- 23 Apr 20
44 years ago today, the Ramones released their classic self-titled debut album. Containing hits like 'Blitzkrieg Bop' and 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend', Ramones has since been regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. To celebrate, we're revisiting our 2005 interview with Tommy Ramone. A word to the wise: it's a absolute cracker.
Not renowned for their longevity, rock stars and punk veterans have often displayed a penchant for dying young, usually in a splatter of unidentified bodily fluids that may or may not be their own.
Still, there was something intensely strange about the passing of Johnny Ramone this year, the third of the Bruddahs to head for some unearthly Cretin Hop in as many years. Sure, Dee Dee lasted longer than his chemical jitters and early dalliances with glue suggested he ought, while Joey never looked the healthiest of specimens from this, or any other species. Long before the singer’s death in 2001, he had worn the pallor and fragility of a heroine from Victorian melodrama, condemned to languish away in the workhouse while coughing little spots of blood into a lace handkerchief from better days.
Johnny, though, was a different animal. A hard-nosed, Queens-spawned prole, right up until he lost his five-year battle with prostate cancer last September, the guitarist – then aged 55 - still looked every inch the surly, Brando-styled juvenile delinquent. Of the original happy family, now only manager/drummer Tommy remained, and his involvement with the freakshow that spawned British punk, NY’s blank generation and so many horrid nu-metal brats, has been limited to occasional production stints since the end of the ‘70s.
So the road to ruin has hit something of a wall. Odd, as down the years, the band Too Tough To Die had become, as the ever-shifting personnel changes suggested, a venerable institution. For a little while, despite Joey’s passing and Dee Dee’s fatal overdose in 2002, the Ramone Empire looked as though it would endure long after its founder members. One somehow imagined that in the next millennium, white smoke would billow from the upstairs window of an anonymous stack of bricks in Forest Hills, Queens, before men clad in sacred garb (leather biker jackets with arms too short and shorn denim) would emerge to give the world Richie XIV, their 32,098th bassist. It was not to be. And that’s kind of a recurrent theme in the long-awaited Ramones documentary, End Of The Century – The Story Of The Ramones, due out here in January.
An excellent, exhaustive and gripping account of the rise and plateau of the Queens quartet from filmmakers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, End Of The Century rocks with all the heat and noise of their subjects’ early stints in CBGB’s. Assembled from ten years' worth of material and incredible unearthed archive footage, even non-fans – if such losers indeed exist – will be enthralled by the operatic dynamics between the Bruddahood, and in particular the mondo psycho-drama underlying Joey and Johnny’s fraught relationship.
From the very beginnings of the planet’s first punk rock outfit, this pair made for defining wilful opposites. Where Johnny was laconic, no nonsense, hardcore and somewhere to the right of Condeleeza Rice in his politics, Joey was almost feminine, liberal and cutely dorkish. Best pals with Ronnie Spector, prone to gushing balladry like ‘Questioningly’ and constantly inclining toward nostalgic Spectoral pop, Joey had an infinite capacity for forlorn ‘Have You Ever Seen The Rain?’ romanticism. It’s what gave the band their Land Of A Thousand Dances dimension, a sweet yearning for pure, unadorned rock n’ roll Americana. It also led to Joey and Johnny not speaking for twenty years.
“They were very complicated individuals,” Tommy Ramone tells me. “They were very talented and highly eccentric people. I mean, I think the film represents everybody as accurately as possible, short of being twelve hours long. And there’s a lot of history in there, especially between Joey and John, so the second half is very dark. But one of the things that drew me to the band, back when we were kids in my hometown, was their colour and unpredictability. It was only after I had gathered them together that I realised what wonderful songwriters they were, and like a lot of gifted people what made them so good, made them difficult…”
And he falters, not for the first or only time today.
“It’s still only sinking in that they’re gone,” he continues. “It’s very difficult to deal with. The series of events have just been so bizarre. I can’t even think about it. It’s just too overwhelming. But what can I do? You got to carry on. But it’s been like a fog, just losing three brothers like that… And we really were brothers.”
Or at least where it counts. Back in 1974, Tommy (Erdelyi), a Hungarian immigrant and assistant engineer on the Hendrix staff, teamed up with fellow Forest Hills High alumni, Johnny, to manage an embryonic Ramones. Tommy immediately realised that Joey, the band’s drummer, had more potential as a frontman than then vocalist Dee Dee, so Tommy ended up on stick duties himself. (“Before that I had never been behind a drum-set in my life, but it made sense because Dee Dee couldn’t get through three numbers without going hoarse.”)
Tommy’s creative and managerial presence during the classic Ramones period acted as a kind of crucible. An associate producer on Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket To Russia, he authored much of the band’s image and married their disparate influences.
Even after Tommy’s return to civilian life, though, the boys never seemed overly troubled by their musical differences. It was just part of The Ramones’ dirty chemistry. During the ‘70s, at their most integrated, the band’s unique methamphetamined stripped and whipped three-chord Molotovs were every bit as mutant as the carnivalesque folk who populated their lyrics – the back-street bastard offspring of Joey’s gushing pop, Dee Dee’s carbona sniffing punk, Johnny’s hammering downstroke on the sixth and Tommy’s look-no-brakes jazz percussion.
