A chat with Punk Magazine’s John Holmstrom about Road to Ruin by The Ramones
If you have not yet wrapped your clammy, punk-loving mitts around Rhino’s gonzo Ramones reissue box sets, you have neglected your pinhead duty. True, seasoned cretins know that the Ramones catalog has been reissued and refashioned more often than the CBGBs logo. And punk fans in general aren’t always the richest guy in the room. How many more of these things can we afford?!
But starting in 2016 with the band’s eponymous 1976 debut and moving chronologically through the first three albums, Rhino Records have really done a saintly, worthwhile favor by truly digging through the vaults for loads of never-before-released demos, rare B-sides, whole live concerts from the era, and most droolingly, well-considered remixes and/remasters of each album – all across three CDs and a vinyl LP of the new remix, and an info/pix-packed booklet in each fancy, hardcover set. The debut’s mono mix LP was a true revelation, but each set flicks its own lightbulbs for longtime fanatics, and these sets should stand as life jumping-off points for youngins new to the whole punk revolution story.
The lightbulbs for the latest – the Ramones’ fourth album, Road to Ruin (Sire Records, 1978) – include not one but TWO new and drastically different takes on “S.L.U.G.,” a discarded demo/latterday classic that first made an appearance on the 1991 CD compilation, All the Stuff (and More) Volume Two.
The “40th Anniversary Road Revisited Mix” CD/LP offers another new, stripped-back remix – from original producer, Ed Stasium – that lets you revel in Johnny’s riffs and get closer to Joey’s mouth. It’s an interesting take considering Road to Ruin was the first Ramones album where more concrete attempts to widen and radio-up their sound took place, as the band’s frustration with not landing that elusive “hit” was starting to settle in. (“I Wanted Everything.)
There has always been a feeling that Road to Ruin was the end point of the Ramones’ initial detonation that basically thrust punk rock and nascent power pop into the mainstream lexicon. By taking two years to release the next album, and releasing the great double-live album, It’s Alive, in between, they then employed Phil Spector to produce the awkward follow-up with the reflective title, End of the Century – and it became apparent that the Ramones were edging into “standard bearer” status, though their days of chart-topping chances were past them, and it was on to a lauded life of endless, inspiring touring and intermittent good/”eh” albums for the next 15 years.
So there is a new kind of poignancy when listening to the bends and turns through this Road reissue. You can really hear Joey trying new vocal curves around his increasingly doleful lyrics; the production allows for more acoustic sounds and general space for melodies to come to the fore; the rough mixes a reminder of their still effortless sneer-swing; yet at the same time, there is some of the most solid Rock the band would come up with (that “I’m Against It” demo!!), energized by a new drummer, Marky Ramone, who hit with a straighter, heavier pound than Tommy, now tired of keeping up with the band’s motor, but remaining their producer.
Within it all, this crew of teenage lobotomies from Queens came up with three of the best rock’n’roll love songs of the end of the century: “Don’t Come Close,” “Questioningly,” and “She’s the One;” not to mention arguably the definitive Ramones song, “I Wanna Be Sedated” – and on this set you’ll get a rough mix of that one, plus a mix of just the backing music, and an oddball “Mega Mix” that was an ‘80s B-side.
Another intriguing addendum to Road to Ruin, is the excellent sleeve art. Up to this point, there were the usual disputes and chin-scratches about what to do for the album cover, but given Sire’s clock ticking patience for a return on investment, this one went through a few more desperate machinations than usual. We caught up with Road to Ruin cover artist, PUNK Magazine founder and all-around LES historian John Holmstrom for some insight into the sights on Road to Ruin.
I realize you’ve probably told this story a bunch over the years, but can you give me the story/memory/initial impression of the first time you saw the Ramones live?
I first saw the Ramones on August 24, 1975. It was a Sunday night and on of the last “CBGB Summer Rock Festival” dates. According to Monte Melnick’s book, On The Road With The Ramones (which lists every Ramones’ concert appearance!), this would have been their 61st show. I had read about them in Creem magazine – Lisa Robninson’s “Eleganza” column, which described their look – and in The Village Voice – James Wolcott’s cover story about the CBGB Summer Fest which described their sound. Put together, it seemed like the Ramones were the perfect band for me.
CBGB was fairly empty that night, only a few dozen people were there. The Ramones played for around 20 minutes, but I thought they were one of the best bands I had ever seen, and I had gone to hundreds of shows by then. I was so exhausted by the music scene by then. I had seen so many bands that copied Cream (the first band I ever saw live) and played endless drum solos. Heavy metal had become long, slow, depressing, drug-fueled dirges punctuated by long guitar solos. My favorite glam/punk bands, Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls, had broken up. Blue Oyster Cult put out a great live album that summer, I had picked up Patti Smith’s first single, “Piss Factory,” and the Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy LP. I knew that the rock ‘n’ roll scene was about to evolve and change again. The Ramones were perfect: Fast, loud, funny, and dangerous. Everything a great rock ‘n’ roll band should be.
