More than twenty-five years after taking rock back from the bloated excesses of the likes of Yes and Styx, and essentially inventing punk rock, the Ramones again find themselves very much where they began — as critical darlings and commercial underdogs. With two of the band’s founding members and principal songwriters recently departed (Joey Ramone died from complications of lymphoma last April and Dee Dee Ramone died of an apparent drug overdose earlier this month), the surviving Ramones will see their classic efforts again hit the pop market, with the second batch of Rhino reissues: 1980’s End of the Century, 1981’s Pleasant Dreams, 1983’s Subterranean Jungle and 1985’s Too Tough to Die. There is also a Ramones tribute album coming out, featuring disciples who have sold plenty of records: U2, Eddie Vedder and Marilyn Manson.
One week before Dee Dee’s untimely death, Johnny Ramone spoke to Rolling Stone about the Eighties reissues and his band’s legacy. A week after Dee Dee’s death, Johnny reflected on his former band mate.
What do you think of the bonus tracks included on the reissues?
There’s some songs I don’t ever remember hearing before. I was glad they found the demos on Too Tough to Die. Dee Dee singing “Danger Zone” is great. Some of these things I hate, like [the cover of the Rolling Stones’] “Street Fighting Man,” so I guess it’s good to have them all out. When we originally recorded it [“Street Fighting Man”], I envisioned Dee Dee singing the song and then all of a sudden, one day, when I wasn’t around, Joey went in and sang it and had them mix it and mixed the overdub guitar up. It wasn’t at all what I envisioned. I wanted the overdub guitar down, I wanted it to be a punk version, I wanted Dee Dee singing it; it was the only way I agreed to be doing the song to begin with. It sounds like a bad high school band doing “Street Fighting Man.” I hate it. Maybe people will listen to it and like it.
A whole bunch of songs I liked didn’t make it onto records, for some reason. “Pass This Way” and “Danger Zone,” with Dee Dee singing, is great — it’s more punk. The version that made it to the record, with Joey’s vocals, is more polished. “No One to Blame,” “Roots of Hatred,” “Bumming Along,” “Unhappy Girl” — I totally forgot about these songs. I don’t even remember doing ’em, and I’m on ’em.
Is there anything here that will surprise people?
At first I’m always against [bonus] material because there’s a reason why it didn’t come out, but then I’m listening to some of this stuff, a lot of it is interesting. I guess I’m OK with it. “Chop Suey” [featuring Blondie’s Debbie Harry and the B-52’s’ Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson], that’s pretty bizarre. I don’t like it, but I guess it will surprise people. That was aggravating. I probably was trying to get out of there as fast I could. A lot of stuff went on after I left [the sessions]. I thought maybe I wasn’t even on it but I do hear me in there. They mixed my guitar down. There’s so much junk over it. It was probably a very low point in the Ramones career. Everyone had different ideas. We were all on different wavelengths at that point. At the same time we were probably getting along the worst we were getting along. I don’t think any of us were talking to each other. Things were being done by individuals without the approval of everyone else. By the time of Too Tough to Die we were getting along better and things were improving.
Did you feel that working with Phil Spector [who produced End of the Century] was something that could have brought you mass appeal?
That was the thought, yeah, because we had avoided doing a record with him already on [1977’s] Rocket to Russia and [1978’s] Road to Ruin. Looking back at it, I’m glad I worked with him because he’s a legendary producer and the fact that we completed an album with him and all that. But at the time I wanted the Ramones to keep as much control over what we were doing, and we were starting to get pressure from the record company. A tough period was starting because I didn’t really want to work with Phil Spector, but I knew at that point, by our fifth album, we were going to need help, because I already thought we were going to become big and I would be retired by my fifth album. And then I could see we were in trouble. By the next album, we weren’t really getting along, and then we started to get refocused again and started looking at better times. It started with Subterranean Jungle and then Too Tough to Die — they’re good albums.
What was it like working with Phil Spector?
Painfully slow and stressful. We were used to working at a very fast pace. He wasn’t a pleasant person. He was nice to us, but he’s just so horrible to everyone else around. I hear that he’s pleasant now — it must have been the abuses he was going through personally, you know, substance abuses or something. I’m not sure what. There were demons inside of him. I had a hard time. My father died in the middle of the album, and that along with Phil’s basic unpleasantness . . . it was hard. He was trying to separate Joey from the rest of the band constantly. Joey, Joey, Joey. He was trying to divide the band, and we didn’t need that. You have to keep people’s egos in check. It really worked when he got to a slower song like “Danny Says” — the production really worked tremendously. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio” is really good. For the harder stuff, it didn’t work as well on, but overall it was a good album.
