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The Clash lights up Boston, circa 1979. All photography by Bob Gruen
In the mid 1970s, the sounds of anger and energy collided in what came to be called “punk rock.” Punk—and its genre-spanning reverberations—changed music, and the world.
And that’s because punk is energy. Punk is anger. It’s the sound of fury, the energy of the disaffected. It was a reflection of hard times, boring places, and frustrated ambitions. The music, the look, and the attitude of the punk movement that took place in the US and UK in the “Me Decade” had a huge impact on music and culture across the globe. The primary vehicle of punk expression was music. Loud, fast, three chords. Punk was the antithesis of the hippie music that preceded it. At least it started that way, but almost as soon it began to change, grow, and expand.
To play music, you need gear. Duh, right? So let’s examine the gear used by the three primary exponents of punk music in its first days—the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash—to see how they used it to wake up a generation.
The Ramones : Volume as a Weapon
In punk, volume is both a weapon of aggression and a tool of protection. You can command a lot of attention with 120 decibels of sonic fury. You can also make people think twice before taking a shot at you with a beer bottle or a glob of spit.
“Big tools for a big job,” is how Pete Townshend of the Who described his gear. The job was to get ideas across to people—teach them and wake them up. The tools were big amps and electric guitars. The Who’s music spoke of disaffection and dissatisfaction, and it sounded dangerous, loud, and nasty. Many would argue that the Who, four angry young men from Shepherd’s Bush, London, were the original punks. They certainly created the blueprint for punk gear. Early on, the Who struggled to get acceptable sound and volume from cheap, underpowered gear. Both Townshend and bassist John Entwistle were admirers of Fender amplifiers. By the mid ’60s they were working with British music shop owner Jim Marshall, who was building clones of the Fender Bassman circuit for the British market. Townshend and Entwistle, who had determined that their brand of aggressive music required more volume than either the current Fender or the Marshall lines could supply, requested a 100-watt amp from Marshall. The unit he delivered, the Marshall 1959 SLP100, satisfied their requirements for power, volume, and durability and became one of the classic rock amps of all time.
The Who were at the forefront of a new sound in rock and roll: distortion. The sound of tubes and speakers being pushed beyond their limits—something that, in previous generations, had been avoided at all costs— became the sound of a generation. And the defining guitar tone of the last 40 years. The tones, the overtones, and the harmonics of that saturated sound changed guitar and the way people heard it. What was once a major no-no became exactly what people wanted.
Slumming on the Subway: (left to right) Dee Dee, Joey, Tommy, and Johnny Ramone in NYC, circa 1975. Note Johnny’s gig/shopping bag.
Like the Who, the Ramones initially struggled with underpowered gear and cheap guitars. And like Townshend & Co., the Ramones got new amps. Gone were the small combos they had struggled with. In their place were two of the all-time giants: Marshall and Ampeg.
“We play so loud that the amps couldn’t take it,” bassist Dee Dee Ramone explained in 1976 in the documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. “But now we got these amps that they…they, they’re really, they, they…work. And we can really push them. We could blow this place apart if we wanted to.”
Guitarist Johnny Ramone was a wild fan of the Who, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls. Having witnessed these bands in their heyday, he had seen first-hand the power waiting to be unleashed from a quartet of glowing bottles like a hell-bent genie trapped in a really lame lamp. So when money was finally available, Johnny purchased not one but three Marshall 1959 Mark II Super Lead heads and six Marshall 1960B 4x12 straight cabinets. For his part, bassist Dee Dee purchased three Ampeg SVT 300-watt bass heads and three matching 8x10 cabinets. Johnny and Dee Dee would stay with Marshalls and Ampegs, respectively, throughout their careers with the Ramones. Further, both played said amps at full volume. Johnny’s tone was referred to as similar to a buzzsaw.
Night after night of full-tilt operation pushed the Ramones’ amps to the limits. Monte A. Melnick, Ramones tour manager and author of On the Road with the Ramones, recalled recently, “I would have all the amps serviced before all the tours by a professional service company. They would test the tubes and change the ones they determined bad. We did carry spare Marshall tubes, and I believe they were EL84s. We had spare Marshall and Ampeg heads and cabinets with us on tour just in case we had problems. The amps and cabinets for the Marshalls and Ampegs were right out of the box with no alterations.”
Johnny relied on a Mosrite Ventures II model guitar. He often said that he went to 48th Street in Manhattan—music row—looking for the cheapest guitar he could find. This is true, but he was also looking for something that would separate him visually from the soft-rock players of the day. Made only in 1965, the Ventures II model was the company’s entry-level Mosrite guitar, and it had a basswood slab body, a thin and fast neck, plastic trim and knobs, and single-coil pickups. Johnny went through a number of Mosrites over the years, but from 1977 until the band’s last show in 1996 he played a white model with a stop tailpiece and a DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker in the bridge position. For a brief period in the early 1980s, Johnny had a deal with Hamer and was seen in an advertisement playing a double-cutaway model with dual humbuckers, and he was spotted playing a Rickenbacker 450 on the TV variety show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.
