1: Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?
Buffy was 16 the first time she saw the Ramones. It was 1984, and she still remembers exactly what she was wearing--black tuxedo jacket, black bra, black jeans and red sneakers. She saw the band 16 times after that. Joey, the gangly lead singer, always wore dark glasses, but he let Buffy see his eyes once. They were brown. "Our secret," he told her.
The Ramones is one of those bands who burrow into your inner ear and sometimes make it to your heart. When the band formed in 1974, bland art rock--Styx, Journey, Kansas--ruled the charts and the airwaves. Unlike the glam queens of the arenas, the four kids from New York who made up the Ramones looked like they'd just walked out of a bad neighborhood and onto the stage. Most of their songs were less than two minutes long. How can anyone play that fast?, people wondered.
By the end of the decade, the Ramones had rearranged the face of pop music and inspired the punk movement. Songs like "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Teenage Lobotomy" and "Cretin Hop" caused a resurgence of the rebelliousness that has always kept rock alive. It's this simple: no Ramones, no Sex Pistols--and no Green Day.
Now, after two decades and 16 albums, they say they're retiring.
Like Buffy, I'll miss them. I already miss the smell of dry ice, beer in paper cups, shouting at the top of my lungs and all adolescent stupidity. Because when it comes right down to it, that's what rock 'n' roll's always been about.
Sure, all Ramones songs sound the same; they're all the same theme song. Hearing them through an amp stack is like being 6 and making a cape out of a towel and jumping up and down on the bed, thinking you can fly.
I'm not going to grieve about this, but I will be pissed if they say they're quitting and then go on and on, squandering our memories.
Joey fudged the question in recent interviews, leaving the door open a crack, summoning fears of permanent "lost our lease signs" and the Who's continuous farewell tour.
Don't you wish the Stones had quit after Some Girls? I do.
2: I Wanna Be Sedated
We need some closure here, and, thankfully, 46-year-old Johnny is more resolute. After all, it was his idea to call the band's new album Adios Amigos!.
"This will be our last album," the guitarist says by phone from New York. "We'll continue playing for this one, and touring until sometime next year, and we'll stop then.
"I really don't see anything that'll change," he continues, "whether [Adios] sold a lot or sold a little. We've done 21 years. When we reached 15 years, I was hoping to get to 20 years. I was hoping to reach our 2,000th show--and we did both of those.
"It's like if George Foreman says, 'I'm gonna quit today,' and retires, as opposed to going out and getting beaten in the next fight. Maybe he'll win that one, but he's gonna lose eventually. Rock 'n' roll is for young kids, and I think everyone should get out at a certain point."
Johnny Ramone (real name: John Cummings) and singer Joey Hyman are the band's two founding members. They adopted the name "Ramones" because they thought it sounded good ("like 'Eli Wallach,'" Joey explained), and with it the conceit that the band members were brothers of that name.
Johnny and Joey were living in Queens, New York, when they put the Ramones together. Johnny was working construction, and did the first gigs and recordings as a lark, figuring he'd be back to his day job shortly. Then the Ramones became the only real job he's ever had.
"I see bands go on and on for too long," he says. "I want fans to remember us at a certain level of performing and I don't want to become less than that. People stay in bands because everything's catered to them, everyone pats them on the back and tells them how great they are all day long. I feel like it's time to deal with the rest of your life already."
3: Let's Dance
Adios is bracketed by perfect Ramones sides, opening with a cover of Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" and closing with an unlisted rendition of the "Spiderman" theme. They're a tossed-off pair of masterpieces. If Adios isn't the Ramones' swan song, it ought to be.
In between, the songs that don't work are the ones without Joey's distinctive vocals. There's something about his fey tang that makes even the silliest lyrics sublime and gives their nihilism a fast sheen. Ten years after the Ramones' 1976 debut, hard-core bands were stuck in the same patterns, but had lost the gleefulness and substituted an earnest reading of words that made less sense than, "Now I wanna sniff some glue."
