The Ramones (Contemporary Musicians)
Image Pop-UpThe Ramones.
In the often harsh, sometimes unjust world of popular music, the true innovator is often overlooked; trends come and goheir origins unknown and originators unrecognized. The punk rock phenomenon of the late 1970s was no exception. In just two years, four glue-sniffing high school dropouts calling themselves the Ramones almost single-handedly changed the course of rock music when, as David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone, they "torched the sluggish Seventies with their debut album, Ramones, the punk-rock blast that shook the world." In one of the more rancorous episodes of music history, however, the Ramones were forced to watch as other bands became symbolic of the movement they had so tirelessly promoted situation that endured for more than 20 years.
The original Ramonesee Dee, Johnny, Joey, and Tommyame together as a band in 1974 in Forest Hills, a community within the New York City borough of Queens. Juvenile delinquents in the narrowest sense of the term, the Ramones were a mixture of big-city desperation and adolescent hostility directed at a system they felt had nothing to offer them. None had finished high school, none could hold a job, their drug use was on the rise, and Dee Dee, at least, was drifting into a life of crime. "John and I used to sit on rooftops and sniff glue and drop television sets on people," Dee Dee told Musician.
Rock Stardom the Only Escape
As they saw it, their only chance of escape from this quagmire was rock stardom. This seemed unlikely, however, since none of the Ramones were at that time accomplished musicians. Moreover, they found the overwhelming tepidity of most mid-1970s rock 'n' roll profoundly uninspiring. A turning point came when they began attending the growing number of area low-budget, reactionary "garage" concerts, especially those by the New York Dolls, a locally popular hard rock group both Johnny and Dee Dee have listed prominently among their influences. "I couldn't believe you could just be in a band and be so rebellious without spending $10,000 on amplifiers," Dee Dee said in Musician. "After the Dolls, I wouldn't settle for anything less."
Thus inspired, Dee Dee and Johnny bought an inexpensive bass and guitar, respectively, and began practicing two or three times a week. Despite the fact that they could hardly play a note between them, they had some very definite ideas about how they wanted to make music. "It had to sound loud and fast and heavy rock with no guitar solos or anything like that," Dee Dee told Guitar Player. Johnny had similar notions: "I always wanted the guitar to sound like energy coming out of the amplifier. Not even like music or chords; I just wanted that energy coming out." Unfortunatelyr perhaps fortunately, depending on one's outlookheir first rehearsals didn't go quite as expected. "We didn't know what to do when we started trying to play," Dee Dee recalled in Spin. "We'd try some Bay City Rollers songs, and we absolutely couldn't do that. We didn't know how, so we just immediately started writing our own stuff."
Nostalgic for the simple vitality of 1960s pop, the Ramones quickly amassed a repertoire consisting wholly of two-minute bursts of what Johnny called in Rolling Stone "pure rock and roll with no blues or folk or any of that stuff in it," but with a definite twist. Using stark and often darkly humorous lyrics hammered into bubble gum melodies that were then pasted over sparse, high-energy, buzz-saw guitar, the Ramones managed to "reinvent rock 'n' roll," as Jim Greer testified in Spin. Their anger and frustration with the state of main-stream rock, and with life in general, found vent in such (barely) musical onslaughts as "Beat on the Brat," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," and "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement."
Became a Sensation at CBGB
With Joey as lead vocalist and Tommy on drums, the Ramonesheir name was coined when Dee Dee read that Paul McCartney had called himself "Paul Ramon" during early Beatles tourslayed their landmark gig in August of 1974 at CBGB, a dilapidated nightclub on lower Manhattan's seedy Bowery. There they quickly became an underground sensation, attracting the attention of music fans and critics bored with increasingly bloated mainstream rock. In November of 1975 the Ramones signed with then-fledgling Sire Records and immediately recorded their first album, Ramones, for the incredibly small sum of $6,400. Largely derided at the time of its release, Ramones has since become a classic.
The next step was to tour, and tour massively. The Ramones always spent the major portion of their time on the road, but with record company backing, they made it all the way to England for a series of concerts that many now regard as the spark that ignited the punk rock phenomenon. "When we played the Round-house in London for the first time on July 4, 1976, it was just incredible," remembered Dee Dee in Musician. "All the gobs of spithat's how you could tell if they liked you." Among those contributing saliva were the core of Britain's soon-to-be punk scene.
