PINHEAD EINSTEINS: ONE PUNK’S GUIDE TO THE RAMONES
by Rev. Nørb
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ONE PUNK’S GUIDE TO THE RAMONES
by Rev. Nørb
AGE 12: THE KIDS ARE LOSING THEIR MINDS
Punk rock was a puzzling thing to a twelve-year-old stuck in the Upper Midwest in 1977. The mainstream news media loved to report on its presumed excesses, while the college newspaper record reviewers reveled in it. But there was nowhere one could actually, y’know, hear it. The only snippets of punk rock anyone I knew had ever heard were incidental bits of live music in the background of news show footage. The verdict on the playground, gleaned from these brief exposures was that punk rock was “just a bunch of noise.” I was curious: What does “noise” sound like, exactly? No one could describe this “noise” with any manner of clarity; the best description I could come away with was that punk rock was a bunch of people who couldn’t play their instruments making noise and screaming. It sounded stupid, I guessed.
A mix of curiosity, shock, and alarm hit—the back seat of the family’s Buick LeSabre—when the DJ on WKAU-AM announced they’d be “right back with the new one from the Ramones!” To what manner of degenerate hell were these people intending on exposing us? Weren’t the Bee Gees and Barry Manilow torture enough? The commercials subsided, Tommy Ramone hit the snare drum thrice, and I was suddenly, unexpectedly, brained with the greatest thing I’d ever heard in my life, “Do You Wanna Dance?” by the Ramones. Three chords, full blast, over and over and over again, dropping down to this low chord between choruses and verses, just to let you know it was all gonna come back and bash you in the face again in a couple seconds for the whole manic roller coaster ride to start over again. The Ramones landed right in my nervous system, as if beamed directly into my reptilian forebrain. I had, for reasons no longer clear to me, been looking at my watch during the song, timing it. At the song’s conclusion, I yelled “That song was under two minutes long!” to no one in particular, in utter amazement. A minute-fifty-something! That was completely unheard of. Was that possible? Was it even legal? Ordered, precise, repetitious, and powerful, the Ramones were the absolute LEAST noise-like sound I’d heard in my life, a candy-coated nuclear detonation that melded the sweet bubblegum music of my pre-school years with my newly minted adolescent drives to rampage, fuck, and destroy. It was a fairly eventful 1:52.
Confused that I could not find “Do You Wanna Dance?” in the 45 sections of the local supermarket or department stores—and doubly confused this song was not being played twice an hour on every station on my radio—the Ramones became an elusive unicorn that I could have sworn I’d once spotted. I heard them on the radio. I know they exist. Where are they?
It was like, for one glorious minute and fifty-two glorious seconds, the clouds parted and the pure, unfiltered genius of the Ramones beamed thru, a shot of pure adrenaline to the failing grey heart of our collective existence—then the clouds slammed shut and it was back to “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and “I Write the Songs” for the duration.
One summer’s day finally flush with babysitting cash, I took my bike downtown, summoned up my nerve, and gamely tiptoed into the local head shop. Apart from a love of rock’n’roll, I was about as nerdy as it gets and had no interest whatsoever in bongs, clips, or rolling materials—but they had records in there, thus in I went. After a bit of nervous shopping, I made my selection: In my hands I clutched a shiny new copy of Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever album. I wasn’t that nuts about Ted, but the title track was kind of all right, and I really felt like buying a new album that day, so the Nuge it would be. As I headed towards the counter, some buried prehensile memory suggested I first check to see if the Ramones had any albums there.
And there it was, in all its black, white, and hot pink glory: Rocket to Russia, the album with “Do You Wanna Dance?” on it. In a grainy black-and-white cover photo, the band leaned against a brick wall in leather jackets, ripped jeans, and T-shirts. Sold.
If “Do You Wanna Dance?” blew my mind, Rocket to Russia—the Ramones’ third album—completely re-wired it. First off, it had fourteen songs. This was unheard of, practically unthinkable. Albums in the 1970s had ten songs, tops. Sometimes nine or eight. And songs were supposed to be around four minutes in length, but the longest song here was 2:49! High-contrast, grainy black-and-white photographs in the decade of airbrushes and custom vans, fourteen-song albums when the norm was under ten, two-minute songs when everyone else was playing four-minute songs—the album was confrontationally wrecking seemingly immutable social expectations while it was still in the shrink wrap. Popping the shrink wrap led to even more confounded expectations: The album sleeve was full of hilarious, tongue-in-cheek cartoons—hopping cretins, surfing birds, and clandestine brain surgeries—serving to complement the minimal, often ridiculous lyrics (by my probably-not-quite-accurate-but-likely-close-enough count, Rocket to Russia’s lyrics comprise 334 unique words. For purposes of comparison, The Cat in the Hat uses 225). The complete and utter discombobulation reached its glorious apex when I actually got the record on the turntable: To my amazement, every single song sounded like a variant on “Do You Wanna Dance?”—jackhammer guitars, masterfully precise drums, and minimalistic, catchy lyrics about beaches, punk rockers, and lobotomies. There wasn’t even a second of silence between the end of the first song and the beginning of the second; some guy yelled “1-2-3-4!” and the band immediately careened back into action at the same whiplash pace. The experience of listening to a Ramones album for the first time was not unlike licking the tops of fourteen 9-volt batteries, one after the other. It was musical shock therapy, and I would never be the same.
1966-‘74: FORMING (IN A STRAIGHT LINE)
It would be philosophically convenient to imagine the Ramones springing forth one day in 1976, wholly formed, like Athena from Zeus’s noggin. The Ramones’ roots, however, can actually be traced as far back as 1966 when teenaged guitarist Tommy Erdelyi (née Tamás Erdélyi; 1/2/1949—7/11/2014) and similarly teenaged bass player John Cummings (10/8/1948—9/15/2004) played together in a teen beat combo known as the Tangerine Puppets based out of the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens (a neighborhood which, since 1962, they’d shared with that wall-crawling menace, Spider-Man). Tommy was a devoted musician who came to the U.S. from Budapest, Hungary, at age four; Johnny was a baseball-loving delinquent who’d been the scourge of multiple military schools. As legend has it, the Tangerine Puppets cut their own strings after a gig opening for the Knickerbockers (“Lies”), when Johnny decided his level of musicianship was too woefully primitive to compete with the headliners, and gave up playing music for good… or so he imagined.
