In the seventies and the eighties, when they were still together, the Ramones were as ubiquitous and as constant as, say, the Catholic Church or Starbucks.
Wherever and whenever you saw them – and, in all, there were 2,263 shows to see – the punk rock quartet from Forest Hills, New York generally looked the same, and they generally sounded the same, as well. This is not say that the Ramones did not eventually learn to master their instruments (they did), or that they periodically dabbled in some aural experimentation (they did that, too).
But, for most of the 22 years they were together, the Ramones were an eternal counter-culture icon, which is – of course – a contradiction in terms. Sid died, the Clash slipped into self-parody, and countless other punk outfits came and went. But, for those of us who were inevitably getting older, there would always be the Ramones – Tommy, Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee, writing and playing three-minute (and sometimes two-minute) bursts of pure pop genius. Imagine the early Beach Boys with lots of distorted guitars, biker jackets and songs about chainsaws, and you get the picture. That was the Ramones.
At the centre of all of that, at the centre of the ceaseless pop music genius that produced ‘Blitzkrieg Bop,’ and ‘Rock’n'Roll High School’ and ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,’ was Joey Ramone. Arriving in the world in May 1951 as Jeffrey Hyman, Joey – as he became known – was tall enough to make the likes of Vince Carter look squat.
Onstage, he was always the same: face hidden behind an unsightly bush of long black hair, eyes lost behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He would stand there, feet splayed, with one hand gripping the microphone and the other punching at the air, most often out of time to Tommy Ramone’s economical drum beat. Behind him, or to his side, Johnny Ramone would slash at his Mosrite guitar, located somewhere in the vicinity of his ankles – and Dee Dee Ramone would leap about, periodically contributing bass lines.
Joey’s voice was no finely-tuned instrument, which was precisely why all of us adolescent misfits in suburban Calgary, Alberta loved him so much. He was a punk; he was the first punk. His music was not merely different from the coma-inducing arena rock that so many others offered up (like Supertramp, like Fleetwood Mac, like KISS). It was, in fact, a specific rejection of all of that. The Ramones’ sound was loud, and it was snotty, and it was about things we could relate to – hanging out at Seven-Eleven, drinking slurpees, or getting hassled by Led Zep goons at in high school corridors.
The Ramones eponymous first album was recorded, legend goes, for about $6,000 (U.S.) in 1975, and was released in 1976 on the Sire label, which later became home to the likes of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys and the Talking Heads. It contained songs – sometimes very, very short songs – with titles like ‘Beat on the Brat,’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,’ and their frenetic cover of Chris Montez’s ‘Let’s Dance.’ On the album’s black-and-white cover, Tommy, Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee slouched against a brick wall. Along with the biker’s jackets that became their most enduring symbol, they wore T-shirts and jeans with the knees worn through. Me and my friends stared at that picture more than once, wordless: there could hardly be a more conscious rejection of corporate rock’n'roll, and what it had become, than that astounding photograph.
The first time I dropped the first Ramones LP onto my tinny turntable in the basement of our southeast Calgary home, I could not believe my ears: I could make out, barely, Joey’s voice, yelping lyrics that were alternately funny and angry. Along with that, a crescendo of guitars and drums, ripping through three-chord riffs like a chainsaw. (As if to drive home the point, one of the songs was titled, appropriately enough, ‘Chainsaw.’) It was, and remains, one of the most wonderful rock albums ever made.
The first Ramones record was what rock’n'roll had been meant to be in the first place: simple, fast, loud, and calculated to irritate your parents. It was, along the way, a kick in the slats of the bloated corpse of the rock “business,” which – circa 1976 – had become utterly disconnected from the lives of real kids.
After that album came out, everything changed for good. For instance, when a British fashion impressario named Malcolm MacLaren spotted the Ramones – around the time he was in the States, unsuccessfully attempting to change the New York Dolls into a political statement – he was, like everyone else, awestruck. MacLaren dashed back to the U.K. to create another rock band, one that would that would rely heavily upon the sound of Joey Ramones’ band. The foursome that MacLaren would manage was called the Sex Pistols.
But the Ramones weren’t like the Pistols, at all. Where the Pistols became proponents of anarchy and class-based nihilism, the Ramones were rarely political. They figured their fans did not come to hear a group of musicians lecture them about politics, and they were right. (The most notable exception to this came much later: Joey’s angry take on Ronald Reagan’s decision to visit a German cemetery containing S.S. soldiers, which he called ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.’) The Pistols were also preoccupied with fashion, and their fans favoured safety-pinned earlobes, and technicolour tresses. The Ramones, and their fans, stuck with the biker jackets, T-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes.
I saw the Ramones more times than I can count, in towns and cities right across Canada. Their shows were typically attended by people who were anything but typical: Pistols-style punks, metal heads, art school types, skateboarders, university students and even honest-to-goodness bikers. They would always play the same way: heads-down, straight-out rock’n'roll. No chitchat between songs: just Joey occasionally mumbling “thank you,” and Dee Dee hollering “one-two-three-four” before every tune (if the spirit moved him, he’d do the count-ins in German, too). And then another sonic barrage, washing over you like a wave of heat.
In 1980 or so, when all of us were hoping they would hit the big time, and achieve the kind of commercial success they so clearly deserved, I interviewed Joey Ramone for a music industry give-away (they paid me with albums and tickets to shows). The resulting tape is now long gone, lost somewhere on a move between Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa or Toronto.
But I remember, clearly, that no one at his record company had told Joey Ramone that I would be calling him on his unlisted home number. I offered to call back, but he cheerfully insisted that we proceed with the interview.
Like the partisan I am known to be, in other ways, I was shamelessly partisan about the Ramones during that interview. I remember that I complained about how the music industry didn’t give the Ramones enough credit, and I complained how radio stations didn’t play enough hummable 45s like ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’ (so much do I love that song, in fact, that my wife and I later gave our border collie that name, and all our friends can tell you it fits).
Joey Ramone, characteristically – and as he was to the end, I am told, a victim of cancer at age 49 – was not bitter. Instead, he was good-natured about the Ramones lack of commercial success, which persisted until they finally broke up in 1996. “One of these days, you know,” he said in his Noo Yawk drawl. “One of these days we may get lucky.”
The lucky ones, as it turned out, were me and my friends, because we got to have the Ramones. And Joey.