The Ramones

 The Ramones

 Joey Ramone – circa 1980

 “D-U-M-B / Everyone’s accusing me” – ‘Pinhead’ (The Ramones)

“One, chew, free, faww!!!”  Counted in, four shaggy haired musicians erupt into action.  They are dressed identically in a uniform of leather jackets, t-shirts and ripped jeans.  The vocalist is a spindly stick-insect wearing dark-coloured spectacles.  The guitarist’s legs are spread so far apart he is on the verge of doing the splits.  The bassist nods furiously, a permanently truculent expression on his face.  The drummer, head down, flails away at his kit.  It is 1976 and these are ‘the bruddahs’ Ramone, the U.S. band collectively known as The Ramones.

Actually, the four Ramones are not related at all.  Part of their image is to adopt this façade.  During the height of The Beatles popularity in the 1960s, Paul McCartney of that British band is reputed to have checked into hotels incognito using the alias Paul Ramone.  This is the source of the false surname adopted in the 1970s by The Ramones.  Before they became Ramones they had separate identities.

The vocalist, Joey Ramone (19 May 1951 – 15 April 2001), is born Jeffrey Ross Hyman in Forest Hills, New York.  He doesn’t have an easy time as a youth.  Jeffrey Hyman is bullied due ‘to his towering height (6 feet, 6 inches) and awkward demeanour which is a result of his severe obsessive compulsive disorder.’  He doesn’t start out as a singer.  Hyman begins playing drums, aged 13, while he is at Forest Hills High School.  By the time he is 19, the aspiring musician has left school and is playing clubs in New York under the name Jeff Starship (a pun on Jefferson Starship, the name of a side-project from The Jefferson Airplane, a project created in the same year, 1970).

The guitarist, Johnny Ramone (8 October 1951 – 15 September 2004), is born John William Cummings in Long Island, New York.  “We lived on the same block together,” Johnny says of his bandmates.  “We were friends.”  At Forest Hills High School, Johnny meets the lad who will later become The Ramones’ drummer, Tommy Ramone.  Johnny advises that, “I didn’t become a delinquent until I got out of high school…At about 20 years old, I stopped drinking and doing drugs, got a job and tried to be normal.”

Bass player Dee Dee Ramone (18 September 1952 – 5 June 2002) is born Douglas Glen Colvin in Fort Lee, Virginia.  He is raised in West Germany.  Returning to the U.S., Dee Dee works as a boy prostitute to support his heroin habit.

Drummer Tommy Ramone (born 29 January 1952) enters this world as Tamas Erdely in Budapest, Hungary.  He and his family leave Hungary in 1956 to take up residence in Queens, New York.  As Tommy Erdelyi he attends Forest Hills High.

From 1972 to 1974 Jeffrey Hyman plays in a ‘glam punk band’ called Sniper.

Meantime, Johnny Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi are in a band called Tangerine Puppets.

The Ramones come together in 1974 as a trio consisting of Joey Ramone (vocals, drums), Johnny Ramone (guitar) and Dee Dee Ramone (bass).  Tommy Erdelyi acts as their manager.  Their first concert is at New York’s Performance Studio on 30 March 1974.  ‘At first they wear clothes left over from their glam days, but gradually, through laziness rather than thoughts of image, end up in leather jackets and ripped jeans.’  In May 1974, at Tommy Erdelyi’s insistence, Joey Ramone puts down his drumsticks to concentrate on being the group’s frontman.  Their manager becomes Tommy Ramone, the new drummer, ‘because the band cannot find another musician who plays drums fast enough.  Actually Tommy had never touched a drum kit before playing with the band.’ (Presumably Tommy played a different instrument with The Tangerine Puppets.)