Tommy soldiered on in various combos and eventually landed work as a recording engineer at The Record Plant, where he worked on a number of high-profile projects which included Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies album. As the ‘60s turned to the ‘70s and the ‘70s oozed forward, Tommy took note of the ascension of the New York Dolls in the city’s closely knit music scene, and was gifted a revelation of the following tenor: Virtuosity is not only unnecessary to create excitement, it might actually work against it. After Tommy and future Ramones tour manager Monte Melnick had designed and built a recording/rehearsal studio, Performance Studios, on Manhattan’s East 20th Street, Tommy began casting about for a band he could mold into a stripped-down, exciting unit à la the Dolls.
He called his high school pal John repeatedly in hopes of persuading him into playing music again. Despite talking about forming a band for two years running with a guy whom he knew from his construction job, John had no legit interest in ever joining another band—until he was laid off, at which point in time he thought, fuck it, and bought a fifty dollar Mosrite guitar. John’s friend from work, Doug Colvin (9/18/1951—6/5/2002) was raised on an Army base in Germany, lived in the neighborhood, owned a guitar, and had taken to calling himself “Dee Dee Ramone,” after “Paul Ramon,” an alias occasionally utilized by Paul McCartney. Another neighbor, Richie (not the drummer), was enlisted on bass, and the four-piece was rounded out with Jeff Hyman (5/19/1951—4/15/2001) on drums. Hyman was a 6’6” space case who, as “Jeff Starship,” sang with local glam heroes Sniper. When Hyman’s drumming proved too erratic, Richie bailed on bass, and Dee Dee found himself unable to play and sing simultaneously, Hyman moved to vocals, Dee Dee switched to bass, and a parade of drummers were auditioned. After the Rototom-and-gong crowd had unsuccessfully traipsed in and out of Performance Studios, band mastermind Tommy—a lifelong guitarist who’d never played drums in his life—gave it a shot himself. Something clicked. Jeff Starship and John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi and Dee Dee Ramone became Joey Ramone and Johnny Ramone and Tommy Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone. The Ramones were born. GAME ON, MOTHERFUCKER.
1974-‘76: ALL REVVED UP AND READY TO GO
On what must certainly be the second-most notable August 16 in Rock History (behind only 8/16/1977, which heralded Elvis’s shuffling off from this mortal coil), 8/16/1974 saw the band’s debut performance (not counting one poorly received outing as a pre-Tommy three-piece) at CBGB, a Bowery biker dive that had recently begun booking original rock acts, despite its name being an acronym for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues.” As Billy Altman’s liner notes to the RamonesMania album has it, the band “played to a total of five warm bodies—six if you count the owner’s dog.” By all accounts, the most notable thing about vintage ‘74 Ramones was their inability to finish a two-minute song without having to stop in the middle to yell at one another, but, by 1975, the key components of The-Ramones-As-We-Know-Them were in place: The ripped jeans, the leather jackets, the machine-gun delivery, the Moe Howard-like tonsorial affectations. The script flipped on CBGB’s fortunes in mid-’75, when owner Hilly Kristal held a week-long “Summer of Rock” festival of unsigned bands, drawing attention from highbrow sources like Rolling Stone as well as legions of street-level pinheads. As a result, the Ramones started packin’ ‘em in at CBGB, and, after joining up with manager Danny Fields—the guy who got the Stooges and MC5 signed to Elektra—landed a deal with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records. Sire—whose purchase by corporate behemoth Warner Brothers was still years away—was an independent label from New York with a scattering of hits under their belt, and marched the band into Radio City Music Hall’s Plaza Sound studios in early ’76.
Much ado has been made about how the first Ramones album only cost a meager $6,400 to record, and said ado is not entirely unwarranted. We are, after all, talking about an era when Fleetwood Mac spent well over a MILLION dollars to record an album. Breaking down the math, that means Ramones cost sixty-four-hundredths-of-one-percent—0.64%—of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk to record. Put another way, you could record over 156 Ramones albums for the price of one Fleetwood Mac album. PUNK! So let’s flip that figure: When’s the last time your band spent $6,400 on recording an album? Have you ever spent half that much? A third? Most of us wouldn’t even know what the hell to do with a $6,400 recording budget. Adjust those 1976 dollars for inflation, and that sixty-four hundred swells to over $28,000. Spending $6,400 on recording a punk album is a bit of a stretch for most of us; spending $28k and change is utterly inconceivable. That’s what they call a paradigm shift. Before the Ramones, people were agog anyone could spend so little to record an album. After the Ramones, we’re agog they spent so much (granted, I am conveniently ignoring the additional paradigm shift of digital recording technology, but you presumably catch the drift). Be this as it may, the band was in and out of the studio in a week, and Ramones crashed into an unsuspecting planet on April 23, 1976.
Twenty-nine minutes long and adorned with one of the most iconic cover photos known to man, Ramones remains—more so than any other record before or since—the sonic blueprint of punk rock music. Featuring a uniquely odd production whereby the guitar was pushed completely into the left channel and the bass completely to the right, the album’s fourteen songs were engineered and mixed essentially identically to one another—instead of building each song’s sonic landscape from scratch, all fourteen songs got more or less identical treatment. The first song sounds more or less like the last song, which sounds more or less like all the songs in between. This sonic uniformity—for better or for worse—remains a hallmark of punk recording techniques to this day: You get a sound you like, you set the levels, and you go with it. Punk’s musical DNA was written by, and permanently encoded in, these fourteen mutant chromosome pairs, and no single song has encoded and writ more punk DNA than the album’s lead-off track, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” “Blitzkrieg Bop” utilizes four chords and forty-eight words, all but eight of which are monosyllabic (“pulsating” being the statistical outlier at an ungainly three syllables). The more one stares at “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the more its perfection crystallizes, in ways one imagines the song’s creators could not possibly have been conscious of at the time of its creation: Did they know that there is never more than one polysyllabic word per line? Did they know that the running time of 2:12 was also the New York area code? “Blitzkrieg Bop” is the closest to the Platonic ideal of a punk song as an actual punk song can get, essentially defining the craft, the parameters, and the form of the archetype—all in 132 seconds. Its origins are stunningly more banal than all that Plato gibberish I just spouted: “Blitzkrieg Bop” and its beloved “HEY! HO! LET’S GO!” chant were more or less just main author Tommy’s attempt to come up with something similar to the song “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers (a then-popular Scottish boy band), and its million-selling chant of “S! A! T-U-R! D-A-Y! NIGHT!” In some weird way, then, punk rock owes great portions of its existence to the frickin’ Bay City Rollers—not even the Rollers themselves, but an attempt to rip off the Bay City Rollers. Sheesh. Well, any port in a storm, I guess.
