If you’re a big streetwear head then you’ll no doubt have heard about or watched the online series, PAQ. Billed as the “Top Gear for Hypebeasts”, PAQ is a Youtube channel covering men’s fashion and streetwear, presented by stylish British twenty somethings Shaq, Danny, Elias and Dexter. In each 15-minute-ish episode, they undertake a challenge and test out the latest hyped trends, such as playing sports in expensive sportswear, scouring charity shops to find a whole outfit in two hours with a £50 budget – or working with Levi’s to customise a fire festival fit, which I was lucky enough to judge last year.

A few weeks back PAQ’s parent company, Kyra hit me up and asked me to take part once again on one of the shows upcoming challenges on ‘70s subcultures. Instead of judging, I was called in to assist on Danny’s ‘hustle’ and help share some knowledge on his chosen subculture, Punk. Now I know what you’re probably thinking – punk is an blatantly obvious choice for the 70s theme. And what’s more we wanted to explore the Ramones, the first-wave innovators of this delinquent style. Cliché, right? But while the Ramones iconic style, rather more of a regimented uniform of razor-thin rocker jeans, mid-riff baring tees and rugged leather jackets may be decidedly dated and banal by today’s standard, there is a deeper and more subversive narrative behind their influential style.

To paint the picture of the Ramones teenage outcast style I needed to get a few of my facts straight on the 4-piece band. While I have read and researched the groups musical career over the years and had many a in-depth conversation with like-minded friends on their style, there is actually little written in mass media on the intricacies of their stylistic origins. 

Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to have a close friend who specializes in such specific subcultural knowledge. Andrew Luecke, professional writer and co-author of Cool: Style, Sound, and Subversion is a self-confessed subcultural nerd. He’s spent most of his career in the fashion industry applying his acute knowledge to his positions as trend forecaster, and as the former digital style editor at Esquire. In 2017 he released Cool with co-author Greg Foley on Rizzoli, a tome that’s equal parts history chronicle and handbook on the myriad of subcultures – most unknown to mainstream culture – that have influenced style. Luecke and Foley’s comprehensive list of subcultures that span over more than one hundred years, take a look at the fashion, the art, the films, the music and historical context of these style movements, many of which came to influence conventional culture and eventually became a norm. Cue Punk.

Illustration of punk style by Greg Foley in Cool: Style, Sound and Subversion

In the punk section of Cool, Luecke details The Ramones of Forest Hill, Queens, as “the first true punk band, writing energetic two-minute songs that combined garage fury with girl-group pop, all presented in a costume of leather biker jackets, tight Levi’s, Keds, and bowl cuts inspired by the male hustlers who plied their trade on New York streets in search of a fix.”

While the Ramones punk origins may have started in New York in the mid ‘70s, Luecke affirms that you have to start in 1953 with the release of the motorcycle movie The Wild One, staring Marlon Brando. “That movie, which was really showcasing early outlaw biker style, had a huge influence on teenagers and rock and rollers”, explains Luecke.

Marlon Brando as badboy biker Johnny Strabler in the 1953 classic, The Wild One

One of the most iconic images of the outlaw to grace the silver screen, The Wild One features badboy biker Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) wearing his signature Levi’s 501 jeans and Schott Perfecto leather jacket emblazoned with the ‘cut’ of his characters bike gang, the ‘Black Rebels Motorcycle Club’. The film premiered to no shortage of controversy, even being banned in Britain for the better part of two decades; but the iconic images of biker culture that characterised the film endured long after the initial shock wore off.

Satyrs Motorcycle club 1954, the world’s first gay MC based in LA.

Brando’s rebel style in The Wild One didn’t just rub off on post-war US and European teens looking to imitate the badboy attitude; it also had a huge influence on gay culture. He became an icon of rebellious teens, but also a sexual icon for gay culture, partly because of the bad boy, criminal attitude and the idea of the “rough trade” and its attendant dangerous sexuality, which many gay men were attracted too. Luecke explains that this is film influenced multiple interconnected but ultimately separate subcultures, including bikers, both gay and straight, rocker-inspired juvenile delinquents and gay leathermen. “Before The Ramones, rockers like Gene Vincent and even The Beatles adopted leather jackets, partly inspired by The Wild One. So The Ramones were referencing this juvenile delinquent rock and roll look with their leather jackets, a decidedly “straight”, street-tough look with homoerotic connotations that would appeal to gay men. That’s where the gay-for-pay hustler thing comes in,” affirms Luecke.

