Japan named Yoshi stayed with my family and added Malmsteen and Loudness to my growing collection of hard rock and heavy metal records and cassettes by bands like AC/DC, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Twisted Sister and Motely Crue. The album was Trilogy and not only was Yngwie playing harmonic minor scales a million miles an hour, but the cover showed him taking down a dragon with his guitar!

At 8 years old I knew right there and then I wanted to be Yngwie. And so I immediately decided to learn how to play guitar like him. Fortunately, Yoshi let me borrow his electric guitar while he returned to Japan for a short visit. It was determined that he would retrieve it when he came back, but for whatever reason he was unable to return. Maybe it was fate, but it was his bad luck that got me my first real electric guitar. I bought all the Malmsteen albums: Rising Force, Marching Out, Odyssey, and a VHS copy of Live in Leningrad. I bought the tab books and learned the licks as best I could. In an interview Yngwie said he practiced 4-6 hours a day. So, when I got out of 5th grade I went home and did the same—I even timed myself with a timer to make sure I clocked in a solid four hours a day at least. Yngwie listened to Bach; so I did too. Paganini? I went to the local library and checked out the records. I sat in my room for hours practicing scales, arpeggios, two-finger tapping, and sweep picking all against the tyranny of a metronome I gradually sped up over time.

Once I wore out my Yngwie cassettes I discovered Steve Vai and began to obsessively listen to Passion and Warfare. Then I blindly bought every Shrapnel Records guitar hero album I could—players like Richie Kotzen, Michael Lee Ferkins, Vinnie Moore, Jason Becker and Tony MacAlpine, not to mention bands like Racer X and Cacophony. I bought Satriani’s Flying in a Blue Dream and Surfing with the Alien. I even learned most of “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson. Basically, I only listened to shredders. The only reason I bought a Testament record was because Alex Skolnick could shred. I honestly didn’t even like thrash at the time.

The weirdest part of this whole period was the uncanny feeling I had that Yngwie was always watching over me. You gotta understand; I was between 8-11 years old. Some kids believe there’s a monster in their closet. I just thought that through some kind of guitar-god telepathy Yngwie would be making sure I practiced enough. Whatever music I was listening to I’d also imagine him peering over my shoulder and asking “Is this really music? Is this technical enough?” I’m not kidding. When I finally got into Metallica I could feel myself debating imaginary-Yngwie: “But, they have guitar harmonies and Kirk is an OK guitarist!” I felt guilty if something was too simple, or a band didn’t have an accomplished axe wielder. Talk about a monkey on your shoulder. Imagine Yngwie judging everything you listened to!

But, this column isn’t about Yngwie–not the one I imagined scolding my still-developing tastes in music, or the other imagined one slaying a dragon.

It’s about the fucking Ramones and how they helped me get my head out of my ass.

old me

Don as a young axe-slinger.

Around 1992 a friend and band member at the time turned me on to the Ramones. His name was James Fisher and we’re still in touch today. In fact, he came to see Agalloch the last time we played Seattle. James was not a shredder. He was self-taught and had a background in punk. He was the opposite of me with my guitar lessons and Shrapnel albums. He showed me the compilation called Ramones Mania. And that’s the album I want to focus on here. There are three reasons: one, it’s honestly the album of theirs I listened to the most; two, it has all the best songs on it that I love to this day; and three, it’s a major gateway album for me as a musician, songwriter, guitar player and more importantly a person.

I learned a ton of Ramones songs and James and I often covered them as a band. I focused on my down strokes and tried to play as fast as Johnny in the same way I tried to play as fast as Yngwie. All the lyrics revolving around paranoia, shock treatment and feeling confused were significant to me. Around 1993 during my early teenage years I began to experience panic attacks. I missed a fair amount of school and saw a therapist to get over them. I simply didn’t feel comfortable leaving the house. I would break out in a sweat and my throat would tighten if I did. The tongue-in-cheek references to psychotherapy, drugs and anxiety helped me through this period. It’s no exaggeration for me to say the Ramones helped me more than my therapist. The humor in the lyrics conveyed the very real feelings of anxiety I was having. I began to see these feelings as something silly that I could overcome and finally did.

People who insist the Ramones never musically evolved or that they wrote the same songs with the same three chords, have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Listen to “Blitzkrieg Bop”, then “I Wanna Be Sedated”, followed by “I Wanna Live”, “Howling at the Moon” and then “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”. Finally, go listen to “Poison Heart” and read the lyrics and if you aren’t emotionally moved by Dee Dee’s lyrics then you seriously need to develop some god-damn empathy before you turn into a sociopath and vote for Trump. There are clear moves made towards melody and mood that weren’t present on the early records.

The Ramones were complex; but their kind of complexity doesn’t register with people who think Yngwie is the greatest guitar player in the world—for example, people like me.

But, I changed. Radically. This album was the gateway to me learning the most basic of all artistic facts: sometimes less is more and simple doesn’t equal bad. If you can write an amazing song in two minutes with three chords, that song is as meaningful as anything by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I know this for a fact because I’ll listen to “Karn Evil 9” and seamlessly shuffle right to “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”. It’s all awesome.

With the Ramones on my side I told my imaginary Yngwie to fuck off. Well, not totally. I still practice and I’ll do a sweep here and there, but the way I think about music, the placement of the guitar or guitar solo in a song, has everything to do with Johnny Ramone. And I haven’t replaced imaginary Yngwie with imaginary Johnny—it’s not like Johnny is looking over me whenever I do a guitar solo saying “you’re showing off, get your head out of your ass.” But, there was a powerful balance struck in my musical education when I heard them. Luckily, I never became a pretentious dick in my music theory classes in college like some students who would dismiss any song with a standard I-IV-V pattern. And if you listen back to the albums I’ve done with Agalloch and Sculptured, not every song has a guitar solo.

I like to think the Ramones changed me and made me a better musician and person. I could have been an insufferable, miserable, egomaniacal lead guitarist twat always wanting to show off at every opportunity had I not listened to and watched the Ramones play.

When I first made contact with Agalloch bassist Jason Walton in 1996 or early 1997, he wasn’t yet in Agalloch. In fact, during that time I was a guest lead guitarist on the Agalloch demo From Which of this Oak. I had Sculptured as my main band and Jason moved from Minnesota to join Sculptured; not Agalloch. He loved the technical death metal style of Sculptured and we both admired bands like Atheist, Cynic and Death. He turned me on to Mr. Bungle’s Disco Volante—a super dense and complex record.

I remember the day he told me on the phone that he loved the Ramones. I couldn’t believe it! He didn’t know at the time that I was a huge fan as well. We both felt vindicated in our shared love for the band and the fact that even if we admired progressive and technical music, our desert island record collection would be mostly Ramones records.

Jason and I recently visited the Ramones exhibit at the Queens Museum in Queens, NYC. We sat transfixed at a screen projecting an early Ramones show. The energy, intensity, and image of the three guys in front–Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee–was phenomenal. The nonstop machine that was Tommy Ramone behind the drum kit was unrelenting. They’re the perfect band. Sound wise, image wise, and most importantly music wise, they were the best.

In some weird way, watching that video in the museum helped us come to terms with the Agalloch breakup. Despite the sad reality that Agalloch had proven to be vulnerable to many of the rock clichés that break bands apart, there was comfort in knowing that this band—the Ramones—existed once. Their legacy is transcendent and Jason and I felt humbled before it all in that museum. It was like a punk rock church. Whatever disappointments we had that Agalloch had split were swept away and we even felt oddly forgiven by those denim and leather clad visionaries on the screen. They were untouchable and inarguably, and sadly, angelic now.

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