Prior to the release of Ramones, the band’s antics were largely confined to the New York area, with a few jaunts to New England tossed in for levity (nothing like a punk band opening up for blues-rocker Johnny Winter in Connecticut to make one appreciate the humble charms of home). Following the album’s release, the band began casting their nets across the length and breadth of the nation and globe. On July 4, 1976—the exact date of the American Bicentennial, which is another one of those things that makes you wonder what kind of mad, celestial genius manipulates these events to such perfection—the Ramones played their first show in London, wowing a rabidly pogoing crowd at the Roundhouse. In what can arguably be deemed the most significant show in the history of punk, current and future members of the Pistols, Clash, Damned, Generation X, and Pretenders are front and center. The fuses are lit. Punk Rock is a GO. Destruction imminent!
To no one’s surprise but their own, “Blitzkrieg Bop” failed to dislodge the Bay City Rollers, et al., from the hearts and minds of the American record-buying public, missing the charts entirely. The comparatively laid-back follow-up single, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” met with an identical fate, while the album stalled at a peak chart position of #111. The love-it-or-hate-it initial salvo of Ramones had, however, garnered an outsized amount of press attention, and, in November 1976, the band returned to the studio to record a follow-up. Entitled Leave Home, the album’s recording budget was bankrolled to the lordly tune of $10,000—a full one percent of the Tusk budget! Produced in the main by Tommy (aided and abetted by Tony Bongiovi, whose cousin, Jon, would wind up doing quite well for himself in the ‘80s wuss-rock scene), Leave Home builds on the norm-trashing primitivism of Ramones, codifying the guitar/bass attack into a bombastic, unstoppable gnawing that made it sound like one’s stereo was being eaten alive by barn-sized rodents. While not as primitive as the debut, Leave Home equals—and likely surpasses—the original in terms of sheer sonic ferocity. In addition to the pummeling, the album’s songs also exhibit a tunefulness that had been a bit more on-again/off-again on the first album. With no hit record to funnel royalties back into the pockets of their ragged Levi’s, the band had spent two years honing and routinely unleashing their live act as a matter of financial self-preservation more than anything else; where Ramones was the sound of wild-eyed defiance, naïve energy, and wishful thinking, Leave Home is the sound of a well-oiled juggernaut hitting an early peak.
1977: THE SUN IS OUT AND I WANT SOME
Leave Home preserved the original album’s lyrical themes of violence, alienation, drugs, and girls, and doubled down on what would become a critical component of Ramonesiana: Mental illness. The lyrics to “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”—lovingly scrawled in Dee Dee’s third-grader penmanship—hang in a glass case in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, whilst “Pinhead”’s “gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us”—adapted from a freak show initiation chant in Tod Browning’s creepy 1932 movie Freaks—became the de facto oath of office for the Ramones’ swelling legions of fans. Dee Dee was a bipolar drug addict, and Joey had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, spending a month in the mental ward of St. Vincent’s Hospital. They knew of what they spake.
On the “girls” side of the spectrum, it would be hard to overstate the importance of “Oh Oh I Love Her So” on the cognitive development of huge swaths of ’90s pop punk. The main contributing factor to this sustained influence is one simple thing: They mentioned Burger King. Forty years later, a line like “I met her at the Burger King / Fell in love by the soda machine” may seem wholly unremarkable to Casual Fan and Rock Scholar alike, but, like much of the ground-breakingness associated with the Ramones, this has to be viewed in the context of its era for full appreciation. Rock bands simply did not mention fast food restaurants in the lyrics of their songs in the 1970s (or, for that matter, the ’60s or ’50s). Once in a while there might be a fast food reference played for laughs—e.g., Larry Groce’s 1976 top ten novelty song “Junk Food Junkie”—but, as far as some normal, everyday place like Burger King being mentioned in a more-or-less serious rock lyrical context? Forget it. KISS didn’t talk about banging groupies at Hardee’s, Aerosmith didn’t sing about going to Walgreens. The Dictators did have a line about “eating at McDonald’s for lunch,” but they were a much more tongue-in-cheek outfit than the Ramones, and it was harder to discern where the band ended and the parody started.
Burger King was a real place, in real life, where people really went, mentioned by name, in a real song. Just as the Ramones’ limited musical abilities and bare bones recording budgets democratized the qualifications for being in a band and the process of making records, so too did “Oh Oh I Love Her So” democratize the range of personal experiences that could be considered songworthy. Not everybody had a 53rd & 3rd, but everybody had a Burger King. Before “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” Little Richard sung about shagging on down by a generic “union hall,” whilst the Shangri-Las met the Leader of the Pack at, simply, “the candy store.” After “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” we had the Undertones singing about “raiding the Spar” (some kinda British convenience store/gas station) for a Mars Bar, Boris The Sprinkler singing “I Don’t Really Wanna Walk to Taco Bell Without You,” the Queers singing about their “Burger King Queen,” and trillions of other examples of specifically named banal venues of everyday life, hoisted to positions of respect (or at least not overt disrespect) that had heretofore been reserved for, say, the lights of Paris or something. It was local color made global, or at least national. The classic formula for the band’s topical gestalt was thus established: naïve boy-girl sentiment + mental illness played for laughs + cartoon violence + Burger King = Ramones. Although the “Swallow My Pride” 45 did graze the lower reaches of the U.K. Top 40, neither it nor the cloyingly simplistic “I Remember You” made the U.S. charts. The album, released in January 1977, stalled at #148. Go figure.
In 1977, punk exploded. In between their 144 tour dates for the year, the band released a non-LP 45 that actually managed to dent the American Hot 100 singles chart: “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” clambered to #81 that summer, also racking up a #22 placement in the U.K. and breaking the Top 20 in Sweden. One of the Ramones’ most iconic and enduring numbers, the song delicately crowbarred its way into the fringes of mainstream radio not only on the strength of its deft melding of punk and bubblegum tropes, but also by virtue of canny adjustments to the band’s sound to increase radio-friendliness: An acoustic guitar is buried in the mix of “Sheena,” apparently blunting the band’s edge just enough for radio.
Encouraged, the band returned to the studio in August with a recording budget in the $25,000-$30,000 range to record Rocket to Russia, the album that would change my life. More so than any other Ramones record, Rocket to Russia—the Ramones’ last truly great album—is an almost perfect blend of the band’s steamrolling energy with catchy, accessible pop elements. The moves seem to pay off, at least relative to previous efforts: Released in November 1977, Rocket to Russia peaked at #49 on the U.S. album chart, and both singles from the album (three if you count “Sheena”) also charted: “Rockaway Beach” became the band’s all-time highest-charting song in the U.S. when it hit #66, and “Do You Wanna Dance?” squeaked in at #86. The Ramones would continue to tour and record for almost nineteen more years. They would never have another single in the Hot 100.