I had left because of the stress I was under. And once they were going to bring in an orchestra to play on “Baby I Love You,” I said, “There’s no point in my playing on this song because my specialty was not called for on this one.” Once they started bringing in an orchestra — I ain’t playing with no orchestra. That’s not me.
What’s your favorite of these records?
Probably Too Tough to Die. I just felt like we’d gotten back on track and gotten focused on the “Too Tough To Die” album. It was an experience. End of the Century is a good album. There’s good things on all of them. During Pleasant Dreams we weren’t really communicating. We had Graham Gouldman as producer, and he was a very lightweight pop guy. I knew I was in trouble immediately on the first day when he said, “Your amp is buzzing too much. Can you turn down your volume?” It was a long session. He wasn’t really right for the Ramones, that’s all. We had no choice at that point in time. As far as producers, once you don’t have the commercial success it’s hard to maintain as much control over things as you’d like. But by Too Tough to Die we got back to working with [producer Ed] Stasium and Tommy [Ramone] and that was a good move. Subterranean Jungle would have been basically a pleasant experience, but we were having trouble with [drummer] Mark at that point, Marky Ramone. He was replaced when the sessions ended. Otherwise that was relatively pleasant. We were starting to get back on track. Me and Dee Dee were at least talking at that point.
Was that a staple of your Ramones experience, that at any given time there was somebody you weren’t talking to?
Oh yeah, it was probably very rare that we were all talking.
From the get go?
No, for the first four albums, I think we were basically friends at heart. We got used to working like that. It got harder when records had to be made. Playing live shows didn’t matter. Records were always better when we were talking — those are the better records. I can tell how things were going by how a record sounds. I can put the record on and tell “Oh boy, we weren’t talking on this one.” Adios Amigos — we were basically all talking again, and I was happy with that one too.
How did you get involved with the upcoming Ramones tribute album?
I was approached about it and I said, “Yeah I’ll be involved but I have to have full say.” They said, “Yeah fine.” So I said, “I can get Eddie Vedder, I can get Rob Zombie and I can get the Chili Peppers and Marilyn Manson and Metallica.” I told them right away who I could get, and they said, “Whoa, that’s great, fine.” So that’s how it developed.
I heard you encouraged bands to come up with drastically different takes than the originals.
I tried whenever possible. Some bands are going to be more Ramones-like but with other people I said, “Just try to pretend you wrote the song and you never even heard the Ramones version.” Rob Zombie’s “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Manson’s “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” those are pretty bizarre. You’re going to have to hear them. I can’t describe it. Rob Zombie sounds like Zombie doing “Blitzkrieg Bop.” It doesn’t resemble the same song. Eddie Vedder’s version of “I Believe in Miracles” sounds like the version I wish we would have done. It’s just a punk version. We were holding back. We were trying to make it commercial and this and that, and Eddie just did a punk version of it and sings it great. It’s what we would have done if somebody wasn’t saying, “It’s got to be this speed — we got to get to the click track and measure the right speed.” They were looking at it as a single and doing it like that. The Pretenders’ version of “Something to Believe In” is great. I never liked the song, but whatever they did to it is great.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
This is enough work. I hope I’m not involved in any more projects.
Talk about Dee Dee and his contributions to the Ramones?
Dee Dee was a very unique character, the most influential punk rock bassist. He set the standard that all punk rock bassists look to. [His songs] weren’t like anything else, just crazy, crazy stuff — like “Highest Trails of Above” on the Subterranean Jungle album, even “53rd and 3rd” and things like that. Just everything, the whole structure of the song, the whole lyrical content, I don’t know of anything else like it. He was a great lyricist. I’d write something like say, ‘Wart Hog,’ and I’d give it to Dee Dee and go here’s a song called ‘Wart Hog.’ And he’d have the lyrics down and he’d just open up his book and just start singing a page out of his book of lyrics. He was really prolific as far as coming up with the lyrics constantly, and I think he influenced every bassist who came to see him play.
Dee Dee continued writing songs for the Ramones right until the end, the final album. I think he might have written about six songs for the Ramones after he left. His songs were always my favorites. Anything I co-wrote, I co-wrote with Dee Dee.
Had you been in touch with him recently, and did you have any sense he was having problems?
I saw Dee Dee about two weeks before it happened. I saw him on Hollywood Boulevard. We had spoken a few times. We went out for lunch before the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [induction ceremony, in March] and I convinced him to go to it. I ran into him a couple times at Amoeba Records [in Los Angeles]. We would see each other here and there. As far as I knew everything was fine, and I didn’t know anything was wrong. I’m starting now to look into it a little bit and see if anyone else knows anything. I’m trying to speak to people who were a little closer. I’ve been working on that for the past couple of days. Of course, there were different periods of time where you could have expected something like this to happen, but Dee Dee was always a survivor and so it came as a shock.