Ramones - Biography
More than 30 years after the fact, it is hard to recapture the impact of the Ramones debut LP, released on April 23, 1976. It caught the rock ‘n’ roll world by surprise.
Issued during an era of wretched excess, amid the virtuosic indulgences of progressive rock and the party-hearty exhortations of disco, it was something new under the sun. The songs on the 29-minute, 14-track collection were loud, short, fast, funny, and almost invariably announced with a chanted “one-two-three-four!”. The lyrics – about glue-sniffing, Nazism, violence, and bad, stupid girlfriends -- were so dumb they were smart. On its cover, the four band members stared impassively into the camera lens, clad in uniform jeans, t-shirts, and leather jackets, as if they were inviting the listener to a block party, or a brawl.
Pretty soon there was a name for this stuff: punk rock.
The most rigorously stylized original band of their day, the Ramones were fortunate enough to begin their career during an era when a neophyte club owner in New York’s Bowery was willing to take some chances on unproven local groups who were playing their own material. Hilly Kristal, proprietor of C.B.G.B. at 315 Bowery, told the group, “Nobody is going to like you guys, but I’ll have you back.” The music of the Ramones and their contemporaries – Patti Smith, Television, Blondie – kick-started the punk revolt. Prophets without honor, and without record sales, for most of their career, and a divisive and controversial presence in the late ‘70s, the four “brothers” would influence countless others in their artistic wake.
Lead singer Joey Ramone encapsulated the band’s roots and appeal in a couple of succinct sentences: “We were all kind of loners and outcasts – and that’s our audience. We also shared this dark, black sense of humor that only a few people understood.”
Joey and his “brothers” all grew up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of the New York borough of Queens. Joey was born Jeffrey Hyman on May 19, 1951; tall, gangling, myopic, and suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, he took up drumming as a teenager. Johnny Ramone was born John Cummings on Oct. 8, 1951; after the Beatles reached America in 1954, the aspiring baseball star bought a guitar. He met Tommy Ramone – Tom Erdelyi, born Jan. 29, 1952 in Budapest, Hungary – at Forest Hills High, where the pair played in a garage group called Tangerine Puppets; after high school, Erdelyi would work as a recording engineer at New York’s noted studio the Record Plant. Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin, born Sept. 18, 1952) was a street kid who had developed a heroin habit by the age of 14; in 1974, he ran into his former high school buddy Johnny Cummings, by then a construction worker, in Manhattan, and the pair purchased guitars together at Manny’s Guitar Center.
These four misfits all shared a love for the outsider rock of the era: the Stooges, the MC5, and those local heroes the New York Dolls and the Dictators. They also gravitated toward the flamboyance of glitter rock: Erdelyi played bass in a glitter band called Butch (in which he played with bassist Monte Melnick, later his partner in the Manhattan rehearsal space Performance Studio), while Hyman fronted the glitter outfit Sniper, whose shows Colvin started to attend.
In early 1974, Erdelyi began rehearsals at Performance with his high school crony Cummings on guitar, Colvin on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, and Hyman on drums. After bassist Richie Stern left after two days of rehearsal, Colvin took up that instrument. Hyman’s drum skills were deemed inadequate, and he was tabbed as lead vocalist after Colvin’s singing failed him in rehearsals. Following months of fruitless auditions, Tommy finally and reluctantly took a permanent position behind the kit.
About 30 people showed up for the first performance by the new band at Performance on March 30, 1974. They named their band, and themselves, the Ramones, in a hat-tip to the pseudonym, “Paul Ramone,” that the Beatles’ Paul McCartney would use when he checked into hotels on tour. They decided to craft a uniform image, and dressed on stage in leathers, t-shirts, and jeans – the same garb they wore on the street. Dee Dee and Joey wrote most of material (credited collectively to the band at first); the songs drew their inspiration from garage rock, girl-group pop, and bubblegum – the detritus of ‘60s rock culture. None of the Ramones was a skilled musician, but they attacked their music with speed, volume, and we-can-do-this inventiveness.
The Ramones’ first gig was a flop – Johnny later recalled, “We invited all our friends down to see us and they all hated it and didn’t want to be our friends anymore.” They needed to find a place where people were primed to listen without prejudice to their oddball sound, described by Tommy in an early press release as “not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar.”
CBGB’s was that place. Opened by Hilly Kristal in December 1973, the cruddy Bowery club had started to welcome new bands in the spring of 1974, when Television’s guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd talked Kristal into letting them play a Sunday residency there. The Ramones performed their first shows there on August 16-17, 1974. Their sets often lasted no more than 20 minutes, and would frequently devolve into onstage arguments between the band members. But they were tight, hot, and loud, and their style had no apparent precedent. They became regulars at the club, and a linchpin act among the key performers – including Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, and Talking Heads – who stoked the New York rock underground at CBGB’s in 1974-75.