As more and more groups swelled its ranks, punk rock quickly became a powerful movement. Commercialism soon took hold, however, and punk became just another fad in an already fad-ridden decade, with people simply exchanging their pet rocks for punk rock. The Ramones, meanwhile, seemed to get lost in the shuffle. At the height of the punk era, they found themselves eclipsed by their imitators and those they had inspired; most of the media was directed at English bands with "weird pointy haircuts," as Johnny described them in Rolling Stone, and when punk's popularity began to wane with the start of a new decade, the Ramones became a band without a genre. They were justifiably bitter.
Sold-Out but Hitless
It was with no small amount of audacity that the Ramones continued to churn out inflammatory, wickedly satirical songs dealing with such diverse and taboo topics as drug use, intolerance, and mental disorderspecifically as they occur in American presidents. Unfortunately, titles like "Teenage Lobotomy," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Psycho Therapy," and "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," among others, were not destined to receive airplay in the resurgently conservative 1980s. The Ramones were a music industry paradox: They were lucky if their records broke the top 100, but at the same time they played to sold-out crowds around the world. And while many reviewers, especially Rolling Stone's, gushed praise, detractors labeled the Ramones cartoonish. Even critics who initially perceived the Ramones as a studied parody of a rock 'n' roll band began to complain that the joke was wearing thin.
What followed was nearly a decade of producer-hopping. The low point of this approach came when the Ramones commissioned legendary producer Phil Spector to outfit them with his trademark "wall of sound" for End of the Century. But Spector, architect of countless 1960s mega-hits including "Be My Baby" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," by the 1980s was becoming better known for his personal eccentricities than his production talents. As Dee Dee recalled in Spin: "Someone thought we could have a hit record if Phil Spector produced us. But it was a nightmare. One night he pulled out his gun and wouldn't let us leave. We had to sit there in the living room and listen to him play 'Baby I Love You' over and over again."
The Ramones chafed under restrictions imposed by producers who tried to alter their sound in order to make it more palatable to mainstream radio programmers. Discord erupted among bandmembers about where they were going with their music, and, moreover, who would lead them there. Add to this their grueling tour schedulet least nine months of every yearnd the results were inevitable: the loss of two drummers, Tommy, in 1978, and Marky, in 1983, and, finally, one bassist. Disillusioned by their lack of recognition and tired of both the constant touring and the Ramones' intentional lack of musical growth, founding member Dee Dee left the band in 1989 to pursue a solo career. More as a declaration of independence than a musical statement, he quickly released the rap-rock Standing in the Spotlight, for Sire, under the name Dee Dee King.
Despite these tribulations, the band continued to enjoy the worship of legions of dedicated fans the world over. By the early 1990s, Ramones lyrics managed to find their way into a growing number of hip magazine articles and newspaper headlines. In 1992 Spin hailed the Ramones as one of the top seven bands of all time, placing them in such illustrious company as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: "No group in the last 18 years has been more important or influential," wrote Jim Greer. That year the band released Loco Live and Mondo Bizarro. In his enthusiastic review of the former, Spin contributor Jon Young reported, "Studies have shown that New York's beloved Ramones are the inspiration for 95 percent of the rock 'n' roll you listen to these days." Describing the release as "30-something of the Ramones' best onstage in grungy low fidelity," Young allowed parenthetically, "By the way, anyone who wonders why the Ramones haven't changed much since 1976 must not realize they were nearly perfect to begin with."
Mondo Bizarro marked the Ramones' departure from Sire Records; their first studio album of new material in over three years, the disc was released on Radioactive Records. Ed Stasium, who oversaw production of 1977's Rocket to Russia, produced the record, bassist C.J.'s first with the band. Bizarro included a remake of the Doors' "Take It as It Comes" and Joey's "Censorsh**," an ode to Tipper Gore, cofounder of the record-stickering Parents' Music Resource Center and wife of then Vice President Al Gore. Assessed Rolling Stone's Dave Thompson, "The Ramones sound fiercer than they have in years."
The Ramones followed Mondo Bizarro with a set of covers, Acid Eaters. The full-length album featured the Ramones' take on songs by artists who influenced them, including the Who, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, among others. Acid Eaters was a mild success, but not the blockbuster they had been hoping for. They made their way into a new form of pop culture in an animated guest appearance on The Simpsons in 1993. That year, Joey gave up drinking and drugs and adopted a vegetarian diet, which he maintained until the end of his life.