I saw them a lot in 1976, when they’d be playing to almost empty rooms, often with Blondie or the Talking Heads, and would be frustrated that more people didn’t know about all of this amazing music. So we did what we could to publicize it.
So, who approached you about doing the cover of Road to Ruin?
Johnny [Ramone]. He hired me to do Rocket to Russia and we always worked well together.
And what were your ideas going into it? What were you doing at the time? PUNK was almost done by then, right?
Actually, PUNK Magazine was far from done. In fact, we were. we thought, on the verge of success. I was approached in the summer of 1978 to draw the cover image, and that was a big year for punk rock. As usual, I was suddenly torn between the Pistols and the Ramones. When I went on the Sex Pistols tour in January, I had to abandon second-row tickets for the huge Runaways/Ramones show at the Academy of Music for the
Rocket To Russia tour. Now I was in the middle of publishing our cover story about the Sex Pistols U.S. tour. This was the biggest story I had ever taken on, and it was due at the printer in a few days. So, to do the record cover I had to delay PUNK’s production and take a risk on my business to do a favor for the Ramones, who were in a very tight bind.
I honestly didn’t have any ideas for the cover: The situation was the opposite. Several weeks earlier, Johnny had solicited my opinion about who should draw the cover. The Ramones had a sketch by Gus MacDonald, a fan from Scotland, but he wanted some minor changes: Marky was to replace Tommy behind the drums, etc. Apparently, everyone they asked were all in agreement that Wally Wood would be perfect.
Wally Wood was in poor health and gave the assignment to his assistant, who refused to mimic the design of the fan sketch and tried to draw alternative versions of the basic idea. One day the Ramones called me to their office, where around 20 different cover sketches hung of the walls. I was asked to look them over and pick out the best. Difficult task, since none of them followed the simple and powerful design elements of the MacDonald sketch.
Johnny asked me if I could take over and draw the cover. As honored as I was, I also knew that we were already late delivering PUNK #14 to the printer! So I asked for an outrageous amount of money – $1,000, a lot of money back then – to do the job. They agreed, but also said that they needed it by the next day! That was impossible, but I stayed up day and night for the next two days…
It seems that the general feeling was that, by this time (1978), everyone in the Ramones camp thought they would’ve had a hit record by then, and maybe there was some frustration creeping in. Were you thinking of any of that stuff when coming up with cover ideas?
Like I said, I didn’t have any ideas, this was a commercial art job for me. Tommy did say during a meeting: “If we can’t get a hit from this record we will never have one.” It did seem crazy to everyone around the band that they never got a hit record because their music is so good.
Did you sit in on any of the recording sessions?
The only recording session I ever attended was for the first LP. It was a fairly boring affair, so I never felt the need to see another Ramones recording session, nor any band working on their music. Of course, the coolest thing was the honor of being at their first recording session, also it was exciting that they were recording at a studio above Radio City Music Hall. A year
later Blondie recorded Plastic Letters there, and Roberta Bayley and I shot scenes with Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, and Joey in a lounge and on the roof of the studios for Mutant Monster Beach party issue of PUNK #14. That was a lot of fun!
I was hanging out at the Ramones loft once when Dee Dee and Joey were working on a song together and it was like a Chinese water torture: Joey would play a chord, Dee Dee would suggest a slight change, Joey would play it again, then they’d try it the other way again, etc. etc., for like 45 minutes. While I appreciated their work ethic, I also had work to do.
What did you hear from the four of them about how it was going in the studio while making Road to Ruin?
The only thing I remember was hearing them discuss the songs they had recorded. Johnny seemed large and in charge, and dismissed a song called “S.L.U.G.” That was a Joey Ramone song, and I think it was just another way for Johnny to put down Joey. A few years later, I worked with Joey on getting a Ramones’ song for a kid’s computer magazine (K-Power, 1983-84).
They always seemed to get along great when I hung out with them, and I used to travel to a lot of shows with them. I was in the van with the band – and Monte, of course – for hours and hours as they would travel to Connecticut or New Jersey to do shows at area colleges (this was after PUNK Magazine folded in 1979). I even opened for them when they played Bond’s (Feb. 19 and 20, 1981). I was doing a slideshow/performance thing and got booed off the stage (of course). Johnny seemed to take a weird delight in that.
I assume you heard the album, or some rough mixes before doing the art?
Nope. I never heard any music before doing cover artwork.
I know the original drawing had like monster tentacles coming out of the street, around the Ramones, right?
Well the original sketch by Gus MacDonald had a snake and a lobster claw coming out of the speakers. The biggest change they made was when I delivered the final artwork to their office and both Johnny and Dee Dee demanded that their faces needed to be redrawn. As I said, I had been up all night and the last thing I wanted to hear was, “It needs more work.” Joey had no problem with his look and Marky, of course, had no say in anything since he had just joined the band.
Any conversation with Danny Fields about his photo that would go on the back cover?