But it's not just Joey that makes the Ramones' sound click. Listen to the In Their Own Words compilation, where he essays a solo acoustic version of "I Wanna Be Sedated" at, of all places, a songwriters' seminar. Without Johnny's buzz-saw guitar, the song's just limp and pretty. Left to his own devices, Joey thinks too much.
And Johnny? "I go into the studio and I say, 'Just write the chords on a piece of paper,'" he says. "I recorded 'I Don't Wanna Grow Up,' and I'd never played the song before. I went in, they put on [the Tom Waits original], and I said, 'Yeah, that's a good song, let's play it.' We were done with the song in, like, a half-hour after we'd listened to the original version. And it sounds the same, it don't make no difference to me. I ain't gonna play it any better."
4: Beat on the Brat
"Punks should have no politics or be right wing," Johnny told Musician magazine in 1983. "Otherwise, they're just hippies dressed as punks. . . . Punks should stand on the corner and do nothing, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One."
That same year, the Ramones played a New York show billed as "A Tribute to the Unemployed." Not a benefit--a tribute. The show was underwritten by Miller Beer.
If the Ramones were the heart of rock for a while, critic Dave Marsh wanted to be its higher organ. Ripping bands for taking beer sponsorships, he singled out Johnny.
"In a way, Johnny Ramone does us a favor," Marsh wrote in his newsletter Rock 'n' Roll Confidential. "Now that his position is so clear, we can make ours: Those who would exploit workers, no matter what their rhetoric or their clothing or their hair styles, define themselves as enemies of rock and where it came from."
The Ramones subsequently licensed their song "Blitzkrieg Bop" for a Bud commercial, then topped themselves by recording an original song for Steel Reserve beer.
"I don't see nothing wrong with beer sponsorships," Johnny says. "It's American. I drink beer. It's the easiest money I ever made. And the commercial sounds better. . . . Anyone who criticizes us doing a beer commercial has got to be a leftist.
"I go to a ball game and see the Milwaukee Brewers and I don't have no problem with that, either. Rock 'n' roll is meant to entertain. Hippie folk singers are supposed to be singing about leftist views, but I don't think rock 'n' roll was ever that way. I don't remember the early rock 'n' rollers ever expressing any political views."
5: Cretin Hop
The essence of rock endures in barbaric 4/4 three-chord yawps like "Louie, Louie," "Stepping Stone" and "96 Tears." But where are the Kingsmen, the Monkees and the Mysterians today? Jokes, vanished.
The Ramones endured for two reasons. First, they never had a hit, so they didn't have the limelight and pressure, just sales steady enough to keep them working.
Just now, the Adios single "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" is bidding fair to be the band's biggest seller, propelled in part by the buzz that it's calling it quits. It's a great cover, but coming this late in the day it won't have the punch and significance that "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" had in '77, when the Ramones launched 1,000 bands.
Second, the bulk of the band's early album tracks (collected on the two-volume All the Good Stuff and More) had a thick consistency. Tommy Erdelyi, the band's first drummer and the co-producer of its first four albums, explained it to journalist Timothy White this way:
"We used block chording as a melodic device, and the harmonies resulting from the distortion of the amplifiers created countermelodies. We used the wall of sound as a melodic rather than a riff form; it was like a song within a song--created by a block of chords droning."
Hence the feeling of jumping up and down on the bed and thinking you can fly.
Here's Erdelyi again: "The hypnotic effect of strict repetition, the effect of lyrics that repeat, and vocals that dart out at you, and the percussive effect of driving the music like a sonic machine made the music distinctive. It's very sensual. You can put headphones on and just swim with it. It's not background music."
First rule is: The laws of Germany
Second rule is: Be nice to mommy
Third rule is: Don't talk to commies
Fourth rule is: Eat kosher salamis.
What's not to like?
6: Teenage Lobotomy
Why did the Ramones title their second album Leave Home? Because getting out of their parents' houses was such a significant event they had to find a way to commemorate it. They were the Bowery Boys with guitars.
