Remembering the polarizing punk rock icon on what would have been his 72nd birthday
Sleater-Kinney didn’t write a song called I Wanna Be Your Johnny Ramone.”
U2 didn’t write a song called “The Miracle (of Johnny Ramone).” Motorhead’s Lemmy did write “R-A-M-O-N-E-S,” where he name-checked all four co-founding members, spreading out the joy and even including replacements, drummer Marky and replacement bassist C.J.
The tall, gawky, forever in sunglasses, long-hair-in-his-face singer Joey was the focal point (and the subject of the aforementioned tribute songs) as singers so often are. He wrote their hit, “Sheena Was a Punk Rocker,” “We’re a Happy Family” and “Cretin Hop.” However, drummer Tommy and bassist Dee Dee were the primary songwriters.
Johnny, he played guitar. Irreplaceable guitar. Often imitated, but, somehow never surpassed. Lots of people back then thought, “It’s seems so simple, why can’t more bands get crunchy sound?”
I asked my friend, guitarist/writer/radio host Johnny Angel, about his style. (Johnny Angel was a friend of the Ramones and played in the Boston bands Thrills and Blackjacks.) “He couldn’t really play, but what he knew and did, he mastered,” Angel said. “But really, it’s very simple. His style was barre chords played all wrist downstroke. What that means, power wise, is that the two low strings are hit on every strum. That emphasizes the ‘sonic middle.’
“If I strum up and down or only up, the guitar will bell chime. But if it’s all down–and the bass is playing exactly the same pattern, 1, pause, 3-4-5-6-7-8, 1? Pure power. It’s much more aggressive. Like a super percussive Tony Iommi or Ron Asheton.”
VIDEO: The Ramones Live at The Rainbow ’77
Today Oct. 8 would have been his 72nd birthday. He died in 2004 at 55. Fuckin’ prostate cancer. (Three yeas before, Joey had succumbed to lymphoma. Dee Dee died in 2002 from a heroin overdose. Tommy died in 2014 from bile duct cancer.)
I probably saw the Ramones live 25 times. The first time might have been the best; Halloween, 1977, then the following year in July at The Loft in Portland, Maine, which was the first time I spoke with them. We we were all backstage post-show in a cramped dressing room. The story from those days for a Maine music magazine called Sweet Potato, is long lost and not on the web, but one thing I remember about Johnny was his hammer-down approach to tallying up the t-shirt and merch sales, keeping track of the dough. Nothing wrong that mind you, but this as clearly as big a part of the job for him as anything else.
By 1979, I lived in Boston – writing for the Boston edition of Sweet Potato and beginning to freelance for the Boston Globe – and I was talking backstage with Johnny and Dee Dee before a show at the Orpheum Theater. One thing I learned early on was that Joey and Johnny were not what you’d call friends– politically they were polar opposites (Joey- left, Johnny – right) – and then, later, there was the girlfriend thing. Johnny appropriated Joey’s girlfriend, Linda, and Joey wrote “The KKK Took My Baby Away” about it, Johnny being said KKK.
VIDEO: The Ramones “The KKK Took My Baby Away”
Johnny is facing me in a chair, taking most of the questions. Dee Dee was in the mix, too. Disco was still a thing and Studio 54 a hot spot. Being something of a provocateur I asked his take on disco. It was a good call. “I hate disco music,” Johnny said. “It’s disgusting. It’s some kind of Communist plot to make our brains smooth, to take the crevices out of it. Each artist sounds the same. Everything sounds the same. It’s all fabricated. It’s moronic.”
I got it but, I’m sure I smiled and thought: The exact same words could be said about the Ramones music.
I had talked to them the previous year when we were recording Road to Ruin and Johnny was guardedly optimistic about its chances with radio, breaking through the punk bubble toward some mainstream appeal. Johnny, had told me, “We have some songs on our next album that I think will fit in.”
It didn’t exactly work out. It peaked at 103 on Billboard’s chart, 50 spots behind the previous LP, Rocket to Russia. “I don’t know what we can do,” Johnny said. “We try to figure it out. You want to stick to your ideals and still put out records that you feel are what’s best and not sell out or go disco. We got picked as the runner up Album of the Year by Rolling Stone. After the album came out, we were real optimistic and then they told us it wasn’t getting any radio play – again – and then we were slightly down.”
The rumor was that Phil Spector would be producing the next album. A big wow, and quite a switch to the wall-of-sound guy.
