40 years ago in St. Paul, the Ramones opened for… Foreigner?

The Ramones: They do not want to know what love is

The Ramones: They do not want to know what love is Michael Reiter

I was 16 in 1978 and Foreigner was at the top of the charts. “Hot Blooded” was in heavy rotation, "Do you do more than dance…?" was our mantra.

Foreigner was one of just many pretty, party, pop-rock bands of the ’70s—Styx, Journey, Boston, Kansas, BOC, REO, BTO, I could list ’em all day—that helped blue collar suburban kids feel that life wasn't so bad working at Burger King, saving up for a cheap used car and to move out of the house after high school. I was ready to leave my small town for the Apple of Decay. It was my destiny, it's what I needed to do. They were telling me, I'm telling you.

My buddy Rick picked me up in his Gran Torino one Saturday night in November and we got to the St. Paul Civic Center early, with more than enough time to buy a black "I was at the Foreigner concert" T-shirt in the parking lot to show off Monday at school. We found our seats. The lights went down. And that's when my music world fell off its axis.

Four disheveled figures started playing a noise that could hardly be called music. The Ramones looked like four high school dropouts playing music for the second time. They were the antithesis of Foreigner. Unseemly vs. pretty. Garage vs. studio. Pissed-off vs. happy. I soon gave up any hope that they would ever play a power-rock love ballad.

After the cacophony started, a small but passionate group rushed the stage. They were jumping up and down with fists in the air, pushing from side to side. Were they as upset by this noise as I was? No, they seemed to be both angry and smiling at the same time.

It was around their fourth or fifth song when my buddy leans over and screams into my ear, "Can you make out any words?” I yelled back that it sounded like "Gabba gabba hey!” And right on cue, Joey Ramone picks up and waves a huge banner that reads, "Gabba gabba hey!”

We laughed, but it was all too much for the rest of the audience. All around people started screaming obscenities and within a few minutes the majority of the 17,000 in attendance had booed the Queens punks off the stage. I heard later that the Ramones also opened for Blue Oyster Cult and Molly Hatchet, and I assume they encountered the same reaction.

The lights came up and normalcy returned. I watched as the Ramones fans slinked out, and they looked at me just as curiously. How could I have never seen them or heard their music before? And they didn't just go back to their seats—they left the arena. How can you leave when you paid $7.50 and Foreigner hasn't played yet? How will you fill your eyes with that Double Vision?

Foreigner came on and were very good—"Cold as Ice" was a highlight. Lots of colorful lights and coordinated moves like a good concert is supposed to have. They played until they ran out of songs. After the concert my ears were still ringing and I was hoarse from singing along. I smelled like a mixture of sweat, beer, and pot. It was great.

But I couldn't stop thinking about the warm-up band and its fans. And in the long run, it was the Ramones who affected me more. They planted the seed. I jumped the chasm from party rocker to underground music. First came the Cars, Talking Heads, Blondie, and Elvis Costello. Then came the Clash, the Cure, the Pretenders, X. Now I was the one mumbling, "no one understands me.”

I’ve heard—or maybe I’d just like to believe—that in the mosh pit watching the Ramones that night were future members of bands that would put Minneapolis punk on the map in the ’80s. If so, I hope they’ve forgiven the booing Foreigner fans. It took that side-by-side comparison to feel the difference between staged emotions and raw emotion.

Sure I still turn up the radio when I hear one of the old ’70s arena rock songs now and again, but when my friends get together to jam in the basement, we play "Blitzkrieg Bop,” not "I Want to Know What Love is,” and it's because I took a left at the fork of the music road after that concert.

Or maybe it’s just because the Ramones song only has three chords.