In New York’s Bowery district, Hilly Kristal runs a venue called CBGB.  The initials stand for Country, Blue Grass and Blues, but the bar becomes famous for music that has virtually nothing to do with those music styles.  CBGB’s is remembered as a ‘punk mecca.’  The Ramones first play there on 16 August 1974.  Joey Ramone describes that show this way: “We played to an audience of five, but that’s only if you count the bartender’s dog.”  ‘For the next year, they play regularly at the nightclub, earning a dedicated cult following and inspiring several other artists to form bands with similar ideals.’

The Ramones are featured in the small press fanzine ‘Punk’.  By July 1975 they are receiving coverage in the mainstream rock press.  Late in 1975, Danny Fields takes over as The Ramones’ manager.  With his help, The Ramones become one of the first acts signed to Seymour Stein’s Sire label.

The Ramones are, arguably, ‘the first punk rock group.’  Acts such as Iggy Pop And The Stooges, The MC5, The New York Dolls and The Dictators may contest the claim, but only in historical terms.  To the degree that those acts achieved public recognition, they were not associated with punk by the general audience…mainly because the term wasn’t invented before 1974-1975 and most of those acts achieved notoriety before that period.  Of The Ramones’ forebears, only The Dictators started out in the same 1974-1975 period and they are, compared to The Ramones, more obscure.

Punk rock sets out to strip away ‘the insufferable conceit and self-conscious complexity of vast sectors of mainstream rock in the middle 1970s.’  This applies primarily to progressive rock or art rock, genres that aspire to be as grandiose as classical music or as intellectually experimental as the avant-garde theorists.  Punk also pits itself against the accessible music of the masses.  Joey Ramone boasts, “The Eagles [a country rock act] and The Captain And Tennille [a pop duo] ruled the airwaves, and we were the answer to it.”  Joey also claims, “The only thing that you heard on the radio was disco.”  Actually, disco was rising in parallel to punk circa 1974-1975; it was not yet a dominant force.  Disco – a simplistic, dance-oriented sound – breaks through to a mainstream audience during 1976-1978 in a way that punk never does, so Joey’s statement is not wrong so much as just a bit out of order in his memory.

So punk’s opposition to certain factions of music is apparent, but what does it offer instead?  “To me, punk is about being an individual and going up against the grain and standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am’,” offers Joey Ramone.  Fair enough, but that does nothing to explain what differentiates punk from disco, whose devotees were also standing up for themselves.  If the extraneous build-up is removed from rock music, logically what is left is the original 1950s rock ‘n’ roll sound.

Tommy Ramone advises, “We’re trying to do rock ‘n’ roll, trying to bring back the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, the spirit of Little Richard and Elvis [Presley] – the thunder of rock ‘n’ roll!”  Lyrically, many of The Ramones songs evoke imagery from the late 1950s.  Their songs are also brief, as were 1950s rock tunes.  A Ramones ‘songlet’ never seems to exceed three minutes and sometimes barely makes it past the one minute mark.  It’s a refreshing change from pretentious art rock ‘epics’ that last the length of entire albums.  However, what distinguishes The Ramones from straight-forward revivalists such as, for instance, fellow New Yorkers Sha-Na-Na (formed 1969), is the force of the music.  When Tommy mentions “the thunder of rock ‘n’ roll”, he isn’t kidding.  The sound of The Ramones – and punk in general – is loud, buzzsaw guitars.  In that respect, it’s closer to heavy metal than 1950s rock.  The vocals verge on being an indecipherable yowl, the sound of a cat stuck in a blender.

The Ramones’ lyrics often celebrate junk culture.  Horror movies are a particularly rich source of thematic material.  There are no signs of old movie monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, but plenty of nods to slasher movies where nubile young things flee knife-wielding psychos.

The term ‘punk’ was common, particularly in the New York area, before punk rock.  ‘Punk’ is a pejorative colloquialism for a small-time hoodlum, an ineffective thug.  So ‘punk rock’ is the music of inept junior criminals.

This leads to the ‘cartoon image’ of The Ramones as brain-dead morons, barely capable of playing their simple-minded slobber.  “It’s all put on,” Dee Dee Ramone assures.  “It’s all a put on.”

