- 15 Apr 20
19 years ago today, Joey Ramone, the iconic lead vocalist of the Ramones, died after a long battle with lymphoma. To mark his anniversary, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's reflections on Joey's life and legacy – originally published in Hot Press in 2001.
Joey Ramone passed away on Sunday April 15th after a seven-year battle with lymphatic cancer. He was buried at Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and the funeral service was attended by friends and compatriots such as Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie, Joan Jett, and former Ramones drummer and producer Tommy Erdelyi.
Speaking at a service at Schwartz Bros Memorial Chapels in the singer’s hometown of Forest Hills, Queens, his brother Mickey Leigh said that, although he could talk all day about his sibling, Joey "could have said it all in two minutes and ten seconds".
Joey Ramone was born Jeff Hyman on May 19, 1951 and grew up listening to Del Shannon, Phil Spector, The Shangri-Las, The Beach Boys and British invasion groups such as the Who, The Beatles and The Kinks. At the age of 13, inspired by Keith Moon, he took up the drums, but soon moved to singing and writing songs in a glitter band called Sniper.
The Ramones came together in the post-glam doldrums of 1974, intent on reviving the raw energy of primal rock ‘n’ roll. The first of all the CBGBs bands to score a record deal, early shows saw them clocking up full sets in under 15 minutes. Unbelievers might have complained that The Ramones reduced rock ‘n’ roll to the level of a cartoon, but the fact is, they elevated it to the level of a cartoon. Like their Detroit and New York peers, the band were living proof of the dictum that the best pop is often a dumb noise made by smart people.
Their first three albums Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket To Russia fused the hoodlum energy of the seminal ’60s garage rock acts with the pop sensibilities of girl groups like The Crystals, all topped off with lyrics so funny they were deadly serious. These songs managed to say more in three syllables than the prog rock behemoths or Californian cocaine clowns could manage in a triple album: ‘Teenage Lobotomy’, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker' . . . The Ramones created a canon of standards for the freaks and the pinheads, and their legendary set at the Roundhouse in London in the summer of 1976 was a social event, attended by The Clash, The Damned, and just about anyone who mattered in the nascent British punk scene.
Fifteen years later, the band would be feted once again, not just by second wave punkers such as Nirvana, Green Day, The Offspring and Rancid, but hard rockers like Guns ‘N’ Roses and Motorhead. Long time fan Stephen King even commissioned ‘Pet Sematary’ for the film adaptation of his novel of the same name.
Then there was the look. Just as much as Richard Hell’s ripped t-shirts, Debbie’s Harry’s peroxide poise or Johnny Thunders’ torn foppery, The Ramones defined CBGB chic. Converse runners, ripped jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets – like the music, it just didn’t get any more streamlined, stripped down and tooled up.
Behind the gonzo imagery though, the group’s music telegraphed a struggle between the wish for oblivion (‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’) and a stubborn lust for life (‘I Just Want To Have Something To Do’, ‘I’m Not Afraid Of Life’, ‘Too Tough To Die’, ‘I Wanna Live’). Like The Stooges and The New York Dolls, they provided a kind of high volume counselling service for teenage (and menopausal, and senior citizen) fuck-ups. Any act who could sum up the futility of junkiedom in two tragi-comic lines like "I’m livin’ on a Chinese rock/All my best stuff is in hock" is up there with Joyce and Shakespeare, no question.
When The Ramones split in 1996 they were pretty much a spent force, having gone 90 mph down a dead end street for a good 20 years. But let no revisionary write off their later period – even in decline, you could count on the band to come out with a killer song every year or so: ‘Something To Believe In’, ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)’, or their tailor-cut version of Tom Waits’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ (possibly the only song beginning with "I don’t wanna . . ." not written by the band).
Then there are the legends too humorous to mention: drummer Richie writing ‘Somebody Put Something In My Drink’ after being straightjacketed as a result of an acid spiking, Phil Spector making Johnny play the opening chord of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’ for ten hours . . .
The Ramones had no shortage of friends and fans in Irish quarters. Dave Fanning plugged the band relentlessly in the early days of his rock show and often cited the first three albums among his desert island discs. They were a huge influence on The Golden Horde (who employed producers Craig Leon and Daniel Rey), Something Happens (ditto with Ed Stasium and Tommy Erdelyi), and Ash (check out ‘Kung Fu’ or ‘Pacific Palisades’). And for a fledgling U2 struggling to master their instruments, they provided a vital example of how to make your own shortcomings work in your favour.
According to MTV’s Kurt Loder, Bono rang Joey on Good Friday last and the two spoke briefly. When Mickey Leigh was called to the hospital two days later, he took with him a copy of U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and played ‘In A Little While’ for his brother. By the end of the song, "he was gone". That night, at their Portland Oregon show, U2 performed a version of The Ramones’ ‘I Remember You’ and Bono sang ‘Amazing Grace’ in memory of the singer.
May he rest in peace.