1978: BEGINNING TO FEEL THE STRAIN
A bomb dropped in 1978: Tommy, burned out from constant touring, wanted out. In addition to the physical wear-and-tear inflicted on the band’s original mastermind by the rigors of the road, the Ramones, despite the carefully honed image of unity they presented to the public, were a bunch of fuckheads to be around. Tommy no longer felt inclined to be subjected to further verbal and mental abuse at their hands. This departure opened a fissure in the band’s operating firmament that was never truly repaired: While Johnny had the keenest sense of what the Ramones were, Tommy was the vision holder as to what the Ramones should be. Tommy—who’d had a hand in producing all three of the band’s albums to that point—agreed to stay on in a studio role, but, despite Johnny’s entreaties to the contrary, abdicated his drum position in May 1978, replaced by Marc Bell dba Marky Ramone (b. 7/15/1952) (not dead) (yet), wooed away from his gig with Richard Hell and the Voidoids by the Ramones’ superior cash flow. This changing of the guard began to undermine the band dynamic: Johnny was the businessman and the authoritarian, Joey was the front man who craved pop stardom, and Dee Dee was… well… Dee Dee. As Marky was a hired gun and thus essentially nobody, Johnny—the closest to Tommy in terms of respecting and maintaining the band’s original vision—could now be thwarted by a coalition of Dee Dee (with whom he did not always get along) and Joey (with whom he never got along). Almost imperceptibly at first, things began to slowly slide in an ominous direction.
Wrongly hailed as a classic, the band’s fourth album, Road to Ruin, began to illustrate what was possible—for good or ill—in a post-Tommy context. On the bright side, half of the album’s tracks are stone cold classics: Rarely does punk rock get better than “I’m Against It,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Go Mental” or “Bad Brain.” Further, Punk cartoonist John Holmstrom, whose lowbrow brilliance had been relegated to Rocket to Russia’s back cover and lyric sheet, got the entirety of Road to Ruin’s front cover on which to ply his trade. No longer was a one-size-fits-all approach taken with all the album’s tracks; the songs all exhibited some degree of acoustic differentiation (or as close as the Ramones come to such a thing). It would be hard, if not impossible, to imagine a gem like “I Wanna Be Sedated” stemming from the early albums. On the flip side, this approach yielded numerous duds as well: “Don’t Come Close,” the album’s first single, was slathered with inexplicable country and western flavorings, while “I Wanted Everything”—the Ramones’ first song to break the three-minute mark—meandered on pointlessly. The Dee Dee ballad “Questioningly” manages to be country and western-ish and over three minutes long, but I like that one, so let’s move on.
What really struck me as a shocking betrayal of core principles—at the tender age of fourteen—was the number of tracks the album contained: Twelve. All previous Ramones albums had fourteen songs, seven per side. It seemed in violation of natural universal law that any given Ramones album could deviate from that figure. It’s Alive—a double-live album recorded with Tommy at the tail end of 1977 but released in 1979—followed the formula with twenty-eight songs, seven per side. Why couldn’t Road to Ruin? Almost as hurtful to my teenage psyche was the complete and utter absence of songs under two minutes in length, rendered even more distasteful by the presence of songs over three minutes in length. Did they imagine that the only barrier to widespread airplay and public acclaim was really just a shortage of song length? Road to Ruin was an admittedly intentional attempt to make a commercially successful record. What might have happened had the record company brain trust released the brilliant “I Wanna Be Sedated”—arguably the most commercial song the Ramones would ever emit—as a single in the U.S., as opposed to a pointless country and western flirtation, and then a remake of “Needles and Pins” (#13 for the Searchers in 1964), should be a matter of rampant speculation. As it stands, none of the singles charted, and the album tanked at #103. Karma.
1979-‘80: IT’S THE END, THE END OF THE SEVENTIES
The band’s realization that the Ramones weren’t gonna be the next Bay City Rollers began to sink in right around the time the Sex Pistols U.S. tour captivated the attention of journalists from coast to coast. American rock writers certainly found the Ramones grist for lively discourse, but Yankee mainstream journalists sure as hell didn’t see a story in a mere rock’n’roll band, even if that band wore matching leather jackets on stage. The Ramones found themselves foisted on both ends of punk’s unforgiving petard: Their mere association with the “punk” label was a solid non-starter on commercial radio; their lack of vomit, spikes and spit cost them the attention of the mainstream media. In 1979, the band managed to land roles (as themselves) as the central figures of Roger Corman’s low-budget Rock ‘n’ Roll High School film (the band plays five songs live, and lip-syncs to three others). The movie was produced on a $200,000 budget, $5,000 of which—total—went to the Ramones. A Hollywood star-maker it was not. Desperate now to mine some of that West Coast star-making magic, the band turned to the most unlikeliest of producers to helm their next record: ‘60s icon/relic/nutjob Phil Spector.
The reclusive Spector was one of the more celebrated hitmakers of the 1960s—the ears responsible for chart-toppers like “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and countless others. Spector’s acoustic calling card was the “Wall of Sound”—a densely-packed sonic porridge of reverb and excessive instrumentation. He was also a complete wack-job, which might explain the nineteen-year prison term he’s currently serving for second-degree murder. A decade removed from his prime, Spector thought he could make a super-duper-star out of Joey; Joey, of course, wanted nothing more than to be a super-duper-star, so the Ramones hunkered down in Spector’s legendary Gold Star Studios in East Hollywood to record what would be their fifth album, End of the Century.
Spector, always flanked by two bodyguards, wore a cape, a wig, and two handguns—one of which was brandished in Dee Dee’s general direction at least once. He drank constantly, spent hours watching horror movies, and made Johnny, to his great anguish, play the opening chord to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” for hours on end—eccentricities not at all conducive to the band’s previously established get-in-get-out studio methodology. The album cost $200,000 to make—thirty-one times the cost of Ramones; a fifth of a Tusk. The recordings are rife with Phil’s “Wrecking Crew” session men—the only Ramone present on the remake of the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You” is Joey. The album as a whole seems like a pitched battle between competing walls of sound: Sometimes the Ramones win, sometimes the band is swallowed up by the avalanche of Spector-Muck, and, in spots like “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?,” the warring parties produce a mutually beneficial symbiosis that’s actually kinda cool.