“I like him,” Johnny said, confirming plans were in place. “We don’t know how we’ll be working with him or how much we’ll have to say. He’s already mixed two of the songs for the [Rock ‘n’ Roll High School] soundtrack, [“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “I Want You Around”] but we’re only gonna put one on it. [Jim’s 2020 note: Both made the film and soundtrack.] We haven’t even heard them yet. Maybe Spector will make a difference. If they [radio] see you have a big famous producer maybe they’d be interested in at least listening to the album.”
Along with “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio,” that meant two songs with “rock ‘n’ roll” in the title. “We never wrote a song with ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in the title before and now we wrote two. We’ve got ‘I Want You Around,’ ‘This Ain’t Havana.’ Joey had one that was called ‘I Don’t Care’ but we have to change the title ‘cause we already wrote an ‘I Don’t Care.’ [on 1977’s Rocket to Russia.]
Outside the dressing room, from the stage, we hear a loud female voice, exhorting the crowd to do something impassioned. Later, we find out it’s DJ Tracey Roach urging support for the WBCN jocks who are on strike. WBCN is Boston’s big rock station. They actually played the Ramones.
Dee Dee becomes alarmed: “Sounds like a radical! What’s going on? We shouldn’t have radicals.”
“Shoot them,” said Johnny. “Sounds like Jane Fonda or something.”
I thought I’d ask Johnny about press, particularly the English press, where the see-saw of love and hate was in play again.
“They all gave Road to Ruin a bad review,” Johnny said. “The only bad ones I read were in England. The papers over there talk to you and then they make up their own story. They just take what you say and they quote you but they put your answers to different questions. And they have you going ‘duh’ before every line. They have us coming from Brooklyn when we come from Queens. No matter how many times we tell ‘em, they say ‘Da Brooklyn Brudders – duh, duh, duh.’
“It’s funny, you know. They keep saying these guys are so stupid that all they do is sit and stare at the walls and they can’t even talk. That these guys are too stupid to even have a drug habit.”
[From the vantage point of 2020: Irony noted – it was Dee Dee’s curse though Johnny was anti-drug and didn’t indulge.]
It’s probably wrong to say there wouldn’t have been an English punk scene without the Ramones, but they lit the fire when they went over, that July 4th gig in London during our Bicentennial year.
“We went there and met a bunch of kids that came to the sound check and they asked if we could get them in ‘cause they had no money,” Johnny said. “So, we snuck them in. They said they were starting bands and it was the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash, The Clash hadn’t even started but they were going to start after seeing us and the Sex Pistols were together a couple of weeks.
Johnny wasn’t thinking the Ramones were at the forefront of any revolution at the time. “You never think about it. We didn’t have any conception when we started. We had nothing to do. We weren’t liking any of the music and we just decided to start a group. When we started off, we were going to play other peoples’ [songs] but I don’t know, we couldn’t figure them out or something, so we sat down and started writing right away.
“We knew CBGB, which no one was playing at, and we just went down and asked if we could play and they said “Yeah”, and we just played there. We worked a lot playing there regularly – more or less as much as we wanted.”
The band was maybe 16 months old when Sire took a chance and signed them. “It wasn’t much of a chance because it wasn’t much of an investment,” Johnny said. “The first album only cost $6400, so they weren’t risking much. They did go out on a limb ’cause nobody else was willing to take a chance, so they were taking a slight chance, but they really didn’t have much to lose. We had a following in New York, so we were going to sell something.”
Rolling Stone had done a piece on the band they revealed their real names – Johnny was John Cummings – and not really brothers (not that anybody thought they were.) Did it bother him?
“It bothered me when I first saw it,” said Johnny, “but it makes no difference. The only reason we did it to begin with was, really, we didn’t want to tax anyone’s thinking to have them remember our last names. We figured they’d have a hard-enough time learning our first names. We figured no one would want to learn our last names so we’d call ourselves ‘Ramones’ and make it really easy.”
AUDIO: The Ramones Live at The Channel 1988
There were many more Ramones gigs and some chats after that. Seeing the Ramones was a welcome ritual, and I enjoyed their almost reactionary approach to set lists – they knew fans wanted songs from those early records. When I spoke with them, I usually sought out Joey. I do remember one time after a show at a Boston club called Metro. I was backstage talking with Johnny. The Reagan era was upon us – no fun for me, but Reagan was his guy. It was clear the conversation was going to be no fun at all if we went that way, so I steered it to baseball and baseball card collecting. Johnny was a Yankees fan and I a Red Sox fan, but that wasn’t an argument, just a turf situation. We both wanted to be big league ball players as kids, but clearly that didn’t work out. But he was a big card collector and I had been as a kid, so we had that.