Officially, The Ramones songs are composed by the group as a unit.  But it is claimed that, ‘although The Ramones share credit for writing all songs, Joey [Ramone] actually writes a majority of The Ramones’ songs by himself, with most of the significant early songs being written by either him or Dee Dee Ramone.’  Yet, in contradiction, it is also claimed that, ‘Dee Dee is the most prolific songwriter, followed by Joey.’  At this point in history, it’s probably impossible to substantiate either contention.  There is only the official notice that the whole group writes the songs.

Another piece of hard-to-confirm data is the legendary ill feeling between Joey Ramone and Johnny Ramone.  It is certainly true that they had their differences.  Joey was an outspoken liberal while Johnny was a staunch conservative; Joey wanted hit singles while Johnny didn’t care about such things; and Joey wanted The Ramones to be more experimental while Johnny wanted them to stick to their tried-and-true formula.  Joey and Johnny may not have seen eye-to-eye at all times, but it is said that they are ‘friendly-ish.’

The Ramones’ first single is the ‘leather-tender plea’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.’

‘Ramones’ (1976) (US no. 111), released in April, is the band’s first – and best – album.  Produced by Craig Leon, it is recorded in a week, costs six thousand, four hundred dollars (U.S.) to make, and its fourteen tracks amass a total running time of just under twenty-nine minutes.  Joey Ramone suggests that, “Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation and frustration – the feelings everybody feels between 17 and 75.”  ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ is on this album.  However, The Ramones’ all-time best song is ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’.  “Hey ho, let’s go,” urges Joey at the top of the song.  The blitzkrieg – literally, the lightning war – was the favoured approach of the Nazi aggressors in World War Two.  With tongue firmly in cheek, The Ramones launch a sonic assault of their own, with a “Shoot ‘em in the back, now” policy.  It’s impossible to take seriously, but it’s glorious musical attack on the sensibilities of the mid-1970s makes this the band’s definitive work.  Other highlights include the two songs on which Dee Dee Ramone shares lead vocals with Joey, ‘Beat On The Brat’ (“With a baseball bat, oh yeah”) and the murderous ‘53rd & 3rd’, a memento of the bassist’s past as a rent boy (“I’m tryin’ to turn a trick…Then I took out my razor blade / And I did what God forbade”).  The group’s passion for horror movies is reflected in ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement’ and ‘Chain Saw’, the latter referencing the film ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974).  The old time rock ‘n’ roll vibe is picked up in their cover version of Chris Montez’s 1962 song ‘Let’s Dance’, with a little organ vamp for musical variety.  ‘Judy Is A Punk’ is the first of a cycle of songs describing punk princesses.  The ode to boredom and substance abuse, ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’, gets a surprisingly dramatic arrangement.  ‘Ramones’ sets out the blueprint for the band’s career and, by offering it up in encapsulated form, is their definitive and primal document.

‘Ramones’ is not a big commercial success and, this too, sets the pattern for the group’s future.  However the importance and influence of The Ramones cannot be measured by popularity in the marketplace.

On 4 July 1976 The Ramones play a gig at London’s Roundhouse, their debut in the U.K.  Their tour is ‘a key catalyst of British punk rock.’  The Sex Pistols and The Clash, the foremost U.K. punk acts, will both credit The Ramones as a formative influence.