In early 1975, the Ramones acquired a simpatico manager: Danny Fields, formerly a familiar of Andy Warhol’s circle during the Velvet Underground’s heyday and, as a staffer at Elektra Records, the man who signed the Stooges and the MC5, both of which he went on to manage. Linda Stein, wife of Sire Records president Seymour Stein, soon joined as co-manager, and she advised her husband to sign the innovative band. By February 1976, the Ramones were in a studio in Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall with producer Craig Leon, cutting their debut album.
Recorded in 17 days for $6,400, Ramones arrived -- amid the music of navel-gazing singer-songwriters, self-indulgent prog-rockers, and empty-headed disco dollies -- as a challenge. The album instantly divided critics into two camps: One hailed it as a work of genius, the other as the purest garbage. Its songs – “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat On the Brat,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” – were a speedy slap in the face. The Nazi imagery of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” the Testors-huffing “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” and the violent saga of male prostitution “53rd and 3rd” (about Dee Dee’s own experience in the “chicken hawk” trade) made some queasy. But one thing was certain: There was nothing else around like it.
Three months after the album’s release, on July 4, 1976 – the U.S. Bicentennial – the Ramones performed the British Invasion in reverse, headlining a sold-out concert at the Roundhouse in London – their first show outside America. Word of the band’s music and the first copies of their album had hit English shores, and like-minded young U.K. bands were already absorbing the group’s lessons. The Roundhouse show was attended by local punk royalty – the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, Generation X, the Pretenders. England would remain a bastion of the support for the Ramones throughout their career; on New Year’s Eve ’76, the band returned to London for a Rainbow concert that became the two-LP set It’s Alive.
Two albums featuring the original Ramones lineup, Ramones Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, followed in quick succession, separated by just nine months, in 1977. These albums further refined the buzzsaw assault of the debut LP, while accenting more strongly the pop touches that bubbled under the surface of the band’s sound. Leave Home included such staples as “Pinhead” (inspired by Tod Browning’s horror film Freaks), “Babysitter,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and a new huffer’s anthem, “Carbona Not Glue.” The latter song was replaced on re-pressings of the album by the bouncy “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” which also found a slot on Russia. Probably the most accessible album of the band’s early career (and the first to crack the top 50, peaking at No. 48), it contained “Cretin Hop,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” and a complementary cover of the Trashmen’s garage epic “Surfin’ Bird.”
By early 1978, Tommy Ramone – who had co-produced the second and third albums with Tony Bongiovi – wearied of the tour grind, and gave up his drumming duties. His replacement was Marc Bell, a former member of the metal trio Dust, who most recently had drummed in Richard Hell’s attitudinal New York punk band the Voidoids. “Marky Ramone” thus began the first of two tours of duty with his new “brothers.”
Road to Ruin (1978), was a strong attempt to diversify the band's sound, in hopes of obtaining radio airtime in favor of getting a Top 40 hit, containing songs about mental illness (“I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Bad Brain,” “Go Mental”) and nihilism (“I’m Against It,” “I Don’t Want You”) along with the some sharp pop moves (“She’s the One,” the sublime "Questioningly," a cover of the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins,” the gloriously hummable "Don't Come Close").
Shortly after the release of the album, the band took up residence in Los Angeles for the filming of their movie debut Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Produced by B picture czar Roger Corman and directed by former Fillmore East lighting director Allan Arkush (and completed by Joe Dante after Arkush suffered a heart attack in mid-production), the film – originally earmarked as a vehicle for Cheap Trick -- was a goofy, loving spoof of American-International’s teen/beach party pictures of the ‘60s. Surrounded by a youthful cast, the Ramones played themselves in this anarchic musical, which climaxed with the demolition of the titular high school. A flop at the drive-ins in 1979, it nevertheless enhanced the Ramones’ image, soon becoming a cult classic on VHS, Laser Disc, Cable Television, and DVD, as well as a Midnight Movie.
For their next album, the group was seeking a (hopefully commercial) shift in the direction of their sound, and hired an unlikely producer: Phil Spector. The reclusive and volatile hit-maker of the ‘60s had been pursuing Joey Ramone to work with the band. The making of End of the Century (1980) in L.A. was a fractious affair. Johnny Ramone walked out of a session after the manic perfectionist Spector made him record the opening chord for a new version of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” nearly 100 times; the producer also allegedly brandished a pistol at Dee Dee. The Spectorized LP contained memorable tracks like “Chinese Rock” (a song about scoring heroin co-written by Dee Dee and originally recorded by Johnny Thunders’ band the Heartbreakers), “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?,” "I'm Affected," "Danny Says," and "This Ain't Havana." It would be the Ramones’ highest-charting, reaching No. 44, and was probably also the most unpleasant experience of their career.
At the dawn of the ‘80s, internal stress began to develop within the Ramones when Johnny began to date, and soon marry, Joey’s former girlfriend Linda. For the remainder of the band’s career, the two band mates would avoid direct communication with each other, frequently using intermediaries like road manager Monte Melnick.
