Written by Thomas Hanslowe
The Ramones were one of the most influential bands to emerge from New York City in the 1970s. Hailing from the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, the Ramones helped to define the sound, style, and attitude of a new musical genre that came to be known as punk rock. With Joey Ramone’s unique vocal delivery, Johnny Ramone’s buzzsaw guitar, Dee Dee Ramone’s twisted, hilarious songwriting, and Tommy Ramone’s powerful no-frills drumming, the Ramones helped to spark a musical revolution that is still reverberating to this day. Join us as we explore the career and music of one of the most important bands in rock history: the Ramones.
THE ORIGINS OF THE RAMONES
The story of the Ramones begins in the bureau of Queens in New York City. Joey Ramone, born Jeffrey Hyman on May 19, 1951, was the only Ramone actually born in the Forest Hills neighborhood. Future guitarist John Cummings, a.k.a. Johnny Ramone, was born on October 8, 1948 and was also a Queens native. The Ramone’s bassist Douglas Colvin, better known as Dee Dee Ramone, was born on September 18, 1951 in Fort Lee, Virginia, though his father’s military career would lead him to spend much of his childhood growing up in West Berlin, a city split in two by the Cold War and still recovering from the devastation of World War II. Dee Dee spent much of his childhood wandering around the bombed-out city looking for war memorabilia to sell. Sometimes he would even find unused morphine in old medical kits, which unfortunately led to problems with addiction he would struggle with for the rest of his life. Thomas Erdelyi, better known to the world as Tommy Ramone, was born on January 29, 1949 in Budapest to Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust. By the time the boys were teenagers their families were all located in Forest Hills. The original four members met during their years attending Forest Hills High School together.
From a young age the boys were attracted to the sounds of early rock ’n’ roll and the Beatles. Joey was also very taken with the girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s like the Ronnettes and the Shangri-Las, who made a lasting impression on his vocal style. The first musical collaboration between any future Ramones was a mid-1960s garage band called the Tangerine Puppets, which featured Johnny on guitar and Tommy on drums. The band primarily played covers, and were inspired by 1960s garage rock of the sort preserved on the legendary compilation album Nuggets. In 1967 Tommy began working as a recording engineer at Manhattan’s Record Plant where he had the opportunity to work with figures like Jimi Hendrix. This experience proved valuable for his later work with the Ramones as a producer and not just a drummer. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the boys were exposed to new sounds and styles in rock music that left a deep impression on all of them. Bands like the Iggy Pop-fronted Stooges, the New York Dolls, and even the larger-than-life hard rock of Led Zeppelin would all go on to inform the Ramones’ distinct musical style and attitude.
In 1972 Joey Ramone—still going by Jeffery Hyman at this point—joined his first band, a glam rock group called Sniper. Although Joey initially learned the drums, Sniper gave him his first experience as a frontman, and his first entry as a performer in New York’s underground rock scene. Even at this early point, the seeds of punk rock were already taking root in New York City. Sniper would play the Coventry and Max’s Kansas City, the latter of which was destined to become one of the city’s most important early punk venues, and shared the bill with bands like Suicide and the glammed-out proto-punk group the New York Dolls. Dee Dee Ramone later recalled seeing one of Joey’s performances with Suicide and immediately being impressed:
I saw Sniper play with Suicide one night, and Joey was the lead singer and he was great. He was really sick looking. I thought Joey was the perfect singer because he was so weird looking. And the way he leaned on the mike was really weird. I kept asking myself, how’s he balancing himself? The thing was, all the other singers were copying David Johansen [of the New York Dolls], who was copying Mick Jagger, and I couldn’t stand that anymore. But Joey was totally unique.
On January 23, 1974, the future Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone took a trip to Manny’s Guitar Centre where they bought a guitar and a bass, respectively. Johnny claimed he picked up his first Mosrite guitar simply because it was the cheapest one in the store (he reportedly haggled the price down from $69.55 to $50). He also figured all guitars sound the same if you turn them up loud enough, and since it wasn’t a particularly popular guitar, it was something that could be identified with him.