The Ramones announced that their 1995 release Adios Amigos would indeed be their final goodbye, unless the record was a huge commercial success. But, like Acid Eaters, the disc was only a mild hit, and turned out to be the last studio recording the Ramones released. Joey remarked to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "We could go on forever, but you want to go out great." They ended their more than 20-year musical career with a year-long, worldwide farewell tour and a stint on the sixth Lollapalooza tour.
The next artistic output from a member of the Ramones came in the form of an autobiographical memoir written by Dee Dee. To write Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Dee Dee checked himself into the Chelsea Hotel in New York City with his wife Barbara and stayed there until he had the memoir complete. The following year, he released a fictional novel Chelsea Horror Hotel that was very loosely based on their time there.
Joey Ramone died on April 15, 2001. He had originally been diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and eventually succumbed to lymphoma six years later. His solo album Don't Worry About Me was released posthumously in early 2002. The set, which Joey had worked on even while in the hospital, included a humorous tribute to CNBC financial analyst Maria Bartiromo, whom Joey watched on television every morning. Writing in Interview magazine in March of 2002, fellow rock legend Iggy Pop praised Joey's lyrics and delivery. "Joey gave us portraits. They were sarcastic or sardonic portraits, but what he was really interested in doing was portraying teen America, youthful America. He makes those vocals sound easy, but it takes quite a bit of skill."
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction
The Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March of 2002. A few months later, Dee Dee Ramone died of a heroin overdose at his Los Angeles home on June 5, 2002, after long struggling with both alcohol and drug addiction. Tom Sinclair wrote in Entertainment Weekly, "Dee Dee seemed to best embody the wounded spirit of a group of proudly self-proclaimed outcasts." His second autobiographical work, Legend of a Rock Star, was published in early 2003.
The Ramones, although they didn't receive the recognition they rightfully deserved in their heyday, influenced a countless number of bands that rest at the top of the pop and rock 'n' roll charts. Among those bands is U2, who long made their devotion to the Ramones known. Lead singer Bono dedicated a concert to the Ramones following the death of Joey. Rob Zombie of the hard rock band White Zombie also counted the Ramones as a great influence on his career. The PR Newswire reported his praise, "The Ramones are in my opinion the greatest American rock band. For over two decades they remained true to everything that rock 'n' roll needs to beoud, fast, and stripped down to the core."
Ramones, Sire, 1976.
Leave Home, Sire, 1977.
Rocket to Russia, Sire, 1977.
Road to Ruin, Sire, 1978.
It's Alive, Sire, 1978.
(Contributor) 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, Sire, 1988.
Brain Drain, Sire, 1989.
Lifestyles of the Ramones (video), Reprise/Warner Bros., 1990.
All the Stuff (and More), Volume One, Sire, 1990.
All the Stuff (and More), Volume Two, Sire, 1991.
Loco Live, Sire, 1992.
Mondo Bizarro, Radioactive/MCA, 1992.
Acid Eaters, Radioactive/MCA, 1993.
Adios Amigos, Radioactive/MCA, 1995.
Greatest Hits Live, Radioactive/MCA, 1996.
We're Outta Here!, Radioactive/MCA, 1997.
Chrysalis Anthology, EMI, 2002.
Ramone, Dee Dee, et al., Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000.
Ramone, Dee Dee, Chelsea Horror Hotel, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2001.
Ramone, Dee Dee, Legend of a Rock Star: A Novel, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.
Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, September 18, 1992; February 22, 2002; June 21, 2002.
Esquire, April 1980; September 1996.
Guitar Player, April 1985.
Hollywood Reporter, June 7, 2002.
Institutional Investor, March 2002.
Interview, March 2002.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, April 24, 1994; May 24, 1995; July 17, 2001; March 18, 2002.
Musician, July 1983; November 1991; December 1991.
People, April 30, 2001.
PR Newswire, January 15, 2003.
Pulse!, October 1992.
Rolling Stone, February 8, 1979; July 12, 1979; July 17, 1986; August 27, 1987; September 20, 1990; October 29, 1992.
Spin, April 1990; April 1992; June 1992.
Stereo Review, October 1978.
Time, March 10, 1980; March 4, 2002.