For the first time, the album cover portrays the band devoid of their trademark leather jackets: Johnny votes pro-jacket; Joey and Dee Dee, hoping to nerf their image just enough to lead them to the promised land, vote against. Marky has no vote. Phil Spector’s name appears twice on the back cover, which is twice more than any of the band members’ names. In the end, it hardly matters: Although the string-laden (!) “Baby I Love You” does break the U.K. top ten, none of the album’s singles sniff the charts in America. The $200,000 album does give the band their highest ever chart placement at #44—all of five spots higher than Rocket to Russia. For what it’s worth, my old band recorded a tribute version of the End of the Century album for $450, and it sounded pretty decent, so I’m not sure what they used the other $199,550 for.
Though End of the Century can’t quite be branded a complete fiscal and/or aesthetic failure, it certainly didn’t yield the mainstream breakthrough for which the band had hoped. $200,000 albums with saxophones and string sections but no leather jackets were emblematic of the emerging imbalance in post-Tommy band chemistry, and said chemistry was about to get even worse. Joey had fallen hopelessly, head-over-heels in love with a girl named Linda; as the cold, cruel angel of fate would have it, Linda fell in love with Johnny, eventually marrying him. For all practical purposes, Johnny and Joey would never speak again. The implications of this rift on band chemistry are obvious, but the Ramones were true professionals, able to live on the road together for another fifteen years. The implications on songwriting are a bit more roundabout: Johnny’s contributions to the songwriting were entirely musical—he wrote on his guitar, exclusively playing downstroked chords à la the introduction to Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” and passed them off to someone else to add lyrics. With Joey out of the picture and Marky a non-factor, when Johnny and Dee Dee weren’t speaking to each other—a not-uncommon occurrence, given Johnny’s authoritarian tendencies and Dee Dee’s general lunacy—Johnny would find himself completely frozen out of the songwriting process.
1981-‘83: YOU’RE THE ONE THEY NEVER PICK
So it was with 1981’s Pleasant Dreams: Joey wrote the pop songs, Dee Dee wrote the punk songs, and Johnny wrote nothing. Prior to Pleasant Dreams, song authorship was attributed collectively to the Ramones, as befit their unified identity. With the Happy Family increasingly fracturing, songwriting credits were now attributed to the individual writers—salt in Johnny’s wounds, if nothing else. A change in management from Danny Fields to Gary Kurfirst did little to reverse the band’s trajectory: Joey—and to a lesser extent, Dee Dee—still wanted to chase the elusive breakthrough hit that never came. Johnny figured—not incorrectly—that if it didn’t happen with Phil Spector, it wasn’t gonna happen; the Ramones were fated to make their living touring the world in a fifteen-passenger van and their wisest course of action was to abandon all hope of mainstream success and play to their base.
Graham Gouldman was enlisted to produce the new album; like Phil Spector, he was ‘60s pop royalty, having penned hits for period notables such as the Yardbirds, Hollies, and Herman’s Hermits. Unfortunately, Gouldman was probably best known for his membership in 10cc—British soft rockers who produced mellow fluff of the exact stripe the Ramones were bred to exterminate. To his credit, he didn’t attempt to leave his fingerprints all over their sound, but telling Johnny he needed to turn his amp down was likely not a harbinger of wild-eyed excellence. Unsurprisingly, the album wound up skewed a bit towards Joey’s pop sensibilities, but the record as a whole is solid and contains a few first-ballot classics, “The KKK Took My Baby Away” being chief among them. Still, it was hard not to notice that the album started almost identically to the last album: “We Want the Airwaves,” like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio,” was basically Joey whining over the decrepit state of radio and insinuating that the Ramones were the only key to Earth’s salvation, delivered in a bland enough fashion to demonstrate the band’s acute willingness to be part of the problem. Joey revisited the “Oh Oh I Love Her So” theorem with “7-11,” this time recasting it as a morbid teen death ballad a la “Last Kiss.” Given the unpredictability of public demand for any given morbid teen death ballad, one can’t help but wonder: If it was “7-11” instead of “Baby I Love You” that Phil Spector went full-out-string-section crazy on, could that have been the one? The album—which did away with a front-cover band photo entirely, as well as the band’s traditional Franklin Gothic Heavy “RAMONES” wordmark—peaked at a respectable #58, but the singles failed to chart anywhere on the planet. Lather, rinse, repeat.
As if Johnny and Joey’s cold war and Dee Dee’s drug addiction weren’t impediment enough to the band’s grind-it-out-on-the-road existence, Marky’s alcoholism was ladling sand into the band’s gears at an increasingly worrisome pace. The last straw came when Dee Dee (of all people) ratted Marky out for having a bottle of vodka stashed in a studio wastebasket during the recording of the band’s seventh studio album, Subterranean Jungle. Marky was on thin ice with the band already—the album’s subway train cover photo depicts Marky peering from a distant window while the rest of the band congeals in a doorway, a visual statement both symbolic and conducive to easy alteration. Boozing it up in the studio proved to be the final nail in Marky’s coffin; he was sacked during recording. The drum tracks were finished by Billy Rogers—a bandmate of ex-Heartbreaker Walter Lure, who’d been enlisted to dose the LP with a smattering of lead guitar.
The album’s glossy hard rock/bubblegum sound was courtesy of producers Glen Kolotkin and Ritchie Cordell, who’d struck gold with Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and were keen to repeat their success (Cordell also had the requisite ’60s connections, having written and produced for bubblegum superstars Tommy James & The Shondells). Although Johnny had gotten his hands back on the wheel a bit, co-writing a straight-up old-school Ramones classic, “Psycho Therapy,” with Dee Dee, the band’s songwriting was beginning to atrophy. Subterranean Jungle starts with a cover of “Little Bit O’ Soul,” a #1 hit in 1967 for the Music Explosion, then follows that with a cover of “I Need Your Love” by the Boyfriends (a NYC power pop act best known for a great 45 on Bomp!). The album is three songs deep before an actual Ramones composition even surfaces, with a rendition of the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” (#11, 1968) added on side two, the band’s first song to top the four-minute mark.
In a sure sign of the aesthetic pendulum swinging back from the Joey-centric excesses of the previous two albums, Joey only authors three of the record’s dozen songs, and, for the first time on record, Dee Dee sings lead vocals on a song in its entirety (“Time Bomb”). In a display of what one must assume is late-blooming adolescent defiance, Joey rebrands himself as the eminently dignified “Joe Ramone,” which lasts about two seconds. In further evidence of Johnny’s waxing influence, the punkest song on the album, “Psycho Therapy,” is released as the album’s first single. The video—featuring a simulated lobotomy and gruesome cranial parasite—becomes one of the first to be banned from MTV. Subterranean Jungle remains fairly divisive among Ramones fans—the gloss and prominent ‘80s snare don’t sit well with some, others revel in the upbeat crunchiness of it all. Either way, the album charts its release year: #83.
