End of the Century

The Ramones offer one more burst of brilliance with a new anthology

What does he think of the current Blondie reunion? "Uh. I mean the whole outfit was her looks. Being young and prettier than any girl out there, doing these lightweight pop songs. If you're gonna be a fat old lady, I don't understand the point. And we were friends with her; they were one of our closest friends of all the bands," adds Ramone. "You know, if they need the money, fine, I can understand. Go out there, do what you have to do. Get in shape, at least, and try to do your best. Same thing with the Sex Pistols tour, too. I mean, 20 years later it was an offer they couldn't turn down, I guess. They probably played better than ever. But they are still bloated old men. I see Steve Jones, he lives near me and, you know. I haven't seen Johnny Rotten, but the last time I did see him he was a bloated old man."

If Ramone doesn't regard his past and place in rock 'n' roll history with any hint of sentimentality, it isn't out of indifference; rather, it's a kind of an enlightenment. How many people can just walk from the vocation of pop star as if it were the postal service or Burger King? By the time of the Ramones split -- after countless singles, 21 albums, tours, a movie or two -- they were reasonably wealthy international rock 'n' roll stars. They turned punk rock into the American dream. But can you blame them? "Blitzkrieg Bop" was selling Bud Light on TV. The Offspring covered "I Wanna Be Sedated" on the bankable soundtrack Idle Hands. Commerical superstars like Guns n' Roses, Green Day, Pearl Jam and others were starting to give the band its due credit.

The end of the band came after years, even decades, of festering personal friction. Ramone says he hasn't talked to Joey in years. "I like CJ a lot, but the only one I've really talked to was Marky," he says. "He will call me up once every couple of months and we'll talk. Me, CJ and Mark got along. Mark and Joey got along until the very end. On the last tour, they, we, had a falling out and they haven't talked since. I didn't talk to Joey probably for the last 10 years.

Road to Ruin: The Ramones' original lineup poses Bowery style. From left, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey.
Road to Ruin: The Ramones' original lineup poses Bowery style. From left, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey.

"I'd liked a lot of the songs that CJ sang. Usually we'd go to rehearsal, we'd rehearse the songs without Joey coming and I'd be picking out my favorite ones for CJ to sing. Joey just wouldn't come to rehearsal until it got down to the very end. And it was much easier rehearsing and learning the songs without him there to interfere."

With tremendous volume and speed, the Ramones put rock ' n' roll purity back on the chopping block at a time when extended guitar solos, distended waistlines and stultifying lack of enthusiasm had been all but suffocated at Hotel California. And the Ramones succeeded where their antecedents (the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Dolls) failed; with their 1976 self-titled debut, the Ramones permanently altered the way rock 'n' roll was perceived and the way it was made. And they did it with a handful of chords inside of terse, sub-three-minute jabs thick with veiled absurdist verse, Junkie-speak and bubblegum nostalgia. The songs had a kind of lyrical subtext lost on all but a few discerning listeners.

The ensuing years saw the band still bucking shitty odds: replacing drummers (Tommy with Marky); a "sellout" record that didn't sell (the Phil Specter-produced End of the Century); being continually snubbed in middle America; gruesome tours; and drug-addled main man Dee Dee's departure in 1989 (replaced by CJ). Wall of sound kook/maestro Phil Spector had been pestering the band to produce a record with them since 1977's Rocket to Russia. Problem was, the band was trying to avoid control freaks like Spector. But after the release and subsequent commercial disappointment of Road to Ruin, the band relented to Spector requests, reasoning that the only way they were going to get on the radio was working with a "name" producer. The experience wound up being a wholly joyless affair. Worse, in the middle of recording, Ramone's father died.

"I don't think it was until after we got Phil Spector and did End of the Century that I still resigned myself to the fact that we were going to be a cult band," Ramone says laughing. "I'm not that fond of the [End of the Century] production. We did not want to work with him. We wanted to maintain control as much as we could. But some songs it works on, like 'Danny Says.' One of my least favorite things we ever did, 'Baby I Love You,' is on that. None of us performed on that song at all. It was a very painful time because not only was Phil this tortuous guy, I had to leave after my father died and come back again two days later and finish the record."

Rhino's Ramones anthology, Hey! Ho! Let's Go, puts the best of the Ramones on one double CD. But B-sides (where's the brilliant "Babysitter"?) and other oddball inclusions familiar to stuffy boxed sets from overanthologized groups are noticeably absent. Basically, if you own all the Ramones reissues, you have all 63 songs on Hey! Ho! excluding the lost Leave Home gem "Carbona Not Glue." The seminal singles ("Sheena," "Sedated," "Rock 'n' Roll High School," etc.) are here, but glaring omissions abound ("Do You Wanna Dance," "Ramona").

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