Rather famously, however, there was a girl. Linda Cummings was the love of Joey’s life. Until, in a tawdry Tap-worthy twist, she married Johnny. It wasn’t exactly the kind of callous incident one might expect from the pages of a thesis on The Destructive and Creative Influence of Women In Rock – From The Sirens to Yoko Ono. It was just one of those unavoidable things, yet another not to be in The Ramones’ history. As it happened, Johnny’s marriage to Linda was the real deal, a two-decade long affair, still going strong at the time of his death. Maybe it was written in the stars that Joey, the poster boy for Geekrock, USA wouldn’t get the girl, but heartbroken, he never forgave Johnny nor spoke to him again.
Still, according to Tommy, the situation wasn’t quite the logistical studio nightmare one might suppose.
“There were no problems. They didn’t even need to speak to each other. Joey would just turn up and do the vocals. And everybody worked really hard. On a personal level it was frustrating that they wouldn’t talk like they used to, but there were no professional difficulties. You just have to think of it as sibling rivalry.”
As End Of The Century reveals, even after the terminal fallout and Dee Dee’s bitter departure, The Ramones didn’t seem to have much of a choice but to carry on. After all, wherever else is a boy with a mop-top and beat up sneakers meant to go?
“Yeah, that’s very much the case,” explains Tommy. “Johnny had an incredible work ethic and of course, he wanted to pay the bills. But they had to keep going, because they drove everybody else crazy, so he and Joey just stuck together. They weren’t speaking but they had each other.”
Almost inevitably, there’s an elegiac tone to Gramaglia and Field’s film. Joey, already gravely ill by the time shooting began, haunts rather than inhabits End Of The Century, as does the entire lost world of down-towners, weekend rent boys, ill-defined artistes, hangers-on and freakazoids who spilled into Manhattan and formed Generation Blank. Tommy, however, is slightly less misty-eyed about his New York punk brethren than the directors.
“It was a scene,” recalls Tommy, “but we really weren’t that aware of it. You know, when you’re in the middle of these things, you don’t really notice them. I remember everybody was working hard, trying to get their groups off the ground, and I remember it was very competitive. In retrospect, I can say we were lucky to be there, but at the time we were just too busy to notice the whole New York thing.”
Though a brilliant encapsulation of this era, mostly the documentary echoes the one time enquiry of Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau. Just how dumb are The Ramones? Or, to put it another way, just how smart? Their anachronistic, anarchic tendencies always made it sort of hard to tell. Were they visionaries attacking the bourgeois complacencies of masturbatory stadium rock or a gang of idiot savants? It didn’t help that these cartoon greasers crashed onto an urbane scene glittering with the tawdry lights of Television, Richard Hell, Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Gleefully advancing yo-yoing (not even pogoing) Funhouse stoopidity when all around were artfully cerebral, even Tommy, the brains of the outfit and originator of the family aesthetic, was never going to come off like a Chelsea sophisticate.
Unexpectedly, in End Of The Century, it’s Johnny, the hitherto intimidating Kaiser-bowl behind the guitar, who trashes this perception of sub-normality the most. As he marvels aloud when he finds himself caring about Joey’s death and hails President Bush’s efforts during the band’s induction into the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, you can’t help but be seduced by his contrary charms and abrasive wit. (Honest.)
“He loved to tweak people,” laughs Tommy. “Even during the last minute of his life he was doing it. He liked being the centre of attention and he liked pushing buttons.”
Equally surprising is proto-pinhead Dee Dee’s emergence as one both canny and self-aware, though his shaky physical appearance suggests that many neural pathways may have already surrendered functionality. (How else could one explain away his post-Ramones’ solo rap career, captured here in all its ghastliness?) It’s Dee Dee who seems most pissed off by The Ramones’ failure to translate their hallowed reputation into commercial success, and the subsequent dilution of their art during the ‘80s.
His frustrations were entirely understandable. The Ramones just couldn’t win. Some shrugged them off as Mad-magazine caricatures whose musical development atrophied two minutes into ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. Others viewed every cowbell embellishment of the formula after Rocket To Russia as a burning Judas kiss. Of course, all such thoughts are damnable heresies. The Ramones were forever supreme punked-up girl-band songwriters, who could take you somewhere dingy and tenderise your inner-thighs. Even on an album like Animal Boy, possibly their least well-regarded recording, there are moments of scuzzball genius, like the tarnished metallic title track or the gushing synth pop of ‘Something To Believe In’.
But world domination was just not to be. During the early ‘90s when Iggy and Debbie were (deservedly) swelling their retirement funds and discrediting the notion that American lives had no capacity for second acts, The Ramones were playing the clubs.
“We were ahead of our time”, observes Tommy. “By about thirty years it would seem. We were dangerous too. Especially for the record industry. There was a feeling of ‘Oh my gosh if this thing takes off, everybody’s career is going to be over’. There’d be nothing but punk rock. And a lot of our lyrics were slightly psychotic, a bit too disturbing to get airplay. But they were a great band, a classic band, and they sell more records every year. They just never became a pop phenomenon.”
Still, corny as it sounds, even if we never do get the white smoke scenario, The Ramones, like the poor and the Bush dynasty, will always be with us. Long-term conscript Marky is still out there on the road and Tommy has just overseen an Australian run of Gabba Gabba Hey, a Ramones musical with a couple of Stooges tunes thrown in to really sweeten the deal.
Besides, even if the franchise were to disappear, Atlantis style, tomorrow, the Brudders will continue to provide an unrivalled soundtrack for the bedrooms of converse pimps, teen misfits and girls with no time for foreplay. Let’s go, indeed.