1984-‘87: THINGS WERE LOOKING GRIM, BUT THEY’RE LOOKING GOOD AGAIN
Marky’s successor was Richard Reinhardt (b. 8/11/1957, not dead), dba Richie Beau, eventually known as Richie Ramone. His presence heralded a revitalization of the band’s spirit, if not their general fortunes. Marky had always attempted to drum the same way he imagined Tommy would (to the point of initially using Tommy’s oversized Rogers kit); this was an admirable philosophy, but flawed in the sense that Tommy’s drumming style was so specific and minimal that any unavoidable deviation from Tommy-ism, no matter how slight, was amplified a thousandfold, a rock’n’roll pea disturbing the slumber of the princess from deep beneath a stack of filthy mattresses. Richie just drummed like, you know, a drummer. The band suddenly had a flow to them that they’d been lacking throughout Marky’s stint. The cretins were, once again, hoppin’.
By 1984, the brunt of the original punk vanguard had either faded away, died off, or were processed into alternate life forms not fit for human consumption. Hardcore was the prevailing face of punk now, a state of affairs of which the Ramones were not wholly unaware. Still, when a New York scene report in Maximum Rocknroll described the song they’d heard off the upcoming Ramones album as “ultra-thrash,” one couldn’t help but greet the news with a mixture of shock, glee, and cautious optimism. Released in October of that year, Too Tough to Die represented a simultaneous break with and return to the past: Tiring of the results (or lack thereof) brought about by the decade’s parade of high-profile producers, the Ramones returned to the Record Plant with Tommy and Ed Stasium, the culprits behind Road to Ruin. With Joey’s influence at low ebb due to the miscellaneous illnesses which dogged him throughout his career, the band returned to their earlier bang-bang recording procedures; Johnny took five songwriting credits to Joey’s three, Dee Dee sings lead on two songs, and even Tommy and Richie contributed.
Too Tough to Die winds up being a masterful combination of returns to and departures from form: The album starts with a trio of thudding mid-tempo numbers, then slaloms crazily into four quick punk tunes. “Wart Hog” is the band’s first sub-two-minute song since Rocket to Russia; “Durango 95,” the band’s first and only instrumental, is also their first song to clock in under a minute. Sire refuses to print the “Wart Hog” lyrics on the inner sleeve. PUNK! Abruptly, the album shifts to a suite of three keyboard-heavy pop compositions, all of which (egad!) exceed four minutes in length. The record spins off and eventually concludes with a few more punk songs (including the “ultra-thrash” “Endless Vacation,” Dee Dee’s attempt at a slow-fast-slow mosh number) and wraps up with a punkabilly thing hiccuped by Joey, becoming the first and only Ramones album of note to feature an odd number of songs—thirteen. The mixed styles and punk backbone work to perfection: Too Tough to Die is generally hailed as the band’s best post-1979 effort. Predictably, it stiffs—peaking at #171, a new low.
The blending of disparate elements works to far poorer effect on 1986’s Animal Boy, which comes across as an ungainly grab bag of random songs played in random styles heading in random directions. Johnny stonewalls Joey’s songwriting attempts, causing Joey to retreat to minor contributor status, thoughts of a solo record dancing in his head. Joey writes a little, Johnny writes a little, and Richie kicks in the album opening “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” but the brunt of the album’s songwriting falls to Dee Dee. Dee Dee, in turn, frequently co-writes with label-mandated producer Jean Beauvoir, who, despite being a former Plasmatic, proves to be chiefly adept at writing watered-down synthy shit. This time around, the gratuitous attempts to keep up with the hardcores—“Eat That Rat” and the title track—fall woefully short of the mark, like an old man trying to look younger by wearing a teenager’s Negative Approach T-shirt.
The record is an incoherent jumble of punk, pop punk, synth barf, fake hardcore, and hard rock—yet, there are great songs on the album. It’s just that no one can agree on what they are (I say “Crummy Stuff” for the win and fuck you). The band did take a rare political take with “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”—Joey’s paean of disgust for Ronald Reagan’s state visit to a German cemetery in which numerous SS officers were buried. Reagan was Johnny’s favorite president; Johnny mandated a title change to “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down.” The album peaked at #143, and makes an excellent jumping-off point for those not inclined to ride the project out to its bitter end.
Minus Jean Beauvoir’s synth leanings, 1987’s Halfway to Sanity was more of the same: Joey and Johnny had their hands on a few songs, Richie wrote a pair (both garbage), and the rest was Dee Dee, occasionally working with producer Daniel Rey at New York’s Intergalactic Studios—producer and studio selected primarily because they came cheap. Dee Dee, who’d been the guy that contributed the bouncy punk numbers at the beginning of the decade, was now writing gloomy pre-grunge plodders like “I Wanna Live” and “Garden of Serenity”—the songs were becoming more like headaches than lobotomies. The songwriting partnership of Dee Dee and Johnny could still manufacture a ration of excitement with Ramone-by-numbers tunes like “Bop Til You Drop,” “Weasel Face,” and “I Lost My Mind,” and Joey could still occasionally hit on something decent like “Real Cool Time,” but Halfway to Sanity, which peaked at #172, was the first Ramones album of which I could truthfully say I liked less than half. Perhaps it should have been called Halfway to Quality.
Irate over not getting a cut of the proceeds from band merch bearing his name, Richie walked offstage following a show in East Hampton, New York, and, in what surely most have been one of the most epic exit interviews of all time, promptly quit the band, stepped into a waiting limo, and was whisked off—reportedly to start a higher-paying new job as a caddy. Casting about for a swift mid-tour replacement, Johnny signed up Clem Burke (b. 11/24/1954), best known for his work with Blondie. Dubbed “Elvis Ramone,” Clem/Elvis lasted all of two shows with the Ramones before Elvis was asked to leave the building. His replacement was none other than a dried-out Marky Ramone.
1988-‘92: I LOST MY MIND
And here, dear readers, is where the wheels begin to come off the wagon for good.
Dee Dee, by this time, had become completely disenchanted with the Ramone life. A stint in rehab had turned him on to rap and hip hop, which he championed with missionary fervor. He had taken to dressing in full hip hop regalia, and created his own rap persona—Dee Dee King—under the aegis of which he had released “Funky Man,” an eminently forgettable 12” single. While master of rap Dee Dee King kicked it old school, bass player Dee Dee Ramone had deteriorated to the point where he was more of a liability on stage than anything else. It was not uncommon to attend a Ramones performance and watch Johnny Ramone playing A-D-A-D whilst Dee Dee bounded about obliviously, playing D-A-D-A, the entire song through.
