A group of "brothers" from Forest Hills, Queens, the Ramones helped invent punk rock by mastering a simple but extremely effective sound — a combination of speedy grooves, sing-along tunes and deadpan lyrics that achieved a kind of boneheaded genius. The sound influenced thousands of bands, and proved so durable that the Ramones more or less stuck to it for their entire career.
The Ramones formed in 1974 after the foursome graduated or left high school in Forest Hills, New York. The original lineup featured Joey on drums, Dee Dee sharing guitar with Johnny, and Tommy as manager, but they soon settled on their recording setup. Their name and pseudonym came via Paul McCartney, who had briefly called himself Paul Ramon back when the Beatles were the Silver Beatles. The Ramones gravitated toward the burgeoning scene at CBGB, where their brief sets of rapid-fire, under-two-and-a-half-minute songs earned them a recording contract before any of their contemporaries except Patti Smith.
In 1976 Ramones is a definitive punk statement, with songs like "Beat on the Brat," "Blitzkrieg Bop," and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue"— 14 of them, clocking in at under 30 minutes. The group traveled to England in 1976, giving the nascent British punk scene the same boost they had provided to New Yorkers. Before the year was out, Ramones Leave Home had been released. As throughout its career, the band toured almost incessantly.
With their next two singles, the group began to soften their sound slightly. "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" and "Rockaway Beach" made explicit their debt to Sixties AM hit styles such as bubblegum and surf music, and both made the lower reaches of the Top 100. They were included on Rocket to Russia, which also contained their first ballad, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow." At this point Tommy quit the group, preferring his behind-the-scenes activity as coproducer, "disguised" as T. Erdelyi (his real name).
His replacement was Marc Bell, henceforth dubbed Marky Ramone. He was formerly one of Richard Hell's Voidoids and before that a member of Dust, who recorded a pair of albums during the 1960s. His first LP with the Ramones, Road to Ruin, was their first to contain only 12 songs and their first to last longer than half an hour. Despite their glossiest production yet, featuring acoustic guitars and real solos, its two singles, "Don't Come Close" and a version of the Searchers' "Needles and Pins," failed to capture a mass audience. Neither did their starring role in Roger Corman's 1979 movie Rock 'n' Roll High School.
As the 1980s began, the Ramones tried working with noted pop producers Phil Spector (End of the Century) and 10cc's Graham Gouldman (Pleasant Dreams), but commercial success remained elusive. After Subterranean Jungle, Marky Ramone departed. He was replaced by ex-Velveteens Richard Beau (Richie Ramone), who played on four albums before Marky returned in 1987. Too Tough to Die, with Eurythmic Dave Stewart producing the pop single "Howling at the Moon," recaptured some of their Seventies energy, and "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" off Animal Boy offered cutting political satire. However, the remainder of the decade too often found them parodying their earlier strengths.
In 1989 the Ramones gained their widest exposure with the title track to the soundtrack for Stephen King's Pet Sematary, but also underwent their most significant internal shift. Dee Dee departed, first to record, as Dee Dee King, a rap album, Standing in the Spotlight, and then to form the rock group Chinese Dragons. His post-Ramones career included publishing the autobiography Poisoned Heart: Surviving the Ramones and, in the late Nineties, playing with his wife, Barbara, and Marky Ramone in the Ramones spinoff unit, the Ramainz. A heroin addict and substance abuser for 14 years, Dee Dee had been the Ramones' truest punk (going solo, he also joined AA); his departure signaled the end of an era, if not a style. AWOL from the marines at the time he enlisted in the band, C.J. Ramone infused youthful energy — he was 14 years younger than Joey and Johnny — but the band's sound remained the same.
Mondo Bizarro ushered the band into the Nineties, including a guest appearance by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and songs that attacked both drugs and the PMRC's Tipper Gore. In 1994 they persevered with Acid Eaters, a tribute to Sixties idols like the Animals and Rolling Stones. With Joey sober since the start of the decade and Marky in recovery from alcoholism, they continued their relentless touring for two more years until their final show in August 1996 — an all-star bash featuring Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Lemmy and Dee Dee. Marky formed Marky Ramone and the Intruders and has released two albums to date. Joey went on to manage the Independents, a horror-punk-ska band, to act in the indie film Final Rinse, and, in 1999, to coproduce a Ronnie Spector EP, She Talks to Rainbows. In 2001 he announced he had been diagnosed with lymphoma six years earlier and was undergoing treatment for the disease. He died that year. He was mourned all around the world, and Little Steven Van Zandt presided over an all-star party on what would have been Joey's 50th birthday, a month after his death. The U.S. Congress proclaimed May 19, 2001, Joey Ramone Day.
In March of 2002 the surviving members of the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dee Dee jokingly thanked only himself, while Johnny said "God bless America, and God bless George W. Bush." Dee Dee died of a heroin overdose just three months later, while Johnny succumbed to prostate cancer in 2004. Marky and C.J. continue to tour, playing sets heavy on Ramones songs. Tommy, the sole surviving original member, keeps a low profile but performs occasionally with his bluegrass group Uncle Monk.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Andy Greene contributed to this article.