The pair decided to make use of their new gear by forming a band. Tommy had encouraged them to start a group for some time, and he was delighted they were finally going to give it a try, though initially he served as a manager rather than a band member. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Johnny recalled that they wrote two songs during their very first rehearsal, “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” and the admittedly similar “I Don’t Wanna Get Involved With You” They recruited their friend Joey as well as a short-lived member named Ritchie Stern. At first, Joey was on drums while Dee Dee tried his hand at rhythm guitar and lead vocals. Stern dropped out quickly, leading Dee Dee to replace him on bass. The band soon realized that Joey was the strongest singer of the group. Of course this left them without a drummer. Tommy and the band held auditions to fill the spot, but had trouble finding someone that fit the unique sound they were already developing. Tommy later recounted,
So we began auditioning drummers and I was trying to explain to them the style we wanted—eighth-notes across, with the ‘one’ on the bass and the ‘two’ on the snare, fast and consistent. At the time everyone wanted to do heavy metal drumming, putting in the rolls. No one could do it, so I tried it and it worked. I’d never played drums before. I was more the mentor at the time, I always was. Once I got behind the drums, all the elements clicked together
The name the Ramones came from Dee Dee and was inspired by Paul McCartney’s old stage name—Paul Ramon—from the Beatles’ early days as an unsigned English band. The Ramones soon adopted the stage names they would use for the rest of their long career. They were writing original songs at a quick pace, and on March 30, 1974, the Ramones made their debut. Tommy was away for work so the group played as a trio with Joey on drums. Their first set comprised of seven songs: “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “I Don’t Wanna Be Learned, I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed,” “I Don’t Wanna Get Involved With You,” “I Don’t Like Nobody That Don’t Like Me,” and “Succubus.” It was a bit of a rough start. Joey couldn’t attach the seat of his drum stool. He had to balance on the point, and fell over repeatedly (which attendee and Blondie singer Debbie Harry remembered being hilarious), and Dee Dee was so nervous he reportedly stepped on his bass and broke its neck. As Johnny Ramone recounted to Punk magazine just a few years later, “We were terrible.” Nevertheless, the Ramones had hit the scene and rock music was about to change forever.
CBGB AND THE BIRTH OF PUNK
When the Ramones started playing gigs in NYC, the city was going through troubled times. Crime was up, the quality of living was dropping, and at points it even seemed like New York might go bankrupt. In spite of all this, New York in the 1970s was a hotbed of musical creativity. The arty underground rock scene where the Ramones were about to make their mark was only one of many vibrant musical communities all over the city. Around the same time the Ramones were kick-starting punk rock, New York was buzzing with musical innovations in a wide variety of genres from salsa to early hip-hop. The Ramones were just one of many innovative and influential musical forces that emerged out of New York City in this decade.
No venue is more closely associated with the Ramones or the early New York punk scene than CBGB, a grimy music club located in the Bowery neighborhood of lower Manhattan. The club was founded by Hilly Kristal in 1973, and its full name was CBGB & OMFUG, which stood for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.” By 1974, the club had already started hosting rock bands, and soon it was the center of a vibrant, creative underground scene. The Ramones played their first show there on August 16, 1974. In addition to the Ramones, groups like Television, the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Talking Heads all played CBGB regularly.
The Ramones’ first gigs at CBGB were a far cry from the tightly honed sets they would later be known for. A video of the Ramones playing at the club on September 15th, 1974 captures the band arguing on stage about whether they should play “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” or “Loudmouth.” Within just a few years, the band would be famous for launching almost immediately from one song to another with military precision, propelled by Dee Dee’s signature “one-two-three-four” count offs. The video also shows that at this early stage the Ramones had already landed on their revolutionary, bare-bones style of rock ’n’ roll and written some of their first punk rock classics like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “Judy is a Punk.”
One of the defining features of the Ramones’ unique brand of rock was Johnny Ramone’s guitar playing. Johnny stripped down rock guitar to its bare essentials, avoiding solos and flourishes in favor of heavy distortion and barre chords delivered at wrist-breaking pace with nothing but downstrokes of the guitar pick. Although Johnny never publicly claimed any particular influences on his guitar playing, the heavy riff running through “Communication Breakdown” on Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album may have inspired his fast, downstrokes-only picking style. Dee Dee also took a stripped back approach to the bass, playing downstrokes with a pick and sticking mostly to the roots of the chords. Tommy deliberately matched their style on the drums, avoiding flashy fills and rolls in favor of a steady, relatively simple pattern hammered out at a breakneck pace.
Another key element of the group’s sound was Joey Ramone, one of the most iconic singers in punk and beyond. Joey’s vocal strength and distinct New York accent were matched by his unconventional stage presence. He was influenced not only by the British Invasion, David Bowie, and the Stooges, but also the girl groups of the early 1960s of the sort produced by the band’s unlikely future collaborator, Phil Spector. The Ramones played a relentless, no-frills style of rock that simultaneously looked back toward rock ’n’ roll’s origins while setting the mold for what would soon be known as punk. The songs were short, fast, frequently hilarious, and managed to be aggressive and catchy all at the same time. During an era of guitar gods taking lengthy, virtuosic solos, the Ramones’ distinct brand of hard-edged, bar-bones pop was like a jolt out of the blue. Even though playing like the Ramones is actually much harder than it looks, they made it seem like it was something anyone could do. They showed a path forward in which rock music would not be the sole domain of virtuosos with expensive equipment and elaborate stage shows. And while no one would ever quite match the spectacular off-beat energy of the Ramones, they would soon show countless kids the world over that anyone could start a band.