Worse, the band appeared to be possessed of an unshakable need to show those rotten kids who was boss in terms of who played the fastest live. To this end, they had managed to speed up their song tempos by having Marky adapt what must certainly be one of the highest-profile cheater beat techniques ever: Instead of playing in the traditional manner whereby the right hand keeps time on the hi-hat while the left hand plays the snare, Marky had taken to alternating his left hand between the snare and the hi-hat; with both hands working the hi-hat, he could play almost twice as quickly. The drawback to this approach was that it produced a fast, choppy rhythm, not a driving beat. In a band with a guitarist so militantly opposed to playing with anything but downstrokes, one wouldn’t think the cheater beats would fly, but fly they did—the band’s live prowess destroyed by their own hand. Adding insult to injury, the sacred tetragrammaton of rock’n’roll—“1-2-3-4!”—was now reduced to the role of window dressing. Dee Dee still yelled “1-2-3-4!” at the beginning of songs, but it was no longer a functioning count-in: While Dee Dee yelled his magic numbers, Johnny and Marky locked eyes, and started on a silent cue between themselves. Dee Dee could have counted to three or eight or 1,776 (assuming Dee Dee could actually count to 1,776)—it no longer mattered. Johnny and Marky started the songs, Dee Dee just read his line.
1989’s Brain Drain album demonstrated that the stage was not the only place where the band no longer had their shit together: Apart from a slam-bang cover of Freddy Cannon’s 1962 hit “Palisades Park,” the album included little in terms of notable—or even listenable—material (unless you count the theme to the movie adaptation of Steven King’s Pet Sematary or the annual nightmare of “Merry Christmas [I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight],” and who would?). Joey was back as a primary contributor—turns out we hadn’t missed much in the interim, as his songs were uniformly terrible. The album’s other main songwriters were Dee Dee and Daniel Rey, one of a three-producer consortium which included Jean Beauvoir and Bill Laswell. Dee Dee, unable to deal with his bandmates, sang on “Punishment Fits the Crime” and then went home, leaving the bass tracks to be supplied by Beauvoir, Rey, and former Dictator Andy Shernoff.
Manager Gary Kurfirst had landed Dee Dee King a record deal in return for the disgruntled Dee Dee not quitting the band, and, in spring of 1989, Dee Dee King’s utterly ludicrous Standing in the Spotlight was released, a record which had about as much to do with rap music as the Surf Punks had to do with surf music (or, for that matter, punk music). Dee Dee quit anyway, and Brain Drain peaked at #122 (which isn’t bad, considering that it’s actually worse than Standing in the Spotlight). A video was filmed and released. It was for 1978’s “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
In the band’s final lineup change, Dee Dee’s bass slot was awarded to Christopher Joseph Ward (b. 10/8/1965, not dead), thenceforth known as C.J. Ramone. While Johnny appreciated C.J.’s military background, the entire band would benefit from C.J.’s infusion of youthful vigor into their aging corps; he was well over a decade everyone else’s junior. C.J. debuted with the band on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in September 1989, which seems like a pretty Ramone-y debut. On stage, C.J. came across as a younger, larger, more competent Dee Dee, preserving the band identity about as well as could be expected.
The Ramones’ touring portfolio began to radically expand its international holdings, with the band spending almost as much time on the road in Europe, Australia, Japan, and South America as they did domestically. In 1991, their second live album, Loco Live, was recorded in Barcelona and released (with slightly varying track listings) on Sire in the U.S. and Chrysalis in Europe. Anyone requiring evidence of the Ramones’ on-stage sonic deterioration need look no further than Loco Live’s thirty-odd songs: While playing faster live than on record is sorta the nature of the rock’n’roll beast, Loco Live stands as concrete evidence that juicing the rock by upping the tempo backfires horribly when taken to extremes. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” which originally clocked in at 2:12, runs for 1:45 on Loco Live, over 20% shorter. “Teenage Lobotomy” sees its running time whacked down from two minutes flat to 1:32, almost a quarter shorter. And “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” gets its bloated 2:49 running time reduced to 1:48, the band somehow managing to lop over a minute off the running time of a song that wasn’t even three minutes long to begin with. Brevity is the soul of wit and all, but the problem with this approach isn’t that the songs are simply being played too rapidly for feeble ears to follow, the problem is that the songs are being played too rapidly for the band to actually play them properly. Take the four measures of guitar in the studio version of “Teenage Lobotomy” that immediately follow the “LOBOTOMY! LOBOTOMY!” part. If you count them out like a music nerd, they go 1-2-and-3-and, rest, 1-2-and-3-and, rest. If you count them out in the Loco Live versions, they go 1-2-and-3-4, 1-2-and-3-4. No rest. The entire rhythm of that part is subverted to the tempo, simplified to a choppy, childlike marching beat to facilitate additional velocity. It’s faster, but it sounds like garbage. Similarly, listening to Joey mutter, scat, and improvise through the chorus and bridge of “Sheena”—a song not given to undue complexity—leads the listener to wonder whether he can’t keep up, or if he just got bored with singing the song the right way. That all said, I do have to admit that I would have been all over the idea of a thirty-three-song album when I was fourteen. The album was certified gold in Brazil, which is probably the only context in which anyone will think of “Ramones” and “Brazilian wax” concurrently.
The band’s best album of the ’90s—and only album of that decade to not be recorded live or sound like a random assemblage of floor sweepings cobbled together to fulfill contractual obligation—proves to be 1992’s Mondo Bizarro. With Dee Dee in Detroit seeking fame and fortune with his new band, the Chinese Dragons, Joey regained his position as primary songwriter, knocking out a few pretty great pop punk hits in the process. Dee Dee continued to write songs for the band, because either 1) he needed the income, or 2) it was a condition of the band bailing him out of jail, depending on which story you believe. Unfortunately, Dee Dee’s songs tended to be in his later, mopey, mid-tempo style, which have never done a hell of a lot for me. Someone must like them, though, as Dee Dee’s “Poison Heart” and “Strength to Endure” were selected as the album’s two singles, despite the latter being sung by C.J., not exactly the face of the franchise. The band ended their fifteen-year association with Sire Records, jumping ship to Radioactive Records—a label which just so happened to be owned by manager Gary Kurfirst. No conflict of interest there! Predictably, the album peaked at #190, a new low. Johnny was now and forever locked out of the songwriting process; his final songwriting credit came in 1989. On the bright side, the album was produced by Road to Ruin’s Ed Stasium, so at least it sounds like a fucking Ramones album.
