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Johnny Talks Joey, Ramones Reissues

The once-blistering guitarist is not fond of leaving home

August 2, 2001 12:00 AM ET

The recent death of the Ramones' singer Joey Ramone closed a chapter of rock. Formed by four guys from Queens, the Ramones sang about being bored, sniffing glue and the youthful pursuit of looking for something to do, along the way exalting the three-chord rock song into an art form and starting what became known as punk rock.

Once the ultimate outsider medium, in the twenty-five years since the release of the Ramones' self-titled debut, punk has become a part of the scenery, with the Ramones' own "Blitzkrieg Bop" a cover staple for bands like Green Day and a dependable rally song for guitarist Johnny Ramone's beloved New York Yankees. Hailed by the critics and ignored by the charts, when the Ramones broke up after the release of 1995's Adios Amigos, their success was best measured in the thousands of bands that followed in their footsteps.

This summer, Rhino Records reissued the Ramones' first four albums -- 1976's The Ramones, 1977's Leaving Home and Rocket to Russia, and 1978's Road to Ruin and -- in re-mastered form, with additional bonus tracks, including live takes and demos. Guitarist Johnny Ramone talked about his memories of the four albums, the recent birthday tribute/memorial for Joey Ramone, and all things Ramones.

How involved were you with this project?
Not very. Rhino did all the homework. They'd call up occasionally and ask a question about particular dates, what went with what. Like, Leave Home, "When did you do the show at the Roxy?" I'd give them the date and they'd line it up with the Leave Home album. Like that.

Listening back to these records, twenty-some years removed, how do you feel about them?
Obviously they were important records. Rocket to Russia is I think my favorite Ramones record. We reached our peak at that point. I think most bands probably peak on their first album. We peaked on our third album. On the first album, I feel like I wish the production was a little better. I'll always hear a song I don't like. I look for what I could have done to make it better. It's always difficult for me to listen.

Could you give me an example of a song you wish you could go back and fix, or do differently?
I probably hated "What's Your Game" on the second album, Leave Home. I probably hated "Ramona" on the Rocket to Russia album. On Road to Ruin I hated "Questioningly." There would always be something I hated. Production-wise, I think they each got a little bit better from the first four. The first album was a very important album, I'm told. We weren't playing as fast as I felt like we should have yet; some of the fast songs could have been faster. Hearing them live later and then going back, they sound like they were not quite as fast as I'd like. But overall the album is an essential part of someone's rock collection.

There's a live show on this version of Leaving Home recorded at the Roxy in Hollywood. What are your recollections of that time?
It was probably our first trip out to California. We played the Roxy and it was a radio broadcast. I remember having the bootleg album for a long time. It was one of the better bootleg albums from a radio broadcast. The show itself? I don't remember the show. We knew things would go well in New York and Los Angeles and that the Midwest would be tough. There were a lot of past examples to go by, from the time the Rolling Stones first toured America in 1964. They sold out New York and L.A. and bombed everywhere else. The [New York] Dolls, same thing. We weren't concerned. We knew it would be a good area.

Did you resent the "punk" label?
No, I didn't care. They can label it how they want to label it. I don't care. I never resented it, but, if anything, when punk started getting this bad reputation here, we started getting lumped in with the stuff and being excluded -- you know, "We're not going to play punk on the radio." Now we were being included, where other times we weren't being included. There'd be an article on punk in a magazine and they'd exclude the Ramones and make it about British bands. We got shafted both ways by punk. But as far as being labeled, it's fine. If you're a heavy metal group, you're a heavy metal group. You're a speed metal group, hard-core punk band, British Mersey beat sound, whatever it is, rockabilly. There's always labels.

A few years ago you said you were retiring from music. Do you ever play guitar now?
No, I started to practice a little bit because we were discussing going in and playing Joey's birthday. I started practicing guitar for a few days, prior to that thing falling through.

Why did you wind up not playing Joey's birthday?
There was too much outside interference in what the Ramones should be doing and suggestions of us playing instrumentals. I thought was a horrible idea and I did not want to go along with that. I didn't want the Ramones being told what to be doing, and I wanted the Ramones being presented in the right light -- the remaining Ramones. I wanted guest singers, and I was told no on that. I wanted to make it enjoyable for the crowd and try and take attention away from us in case we were rusty. Rob Zombie wanted to sing a song and I was talking to Eddie Vedder and I spoke to Joe Strummer about doing a song.

Oh wow, that would have been pretty amazing . . .
Yeah, that's your reaction. That would have been my reaction too as a fan: "Wow, I would have wanted to see that." I was told no on that, and then they didn't want any singing at all. So I said, "Fine. C.J. will sing. This is a song that C.J. sang," No on that also.

Had there been any talk of a reunion since the Ramones last breakup?
When I stopped five years ago, I was ninety-nine percent sure I was not going to come back and play. I was always open, but I didn't want to go back on tour under any circumstance at all. If they could have come up with an offer that I couldn't refuse for one week of jobs, somewhere in the world, I would have thought about it. I don't know if I would have taken it, but I would have thought about it. But I was not going to go back on the road and go play for three months.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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