SINGING WITH SIRE AND RECORDING THE RAMONES
The Ramones hit the ground running and soon became staples at CBGB. One of their most important early admirers was a young figure in the music industry named Danny Fields, who had worked with the Doors and the Stooges. After a considerable amount of effort from Tommy, Fields went to see the Ramones in 1975 and was blown away. He introduced himself to the band after their set and offered to manage them. The Ramones agreed on the condition that he buy them a new drum set.
One of Danny’s first orders of business was taking co-founder of Sire Records Seymour Stein and his wife Linda, who was soon to be the band’s co-manager, to see the Ramones. They were both impressed. Linda Stein would later recall to Ramones biographer Everett True, “I thought they were amazing. You’d hear them once and the second time you’d be singing along. I loved the energy, brevity and simplicity.” By January of 1976, the Ramones were signed to Sire Records. Just a month later, they recorded their self-titled debut album at Plaza Sound, laying down fourteen songs in a mere eighteen day span. Seymour Stein would later recount, “I can remember going to the studio and [the Ramones] had got there three hours earlier. I said, ‘How’s everything going?’ And Johnny says to me, “Things aren’t going so great, we only got seven tracks down.” The album was produced by Tommy Ramone and Craig Leon, and came in just shy of 29 minutes.
Ramones was released on April 23, 1976. Although the album was well-received by critics, it was not a commercial success, peaking only at no. 111 on the Billboard Hot 200. “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” were released as singles but did not crack the charts. Ramones is now widely regarded as a classic and one of the most influential albums in punk rock. The fourteen original songs show the surprising emotional range the Ramones were able to create within the confines of their stripped down style, from the sensitive, vulnerable pop of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” to the nihilistic humor of “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and the tongue-in-cheek horror movie imagery of “Chain Saw.”
The iconic photograph that adorns the cover of Ramones—a black and white shot of the band in jeans and leather jackets, backs against a brick wall—was never originally intended to be an album cover. The photographer Roberta Bailey initially took the photo for a music fanzine created by John Holstrom, Ged Dunn, and Legs McNeil named Punk. This fanzine is often credited with naming the punk rock genre. When the band was unhappy with the work of the expensive, professional photographer hired by Sire, they turned to Bailey and bought the classic album cover for just $125.
The album leads off with one of the defining anthems of the Ramones’ entire career, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The song was written primarily by Tommy, who initially titled it “Animal Hop.” Dee Dee made several contribution to the song that gave it a significantly darker edge, renaming it “Blitzkrieg Bop” and changing the line “They’re shouting in the back now” to “Shoot ‘em in the back now.” The song’s iconic opening chant “hey, ho, let’s go” was inspired by a somewhat unlikely source: the Bay City Rollers’ hit song “Saturday Night.”
The album’s humor and pop sensibility stands at a contrast with lyrical themes that are at times shockingly dark. For one thing, Dee Dee’s memories of collecting World War II artifacts during his childhood in Germany led to songs like “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” containing Nazi imagery. While it is tempting to write off Joey Ramone—who was Jewish himself—singing lines like “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor” as nothing more than a tasteless joke, both Tommy and Seymour Stein expressed discomfort with the lyrics, though not to the extent that they were willing to censor Dee Dee. Another particularly dark lyric from Dee Dee was “53rd and 3rd,” a song about male hustling that was supposedly inspired by Dee Dee’s own experiences with sex work as a means of funding his heroin habit. These moments are juxtaposed against the lighthearted pop of “Let’s Dance,” a cover of the 1962 hit by Chris Montez, the Spy Vs. Spy humor of “Havana Affair,” and the cartoon violence of “Beat on the Brat.” Tommy later commented, “We were all very frustrated. We escaped from our anger with humor.”