1993-‘96: JUST LIKE THE CATS IN THE GARBAGE CAN, WHEN THEIR TIME’S COMING, MAN
Punk was on the rebound in the early ‘90s, drawing renewed media attention and—for some—unprecedented record sales. A new generation of punk superstars cited the Ramones as key influences, but Joey still wanted to be a pop star, not a pop star’s father figure, and bitterly dismissed just about any punk band anyone could name as a “Ramones rip off band.” Johnny, of course, just wanted the money. The punk resurgence did nothing for the band’s flagging fortunes on the radio, but it was great for T-shirt sales.
In 1993, the band released Acid Eaters, an album of nothing but ‘60s covers. Produced by ex-late-stage-TSOL guitarist Scott Hackwith, the album largely sidestepped the bubblegum and dumb-but-fun hits the band had plumbed in the past, focusing more on Nuggets-era garage (Love, Seeds, Amboy Dukes) and straight-up big-name rock (Who, CCR, Dylan). While the band’s take on Love’s “7&7 Is” is a thing of sledgehammer beauty, there is a very short list of Bob Dylan songs I imagine I would enjoy the Ramones covering, and “My Back Pages” sure the hell ain’t on it. C.J. sang lead on three of the twelve songs, including the album-opening “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” If you think it seems odd to start a Ramones album off with C.J.’s lead vocals on a cover originally played on by Ted Nugent, you’re not alone.
The band’s studio output wheezed to a halt in 1995, with ¡Adios Amigos!, the band’s fourteenth and final studio album. Joey had always been a generally unhealthy guy; the addition of cancer to his stable of woes proved to be too great a hurdle for even the Ramones to overcome, and the band prepared to shutter the windows the following year. The album’s material is a patchwork of slush, leaning heavily on Dee Dee-penned numbers and covers; C.J. sang any song deemed too fast for Joey to manage. The record had a few glimmers of the old spirit here and there, but, on the whole, was clearly the sound of a band on its last legs, limping to the finish line. Not to let a dead horse go unflogged, Greatest Hits Live was released the next year. The band managed to lop two more seconds off the running time of “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” since 1991’s Loco Live, now 1:46 as opposed to 1:48. OH, THANK HEAVENS! The number of albums released by the Ramones in the ’90s: Six. The number of originals written by the Ramones in the ’90s: Fourteen.
On August 6, 1996—Hiroshima’s fifty-first anniversary—the Ramones would play their 2,263rd and final show. The quintessential New York band would culminate their groundbreaking, two-decade career with one final, triumphant return to… Los Angeles? The concert—recorded and released the next year as a CD/DVD set titled We’re Outta Here!—featured copious dollops of that most Los Angeles-ish of conceits: pointless celebrity guest appearances. At various times during the set, the band would share the stage with Lemmy from Motörhead, Lars Frederiksen and Tim Armstrong of Rancid (?), Chris Cornell and Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden (??), Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam (???), and Dee Dee—who would try—and fail—to remember the words to “Love Kills,” which, now that I think about it, makes perfect sense. The only way the performance could have been more Los Angelistic would have been to have Penny Marshall eating a hot dog, Larry King behind home plate, and Jack Nicholson yelling at the refs. The band’s final song ever was not “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” nor “We’re a Happy Family,” nor any of a hundred other genre-defining classics. Instead, the band would majestically conclude their epoch-making twenty-two-year run with… their recently learned cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Anyway You Want It,” featuring Eddie Vedder on vocals. Well, maybe it was good for T-shirt sales.
1996-END: ENDLESS VACATION
The rest of the story you probably know: Joey released a solo album, Don’t Worry About Me and died of lymphoma in 2001, with the city of New York erecting a “Joey Ramone Place” street sign on Bowery at 2nd Street in his honor. A second solo album, …Ya Know?, was released posthumously. The Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2002; three months later Dee Dee was found dead of an overdose in his Hollywood home. Johnny died of cancer in 2004, with Tommy following suit in 2014. I’ve heard of bands with no original members before, but this is taking the concept a bit too far. As for the enlisted men, Marky brought a certain form of mirth to some of us while touring with the Invaders and the Speed Kings, while C.J. played in a number of bands, most notably Los Gusanos and the Ramainz—a short-lived Ramones cover band with Marky, Dee Dee, and Dee’s Dee’s wife. More recently, C.J. released a couple of solo albums on Fat. Richie tours and records sporadically, and Elvis was last seen at a Michigan 7-11.
Einstein is sometimes referred to as “the last classicist,” despite the fact that it was his theories of quantum mechanics which upended classical physics. So, too, is it with the Ramones: For many intents and purposes, the Ramones are the first punk band—the Alpha, the architects. In another sense, the Ramones are the last band to exist before the Ramones invented (or at least mastered and codified) punk: They are the final band of the pre-punk era, the end of the line. The Ramones were not motivated by the punkly concerns of modern times, like creating a DIY culture, sidestepping corporate tentacles, or sticking it to The Man: They wanted to sell millions of records and make a lot of money. It is this precise blend of genius with are-you-kidding-me obliviousness that allowed them to think that they could actually become the biggest band in the world by singing about chainsaws, pinheads, and lobotomies. It is to this, uh, “special” blend of gifts we all owe a debt of gratitude that we are collectively unlikely to repay. When Principal Togar lectured the students at Vince Lombardi High about “a record that will follow you all through your life,” it was highly unlikely she realized she was talking, in my case, about Rocket to Russia. Gabba Gabba Hey and thanks for listening.
Rev. Nørb started writing for punk mags at age fifteen, with a review of a TSOL album in a 1981 issue of San Jose’s Ripper fanzine. He enjoyed the death threats so much that he started his own fanzine, Sick Teen, then continued to spew his funky jive in publications like Maximum Rocknroll, Zisk, and Razorcake. He has authored two books—The Annotated Boris: Deconstructing the Lyrical Majesty of Boris the Sprinkler (and Other Tales as the Need Arises) and Fear of a Nørb Planet: The Complete Maximum RockNRoll Columns 1994-1998. He hopes to write a third book someday that isn’t about the ’90s and doesn’t have a colon in its title.
Alex Barrett is a pinhead artist living in Portland, Ore. and currently studying graphic design. In his humble opinion, there is no more superior band or musical group than the Ramones. Rocket to Russia is the greatest musical achievement of 20th century. Subterranean Jungle is criminally underrated. Carbona > Glue. www.alexbarrettart.com
One Punk’s Guide is a series of articles where Razorcake contributors share their love for a topic that is not traditionally considered punk. Previous Guides have explored everything from pinball, to African politics, to outlaw country music.
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