The Importance of Being a Ramone

Bang the heads slowly; these mysterious "brothers" aren't playing dumb, and aren't easing up on their loud, fast, raw rock & roll

February 8, 1979
The Ramones
The Ramones in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Jorgen Angel/Redferns

NEW YORK — Joey Ramone's father has never been too big on his son's peculiar brand of rock & roll. Until recently, exposure to the Ramones' spare, howling blare would promptly reduce Dad to a headbanger (his own, of course) or leave him feeling like he wanted to, well, be sedated.

"The music used to drive me up a wall," he admits wearily. "I tried to get him interested in some good music – his grandmother, Fanny, used to sing for Macy's; you rented a piano from the store for a party and she came with it – so I got him an accordion when he was a child. He loved the goddamn thing, but he squeezed it until there was nothing left of it – I think he loved to hear the wheezy noise it made. As a teenager he was fairly good at the drums, playing em in the basement with his friends, but it got so I really had a hard time standing the racket.

"But say, I got a question for you: How the hell did you find me?"

It wasn't easy. Precious little is known about the backgrounds of the various Ramones, save the customarily mumbled information that original members Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy Ramone all hail from Forest Hills, Queens, New York, and formed their one and only band in 1974 after graduating from, or "growing out of," high school. They had been together for less than a year when they debuted to a virtually empty house at CBGB's, the notoriously seedy Bowery club where a blank generation of distinctively raw rockers first gained a foothold. Hammering out a numbing, seventeen-minute set consisting of about eight three-chord, two-stanza songs, the Ramones were instrumental in spawning an aggressive national groundswell of back-to-basics rock bands whose defiant individualism inspired a horde of disaffected young English snots simultaneously rallying together as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Generation X . . .

New York music writers like Danny Fields of the Soho Weekly News began devoting passionate columns to the four Forest Hills rockers. Mop-haired and sickly looking, with faces so acne-caked they resembled pink peanut brittle, the Ramones were as appealing as their hasty repertoire of head splitters: "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Chain Saw," "Loudmouth," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," etc.

Meanwhile, on the other side of a widening No Band's Land, the trenches were full of contemptuous mainstream rockers and their fans, not to mention radio programmers, concert promoters and even some critics, all of whom denounced the Ramones as no-talent sacks of shit. Incensed that four mysterious creeps with the same last name (the Ramone Brothers?) had come out of nowhere to release one remedial record (Ramones, Sire Records, 1976) and subsequently generate as much press as the last Rolling Stones tour, the tradition-bound opposition demanded an explanation: Where do these punks get off?

Four years and four albums later, Joey Ramone's father is still pondering the same question. "I gotta be honest with you," says a bemused Noel Hyman, chatting in the office of his Manhattan trucking company, "I was surprised, very much so, when Jeffrey [a.k.a. Joey] and the band started putting out records and getting a little popular. I was always hearing him say, 'We got something here,' until it rang in my ears. And I didn't believe in it at all. I would have liked him to come into the business, really.

"The first coupla times I saw the group play, I must say I didn't like em, but I got used to it – although it took some time. But then, I guess the first time some people taste champagne they wanna spit it out, right? Still, I think they oughta put more different things in their music, 'n' complicate it up a bit, if they wanna get high up on the what-tayacallit – the lists, the charts? I dunno, I'm an old square. Guess it looks like he may do okay after all, right?"

'I'm sick of not selling records," Joey mutters to himself as he peers into the mirror in his cramped upstairs dressing room at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. "I want to draw more people to the shows, make something happen. If the new album isn't a hit, I'm gonna kill myself."

Recently returned from a well-attended tour of Europe, the Ramones are back on the road to promote their latest LP, Road to Ruin. The album has been almost universally praised as the band's most ambitious and engaging effort to date, demonstrating as it does an impressive growth in musicianship and an expanded compositional flair. Dee Dee has blossomed into a deft, distinctive bassist; Johnny's brisk, chunky riffing has given way to some canny, if restrained, leads; new drummer Marky (a replacement for Tommy, who bowed out last year) provides a solid bottom and a powerful forward thrust; and Joey has evolved – with the help of voice lessons – into a rather spry, inventive vocalist. None of these developments has lifted the band anywhere near the Top Fifty or the lofty status of an arena-filling attraction, however, so the Ramones have dragged their equipment out to Philly by van to headline a modest program on the site of the historic first presidential debate between Gerald R. Ford and Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

Snapped out of his dressing-room doldrums by a pat on the back from baby-faced Johnny Ramone (alias John Cummings), the spindly, knock-kneed Joey is summoned into a back room for an impromptu preconcert conference. Timing and pacing are discussed, the meeting chaired by the authoritative Johnny, who clearly is the de facto perfectionist of the group. He's also the most business-minded of the four, momentarily putting their huddle on hold at the appearance of sandy-haired manager Danny Fields, the Ramone's longtime booster. Johnny registers a stern complaint with the straight-faced Fields about the absence of posters in the theater's outside display cases and requests some information on current airplay and record sales in secondary markets, before returning to his cohorts to drill them on the evening's songs.