The Ramones remained a popular touring attraction with a solid fan base, but their attempts to break through as a recording act proved futile. 10cc’s Graham Gouldman produced Pleasant Dreams (1981), in an attempt to squeeze a hit from the band. An underrated record, it contained some more of those now classic Ramones "should've beens" - "The KKK Took My Baby Away," "She's A Sensation," "Come On Now," "7-11." Pop veterans Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin produced Subterranean Jungle (1983), a nice group of gutsy, wicked originals such as "Outsider," "Psycho Therapy," "Time Bomb," and "My My Kind Of Girl," mixed with pitch perfect cover songs such as The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," and The Music Explosion's "Little Bit O' Soul." Once again, the public did not understand The Ramones brand of trashed out rock n roll in the context of modern pop music demands. The group then parted company with their original managers Fields and Stein and linked with Gary Kurfirst, manager of the Talking Heads.
Seeking stability, the Ramones made a couple of important moves in 1984. For their aggressive album Too Tough to Die, they brought back Tommy Erdelyi/Ramone to co-produce with their longtime engineer Ed Stasium. They also fired drummer Marky, whose advancing alcoholism was creating more problems for the band than Dee Dee’s ongoing heroin addiction. Marky was replaced by journeyman drummer Richie Reinhardt, who, as Richie Ramone, would remain with the band for the next three years. This LP provided somewhat of a renaissance for The Ramones, as the LP updated the group's sound, adding hardcore and heavy metal touches into the mix, resulting in many a future Ramones pop classic; the irresistible pop magic of "Howing At the Moon," "Chasing The Night," and "Daytime Dilemma," to the offensive thrash of "Warthog" and "Endless Vacation," on through the gutter rock of "Mama's Boys," and the title track, the Ramones proving they still had the creative goods to grope the charts, even when the public did not agree.
The band’s next album Animal Boy (1986) contained one of the band's best pop moves in "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)." The song was an anti-Reagan screed, much to guitar player Johnny's chagrin (he was a staunch right winger.) Halfway to Sanity (1987) met with the same fate as it's immediate predecessors – short chart lives and no hits. In 1987, Richie Ramone jumped ship and -- after a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with Blondie’s drummer Clem Burke -- he was replaced by none other than the now-sober Marky Ramone. He returned to the lineup for Brain Drain (1989), notable for its inclusion of “Pet Sematary,” the theme for the like-titled horror film based on a novel by Ramones fan Stephen King.
In July 1989, bassist and principal writer Dee Dee Ramone quit the group; the same year, he released an attempt at rap under the nom de disque Dee Dee King ("I didn't know how to rap. I'm not a negro"). Dee Dee would continue to write for his former band until its dissolution. His bass duties were assumed by Christopher Joseph Ward – “C.J. Ramone” – a former metal player who had to sort out his AWOL status with the U.S. Marine Corps before formally joining the group for an appearance at Jerry Lewis’ Labor Day muscular dystrophy telethon in September 1989.
After 16 years with Sire Records, the Ramones shifted to Radioactive Records, an imprint operated by their manager Gary Kurfirst. Their stock as important rock influences soared in the early ‘90s as the Seattle grunge explosion went off (the almighty Motorhead-who could be claimed as heavy metal's version of the Ramones- recorded a tribute to the band for their 1991 LP 1916, titled "R.A.M.O.N.E.S."), but their albums – which included Mondo Bizarro (1992)- a consistent collection of good songs, and Acid Eaters (1994)- a set of covers from the psychedelic ‘60s, continued to languish near the bottom of the charts. They could sell out concert halls in Europe, fill soccer stadiums in South America, but still received no large scale love in their homeland, where a plethora of younger rockers whose sound owed everything to the Ramones had taken center stage.
The band announced their imminent exit in the title of their last studio album in 1995: Adios Amigos. They bade farewell to their fans at an August 6, 1996, concert at the Palace on Vine Street in Hollywood, Calif. (released in 1997 on CD and DVD as We’re Outta Here!); guests included Lemmy of Motorhead, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, and – almost unrecognizable with a shaved head and painfully thin torso – Dee Dee Ramone. Except for an appearance at a 1999 album signing at New York’s Virgin Megastore, it was the last time the band members would appear together.
Joey Ramone underwent a protracted battle with cancer that ended with his death on April 15, 2001; his solo album Don’t Worry About Me was released posthumously. The following year the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; two months after the ceremony, on June 5, 2002, Dee Dee Ramone died from a heroin overdose in Hollywood. Johnny Ramone succumbed to prostate cancer on Sept. 15, 2004, as the Ramones documentary End of the Century began to enter theaters around the country.
The Ramones reshaped the pop music landscape as we know it, and will forever hold a place in the hearts of rock fans as one of it's finest.