By the fall of 1981 it was pretty clear that the Ramones were never going to make it big. They’d been gigging relentlessly since forming in 1974 and had recorded six widely-acclaimed albums, but they’d never had a song go higher on the Hot 100 than Number 66 and were still forced to schlep between gigs in a van. The punk movement they helped spawn in the 1970s had largely petered out and survivors like the Clash were experimenting with bold new sounds influenced by hip-hop, funk and reggae.
The Ramones were also willing to bend with the times, though not nearly to that degree. Their 1980 LP End of the Century was produced by Phil Spector and the next year they worked with 10cc’s Graham Gouldman on Pleasant Dreams. Both producers gently nudged the Ramones towards a sound slightly more palatable to a Top 40 crowd, but not to the point where they got much actual airplay.
They headed over to Europe in October of 1981 to promote Pleasant Dreams. At the time, “Arthur Theme (Best That You Can Do”) by Christopher Cross was the Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. Meanwhile, the Ramones were plugging new single “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” which you can watch them play here on Swedish television in October of 1981. It was about as far from the smooth sounds of Christopher Cross as one can get.
According to Ramones lore, Joey wrote the song after Johnny stole his girlfriend Linda, who he later married. According to Joey’s brother Michael Leigh, the true inspiration for the song was Joey’s former girlfriend Wilna, an African-American woman he dated in the early 1970s until their parents’ objections tore them apart. The basic melody of the song had been floating around for a little while (inspired by Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore”) and the tune was completely finished by the time that Joey broke up with Linda. Still, when Joey spat out the lyrics on tour after the split, it was hard to not think they were aimed squarely at Johnny.
The song ranks up there with the absolute best work of the Ramones, but the single made very little impact and the group’s commercial impact only shrank from there. They plugged away for another 15 years (and actually scored a minor hit in 1989 with “Pet Cemetery”), but Joey and Johnny became bitter enemies in that time and they barely spoke to each other even as they became the two last original members still in the band.
When Joey died of lymphoma in 2001, Johnny did not attend the funeral. “I was in California,” he said. “I wasn’t going to travel all the way to New York, but I wouldn’t have gone anyway. I wouldn’t want him coming to my funeral, and I wouldn’t want to hear from him if I were dying. I’d only want to see my friends. Let me die and leave me alone.”