The Ramones were loud and fast - Everyone knows that, even the poor, blind saps who never loved the band. But the Ramones were many things, and gloriously so, from the moment of their inception in Forest Hills, New York, in 1974, until their final concert, #2,263, in Los Angeles on August 6, 1996.
They were prolific - releasing 21 studio and live albums between 1976 and 1996 - and professional, typically cutting all of the basic tracks for one of those studio LPs in a matter of days. They were stubborn, a marvel of bulldog determination and cast-iron pride in a business greased by negotiation and compromise. And they were fun, rock n' roll's most reliable Great Night Out for nearly a quarter of a century. Which seems like a weird thing to say about about a bunch of guys for whom a show, in 1974 or '75, could be six songs in a quarter of an hour.
The Ramones were also first: the first band of the mid-'70's New York punk rock uprising to get a major-label contract and put an album out; the first to rock the nation on the road and teach the British how noise annoys; the first new American group of the decade to kick the smug, yellow-bellied shit out of a '60s superstar aristrocracy running on cocaine-and-caviar autopilot.
Above all, the Ramones were pop: stone believers in the Top 40 7-inch-vinyl songwriting aesthetic; a nonstop hit-singles machine with everything going for it - hammer-and-sizzle guitars and hallelujah choruses played at runaway-Beatles-velocity - except actual hits. According to an August 1975 article in England's Melody Maker about the crude, new music crashing through the doors of a former country-and-bluegrass bar in lower Manhattan named CBGB, the local press was already hailing the Ramones as - get this - "potentially the greatest singles band since the Velvet Underground." A peculiar compliment since the Velvets' own few 45s were all crushing radio bombs.
But there was one thing you could never, ever say about the Ramones: that they were dumb. In their time, in their brilliantly specialized way, the Ramones - the founding four of Johnny (guitar), Joey (voice), Tommy (drums), and Dee Dee (bass); along with Marky, who spent 15 years and 11 albums behind the drums beginning with "Road To Ruin" and who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the original four; - later followed by CJ, who stepped out of the Marine Corps and into Dee Dee's king-sized sneakers in 1989; and Richie, who kept the beat while Marky was on hiatus between '83 and '87 - were the sharpest band on the planet. Fully evolved as musicians and songwriters. Confident in their power and the importance of what they had.
The atomic-mono impact of Johnny's Mosrite guitar; Joey's commanding, sour-Queens vocal delivery; the unity of wardrobe and identity; right down to the original, collective songwriting credits and the mutually assumed surname - they were the result of a very simple philosophy. As Tommy puts it: "Eliminate the unneccesary and focus on the substance." That is precicesly what the group did on every record it ever made, on every stage it ever played.
The Ramones' place in rock 'n' roll history was already assured by 1978 with their first three albums: Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket To Russia, all made in the span of 18 months, between February 1976 and the fall of '77. When it was time to make records, Tommy says, "our art was complete." The art was the combined product four strangely aligned personalities - all living within shouting distance of each other in the conservative, middleclass enclave of Forest Hills, where their mutual needs as fledgling musicians and bored delinquents far the mess of differences and civil wars that could never quite bust them apart. Once a Ramone, always a Ramone.
Ramones - released April 23, 1976; mixed in its entirety in one, continuous ten-hour session, with discreet separation of Johnny's guitar and Dee Dee's bass in each speaker, a nod to the retro-stereo sound of early Beatles LPs. Joey: "I wrote 'Beat On The Brat' about the spoiled brats in Queens. That chord change at the top of the song comes directly from bubblegum songs - 'Chewy Chewy,''Yummy Yummy Yummy' - all those good songs, those fun songs . . . we really liked the Bay City Rollers. Their song 'Saturday Night' had a great chant in it, so we wanted a song with a chant in it: 'Hey! Ho! Let's go!' ''Blitzkrieg Bop' was our 'Saturday Night.'" Johnny: "We couldn't write about love or cars, so we sang about this stuff, like glue sniffing. We thought it was funny. We thought we could get away with anything."
Leave Home - released January 10, 1977; recorded six months after Ramones and coproduced by Tommy with Tony Bongiovi. A New Jersey native who had been working in the relative serenity of a studio in Quebec, engineer Ed Stasium arrived for his first day's work on Leave Home without having previously heard a note of Ramones music. "I walked in, turned up the faders," he says, "and thought, What is this?" Stasium: "It was all live. We set up the boys, baffled them off a bit for isolation, put headphones on them, and away we went."