Dee Dee played white Fender Precision basses with maple necks and black pickguards for nearly his entire career. Because of his rough playing style, he went through two or three basses per tour (the band routinely played 250 nights per year). In a mid-1980s interview, he described how he and his roadie would caulk the controls and cavities to keep out the sweat. Melnick disagrees: “Dee Dee never put caulk on his bass. I don’t think he knew what caulk was.”
The standard onstage guitar setup for the Ramones, from the beginning in small clubs to the end on major festival stages, consisted of three Marshall heads running five 4x12 cabinets—three stage-right, behind Johnny, and two stage left behind Dee Dee. During Dee Dee’s tenure (1974 to 1989), the classic Ramones bass rig was two Ampeg SVT heads running two Ampeg 8x10 cabs, one on either side of the drum riser. This gear enabled the Ramones to create the prototypical punk sound: rough, raw, brutal. Joe Strummer of the Clash said once about a Ramones show, “They only played for 30 minutes…because you just couldn’t take that 31st minute.”
The Sex Pistols: Debauching Fender, Gibson and Everybody Else
What happens when you turn a Fender Twin Reverb up to 10? Is it possible there was a time when having ’40s pinup decals on a guitar was considered lewd? Could rock ’n’ roll ever be so provocative as to elicit death threats from elected officials? These are serious questions when they relate to the brief, momentous tenure of the Sex Pistols—perhaps the most notorious, infamous punk band of all time. Starting even lower on the socio-economic scale than the Ramones, and making the Clash look like a bunch of rich kids, the Sex Pistols began as an anarchistic daydream of their manager, Malcolm McClaren—a London shopkeeper and raconteur looking for fame, money, and freedom. He had been exposed to the nascent New York punk scene in the last days of the New York Dolls and the early days of the Ramones. In fact, he managed the Dolls for a short period. Failing to collect monetary compensation for his duties, he took payment in the form of Doll’s guitarist Syl Sylvain’s white Les Paul custom, which he took with him when he flew back to London in 1975.
In the hands of one Steve Jones, of Shepherd’s Bush, London, that Les Paul would become the basis of the Sex Pistols sound. In the process, it also became a template for punk sound and a classic rock ’n’ roll look.
The Sex Pistols set out from the very beginning to be revolutionary, to upset the status quo, to be outrageous and to tear down the pretensions that had poisoned rock. Their 1977 album debut, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, coincided with the 25th-anniversary jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, a time of extreme nationalism in Great Britain. It was also a time of great economic and social unrest. So rather than join in celebrating the Queen, the Pistols—especially frontman Johnny Rotten— chose to illuminate the problems of the country. Starting with, of course, the Queen. Their two greatest songs, “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.,” were anthems of all-out rebellion, tongue-in-cheek broadsides railing against the hallowed institutions of a fast-decaying former power.
Power-Chord Powwow: (left to right) Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook watches as bassist Sid Vicious plays Steve Jones’ Les Paul and vocalist Johnny Rotten has a cup of something.
Steve Jones possessed the two greatest attributes of a punk guitarist: limited training combined with a massive will to play. Merely three months after officially taking up guitar, he played the first Sex Pistols gig. With no time to learn, Jones developed a style based on the power-chord stylings of his two heroes—Mick Ronson and Faces-era Ron Wood. The Pistols played their first gig in September 1975, with Jones wielding the Les Paul Custom, which sported ’40s pinup decals that were considered risqué anywhere outside a mechanic’s garage calendar.
In addition to his white Custom, Jones relied on one other crucial piece of gear: a silverface Fender Twin Reverb. Jones plugged straight into the Twin for the duration of the Pistols short first chapter, and all the way until their 1996 return. The only variation in the setup was the occasional use of an MXR Flanger on “Anarchy in the UK.” Jones’ tone was all about overdrive and crunch, and the only way to achieve that using a Twin Reverb and no pedals is to turn the amp all the way up—a loud, loud proposition. Like the classic Marshalls, a Fender Twin is a 100-watt amp. Its compact size often fools people into thinking it’s a club amp when, in reality, a Fender Twin can play a large-sized hall. At full volume, the four 6L6 tubes in a Twin rattle walls and windows with a thick overdrive. For larger gigs, Jones sometimes added another Twin, a 2x12 Music Man, or a Super Reverb—all turned up to 10.
Bloody Good Show: Sid Vicious spatters his Fender Precision with nastiness, circa 1978.
Vicious, perhaps the ultimate non-playing punk musician, picked up the bass only days before his first gig with the Pistols. He never achieved what we would call proficiency on the instrument, but he gained icon status through his look, his attitude, and his flameout lifestyle of drugs and violence. Joining the group during the recording session for their one and only album, Vicious used a rig similar to his idol, Dee Dee Ramone: a white Fender Precision bass and Ampeg SVT (although, possibly at Jones behest, Vicious was limited to a single 4x12 cab).
The sound of the Sex Pistols influenced not only future punks, but rockers and metal players as well. Guns N’ Roses based much of their sound and persona on the Pistols. And bands from Motörhead to Pearl Jam, Rancid, Blink-182, and a zillion others cite them as a major influence despite the fact that the Pistols flamed out in 1978. When they reunited in the late ’90s, they had better gear than the early days, but the sound and the fury was exactly the same.