THE RAMONES ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK AND LEAVE HOME
Both the band and Sire Records were disappointed that the Ramones debut was largely ignored by radio stations. In spite of this, the band made plans to start playing gigs beyond the bounds of New York City. Soon the Ramones were traveling around the United States to play shows. The band’s first real chance to see the kind of impact their music was having came during their first visit to England. The Ramones played their first show in London at the Roundhouse on the American bicentennial, July 4, 1976, sharing the bill with the Flamin’ Groovies . These shows were attended by members of some of the most prominent bands in the up-and-coming British punk rock scene, including the Clash and Johnny Rotten, singer for the Sex Pistols. The Ramones followed up their highly successful English dates with another double bill with the Flamin’ Groovies at the Roxie Theater in Los Angeles, where another important early punk scene was springing up. As the music promoter Howie Klein later put it, “The Ramones were like the Johnny Appleseeds of the whole new wave movement. Wherever they’d go, a local new wave scene would start. They’d come to town, leave, and two weeks later there were ten bands that had started.” The Ramones were like the living embodiment of a famous image from an early British punk fanzine called Strangled: “Here’s a chord. Here’s another. And here’s another. Now go away and form a band.”
In October of 1976, the Ramones entered Sundragon Studios to begin work on their second album, Leave Home. One of the most noticeable differences from the first album is the improved sound quality. Tommy, who once again served as co-producer, said, “We had a better studio with better engineers, and we also had more time.” More time for the Ramones meant a couple months as opposed to a couple weeks. Most of the tracks were still laid down live by the band, and overdubs were kept to a minimum.
Leave Home was released on January 10, 1977. The album features fourteen songs coming in at a tight 31 minutes and contains some of the band’s most beloved tunes. Leave Home is another showcase of the band’s sweet-and-sour mixture of twisted humor, punk energy, and pop sensibility. The band’s love of Sixties bubblegum pop is on full display in tracks like “I Remember You,” “Oh, Oh, I Love Her So,” “Swallow My Pride,” and their joyous cover of the 1960 surf rock classic “California Sun.” The album’s second track, “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” is the beginning of a running theme in the Ramones’ catalogue: tongue-in-cheek songs on the topic of mental health. Below their comical surface level, these songs have a certain poignant resonance with Dee Dee’s longstanding issues with addiction and Joey’s lifelong struggles with mental health conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder.
One of the album’s strongest songs also caused the Ramones some of their biggest headaches. “Carbona Not Glue” is the undeniably catchy follow up to “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” off the band’s debut. While there’s a good argument to be made that the song is really more about mind numbing teenage boredom than ranking the effects of dangerous inhalants, the subject matter was still taboo enough to prevent the song from being released as a single or heard on the radio. The more serious problem was the fact that Carbona was a corporate trademark, which could have led to a lawsuit. As a result, the song was pulled off the album shortly after it was released and replaced with “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” in the USA and “Babysitter” in the UK. The track was eventually restored to its original place on the expanded 2001 rerelease of Leave Home. The album was another commercial disappointment for the band, though it did land at no. 45 on the British charts. The band’s lack of mainstream success was a continued source of frustration for the band, and was even expressed on the first single released from the album, “Swallow My Pride,” which Joey said was inspired by the lackluster performance of the Ramones’ first album.
One of the album’s most memorable tracks is “Pinhead,” which would close the band’s shows for years. The song was inspired by a screening of Todd Brown’s 1932 cult classic horror film Freaks, which the Ramones caught after a show in Ohio was canceled. The movie tells the story of a group of sideshow performers who get revenge on a treacherous strongman and trapeze artist. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the sideshow performers accept a new member into their group by chanting “gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us.” As Tommy later explained, “We simplified ‘Gooble gabba’ to ‘Gabba gabba’ and ‘We accept you, one of us’—meaning that all the freaks were welcome to join the Ramones.”
PUNK ROCK EXPLODES AND ROCKET TO RUSSIA
In spite of the disappointing commercial performance of the Ramones second album, 1977 was a crucial year for punk rock. Many of the bands the Ramones would play with like Talking Heads and Blondie were receiving major record deals, and shows at NYC punk venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City were drawing bigger crowds. Across the Atlantic Ocean in England, however, punk rock was turning into a major cultural movement. Bands like the Clash, the Damned, and especially the Sex Pistols were redefining punk in terms of both its fashion and its politics, but their music bore the obvious influence of the Ramones. By May of 1977, the Sex Pistols were achieving the kind of commercial success the Ramones found so elusive with their early groundbreaking singles “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen.” The Pistol’s success was aided in no small part by the high-profile media outrage the band was able to provoke. They didn’t become a household name until December of 1976 when they shocked the British public by swearing on a live broadcast of the Today program hosted by Bill Grundy. Punk was now associated with safety pins, spiky hair, radical politics, and rudeness.