The Beatles perform live at the Cavern Club Liverpool, 1961

Any Ramones fans familiar with the track “53rd and 3rd” will know the homoerotic connotations in the lyrics, written by Dee Dee Ramone, which refers to what was then a well-known chicken-hawking spot for male prostitution in New York City, known as “the Loop”. The area was a centre of gay nightlife decades before the West Village became prominent, and was home to well-known hustler bars, most notably Cowboys, Rounds and Red, from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Tom of Finland drawings of punks in leather and mohawk from 1971

In the song, Dee Dee’s lyrics referenced the wavering feelings of a “straight” teenage hustler who confuses being purchased with being attractive and also confuses violence with masculinity. Legend has it that Dee Dee himself, bassist and primary songwriter of the Ramones, worked as a hustler in order to pay for his heroin habit. In the film “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,: other members of the band seem to insinuate that the story is indeed true. At the end of the song the protagonist of “53rd and 3rd,” who bemoans the fact that he’s “the one the never pick,” is finally chosen by a customer but produces a razor blade to do “what God forbade.” He is chased by the police, but is pleased that he has “proved that [he’s] no sissy.”

A Times Square sex shop in the 1970s when it was a center for pornography and prostitutes plied their trade out in the open

In Cool, Luecke details that prior to the ‘70s, punk was slang for hoodlum – often with homosexual undertones that hinted at gay prostitution and passive prison homosexuality. It’s can also refer to a “young punk,” a youthful upstart whose ego might be bigger than their abilities. Both define punk as the lowest of the low. Music critics like Lester Bangs first used punk to describe ‘60s garage rock bands, but John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil, the creators of the 1975 publication Punk magazine were playing off those derogative connotations when they named their mag. This helped cement punk’s meaning, documenting the downtown bands like the Ramones, Blondie, the Dead Boys and the culture coalescing around Bowery club CBGB. And interestingly, the term “new wave” was invented by Sire records because they were trying to explain the difference between the Ramones and the Talking Heads. So the Talking Heads were “new wave” and the Ramones were “punk”.

Joey Ramone on the cover of the third issue, April 1976

So was Dee Dee’s style of mid-riff bearing tees and vintage leather jackets jailbait for his tricks or just a matter of NYC downtown delinquency? Luecke believes it’s both. “Part of The Ramones schtick was to play dumb about how much they were in on their own references, in on their own jokes. They’re obviously smarter than they pretend to be. They’re not total teenage rock heads, you know. And it’s the same with the male hustler references. The Ramones have been coy about their exact intent here, but in a sense they’re playing both sides. The leather jackets are what a young teen “punk” would wear, and a young teen punk is likely to be a male hustler, since they’re the ones who need money for drugs. And a good hustler would also know that a “tough” looking leather jacket would appeal to certain gay men because it connotes delinquency and bad boy appeal. So it’s all intermixed and impossible to totally parse. But with Dee Dee’s history as an actual male prostitute, the connection is still clear.”

Outside CBGB, Danny Fields, Arturo Vega, Joey Ramone, David Johansen & Friends enjoy a break from the crowded interior of the club. (1977)

It’s fair to say that the Ramones weren’t necessarily part of gay culture. They were first and foremost street culture. Dee Dee was hustling for a fix, not to be cool. But Luecke’s goes on to say “that the whole punk attitude rubs up against Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground too, and they were very much a part of gay culture. So it skirts all those things.”

Nico, Andy Warhol, and Velvet Underground (1967)

Its also important to note that heavy psychedelic bands like The Stooges and rough glam bands like the New York Dolls deeply influenced punk with their Chuck Berry licks, unconventional style, and transgressive attitudes. Luecke explains that the Ramones were heavy into glam before they helped create punk. “Joey was even in a glam band called Sniper. So if you look at glam, you have Johnny Thunders from the New York Dolls, a direct NYC influence on the Ramones, wearing leather jackets. You have glam and hard rock artists like Suzi Quattro wearing leathers too.”