In 1977, the band toured England with the Talking Heads. Both acts were graduates of the scene at CBGB, the downtown New York club where punk was born. They were yoked together as America's oddest new export, but Johnny wasn't buying it. The Heads made him suspicious. "They were always a bunch of intellectuals," he told an interviewer. They read books.
He laughs about it now, but hasn't reconsidered. "They were smart guys, but they were a little annoying at the time, you know? You'd say one word to Jerry Harrison and he'd give you an hour speech on the subject--I mean, geez. They were so unlike us."
In the beginning, both groups had strong, scarcely hidden links to bubblegum pop. But the Talking Heads grew, bringing in session players, adding Eastern percussion, refining their technique until they were so unlike their earlier selves that they had hits.
In the studio, the Ramones' producers also dabbled in new, cleaner sounds, but it didn't boost sales. Critics clamored for a return to the band's cruddy metal essence, like an audience that wants to hear the same joke.
Concerts were something else--onstage the Ramones stayed true to their original sound. What choice did they have? It was all they'd ever known, and it was a whale of a show.
Where the Heads were ironic, the Ramones were theatrical, dependable and precise. They looked more or less alike. They took to starting every show with a recording of Ennio Morricone's lazy "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" theme, broken by their live, fast "One, two, three, four!" kickoff. They could play a full 17-song set in a legendary 30 minutes. They rarely had a bad night.
"I always felt everything was important," Johnny says. "Just walking on stage was important. It had to be done right. I thought it was important not to lose that excitement that's in the air right before you start playing. . . .
"The set is very structured, the music's very structured, there's no room for improvising or variation. We're very consistent."
7: She Talks to Rainbows
A decade after the Ramones escaped from New York, the next wave rolled out of another downtown Manhattan club, Wetlands. It was the incubator for Phish, Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler--neohippie jam bands with a nod to the Grateful Dead. There's patchouli in the air at Blues Traveler concerts, and members of the young audience sway in place as front man John Popper plays long, meandering harmonica solos.
"Hey, Canned Heat did this crap, right?" Johnny says of Popper's act. "I hate that shit. I hate solos. I mean, Ginger Baker did a drum solo and nobody's going to be able to top him. So then you just have a bunch of second- and third-rate drum solos.
"It's lame, this whole 'My drumming's so good I've just got to stop the show and play for 20 minutes to show everybody' thing. I hope it's not a trend of the future. It's weird."
8: Baby I Love You
Maybe it is time for the Ramones to quit. They're hemmed into their historic moment anyway, bookended by music they despise.
The Ramones returned from a European tour two weeks ago. The Rolling Stones were touring the Continent at the same time and, while the bands didn't cross paths, Johnny had strong feelings about his forerunners, as well.
"The last time I saw them was that pay-per-view thing last summer. It was torturous to watch. They're like old men posing, and it's excruciating. They can't even play the same guitar parts. I really like Keith Richards, I think this guy is one of the coolest guys in rock since rock 'n' roll's been around. But to just stand there, and he can't play the Chuck Berry stuff? They opened up with 'Not Fade Away' on the show and it sounded exactly like the Grateful Dead's version. What is that?
"It just confirmed what I felt," Johnny continues, still speaking of the Stones. "I want people to have fond memories of us, whoever does now. And you know, $100 million--I'm sure Mick's got about that amount and Keith does, too. But they have nothing else to do.
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"It's like, I was out one night and I see Angus [Young] from AC/DC, and I say, 'Angus, when are you guys gonna stop?' And he says, 'What am I gonna quit for, what am I gonna do with my life?' And I thought, 'Yup, another reason why I gotta stop.'
"Those are exactly my reasons: What am I gonna do with my life? Am I still doing this because I don't know what to do with my life? Then I got a problem, and I better learn to deal with it."
So--what is he going to do with his life?
"Nothing," he says. "That's it, nothing. That's what I'm trying to tell you: Nothing in music. I could never do anything as good as the Ramones.