I Still Wanna Be a Ramone!
Hey Ho, let's GO!
"Do your parents KNOW you're Ramones?" - Evelyn Togar, principal of Vince Lombardi High School, in "Rock N Roll High School" (1979)
As far as this writer is concerned, the Ramones were one of the greatest rock bands ever to set foot on God's green earth. I've been a fan for nearly 30 years and their music continues to provide the soundtrack to a good portion of my life. If you're a Ramones fan, you understand what I'm talking about. If you're not, please keep reading, and I'll try to explain my obsession with them, and their enduring underdog appeal.
The Cliffs Notes version of the Ramones story goes something like this: sick of the state of early '70s "rock" music, four burnouts from Forest Hills, Queens decided to form a band in 1974. After an abortive attempt to learn cover tunes and deciding this was too hard, they began writing their own ultra-simplistic original songs. Each of the four —Jeffrey ("Joey") Hyman, John ("Johnny") Cummings, Douglas ("Dee Dee") Colvin, and Tommy ("Tommy") Erdelyi—adopted the surname "Ramone" (a variation on an alias used by Paul McCartney during his Beatles heyday) as a sign of unity. Their cause? To take back rock n roll from the self-indulgent prog bands and spoiled, millionaire dinosaur rockers who had turned '70s radio into a vast wasteland.
The Ramones were diehard fans of the '60s British Invasion, girl groups, and underground garage rock, and they wanted to bring some of that simple-yet-somehow-dangerous vibe back to the table (with an added hit of early '70s bubblegum catchiness). Their odes to monster movies, glue sniffing, and teenage heartbreak were the result of, in the band's words, "trying to write a bubblegum pop song without really knowing how."
A seedy club in New York's Bowery called CBGB (which stood for "Country, Blue Grass, and Blues") gave the strange new band a tryout. Legend has it that their first show at the venue was played in front of a grand total of five souls —six, if you count the bartender's dog. It didn't matter because the revolution had begun. Word started getting around and soon the Ramones were at the forefront of a new musical explosion in New York City dubbed "punk rock," sharing the CBGB stage with other soon-to-be superstars like Blondie and the Talking Heads. Seymour Stein's Sire Records came calling, and the Ramones' debut album—released in April 1976 and featuring fourteen songs that clocked in at just under 30 minutes—became an underground favorite, though it was totally ignored by mainstream radio. On July 4, 1976—the date of America's bicentennial—the Ramones celebrated by performing at The Roundhouse in London. Members of the Clash, the Damned, and the Sex Pistols were in the audience. Those bands would eventually eclipse the Ramones' popularity, leaving many music fans with the mistaken impression that punk was purely a British phenomenon.
1977's Leave Home and Rocket To Russia and 1978's Road To Ruin garnered decent reviews, but despite a cult following that now stretched around the globe, big time success continued to elude the band. "I Wanna Be Sedated" (from Ruin) became a minor hit and remains the band's signature song. At the height of punk rock's short-lived mainstream popularity, the band appeared in the 1979 Roger Corman film "Rock 'N' Roll High School" and then collaborated with legendary girl-group impresario, Phil Spector, on 1980's still-controversial End of the Century. This proved to be their highest charting album in the U.S. (peaking at #44)—despite some concerns from their loyal punk fanbase that working with the pop-minded Spector was "selling out."
"Blitzkrieg Bop" (Live 1977)
Keepin' it Real in the '80s
As the 80s dawned, it was clear that no matter how hard they tried, the Ramones were never going to become big time jet-setting rock stars. They were too weird for radio (remember, this was the age of disco and Debby Boone!) and the fledgling MTV channel only gave them minimal support. The only way to keep the band going was by constant touring, taking an occasional break for a new studio album, then going back out on the road again. The grueling album-tour-album-tour schedule that the Ramones followed throughout the '80s probably would've killed most other bands, but aside from a few drummer changes, nothing stopped the machine, giving rise to a working-class legend. 1981's Pleasant Dreams and 1983's Subterranean Jungle came and went without much notice outside of the diehard fan base. Hardcore punk had become the new flavor of the underground, yet the shamefully ignored Too Tough To Die (1984, featuring the debut of new drummer Richie Ramone) proved that when the chips were down, the Ramones could be just as hardcore as the legions of bands they'd inspired. Animal Boy (1986) and Halfway to Sanity (1987) showed the Ramones continuing to keep it real.
"Pet Sematery" (1989)
Some Respect (Finally) in the 90s
In 1989 the band's profile was raised when they provided the theme song to the film based on Stephen King's "Pet Sematary," (King is a long time fan). As the '90s dawned, "alternative rock" was beginning to gain steam in the mainstream and the Ramones enjoyed some renewed attention as Elder Statesmen of the movement. Shortly after the release of '89's Brain Drain, bassist Dee Dee left the band for a (thankfully) short-lived career as a rapper (yes, really) but even losing a founding member and major songwriter didn't put the band on ice for long. The Ramones drafted a one time U.S. Marine named Christopher Joseph Ward, henceforth known as "C.J. Ramone," to take Dee Dee's place, and Dee Dee continued to contribute on the songwriting front until the end of the band's career... while the tours went on and on.