Punk’s explosion in the U.K. was not entirely welcome news to the Ramones. While the band enjoyed some well-deserved credit for their work when touring and releasing records in England, it was difficult for them to watch bands they felt had copied their style reach levels of mainstream popularity they themselves could only dream of. Even worse, punk had taken on a new image the Ramones weren’t entirely comfortable with. They never embraced what we now think of as punk fashion, pioneered in no small part by the designer Vivienne Westwood and popularized by the Pistols, favoring instead their trademark look of long hair, leather jackets, and ripped jeans. And while the Ramones sometimes veered toward the shocking in their lyrics, they never engaged in the provocative public behavior that made the Sex Pistols so notorious. In spite of that, they were inextricably tied to punk rock, and though they never got to enjoy the commercial fruits of the filth and fury stirred up by the Sex Pistols, they were now associated with all the negativity and moral outrage that had come to be linked with punk. In some ways, they were becoming outsiders in a genre they had helped pioneer. Still, the band looked to the U.K. and hoped that the stage was set for the Ramones to finally achieve their goal of dominating the American airwaves with a hit record. There were some hopeful signs when the Ramones released “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” as a single in May of 1977. The song—which would turn out to be the Ramones’ most successful single—climbed to number 22 on the UK Singles Chart and number 81 on the Billboard Hot 100.
All these factors helped set the mood when the Ramones once again entered Media Sound in August of 1977 to lay down tracks for their third and perhaps finest record, Rocket to Russia. Although the band was now working with a budget between $25,000 and $30,000—a major step up from their first two albums—they still made a point to get the songs down as quickly as they could. According to Johnny Ramone, “You don’t want to sit there and bullshit: it’s your money they’re spending.” As Tommy later recalled, “We were on a roll, in high gear, touring and everything. We thought we were gonna make it, that we were on the launching pad. Even if it was a little difficult to write the songs because we had to write ‘em in hotel rooms, once we got into the studio, we felt we were in control—that we were in our prime.”
Rocket To Russia once again showcases the Ramones distinct brand of humor and pop sensibilities. The album features more songs on the theme of mental health, including “I Wanna Be Well”—one of Joey’s earliest songs—and “Teenage Lobotomy” (which features the fantastic line “Guess I’m gonna have to tell ‘em/That I got no cerebellum”). The album’s sound engineer Ed Stasium would later say he felt “Teenage Lobotomy” was the best Ramones’ song he ever recorded. He said, “It’s a mini-Ramones symphony. It has every element of what’s great about them, in one song: the big drum intro and the ‘Lobotomy’ chant; the little background-harmony oohs; the subject matter.” The Ramones’s twisted sense of humor is also on full display in songs like “Cretin Hop” and “We’re a Happy Family.”
The album is full of surf-inflected callbacks to the bubblegum pop of the early 1960s, and features two fantastic covers. One was Bobby Freeman’s 1958 hit “Do You Wanna Dance,” which had also been recorded by such luminaries as Cliff Richard and the Shadows, The Beach Boys, and even Bette Middler. The other was “Surfin’ Bird,” the hypnotically repetitive ear worm first recorded by the Trashmen in 1963. Rocket to Russia also features some of the Ramones’ finest original pop efforts. “Ramona” is a sweet ballad with an espionage twist, and “Locket Love” is a fun, upbeat number. The real standout is “Rockaway Beach,” Dee Dee’s infectious tribute to summer days in Queens that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early Beach Boys album.
The Ramones finished the record confident that it contained a few hits. Although the album was the high point of the band’s chart success, it ultimately proved to be another disappointment. Rocket to Russia went to forty-nine on the Billboard 200 and sixty on the UK Albums chart. “Rockaway Beach” turned out to be the highest charting American single of the Ramones’ career, peaking at number sixty-six on the Billboard Hot 100. The band partially blamed the album’s lack of sales on the negative publicity punk rock had received in reaction to the Sex Pistol’s antics.
The tour to support the album also proved to be difficult, though the Ramones also played a fantastic gig at the Rainbow in London on New Years Eve, 1977 that was preserved on video and later made up the bulk of the band’s excellent 1979 live double album It’s Alive. In October of that year, the band’s truck was stolen, which cost the Ramones about $30,000 worth of equipment. Just a month later, Joey was badly burned before a show in Passaic, New Jersey, when a tea kettle he was breathing steam from exploded in his face. The singer was rushed to the hospital where cream was applied to the burns before returning gamely to the theater to perform. He spent time at a burn center afterward, where he used the painful incident as partial inspiration for one of the Ramones’ best known songs, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
LINE UP CHANGES AND ROAD TO RUIN
Rocket to Russia was the final album to feature the Ramones’ original lineup. Disappointed by the band’s failure to land a big hit and worn down by the grind of touring, Tommy played his last show with the band on May 4, 1978 at a CBGB benefit for Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz. Although Tommy stepped away from the drum stool, he remained actively involved with the Ramones and helped to produce their next album. The Ramones considered a variety of replacements for Tommy, including the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook, Blondie’s Clem Burke, and Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers. Ultimately, though, the role was filled by Marc Bell, the drummer for Richard Hell’s band the Voidoids. As Marky Ramone, he would serve the longest tenure of any of the Ramones’ drummers. Once he landed the gig, Marky had just three weeks to learn the band’s forty song set.