‘Ramones Leave Home’ (1977) (US no. 148, UK no. 45) in January is basically a second helping of the same sort of material as the band’s debut.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  One difference is the production is co-credited to Tommy Ramone and Tony Bongiovi (second cousin to future rock star Jon Bon Jovi).  ‘Swallow My Pride’ is the nominal single.  The Ramones’ war cry, “Gabba Gabba Hey!”, is derived from ‘Pinhead’: “Gabba Gabba we accept you.”  This track finds Joey Ramone uttering, “I don’t wanna be a pinhead no more / I just met a nurse that I could go for.”  This is matched with ‘Now I Wanna Be A Good Boy’.  Perhaps the album’s best track is the macho laugh called ‘Commando’: “First rule is: The laws of Germany / Second rule is: Be nice to Mommy / Third rule is: Don’t talk to commies / Fourth rule is: Eat kosher salamis.”  Since kosher foods are those prepared in accordance with Jewish religious customs, this (intentionally) undercuts “the laws of Germany” from World War Two when the Nazis persecuted the Jews.  Similarly, the rough and tough commando is instructed to “be nice to Mommy” in another ironic jab.  Almost as good is ‘Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment’ where Joey’s narrator, who claims, “I was really sick / Losing my mind,” becomes “Happy, happy, happy all the time” after electro convulsive therapy.  This track joins ‘You’re Gonna Kill That Girl’ and ‘You Should Never Have Opened That Door’ in this album’s horror movie contingent.  Early rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia is represented by ‘I Remember You’, ‘What’s Your Game’, ‘Oh Oh I Love Her So’ and the cover version of Joe Jones’ 1961 song, ‘California Sun’, with its great trumpeting riff played by Johnny Ramone.  ‘Suzy Is A Headbanger’ is this set’s paean to a young lady (‘headbanging’ is violently shaking your head up and down to loud music).  ‘Ramones Leave Home’ is a bigger hit in the U.K. where punk is taking off more strongly than in the U.S.A.

‘Rocket To Russia’ (1977) (US no. 49, UK no. 60) in November is described as The Ramones’ ‘first true studio triumph.’  This set is home to ‘Rockaway Beach’ (US no. 66), ‘Cretin Hop’, ‘I Don’t Care’ and ‘I Wanna Be Well’.  However, the highlight is ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’ (US no. 81, UK no. 22), the successor to ‘Judy’ and ‘Suzy’ from the first two albums, but even more accomplished.  “She’s a punk, punk / A punk rocker,” assures Joey Ramone over handclaps, chiming percussion and a 1950s groove gone wild.  ‘Rocket To Russia’ is produced by the same team as the band’s previous album, but here Tommy Ramone is credited as Tommy Erdelyi.  This proves prophetic for he leaves The Ramones after this set to become a full-time producer.

Tommy Erdelyi trains his replacement in the group, Marky Ramone (born Marc Steven Bell, 15 July 1956, in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.).  Marky debuts on ‘Road To Ruin’ (1978) (US no. 103, UK no. 32), co-produced by Tommy Erdelyi and Ed Stasium.  On this set, there are ‘stronger bubblegum, girl group, surf and 1960s pop influences.’  ‘Road To Ruin’ is also the first Ramones album to run over thirty minutes.  The highlight is ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’, a track inspired by Joey Ramone being hospitalised for exhaustion after a concert tour.

The Ramones’ sound changes by very small increments.  “If you got somethin’ good, you keep it going, keep it workin’,” suggests Marky Ramone.  Although Johnny Ramone is identified as the keeper of the status quo, he points out that, “The fans are sometimes resistant to change.”

In 1978 Dee Dee Ramone marries Vera Boldis.

Around this time, Joey Ramone begins dating Linda Marie Daniele.  They are a couple for around two years, but Linda leaves him for guitarist Johnny Ramone.  If Joey and Johnny were sometimes at odds before, this creates a real wedge between the bandmates.

The Ramones appear in the film ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ (1979).  Directed by Alan Arkush, the movies is ‘a satire of 1950s teen-rock films [and is set] in Vince Lombardi High School.’  It is not purely a Ramones film; it also features music by Devo, Chuck Berry, The Velvet Underground, Wings and Bobby Freeman.  It is The Ramones who play a key role though, and also appear in the film and compose and perform the catchy and engaging song ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’.  The Ramones only get the part after it is turned down by Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, and Van Halen.