Joey: "'Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment' we all pretty much wrote together in Arturo's loft. There was another loft where we rehearsed; we used to let Tommy live there. I remember it had fruit flies. Horrible things. "Me and Dee Dee wrote 'Glad To See You Go.' We were sharing this loft, and he gave me these words. He and his girlfriend went out to cop dope or something, and when he came back I had the music. I was playing it on my two-string guitar - I made it sound like a 12-string. It's safe to say that Dee Dee and I were fans of each other's songwriting and really inspired each other in the early days."
Rocket To Russia - released November 1977; Johnny's favorite Ramones album because "it's got the most classic Ramones hits." Tommy: "When we did Rocket To Russia, we were on a roll, in high gear, touring and everything. At that point, we thought we were gonna make it, that we were on the launching pad." Joey: "'Sheena Is A Punk Rocker' first came out as a single. I played it for [Sire Records president] Seymour Stein. He flipped out and said, 'We gotta record that song now.' It was like back in the '50s; you'd rush into the studio because you thought you had a hit, then put it right out." Tommy: "'Rockaway Beach' was a fantastic song that never got released in the summer, so it was never a hit. That was a Dee Dee thing; he would go down to Rockaway Beach. None of us were real beachgoers except for him." Ed Stasium: "If there is a greatest Ramones song that I recorded, it's 'Teenage Lobotomy.' It's a mini-Ramones symphony. It has every element of what's great about them, in one song: The big drum intro and the 'Lobotomy' chant; the little background harmony oooohs; the subject matter." And, Stasium adds, the dizzying succession of time and key changes in Johnny's acutely chiseled chord progressions, perfectly synchronized to Dee Dee and Tommy's forced-march tempo.
Rocket To Russia was supposed to be the stratosphere shot, the third-time-lucky payoff for four years of rough labor and hot pop. "Each album has its personality," Tommy says, "and with Rocket To Russia, it was the feeling of release. Freedom. The sense of exhilaration." But when the album did not perform to commercial expectations, when the singles ("Sheena," "Rockaway Beach," a cover of Bobby Freeman's "Do You Want To Dance") didn't bust loose on radio, clouds began to gather. "The album that followed," notes Tommy, "has more anger and frustration." Right there in the title: Road To Ruin.
Tommy's decision to stop playing drums and concentrate on production was the first crack in the dream. The songs amplifying that stress-the physical and emotional toll exacted by nonstop gigging; the first, subtle pressures from above to get radio-friendly-were not long in coming: "I Just Want To Have Something To Do," "I Wanna Be Sedated."
"I Wanna Be Sedated" was the result of an especially gruesome road nightmare, when a makeshift humidifier exploded in Joey's face before showtime at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. He was rushed to a New York burn center - only after finishing the show. "That song was about being on the road too long," he said. "Getting burned like that, bits and pieces from different situations, like being on tour in England at Christmas, when everything shuts down: 'There's nothing to do, nowhere to go/I wanna be sedated.' People didn't use terms like sedated then. This was before Prozac."
"I think Road To Ruin has everything," says Brooklyn-born Marky Ramone, who came to the Ramones at Dee Dee's, then Johnny's, invitation via the assaultive, white avant-soul of Richard Hell's Voidoids and played in the group for 15 years. "It has numbing songs. It has the melodic songs. Road To Ruin had everything that, at that point in time, made it sound like not just another Ramones album."
"People liked Road To Ruin," Stasium insists. "I was talking to Slash of Guns N' Roses once, and he was like, 'Dude, that's the best record ever. I learned how to play guitar by listening to Road To Ruin.'" That kind of praise was too late in coming. On November 26, 1978, according to Stasium's original tape box, the Ramones went back to their preferred method of recording, cutting two songs in a single day for their first feature-film appearance, in Allan Arkush's teenage-revolt comedy, Rock 'N' Roll High School. (The title song was written by Joey as a take-off on '60s beach-party flicks, then reset in high school at Arkush's request.) But the perception that the Ramones were capable of making hit records, but not on their own, had taken hold. Tommy was passed over as producer for the next album-for Phil Spector.