Less than a month after Tommy played his final show, the band reentered Media Sound to begin work on their fourth album, Road to Ruin. In spite of the disappointing performance of Rocket to Russia, the Ramones were once again determined to record a hit. The album took over three months to produce and saw the band consciously trying to write longer songs, which for the Ramones meant longer than two minutes. Road to Ruin has noticeably higher production value than earlier Ramones records and includes far more overdubs. As Ed Stasium recalled, “Me and Tommy played on all those songs, absolutely all of them… Johnny would come in every day to hear what we did. He’d say, ‘Eddy, you and Tommy finish that stuff up, put some good guitars on, and I’ll come and listen to it when you’re finished.”
One of the album’s standouts is the song inspired both by Joey’s accident and the drudgery of constant touring, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” The song shows off the slicker production heard on Road to Ruin, with its double-tracked guitar part and one-note solo. As Tommy later remembered, “We spent a little time making ‘Sedated’ more produced. We were trying to get a single. Which was bittersweet, because we knew it wasn’t going to get played with the word ‘sedated’ in it.” The album also continued a trend that began on Rocket to Russia with its inclusion of prominent acoustic guitar on several tracks, such as their cover of the Searcher’s “Needles and Pins,” an early Dee Dee song titled “Questioningly,” and the album’s first single, “Don’t Come Close.” The decision proved to be divisive amongst Ramones fans, who were split between appreciating the band’s versatility and a desire for them to stick to the stripped down punk style they pioneered. In spite of the album’s slicker sound, the album only peaked at number 103 on the Billboard 200, failing to match the modest success of Rocket to Russia.
ROCK ’N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL AND END OF THE CENTURY
In August of 1978, the Ramones were approached by first-time director Allan Arkush about appearing in a film. That film was Rock’N’Roll High School, produced by the B movie legend Roger Corman. Rock’N’Roll High School is a low budget, over-the-top tribute to 1950s rock movies like The Girl Can’t Help It. The band cut two new songs for the movie, the title song and “I Want You Around.” The Ramones apparently weren’t natural actors. Dee Dee struggled to remember his only line in the film, “Hey pizza!” The film was largely ignored when it was released in April of 1979, though it has since garnered a cult following.
The Ramones continued to tour relentlessly and still had their eyes set on producing a hit record. This would soon lead them to the most unusual collaboration of their career. On May 1, 1979, the Ramones entered Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles to begin working on their next album with none other than Phil Spector. Phil Spector was the legendary producer of 1960s girl groups like the Teddy Bears and the Ronettes, as well as albums by former Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison. Spector had been a fan of the Ramones since seeing them in 1977 and had tried to talk them into working with him for years.
Although the band was initially reluctant, Joey was thrilled to work with one of his musical heroes. Joey would later say, “To me Phil’s music was always kind of like, early punk rock in its own kind of way because Spector was always cutting edge.” Spector was likewise a huge fan of Joey, who’s vocal style owed so much to the girl group singers Spector had worked with. By some accounts, this led Spector to treat the other band members as little more than Joey’s sidemen. This was far from the Ramones’ only problems with Spector’s unorthodox working methods.
Johnny, who was skeptical of Spector to begin with, was especially frustrated by the producer’s near-obsessive perfectionism. Spector made Johnny record and rerecord the opening chord of “Rock’N’Roll High School” for hours on end, a far cry from the band’s usual rapid-fire work in the studio. The band was also exposed to some of Spector’s darker habits. At one point during the album’s production, Spector reportedly pulled one of his many guns on Dee Dee. While this story has been disputed by some of the band, it is very much in line with other violent incidents involving the producer that eventually culminated in the murder of Lana Clarkson in 2003, for which Spector would spend the rest of his life in prison.