"Watch the beginning of 'Cretin Hop' tonight," he scolds the lantern-jawed Marky (Bell). "You came in wrong again last night. You're just not hearing it."

"Okay," Marky says meekly. "Tell it all to me again."

"No, we'll play it once quickly," Johnny rules as he plugs his white Mosrite guitar into a small practice amp.

"Hey, I don't want to play too much, John," Dee Dee (Colvin) whines, scratching the arrow-through-the-heart Mother tattoo on his biceps. "Look at my nail. It's split! I want as little pain as possible."

Johnny ignores the bassist's plea and they launch into the song.

His presence not required for the run-through, Joey has slipped into the dressing room and is bent over the dirty sink, rinsing his purple eyeglasses under the faucet. He remains locked in this position for an extended period, oblivious to the ebb and flow of awed fans and curious members of the other groups on the bill.

Ten minutes later, diminutive Linda Stein, thirty-two-year-old wife of Seymour Stein (the president of the Warner Bros.-distributed Sire label) and the other half of the band's managerial ream, strides in, and Joey lifts his head and whispers to her urgently. She nods and then issues a booming command to all assembled: "Excuse me everybody! Please clear the room! Joey wants to be alone to wash his face!"

As the throng moves toward the door, Joey's furtive eyes meet mine – a rare moment – and his face erupts in a crimson blush that temporarily obscures the swollen zit nestled against his pug nose. But the awkward instant is suddenly dispelled by the appearance of a bold devotee who bursts through the stream of departing fans and starts jabbering into Joey's ear.

"I really loved 'California Sun,' man, I really really did!" he gushes. "Could you write an autograph for my friend?" Joey nods shyly and dries his hands on his grimy, sweat-soaked shirt. "Say, 'To Ian, from Joey Ramone,"' the fan insists as the skinny star begins scribbling on a scrap of paper. "And, er, could you please print it, cause he only understands printing . . . "

The Ramones are Dumb – and so is their public.

You read it everywhere – this magazine included – and hear it at parties whenever someone dares to play one of their records. Throughout the recording industry their enemies are legion, many dismissing the four as hopeless mooks. Joey Ramone in particular has frequently been singled out as a Grade A Fancy ninny whose motor responses supposedly were so atrophied by adolescent glue sniffing that now he can't even find his ass with both hands.

Those allegations seem to take on a certain gravity when Joey's viewed in concert. During the show at the Walnut Street Theatre, he clutches his ripped mike stand with abject desperation, weaving around the unsteady axis like a drunk looking for the keyhole. As always, his deathly pale visage is almost entirely hidden by a curtain of matted hair, and his bird legs are locked with spastic rigidity as his jeans droop past his hipless waist.

The set has opened with Dee Dee roaring his ritual "One, two, three, four!" countdown to kick off the Ramones' biggest (Sixty-Six in Billboard) chart single ever, "Rockaway Beach," as their large red, white and blue eagle banner is lowered behind the drums. Following in quick succession are astringent treatments of "Blitzkrieg Bop," "I Don't Want You," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," "Don't Come Close" and "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker."

By this time, the packed house – a surprisingly diverse mix that includes the safety-pin-through-the-nose crowd but also a host of Ivy Leaguers and even some middle-aged longhairs in down parkas –  is in a flat-out frenzy, thrusting their fists in the air as Joey leads them in between-songs chants of "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" "Needles and Pins," the latest single, lifts the proceedings to a fever pitch, and a wildly flailing Marky purses his lips as if he's going to puke from the exertion.

Combining the stunning attack of the early Kinks with the energy, flamboyance and spectacular pacing of the Who, the Ramones give of themselves with a kooky totality that is strangely moving. Witnessing the event, even one who is not really an avid fan has to wonder whether the Ramones' harshest detractors have ever seen them in live performance. Thematically, songs about decapitation, teenage lobotomies, headbangers named Suzy, sniffing Carbona spot remover and wanting to be sedated may be an acquired taste, but it's difficult to understand why more hard-rock enthusiasts – especially the heavy-metal helots – cannot find a place in their hearts for the Ramones' explosive sound. No concerts so well executed as their own could come off without some lucid thought being paid to musical craft and presentation, and it's a genuinely triumphant moment when a roadie rushes out at the climax of the Philly date to hand Joey a black and yellow banner emblazoned with the exhortation: Gabba Gabba Hey!

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