How the Ramones Led a Punk-Rock Revolution … in Spain
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some movements need no translation.
As the band unfurled its black-and-white eagle banner and took the stage on Sept. 26, 1980, the crowd let loose a roar. While the Ramones were used to their cultlike following, and plenty of screaming fans, this noise was on another level.
By 1980, many already considered punk to be a fading fad. But no one had told this audience, who applauded the arrival of Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee like it was the dawn of the punk rock revolution. That’s because for the 13,000 Spaniards crammed into Madrid’s bullring, the revolution had just begun.
By then, the Ramones had released five albums and 13 singles but hadn’t notched a gold record or Top 40 hit. The group’s stateside itinerary that summer included gigs at crumbling East Coast boardwalk theaters and the Six Flags Great Adventure park in New Jersey. America’s first and greatest punk heroes had peaked at home. But in Spain, a country still reeling from the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco — who died in 1975 — the Ramones were gods.
My friends and I bought the tickets the very first day the box office opened.
“Everybody who supported them in the beginning — Blondie, Talking Heads — became more famous than them. I never understood that. It did not make sense,” says Joaquín Rodríguez, a member of Los Nikis, a band dubbed by fans as “Los Ramones de Algete,” or the Ramones of Algete, a small town outside of Madrid.
At Rodríguez’s school, around his neighborhood and across Madrid, people spoke of the New York band with a reverence usually reserved for the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. So when the Ramones — aka Los Ramones, with the “e” pronounced — arrived in Spain for the first time, they had no trouble filling the city’s huge Plaza de Toros de Vista Alegre.
“They were the most important band to Spaniards by 1980,” says Jesús Ordovás, a leading radio DJ of the era who attended the show. Even today’s music execs agree. “The Ramones were already a myth for all of us,” says Charlie Sanchez, head of Warner Music in Spain and Portugal. “My friends and I bought the tickets the very first day the box office opened.”
At 7 p.m. on Sept. 26, the doors opened, and the kids poured into the stadium and onto the albero, the hard-packed crushed rock covering the ring. Writing for leading Spanish paper El País, journalist José Manuel Costa described the scene in religious terms. “The gates open with the same emotion that the Holy Door of Santiago does,” he wrote, referencing the pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.
Expecting trouble, the police brought reinforcements, and a helicopter circled the square as armed troops took up posts in front of the stage. After all, the band was about to perform “the most aggressive rock in the world,” wrote Costa.
Early in the set, singer Joey Ramone shouted how happy he was to see all the young madrileño (hoodlums) and joked about the shortcomings of his Spanish record company: The band wasn’t thrilled with the ramshackle stage and poor sound system. But the crowd didn’t care; they saw only glory and heard only brilliant, unbridled fury. They fed on it and, for a few songs, the show threatened to get out of hand.
At one point, Sanchez recalls, “security guards jumped from the backstage to the sand and started to beat each and every one of the people who were beside the stage.”
In the crowd that day were the young singer Alaska and musician Nacho Canut, who battled to bump up against their idols onstage. Veterans of seminal Spanish band Kaka de Luxe, Alaska and Canut went on to become icons in their own right (they still play to thousands). But back then, they were just another pair of hysterical kids.
“We heard that Nacho tried to jump the barriers, and the police broke his hand,” Rodríguez says. “Nacho and Alaska were just so fanatical, but we all were.”
Security ejected Alaska, Canut and a handful of other punks. But riot cops didn’t storm the place, and the bullring wasn’t laid to waste. The Ramones played their full set, plus two encores. Instead of ending in chaos or with mass arrests, the night helped give birth to a generation of Spanish rock bands.
One of the most popular songs of the era became 1982’s “Los Ramones,” by Los Pistones (yes, the name is an obvious nod). It contains the refrain, “Y yo jamás te hubiera conocido si no llega a ser por los Ramones” (“And I would never have known you if it was not for the Ramones”).
The concert helped pry open the floodgates to foreign rock ’n’ roll. What had been a mostly overlooked market attracted punk legends the Clash (who debuted Madrid in 1981), alternative-rock heroes the Smiths (1985) and thousands of international acts, from Depeche Mode to Nick Cave, who played seminal club Rock-Ola.
While it was a mere continuation of what they’d been doing for the Ramones, it was an awakening for Spanish fans. “The concert wasn’t the beginning or ending of anything, but it was proof for all of us that we were right,” says the 53-year-old Rodríguez. “When I discovered the Ramones, I was just 16 or 17. For me, it was a big discovery, so the concert made me feel I was doing something right. I was going in the right direction.”