In 1992 the Ramones left their longtime home Sire Records in favor of Radioactive Records, a startup label owned by their manager. After Mondo Bizarro (1992), the fine all-covers album Acid Eaters (1994) and finally Adios Amigos! (1995) the Ramones announced that they were hanging up their leather jackets. Perhaps Joey and Johnny's long-standing animosity towards one another finally reached the breaking point, or maybe they were just tired of slugging it out. It seemed a particularly cruel irony that even in the mid 1990s, when "pop punk" was the flavor of the day, the Ramones still couldn't get a break, while bands such as Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring - all clearly spiritual descendants of the Ramones - were topping the charts and selling millions of records. They joined 1996's Lollapalooza festival tour in the U.S. and said their final goodbye on August 6, 1996, at the Palace in Hollywood, where they were joined onstage by original bassist Dee Dee, as well as celebrity fans like Lemmy of Motorhead, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. The final concert was eventually released as a live CD/video package entitled We're Outta Here!
Sadly, none of the four founding members of the Ramones had much time to enjoy their well-deserved retirement. Joey passed away due to complications from lymphoma in April of 2001. The remaining Ramones were inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in March of 2002 (during which Johnny ruffled some feathers by not even mentioning Joey in his acceptance speech), finally giving them some long-overdue acknowledgement from the mainstream. Dee Dee died of a heroin overdose in June of '02 - mere months after the Hall of Fame ceremony - and Johnny succumbed to prostate cancer in 2004. Finally, original drummer Tommy lost a battle with bile duct cancer in July of 2014. Who'da thunk that one day there'd be more surviving Beatles than surviving original Ramones?
Joey's long awaited debut solo album, Don't Worry About Me, was released posthumously in 2002 by Sanctuary Records, followed by 2012's ...Ya Know? Long time drummer Marky Ramone (aka Marc Bell) remains active with a solo band (Marky Ramone and the Intruders) and a DJ gig on satellite radio. Former members Richie and C.J. Ramone also continue to tour as solo artists. C.J.'s most recent solo release, American Beauty, was released by Fat Wreck Chords label in 2017, while Richie continues to tour behind his 2014 solo debut, Entitled.
Numerous books and films have been released about the band since their breakup; of these, I most highly recommend the book I Slept With Joey Ramone by Mickey Leigh (Joey's brother) and the movie End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, a fascinating, occasionally heartbreaking warts-and-all documentary that shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Ramones experience. Marky Ramone's Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone was published in early 2015
"I Wanna Be Sedated"
Joey Ramone's brother MIckey tells the story of how his bro became one of the most unlikely rock icons of all time. An essential read.
A Fanboy's Perspective
I wish I could say that I was one of the privileged few who was there to witness the first time the Ramones stormed the stage of CBGB in 1974 and lit the fuse of the punk rock revolution. Unfortunately, I cannot make that claim as I was only four years old at the time. I became dimly aware of the band's existence as a kid in the late '70s thanks to an older cousin who was a fan -- she would always regale my brother and I with fascinating tales of the many Ramones concerts she'd attended. Regular exposure to the videos for "Do You Remember Rock N Roll Radio?" and "Rock N Roll High School" during the very early days of MTV further fueled my curiosity about the band, and by the time I saw the "Rock N Roll High School" movie on TV one fateful Sunday afternoon at the age of fourteen, my fate was sealed. I videotaped the film and watched the concert portions of it over and over again. Before I finished high school, I'd collected the band's entire discography, knew just about every song and virtually every lyric. As a college freshman in 1988, I finally got to see the band live for the first time at a dingy little hole-in-the-wall in Staten Island, New York called "The Wave." It was my first concert in a small nightclub and my first mosh pit experience as well. Everyone should have such an introduction to live music!! I was lucky enough to see the band twice more (1991 and 1994) and meet them once at a 1992 autograph signing for the Mondo Bizarro album release before they hung it up for good. (Upon shaking Joey's hand, I babbled some embarrassing fanboy nonsense thanking him for all the great music, saying it had kept me sane for many years, to which he grinned and said, "Hey, happy to be of service, man.") Considering that I got on the Ramones bandwagon a lot later than most folks, I don't think that I did too badly.
To this day, I still miss the Ramones terribly. I occasionally daydream about fronting a Ramones tribute band; if only I weren't so damned middle aged and out of shape, I probably would've formed one by now. (I'd be Joey.)
I know that the world will never see another band like the Ramones, but thankfully their influence has reached far and wide, and their music will live on forever. All you have to do... is listen. Hey ho, let's go!
Ramones Select Discography
Ramones - Sire, 1976
Leave Home - Sire, 1977
Rocket To Russia - Sire, 1977
It's Alive (live) - Sire, 1977 (not released in U.S. till 1996)
Road to Ruin - Sire, 1978
Rock N Roll High School (Soundtrack) - Sire, 1979
End of the Century - Sire, 1980
Pleasant Dreams - Sire, 1981
Subterranean Jungle - Sire, 1983
Too Tough to Die - Sire, 1984
Animal Boy - Sire, 1986
Halfway to Sanity - Sire, 1987
Ramones Mania (compilation) - Sire, 1988
Brain Drain - Sire, 1989
Loco Live - Sire, 1991
Mondo Bizarro - Radioactive, 1992
Acid Eaters - Radioactive, 1994
Adios Amigos! - Radioactive, 1995
Greatest Hits Live - Radioactive, 1996
We're Outta Here! (Live CD/video) - Radioactive, 1996
Hey! Ho! Let's Go: The Anthology - Rhino, 1999
Loud, Fast Ramones: Their Toughest Hits - Rhino/Sire, 2002
NYC 1978 (live) - King Biscuit, 2003
Weird Tales of the Ramones (box set) - Rhino/WEA, 2005
Marky Ramone's warts-and-all remembrance of his days behind the Ramones drum kit.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Keith Abt