One aspect of being young and trying to be cool is that you never ask questions or admit that you don’t understand things. You laugh or nod along when people say ‘wank’ or ‘EP’ or ‘The Roxy’ without taking the time to say…
“Sorry I’m not sure that I know what that is exactly – please would you explain it?”
If you reveal your level of ignorance then your mates would be bound to mock or scorn you; this was true for me back in 1978 but probably still now.
As a guitarist, the longer you let this cool-bluff go on, the worse it gets. For years I was unsure about ‘damping the strings’, ‘the nut’, ‘DI-ing’ and so on, but I did carry my guitar case around with a swagger.
And so it goes with the Ramones.
In 1978, I was influenced to start a punk band by British bands like The Buzzcocks, The Desperate Bicycles and The Raincoats. But I wasn’t well up on the pre-history of American punk. My friends talked about The Ramones as if they were the obvious kings of punk, and regularly started conversations with “Johnny……. this” and “Dee Dee … that” – I was just supposed to know that they were talking about The Ramones. At this stage I didn’t read the NME so my disadvantage was considerable.
“Um …. OK?”
I offered – not wishing to show that I knew neither the song nor the band. But of course it was The Ramones and I quickly fell in line with playing the E and A chords but couldn’t quite manage the necessary B-chord.
For many years since then I have known that The Ramones are linked with the words ‘Gabba Gabba Hey’ but until yesterday, I had absolutely no idea what it meant, where the phrase came from, or why The Ramones adopted it. Probably hundreds of slightly-older, more knowing readers will now scoff and think me ignorant… but here goes, just in case you didn’t know.
Gabba Gabba Hey comes from a Ramones song called ‘Pinhead’. Inspiration comes from the 1932 film, ‘Freaks‘ which was thought too horrific at the time and nowadays too politically incorrect and nothing like ‘The Greatest Showman’. ‘Freaks’ included characters from travelling shows of the time: real conjoined twins, ‘the living torso’, the bearded lady, dwarves and a microcephalic or ‘pinhead’ called Schlitzie. A number of stories are intertwined, but the film explains why the ‘normal’ woman trapese artist Cleopatra is eventually mutilated, thus becoming one of the freaks. As classification film codes were not introduced until 1934, this piece with a gruesome ending was received badly by audiences, resulting in many scene-cuts and an alternative happier ending.
The Ramones saw the film ‘Freaks’ apparently at an art house cinema when an outdoor event they were due to play at was cancelled. Their affectionate adoption of Schlitzie as a band icon was the result. Although usually presented in films and circuses as a female, Schlitzie was said to be male and lived for 70 years, performing in Los Angeles even at the age of 67 in 1968.
The phrase Gabba Gabba Hey! comes from the part of the film where the freaks chant “Gooble, gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us!” to initiate the trapese artist, Cleopatra into being one of them. In the song, The Ramones sing “Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us.” – an essential part of becoming a punk freak.
In the 1979 film ‘Rock n Roll High School’, a character wearing a Schlitzie mask appears with a Gabba Gabba Hey sign onstage. And a tradition was created; this act was repeated over many years – usually with a roadie, but sometimes celebrity guests wearing the pinhead mask.
I don’t care if you don’t care about history! It’s just good to know! We accept you – one of us!