Rock and Roll Book Club: Music Matters series takes on Beach Boys, Ramones


The first two books in the 'Music Matters' series.
The first two books in the 'Music Matters' series. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Do the Beach Boys matter? Do the Ramones matter? Do you have to be convinced?

The new "Music Matters" series, from the University of Texas Press, has a premise that's like literary clickbait for musicheads. A title like Why the Ramones Matter presumes, for starters, that there's some room for debate regarding the subject. If you're a punk fan, you'll bristle at the implied challenge.

On the other hand, if you aren't convinced, the title promises to inform you with a minimum of assumptions. Yeah, why do the Beach Boys matter?

Like the earlier (unrelated) title Why Bob Dylan Matters, the first two books in the series are likely to be of less use to novices than to veteran fans. Both Tom Smucker's Why the Beach Boys Matter and Donna Gaines's Why the Ramones Matter assume a basic level of knowledge regarding the bands' music and biographies. Both just jump right into it, musing on the artists' significance.

If you're a fan of either band, you'll lap this up: both authors are longtime fans of their subjects, and in Gaines's case, even a friend. They've both given a lot of thought to why these artists matter, and despite the books' compact size, both authors pack a lot of content into their titles.

Smucker's book is technically the first in the series, and his approach is to systematically unpack all the different dimensions of the band's music and mystique. Chapters examine topics like the group's relationship to the California dream, their familial relationships, and, within the book's broader question, whether Mike Love matters.

Pet Sounds, of course, looms large as the band's one completed masterwork — and, Smucker argues, the defining point of inflection between early '60s pop rock and late '60s album rock. He also rhapsodizes about Smile, updating the conventional wisdom around "the best unreleased pop album ever" to reflect the fact that it's now been completed in two different versions. (One was a Brian Wilson solo effort, one used the Beach Boys' original 1967 recordings.)

While Smucker doesn't go so far as to argue that it's just as well Wilson spun out on the sessions, he describes Smile as having become something larger than itself in its multi-decade arc: a potent symbol of lost promise, and a central point of obsession in the current Beach Boys narrative that puts Brian Wilson squarely at the center. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, in being struck down Smile became more powerful than you can ever imagine.

In her Ramones book, Gaines would seem to have a simpler case to make. The Ramones are one of the defining punk bands, their minimalist drive stripping rock of all its proggy pretensions. Three chords on Johnny's rhythm guitar, Dee Dee's bass thrumming the tonic notes. Loud, fast, and if there must be a guitar solo, just make it one repeated note.

Gaines's first chapter could stand alone as an essay running through the essentials of the Ramones' impact. They democratized rock by embodying a DIY aesthetic; their furiously cool aesthetic gave license to rockers of all creeds and colors, ultimately becoming foundational to the entire alternative and independent scene. They made New York the iconic heart of rock and roll...but in removing that heart from Memphis, something was lost. The rest of Gaines's book grapples with that, in various ways.

The Ramones were white guys. Their fans were largely white guys; as Gaines notes, wives and girlfriends regularly joined their touring entourage in part because so few women came to their shows, they couldn't have had (heterosexual) groupies if they'd wanted to. Even more problematically, Johnny and Dee Dee had a weird thing for...well, as Gaines puts it, half of the band was Jewish, half was obsessed with Nazis.

The band's relationship to Nazi and fascist ideas and imagery was part subversive, part ironic, part sincere. Johnny was a scary guy, and genuinely a political conservative who loved Reagan. Life wasn't always comfortable for his Jewish bandmates, and certainly the Ramones were never reliable progressive champions like the Clash or as focused in their blows against the empire as the Sex Pistols. When your ideal is for a song to have three words, well, things can get ambiguous.

Gaines has spent hours hanging out with the various band members, and her book will help you parse out their personalities if they've always seemed monolithic. In fact, they were anything but.

Together, the two titles are a promising introduction to a series that can last as long as there are artists to obsess over. That's a long time. On tap next, according to the publisher: Paul and Linda McCartney; Patti Smith; Rage Against the Machine; Solange; Lhasa de Sela; and Karen Carpenter.

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