Nope. I was just a hired gun. Arturo Vega, as the Ramones’ art director, might have had some say. I got the impression that they used Danny’s photos to save money on the budget. As you probably know, the Ramones were so frugal that they never fell into a deep debt with the record company, they never spent wildly on press parties, advertising, promotion, etc. For
instance, it was huge news when they spent under $10,000 recording their first album at a time Fleetwood Mac was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to record Tusk, which didn’t sell very well. So they usually turned a profit.
Didn’t they make Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in 1978? Road to Ruin was made before the band worked on the movie, right? What did you think of them being in that flick, and were you able to be on set at all?
The last issue of PUNK Magazine was to be published in the summer of 1979, and the cover story was an interview and photos by Joey Ramone. (You can see this in the Best of PUNK Magazine book, published by Harper Collins.) We were excited to be printing a cover story about this film, especially since the director, Allan Arkush, told us that PUNK #15, “Mutant Monster Beach Party” – a photo comic starring Joey, Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol, Peter Wolf, Lester Bangs, Arturo Vega, and many others – convinced Roger Corman to cast the Ramones. That was a proud accomplishment.
I wasn’t able to be on the set (they filmed in Los Angeles), but they used a bit of my artwork in the film, which was nice. I was also commissioned to draw an advertisement for the soundtrack LP. A small display ad ran in Billboard, and it was also supposed to run in PUNK #18 – but that was pulled off the press by the printer, who thought we were “garbage”. And that, my friend, was the final nail in the coffin for PUNK Magazine.
What are some of your favorite songs from Road to Ruin?
I like “Don’t Come Close” a lot. That was the first single and there were high expectations that its Country & Western tone might make a crossover success possible. Of course I loved “I Wanna Be Sedated,” but the band and record company were, as I remember, afraid to release it as a single since it was too weird for “the record-buying public” at the time.
(Ed.: Interestingly, “I Wanna Be Sedated” was eventually released as a single off the soundtrack to the great 1980 cult film, Times Square; and then again as the single from the first official Ramones “Best of” compilation, Ramones Mania, in 1988, including an accompanying video. Originally “too weird” for radio execs, the song will probably pop up at the next wedding you go to, and is arguably the most well-known Ramones song. Seeming proof that our society has indeed gotten increasingly weirder.)
I think “She’s the One” is a superior song by the band, one of their best ever. (Ed.: And “I Wanna Be Sedated” was the B-side. Weird.) The only song I do not like is “Needles and Pins.” There are much better cover versions of this song, in my opinion, and it was, to me, the first misfire after a long line of amazing Ramones cover versions.
It’s often claimed that, basically, the band had most of the first three records, and even some of Road to Ruin, written by the time they made their first album. From your recollection, is that correct? And do you also place this album as the sort of end of the first phase of the Ramones, for whatever that might mean?
No, but I would say that the Ramones had most of the material for the first two LPs written before they were signed. They also had stuff like “Baby-Sitter” (which had appeared as a B-side), which was a fan favorite back then. I think most of Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin was written after the first LP was released.
I could give my interpretation of the Road to Ruin cover art, but that would suck. So I’ll annoy you and ask you what you thought of your finished product then; and what you feel about it now? Do you still have the original art of either the original idea or final cover?
You know, I get the feeling that you, like so many music fans, have an elevated idea about how record covers were produced back in the day. You know, an artist would sit down with the band, smoke a joint/have a beer, and brainstorm on what kind of record cover image would look good, sell records, and become famous. Sadly, it was more like making sausage: you don’t really know how it was produced, and it’s not as pure as you would hope. I gave to original artwork to Seymour Stein, who allegedly has a vast art collection, similar to Citizen Kane’s, so it’s kind of lost. But since I used rubber cement to paste on the “new and improved” faces for Jonny and Dee Dee, it probably hasn’t aged well.
Since it was a “commercial art job” that I executed as a last-minute favor to the Ramones, I always have mixed feelings. You know, I would’ve loved to have been asked by the Ramones to come up with my own ideas for a record cover. In fact, I wish the Dead Boys or other bands had asked me to design a record cover. This didn’t happen for me until Murphy’s Law hired me in 1989 for their The Best of Times LP. It would’ve been a great LP cover, but by then music was being distributed on CD’s and cassette tapes. Those smaller formats hurt the impact of the drawing, I think.
The Ramones didn’t ask me to do anything else for them until the “Something To Believe In” video. Johnny (again) asked me to draw the “Hands Across Your Face” logo [for a mid-80s tour t-shirt], but offered a terribly small fee (something like $50).
And as far as working on this new Rhino reissue?
As always, working with Rhino is the best! I wrote the liner notes about the Gus MacDonald situation, and was paid handsomely. Many years ago, I also did a comic strip for the Weird Tales of the Ramones DVD/CD Rhino box set, and working with Hugh Brown (who flew everyone out to Los Angeles for a signing session) was a highlight of my career. Hugh Brown is a guy who belongs in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame! Instead, he’s just one of so many publicists, rock writers, artists, photographers, and other ancillary people who really helped create rock culture.