Back in the glue-sniffing, brat-beating early days of his band, Marky Ramone would've never believed it was possible. But here it is, the sixteenth anniversary of those lovable cartoon punks from Forest Hills, New York, and the Ramones drummer is fairly bursting with pride.
Of course, his group now has fans who weren't even born when Marky and his musical brothers screamed out their first "gabba gabba hey!" at Bowery punk pit CBGB's way back when. But even though the teenage lobotomists may now be pushing middle age, don't count them out yet.
"Let's see, I'm 36 and the oldest member of the band is 37," admits Marky in a recent telephone interview. "We feel that we can go on at least until our twentieth anniversary. I mean, some of the Rolling Stones are in their early fifties. So we've got a few years to go yet."
In celebration of its sweet sixteen, the band has embarked on a tour with some other not-so-new-wavers including Deborah Harry, Jerry Harrison, and Tom Tom Club. This Escape From New York tour has got Marky waxing nostalgic. He fondly remembers the glory days of the New York punk scene when he and his celebrity pals would stage their own rock 'n' roll answer to the Algonquin Round Table at the city's hippest joints.
"I've known the other people on this tour since CBGB days and Max's [Kansas City]," he remarks wistfully. "We all used to hang out together and talk about this and that. At one table you'd have Johnny Thunders and Joey Ramone, Richard Hell, and Debbie Harry. And at another table you'd have Clem Burke from Blondie, myself and guys from Television. That's how it really was in those days."
The Ramones are proud of their status as the forefathers of punk. The group is one of the few acts among the Seventies leather-and-safety-pin brigade that hasn't self-destructed. In Marky's eyes, survival is an achievement in itself.
"It's amazing that we're still around after all the stuff we used to do," he laughs. "Being the elder statesmen after sixteen years I guess is something to be proud of. We've never copped out. We're not one-hit wonders. We've always maintained our sound."
Maybe the band has maintained its sound a little too well. The group's classic 1977 self-titled debut LP was stocked with fourteen warp-speed teen-junk anthems, most of which clocked in at around two minutes. It's been said that on subsequent LPs, the Ramones didn't really write new songs so much as they rearranged the same chords and shuffled around the dynamics. This can either be taken as a testament to the band's consistency and skill or as evidence of its sputtering creative juices.
But the Ramones don't make any apologies for not outgrowing their primal punk sound. The band's never seen any reason to re-invent itself because--in its opinion--punk is still the most vital musical expression out there.
"I think the punk era had an attitude," states Marky. "Punk, to me, was the last movement that really had any kind of substance to it, that wasn't afraid to say anything or get involved or question things."
Marky would like to see younger listeners get turned on to punk pioneers like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Buzzcocks, and the Clash. He claims that even the most mediocre punk bands from that epoch would count as an improvement over some of today's vapid popsters.
"What do we have now?" asks Marky. "We have this fluff-shit metal that's safe. My mother listens to that stuff! It's unfortunate. It's all been done before. All these bands try to do is get John Bonham drum sounds from samples. And then on the other side of the coin, you have Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul, and they all sing to tapes. I mean, if they want to dance around so much, let them join a play or something. They're not rock 'n' roll."
Marky is quick to write off today's commercial-rock kingpins, but he admits he wouldn't whine so much if the Ramones could score a hit. While the band has had a few of its songs crash the U.K. Top Ten, the act's best-selling American single, "Rockaway Beach," topped out at an unimpressive No. 66 back in 1978. After plugging away for sixteen years in the punk ghetto, Marky feels it's high time for a little recognition from pop radio.
"We've always said [a hit] would be nice," he acknowledges, "and we feel we've worked hard for it. Maybe it's time for the radio programmers to give us some room and say, `Look, these guys have been around a long time. They have a dedicated following.' But we're not going to write a song just for that reason. If someone takes a single off the album and the programmer goes, `Oh this is playable'--fine. But we're not going to live for that one hit single."
But wasn't "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker"-- the boppy surf number from the band's 1977 LP Rocket to Russia--a more or less calculated stab at Top 40 acceptance? "No, that was just a typical kind of Ramones song," Marky maintains. "But then again, `Pet Sematary' came out last year and that should have been a hit. But it wasn't because there's a lot of resistance on the radio, and we're not a safe band to play. We did think that might be the one to push us over."
It would've been a shame if "Pet Sematary," from last year's Brain Drain LP, had been the single to initiate the band to the masses, considering that it's hardly stellar Ramones. Maybe--as Marky theorizes--listeners who felt the song should've been more macabre and less mournful just didn't "get it." Still, the appeal of hearing Joey Ramone croon tenderly about deceased doggies and kitties wore off after the first listening.
Brain Drain, filled with mediocre cuts like "Sematary," will probably only be remembered as the last LP to feature the bass work of the irrepressible Dee Dee Ramone, who recently fled the group for a career as a rap artist. Performing under the handle Dee Dee King, his solo album from last year, Standing in the Spotlight, was so laughable that it worked only as a parody of rap. Critics who've argued that white folks have no business rapping could use this hip-hop fiasco to prove their point.
"He likes rap, and he wanted to be a rap artist," sighs Marky. "I think it was a good try, but compared to a lot of other [rap albums] out there, I don't think it even came close. He thought he could go on to be bigger than the group on his own. I mean, the guy did write a lot of songs for the band, but he's no front man, he's no lead singer. He's a Ramone, and he'll always be a Ramone. That's what he does best."
After his ill-fated flirtation with rap, Dee Dee came groveling back to the band in an attempt to get rehired, Marky says. But with replacement C.J. Ramone already signed on, the band was only willing to throw Dee Dee a bone: a demotion to part-time songwriter. "We're probably still going to use a lot of Dee Dee's songs," explains Marky. "He's just not going to be in the band. Like I said, we didn't throw him out of the band--he left. Now he regrets it, but we're not going to screw this new guy around."
In Marky's opinion, Dee Dee may be kicking himself for missing out on all the hoopla surrounding the band's sixteenth anniversary. To keep the hype rolling after the Escape tour, Sire/Warner Bros. will soon be releasing the band's entire catalogue in CD format as well as a collection of the group's videos. This wave of Ramones- mania is enough to make Marky a little misty-eyed.
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"We look around us and we can see who wears Ramones tee shirts now, who has been influenced by us and stuff," he boasts. "We're very proud of that. We have heavy-metal fans. We have punk fans. We have rock fans. We have hard-rock fans. We have speed-metal fans. At this point, our audience is varied. It's amazing to us, because when we first started in '74, '75, the only people who came around were locals, people who started emulating us with the leather jackets and the ripped jeans. A lot has changed since then. I mean, now they're selling ripped jeans at Bloomingdale's, for Christ's sake."
The Ramones will perform at Mesa Amphitheatre on Monday, August 6, with Deborah Harry, Tom Tom Club, and Jerry Harrison. Show time is 8 p.m.
"Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul sing to tapes. If they want to dance around so much, let them join a play. They're not rock 'n' roll.