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’ (UK no. 67) (the song) is included on The Ramones’ next album, ‘End Of The Century’ (1980) (US no. 44, UK no. 14).  This album is perhaps the biggest experiment in The Ramones’ catalogue.  It is produced by Phil Spector, the producer of a string of teenage hits in the late 1950s – early 1960s.  Spector is known for his ‘wall of sound’, employing large numbers of musicians and orchestras…characteristics that seem at odds with The Ramones’ sound.  Predictably, Joey Ramone – the greatest advocate for change – says simply, “I like Phil.”  This album is home to the ‘violin-steeped’ cover of The Ronettes’ 1964 hit, ‘Baby I Love You’ (UK no. 8), an earlier Spector triumph.  Unusual as it may be for the punk rockers, it gives them a British hit.  ‘Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio’ (UK no. 54) is also from this album.  New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen writes ‘Hungry Heart’ for ‘End Of The Century’, but Springsteen’s manager urges him to keep the tune and record it himself.  It duly becomes a hit for Springsteen and a missed opportunity for The Ramones.

‘Pleasant Dreams’ (1981) (US no. 58) again employs a producer who would not immediately seem suited to The Ramones, Graham Gouldman of British pop group 10cc.  This album includes ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’, a song based on Johnny Ramone taking Joey Ramone’s girlfriend from him.

‘Subterranean Jungle’ (1983) (US no. 83) in February is co-produced by Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin, one of the heads of the American independent label Berserkley Records.  This is The Ramones last album on Sire.  Marky Ramone leaves the band after this album.

The Ramones’ new drummer is Richie Ramone (born Richard Reinhardt a.k.a. Richard Beau, 11 August 1957, in Passaic, New Jersey).

On 15 August 1983 Johnny Ramone gets into a fight with another musician, Seth Macklin, in the middle of a New York street.  The reason for the brawl is a bit murky.  According to the police report, it is sparked by jealousy when Johnny Ramone sees ‘his girlfriend’, Cynthia Whitney, with Macklin.  This seems contradictory to Johnny being involved with Linda Daniele at the time.  It is said that Johnny Ramone ‘flies into a rage’ and attacks Macklin.  Claiming he acted in self-defence, Macklin knocks the guitarist down and kicks and stomps him with heavy combat boots.  Left unconscious, Johnny Ramone is taken to St Vincent’s Hospital where he undergoes emergency brain surgery.

The incident inspires the title of The Ramones’ next album, ‘Too Tough To Die’ (1984) (US no. 171, UK no. 63).  Johnny Ramone recovers from his injuries to take part In the recording.  As well as being Richie Ramone’s debut with the band as drummer, this is the debut of The Ramones on the Beggar’s Banquet label, the first of three Ramones albums for that company.  ‘Too Tough To Die’ is co-produced by Tommy Ramone and Ed Stasium.

In 1984 Johnny Ramone marries Linda Daniele.

The 1985 single ‘Bonzo Goes To Bitburg’ (UK no. 81) from ‘Animal Boy’ (1986) (US no. 143, UK no. 38) criticises U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s decision to visit Nazi graves in Germany.  “That was one of the few serious songs we’ve ever done,” says Dee Dee Ramone.

After the next Ramones album, ‘Halfway To Sanity’ (1987) (US no. 172, UK no. 78), Richie Ramone leaves the band.  Clem Burke of Blondie (fellow veterans of New York’s punk scene) fills in on drums as Elvis Ramone for two gigs on 28-29 August 1987.  Richie’s predecessor, Marky Ramone, then returns to The Ramones as their new/old drummer.

With ‘Brain Drain’ (1989) (US no. 122, UK no. 75) The Ramones move to Chrysalis Records.  ‘Brain Drain’ is Dee Dee Ramone’s last recording with the group.  Dee Dee quits for a perhaps ill-advised career as a rap singer under the name Dee Dee King.  He later forms a band called Chinese Dragons.