New York Dolls with frontman Johnny Thunders pictured in a leather jacket
Suzi Quartro poses in her leather biker jacket for her single ‘Stumblin’ In’ (1978)

And, as far as the rest of the Ramones style goes like ripped jeans? Luecke thinks they were the first. “I believe the Ramones were the first to make ripped jeans a thing.” And he’s right. If you think back to the typical denim style of the mid-‘70s, think John Travolta in Grease, distressed jeans for sure wasn’t the aesthetic of his T-Bird crew, even among ruffians. Luecke points out “it was part of the Ramones thing though, sort of to say we’re lower than low and this is us, take it or leave it.” So its safe to say that the Ramones really pioneered that distressed attitude with their iconic 505s ripped at the knee and the pro Keds sneakers that were beaten and dirtied.

Ramones pictured in thier iconic uniform of Schott Perfecto leather jacket, razor-sharp Levi’s 505 jeans and pro keds

Johnny, the Ramone’s lead guitarist, was really strict about the leathers, the 505s, the Keds, and the bowl cuts, being the uniform and he heavily enforced the look. Tommy, Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee even went as far as adopting the faux Ramone surname and their style ultimately became the uniform for countercultural youth on both sides of the pond. The Dolls and the Ramones both toured in London pretty early and Luecke believes stylistically a lot of the bands in London picked up a lot of the musical chops from both those bands. “Sid Vicious specifically took his leather jacket look from The Ramones, who played London a ton of times in the mid 70s before the Pistols came out. And he became the “template” for punk.”

Sid Vicious wearing leather jacket with pin embellishments (1978)

So while London may have been ground zero for punk, the look and the loud, manic sounds of the Ramones are ironically all-American. The band’s logo featured the Presidential Seal with an eagle clinching an apple branch and baseball bat in the place of the typical olive branch and arrows. And with “Ramones” emblazoned in imposing red block letters against a black background, the image infused just the right amount of edge into a traditional American symbol. This is exactly what the Ramones stood for: wholesomeness with a little more than a hint of aggression, all un-neatly packaged in torn jeans and too-tight t-shirts.

Ramones perform with their signature artwork, an adaption of the Presidential Seal

You could make the case that Richard Hell started the torn t-shirt and pinned look. Its like where a few fashion designers were credited with inventing the miniskirt, and they’re all probably right because they probably did it at the same time, which makes it thin in the air. In a 2013 interview with GQ, the Style Guy, Glenn O’Brien explains that the earliest safety pin thing that he saw was a picture of Andy Warhol with a bunch of safety pins pinned onto his turtlenek like a brooch. But he denotes that it was Richard Hell with the ripped shirts and the “Please Kill Me” shirt, which was very much like what was happening in London at basically the same time. You have to also reference all of the fashion that was happening around London shops like SEX, Malcom McClaran’s and Vivienne Westwood’s shop, and BOY London where there was also a lot of wild stuff that was also referencing S&M and leather culture.

Richard Hell in his infamous ‘Please Kill Me’ t-shirt

Whether the Ramones were the first to wear their own band tees is not certain. You only have to look to Marc Bolan of T-Rex wore famously wore his own shirts and then of course Motorhead did the same, as did Iron Maiden and others. “I’m not sure the Ramones were first. But I do know that The Ramones were one of the first bands to make most of their money off T-shirts” says Luecke. Arturo Vega, the Ramones’ graphic designer was instrumental in creating the iconic graphics for the bands entire career and he was really close with the band. “He created that Presidential Seal logo for them, so their own T-shirts were important to them,” says Luecke. “I mean, going back to T-Rex and even The Ramones, the early and mid-’70s is the start of band shirts. They didn’t really exist in a meaningful way before then. I’m not sure when wearing your own band’s shirt became taboo, but it might have been during the late ’80s and early ’90s, indie/college rock/grunge thing, when it was uncool to be into yourself and cocky” explains Luecke.

To read more on Punk and the Ramones style make sure to pick up a copy of Andrew Luecke and Greg Foley’s book Cool: Style, Sound and Subversion from your local book store or online.