End Of The Century was not the Ultimate Pop Record Spector truly wanted for the Ramones, even though, according to Stasium, he mixed it three times. It wasn't even classic Spector. On his greatest records, you could hear Spector living in the song, building the recording from the inside out. His stamp on End Of The Century was evident only in the cosmetics, not the conception. He loved the idea and sound of the Ramones, but he never connected with the people inside the songs. An awkward nobility pokes through some of the tumult. Fattened with low-end saxes, carnival organ, and what sounds like 30 drum kits, "Do You Remember Rock 'N' Roll Radio?" is one of the few songs enriched-not undone-by Spector's touch.
The Ramones survived the Spector experiment, but at a price. Management and record companies continued to press celebrity producers on the group. Personal tensions between Johnny and Joey, complicated by Dee Dee's state of mind and body, and Marky's new-boy status, threatened their one-for-all vibe. "The turmoil," Johnny says dryly, "was starting." But it was not enough to make them give up. Pleasant Dreams - produced by 10cc's Graham Gouldman, brought in as a paragon of Britpop efficiency after Spector's Wagnerian overspill - was not the low point its cheap, bland cover art suggested. Joey's twisted gripe, "The KKK Took My Baby Away," became a hit in all but name, a stalwart of future Ramones shows with a hammering rhythm in the intro, poached, with love, off "He's A Whore" from Cheap Trick's 1977 debut album.
A return to '70s distortion-torpedo form, Dee Dee and Johnny's "Psycho Therapy" was a high point of Subterranean Jungle, an album marred by the fact that Marky didn't finish it. A ringer was brought in for the last track to be recorded; the drum seat then went, for three years, to Richie Reinhardt, aka Richie Beau, of the New York band The Velveteens. (Marky was back, at Johnny's invitation, in 1987, after a messy exit by Richie and a twoshow stint by Blondie's Clem Burke.) No record of the Ramones' troubled second era was as aptly titled as 1984's Too Tough To Die, produced with sympathy and spark by Tommy Ramone (as T. Erdelyi) and Ed Stasium. Dee Dee and Johnny stepped up to the challenge of Hardcore America-indie-sector warriors such as Black Flag, Husker Du, and the Minutemen - by reminding them who was there first.
In July 1989 Johnny got a call from the band's management office: "Dee Dee's leaving." "Dee Dee's leaving was just another obstacle," said Joey. "It was always this way, always something thrown at us. You just gotta press on."
Yet, Johnny admits, "a lot of the best stuff on those last records was written by Dee Dee." He cites "Garden Of Serenity" and "I Wanna Live" on Halfway To Sanity, and "I Believe In Miracles"on Brain Drain. The titles of many of Dee Dee's final songs for the Ramones reflect his ping-ponging mind-set. He struggled, in his final days as a Ramone and in the seven years he continued to write for them as a satellite-Brian Wilson figure, to clean up his body and straighten out his life. And he never stopped trying to squeeze that torture and triumph onto record - with all of the apparent parallels to the Ramones' ongoing story.
Soon after Dee Dee's departure, a new bassist was found, Long Island-born Christpher Joseph Ward, otherwise known as C.J. With C.J., the band made seven more albums, including three concert souvenirs (Loco Live, Greatest Hits Live, and We're Outta Here) and the "covers" misfire, Acid Eaters. The Ramones' refusal to just dry up and go away meant they were around at the turn of the '90s to see their legacy flourish, and not just read about it from armchairs in the Old Punkers Home.
Joey did not live to see the Ramones inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He died of lymphatic cancer on Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001.
Dee Dee made it to the induction ceremony in April 2002 - with Johnny, Tommy, and Marky - but died just two months later, on June 5, at his home in Los Angeles.
Johnny lost his own battle with cancer on September 15, 2004.
"I always dwell on the fact that we could have been better," Johnny conceded. "But I feel the Ramones were the most influential American rock band. And that's pretty good. I'm sure a lot of other people think something different, but let them name the bands. You have The Doors and The Beach Boys, great bands. But name the other bands that came out of being influenced by them."
"The Ramones were, and are, a great fuckin' band," Joey declared, with all the pride he deserved. "In spite of our differences. When we went out there to play, the power was intense, like going to see The Who in the '60s-that intensity and excitement." "It was great being a Ramone for 15 years," says Marky. " The Ramones were one of the most unique bands of all time. Long live the Ramones!" One other thing, from Johnny: "Everyone says their fans are the best. Ours really were. Our fans didn't like anything-but us."
-David Fricke, New York City
This essay is adapted from the liner notes to Hey Ho Let's Go!: Ramones