C.J. Ramone (born Christopher Joseph Ward, 8 October 1965, in Queens, New York) becomes the new Ramones bassist in 1989.

The line-up of Joey, Johnny, C.J. and Marky cut three more albums for Chrysalis: ‘Mondo Bizarro’ (1992) (US no. 190, UK no. 87); an album of cover versions called ‘Acid Eaters’ (1993) (US no. 179); and ‘Adios Amigos’ (1995) (US no. 148, UK no. 62).  Frustrated at their lack of commercial success, The Ramones threaten to disband unless ‘Adios Amigos’ sells ‘in substantial numbers.’  That doesn’t happen, so the band begins a long series of farewell shows concluding in 1996.  Twenty years after their first album, The Ramones are no more.  “Everybody just emulated us and now everybody just kinda takes our sound as their foundation,” Joey Ramone says bitterly.

Joey Ramone dies of cancer (lymphoma) on 15 April 2001.

Dee Dee Ramone separates from Vera Boldis in 1990 and the divorce is finalised in 1995.  Around the same time, he marries his second wife, Barbara Zampini.  Dee Dee dies of an accidental drug overdose on 5 June 2002.

Johnny Ramone dies of prostate cancer on 15 September 2004.

The three prime movers of The Ramones are dead within a three and a half year period.

C.J. Ramone marries Marky’s niece, Chessa.  C.J. and Chessa have two children, Liam and Lilliana.  By 2013 that marriage is over and C.J. is wedded to attorney Denise Barton with who he has a daughter, Mia.

The Ramones have been the subject of two documentary films: ‘End of the Century’ (2003), directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, and ‘Ramones Raw’ (2004), directed by John Cafiero.

The Ramones may have seemed like ‘a cartoon vision of rock ‘n’ roll’ but their ‘lyrics…hit the target with such unfailing accuracy that it threatened to call the shots on their otherwise watertight, dumb punk credentials.’  In other words, they had to be pretty smart to seem so dumb.  Their influence and importance outweighs their commercial impact.  Their best work was probably behind them after their first three albums, though they continued to release some worthy songs afterward.  It’s debatable whether The Ramones were doomed by their inability (or lack of interest?) in moving beyond their initial, classic formula.  Had they done so, they may have had a richer, more diverse and financially lucrative career…or they may have become an embarrassment.  It’s impossible to know for sure what might have been.  All that can be done is give thanks for what they did achieve with a hearty “Hey, ho, let’s go!”

‘The Ramones rock was Neanderthal in structure and intention: the spirit of rock stripped down to the chassis, powered along in two-minute adrenalin bursts of original three-chord numbers.’  The Ramones offered ‘an intense burst of guitar power, rhythmic simplicity, and ferocious brevity…’

Sources:

  1. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 13 December 2013
  2. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 14 October 2013
  3. wikipedia.org as at 14 October 2013
  4. heightdb.com as at 14 December 2013
  5. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 118, 190
  6. ‘The Regis and Kathy Lee Show’ (U.S. television program) – The Ramones interview conducted by Regis and Kathy Lee (1988)
  7. allmusic.com, ‘The Ramones’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 31 August 2001
  8. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 110
  9. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘The Sound of New York City’ by John Rockwell (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 553, 554
  10. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 231, 257, 258, 297, 357
  11. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 175, 192
  12. ‘All The Stuff (And More) – Volume One’ – Sleeve notes by Oedipus (Sire Records Company, 1990) p. 9
  13. ‘Voxpop – The Raw & Uncut Interview’ (video program) – Joey and Dee Dee Ramone interview (1986)
  14. billboard.com – Linda Ramone interview conducted by Nicki Gostin (17 April 2012)
  15. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 41, 49
  16. fast.fm/music as at 16 December 2013
  17. lyricsfreak.com as at 12 December 2013

Song lyrics copyright Taco Tunes / Bleu Disque Music Co. Inc.

Last revised 12 January 2014

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