The final result was End of the Century, which was released on February 4, 1980. The album is a unique entry in the Ramones’ catalogue that was divisive among fans as well as the band members. It was the first album not to involve Tommy in any way. Its sound is far more produced than any of the band’s other releases, not only featuring layered guitars and a much bigger drum sound, but also saxophone, piano, and even orchestral strings on some numbers. In addition to “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” the album also features the anthemic “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?” Another standout is “Chinese Rock.” Dee Dee had cowritten the song with Richard Hell years ago, though the Ramones initially turned it down because the lyrics were about scoring heroin. Spector’s production particularly shines on slower numbers such as “Danny Says,” one of the band’s most tender love songs. The title “Danny Says” was both a nod to the Ramones’ original manager and the naming convention of Lou Reed songs like “Caroline Says” and “Candy Says.” Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production style is also used to great effect on the album’s only cover, “Baby I Love You,” originally made famous by the Ronettes.
During the recording of End of the Century, Spector repeatedly said his goal was to make the biggest album ever. Although End of the Century missed this target by a wide margin, it was the Ramones’ highest charting album, reaching a peak position of number forty-four on the Billboard 200. “Baby, I Love You” was released as a single and while it reached number eight in the UK, it failed to make an impression in the United States. Johnny would later cite the disappointing sales of End of the Century as the point at which he accepted that the Ramones would never cut the hit record they had dreamed about for so long. Although their next few albums contained more attempts at finding that elusive hit, they would never make a more concentrated effort to break into the mainstream than they did on End of the Century.
THE RAMONES IN THE EIGHTIES
The Ramones continued their relentless touring schedule throughout the 1980s, and they still put out albums at a steady rate. Although these later albums are not generally held at the same level of esteem as the band’s first five LPs, this era saw the release of some of the Ramones’ best-loved songs. In 1981, the band released their sixth album, Pleasant Dreams. Pleasant Dreams was produced by Graham Gouldman, best known for his work with the British band 10cc. The album once again featured slicker production than the earlier albums with Tommy, as demonstrated on the opening track and leadoff single “We Want the Airwaves,” yet another unsuccessful effort by the band to break through with a hit. Pleasant Dreams also features an all-time Ramones classic, “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” The song’s catchy, singalong chorus and offbeat lyrics are amongst the band’s best, though rumors have persisted that it was inspired by the growing tension within the Ramones.
Joey and Johnny had never been on the best terms. Johnny was a staunch conservative where Joey was a lifelong liberal. Joey’s songs leaned more toward pop while Johnny wanted the band to stick to their punk roots. Johnny, who took a leadership role within the band after Tommy departed, tried to get everyone to stick to a strict schedule, which was often difficult for Joey who struggled with OCD. The major turning point in their relationship, however, was a love triangle. When the Ramones began recording Pleasant Dreams, Joey was dating Linda Daniele, who had served as the inspiration for a number of his finest love songs. Over the course of the album’s production, Linda left Joey for Johnny, whom she would later marry. Joey took this very hard and though the band would stay together for fifteen more years, the two would never again be on speaking terms.
The rift between the Ramones deepened as they recorded their seventh studio album, Subterranean Jungle in 1983 with producers Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin. Subterranean Jungle features the band performing three covers. The lead track, “Little Bit ‘O Soul” a song made famous by the Music Explosion, makes this the only Ramones album not to start with a Ramones original. In many ways the album shows the band getting back to their punk rock origins. That being said, the album was influenced by the production trends of the 1980s, particularly in terms of the drum sound. One of the album’s highlights is “Psycho Therapy,” co-written by Johnny and Dee Dee as a callback to the raw, quirky songs of the band’s early years. By this point all the Ramones other than Johnny were struggling with substance abuse problems. Marky’s alcoholism became serious enough that he was kicked out of the band before the album was released. He was quickly replaced by Richie Ramone, originally known as Richard Reinhardt, who would go on to play over 400 shows with the band.
Richie’s first album as a Ramone was 1984’s Too Tough to Die. Too Tough to Die was a deliberate effort to get back to the raw sound of the band’s earliest albums. As such, production was handled by the band’s old collaborators Tommy Erdelyi (aka Tommy Ramone) and Ed Stasium. This is not to say the album was strictly an attempt to get back to 1976. The band, and particularly Johnny, were also influenced by the burgeoning hardcore subgenre that pushed punk’s fast tempos and chaotic energy to new levels of intensity. There were also some departures from strict punk rock. “Chasing the Night” features a full-blown guitar solo, a rarity in the Ramones’ catalogue, while “Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)” sees the band taking a stab at synth-pop. While the album marked a low point in the band’s commercial performance, critics and fans appreciated the Ramones getting back to their roots.
