With an inimitable buzz-saw guitar sound, a minimal 4/4 tattoo on the drums and a rallying cry of “Hey, ho/Let’s go,” the Ramones reinvented rock & roll from the ground up. It’s hard to believe nearly two decades have passed since the group’s first album, a punk-rock shot heard round the world. Alone among the bands that ushered in a new era, the Ramones still walk among us, and their current album, the all-covers Acid Eaters on Radioactive Records, is a delightful look back to the group’s pre-punk roots. Last summer, we caught up with the group’s forever-lanky lead singer, Joey Ramone, for some insights into the album, then checked in again with him in Tokyo, on the eve of the band’s 2,000th performance.
You just hit Japan after a jaunt through Australia. How was it Down Under?
It was great. We played Big Day Out, which is something like a Lollapalooza or Woodstock but much larger. It was like 50 bands and five stages, and we co-headlined with Soundgarden. Some days it was 100 degrees; it was kind of tough going on in leather jackets during the day.
Your new record, Acid Eaters, has been at the top of the college-music charts. Only fans of obscure ’60s exploitation films will recognize the derivation of the title. Are you a fan of the film?
Well, actually, John [Johnny Ramone, the group’s guitarist] , he’s a big film fanatic and collector. When we were trying to come up with a title, he mentioned the movie Acid Eaters, and I thought it was great. It’s good and twisted, and it insinuates a few different things.
The Ramones have always been noted for their killer cover tunes. How did you finally decide to do an all-covers album?
Everybody was excited by our version of the Doors’ “Take It As It Comes” on Mondo Bizarro, and at one point our manager thought it would be cool to put it out as a single accompanied by an EP of covers as an extra treat for our fans. So he suggested we record some of our favorite songs from the ’60s. And we started listening to different things. There were five initial songs. And once we started, and it went well, we decided to make a whole album out of it.
There are some special guests on the record.
For “Substitute,” Pete Townshend came down and sang background vocals, which was a real highlight for me, because I was always a big Who fan from the first time they came to America, and Townshend had always been kind of an unseen mentor for me. He was in town doing finetuning on [the stage play] Tommy, and when he heard we were doing the song, he came down, heard the track and got all excited. He did a great job, he was really into it. I was very nervous, because the day he came down was the day I was laying down my lead vocal for the song. I had never met him before. I had met Roger Daltrey, I think in 1980 in London. We were on Top of the Pops, and that Daltrey was there was a little strange; he didn’t seem to understand what the Ramones were about. He told me, “You guys will never make it if you wear leather jackets; you’ll only make it if you wear suits and ties.” I think this was around the time the Knack were so popular, and this probably confused him. Coming from him, the singer for one of the first really rebellious rock bands, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know if he was kidding or what. But I don’t think he was, you know?
That’s Traci Lords singing the Marty Balin part on “Somebody to Love.”
She’s a label mate of ours now. Our manager and label head, Gary Kurfirst, wanted us to do kind of a duo thing. Sounded like a good idea. She’s fun, she’s cool. I think she did a really good job.
The punk explosion had a lot of hostility toward rock veterans, calling them dinosaurs and so on. The Ramones have been at it for almost 20 years; how do you avoid the dinosaur factor?
We’ve always been our own breed of band. We concocted a unique sound and style all our own, a trademark. That’s what everybody tries to achieve, but so few really do. I guess since the inception of rock & roll, there’s only a handful of bands with such a distinct sound and style that you catch instantly; you know when you’re hearing Led Zeppelin, you know when you’re hearing the Beatles, and you know when you’re hearing… the Ramones. For our style, it has always been less is more and that rock & roll was supposed to be fun.
There’s a real generational crossover in your audience. Some of your biggest fans today are kids who were still in diapers when your first album came out.
Well, the thing that’s wild about the Ramones is, we have the broad spectrum of an audience. I guess the average age now is 16 and younger, and then we have some of the original fans, older fans, kids into metal, thrash, hardcore, grunge. Then we have Republicans and Democrats and skinheads, and it’s just this potpourri of people who wanna have a good time.
Often when a band has been around as long as the Ramones have, the camaraderie between its members peters out. Do the Ramones still hang out together?
It’s a common vision and common ideals when we’re onstage. I mean, we’re unique individuals, and we all have our own views on things, political beliefs. We’re a unit, but we’re not one mind.
You turned up rather unexpectedly on a recent tribute record to the avant-garde composer John Cage, singing one of his compositions.
For me it was a total learning experience. I like getting involved in projects that have to do with things I’m not familiar with. The piece I did, “The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs,” was totally unlike anything I’d ever done, and it was exciting. John Cale produced the track.
So how are you commemorating your 2,000th show?
Later tonight, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Tokyo, they’re having a party for us. [Photographer] Bob Gruen is here doing some work. For the 2,000th show, Soundgarden is coming. And for 2001: the Space Odyssey Show, Smashing Pumpkins are gonna come. As for myself, tonight Bob Dylan is playing at Budokan, so Gruen and I are going to see that. It’ll be my first Dylan show.