Richie would stay with the Ramones for another two albums, Animal Boy in 1986 and Halfway to Sanity in 1987. One of his most notable contribution to the band was the song “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” off Animal Boy, which was inspired by an incident in which the drummer was given a drink in a San Fransisco bar spiked with LSD. Joey was particularly appreciative of Richie. He encouraged the drummer to write songs and said Richie “put spirit back into the band.” Richie ultimately left the Ramones in 1987 after a financial dispute. He was very briefly replaced by Blondie drummer Clem Burke, who played two ill-fated shows as Elvis Ramone before departing. This led to the drum stool once again being filled by a sober Marky Ramone, who would remain with the group for the rest of their career.
The Ramones’ line-up underwent a drastic change in 1989 when Dee Dee decided to leave the group. He said the decision was based around his struggle to stay sober during this period, which the Ramones’ constant touring schedule made difficult. Dee Dee also wanted to indulge his burgeoning interest in hip-hop, which led to a brief and bizarre foray into the genre. Dee Dee took the rap moniker Dee Dee King and released his lone rap album Standing in the Spotlight in 1989. Dee Dee would later reflect on the album, saying “I don’t think it was worth fighting over, it wasn’t so good anyway.” His departure left a major hole in the Ramones, not only because of his stature as a bass player and punk rock icon, but also because he was one of the band’s principal songwriters. Indeed, he was such a core part of the band there was some debate within the group about whether they should continue on without him. Marky later stated that he felt Dee Dee leaving the Ramones was akin to Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles. The band ultimately decided to soldier on once again, replacing Dee Dee with a young ex-marine who took the stage name C. J. Ramone. C. J. made his first appearance on the band’s 1989 album Brain Drain. Though Dee Dee would never rejoin the band he cofounded, he would still write songs for the Ramones until the group finally broke up.
THE FINAL YEARS
The Ramones stepped into the 1990s as a fixture of punk rock. While not many would dispute that most of the band’s classic songs and albums were behind them by this point, they still put on a captivating live show and were beloved by a dedicated fan base that recognized them as the classic American band that they were. The Ramones put out three studio albums in the Nineties: Mondo Bizarro in 1992, a collection of covers titled Acid Eaters in 1993, and their farewell album Adios Amigos in 1995.
The 1990s was a dramatic time for rock music. Beginning with Nirvana skyrocketing to stardom in 1991 with the unexpected success of their major label debut Nevermind and the hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the road was finally paved for American punk and grunge bands to break into the musical mainstream. Soon bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Rancid, and many others were publicly name checking the Ramones as a major influence. The Ramones may never have scored the hit record they wanted so badly, but by the 1990s they were acknowledged as a fundamental part of rock music’s DNA. The band also received recognition from some less expected corners. In 1993, they made a brief but hilarious appearance on the hit animated sitcom The Simpsons performing “Happy Birthday” for Homer’s evil boss Mr. Burns. The band also received a lovely musical tribute from their friends in the groundbreaking heavy metal band Motörhead, who wrote and recorded the song “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” in the Ramones’ own unmistakable style. The Ramones themselves would often perform the song live and even recorded a cover. The Ramones final touring years were also some of their most successful. This was especially true in Latin America, where the Ramones were treated like rock gods and played to 50,000 seat stadiums.
In spite of this newfound appreciation, the Ramones were finally running out of steam. In 1995 they released their final album, Adios Amigos, which featured a number of contributions from Dee Dee. That same year the band went on a farewell tour, though they also accepted an offer to play at the Lollapalooza festival in the summer of 1996. After this final run, the Ramones played their last show on August 6, 1996 at the Palace in Hollywood. The show featured a number of guest musicians, including Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, Tim Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, Eddie Vedder, and Lemmy. After years on the road, secure in their place as one of the most influential rock bands of their era, the Ramones finally hung up their leather jackets for good.
Sadly, Joey was diagnosed with lymphoma the same year the Ramones released their final album. He kept the diagnosis to himself and continued making music after the Ramones broke up. In 1999 Joey produced an EP for one of his great musical influences, Ronnie Spector. The EP was titled She Talks to Rainbows and received critical praise. On April 15, 2001, Joey Ramone passed away in New York City at the age of 49. His only solo album, Don’t Worry About Me, was released the following year.
In 2002 the Ramones achieved one of Joey’s dreams, being inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the ceremony turned out to be one of Dee Dee’s final public appearances. A few months later, Dee Dee was found dead of a heroin overdose. Johnny died of prostate cancer just a few years later in 2004. Both Johnny and Dee Dee were laid to rest at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The final founding member, Tommy, passed away from cancer ten years later in 2014. While the musicians that started one of the most influential punk bands of all time have sadly passed on, their impact on rock music is still being felt today.