There have been plenty of bands that have been attributed to starting the punk music genre (the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, to name but two), but if you want to drop some of the technicalities behind those theories and choose a band that started out punk and ran with the freak flag, then look no further than the Ramones. Here was the band that perfectly fit the three-chord mold, in which the opening “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!!!” count off was as much a battle cry as a cue. The bedraggled look, that ragged sound, the snot-nosed attitude that didn’t forget that rock and roll was about fun at the end of the day; this was all part of the Ramones’ original package. Straight out of New York, they created the blueprint for countless lesser bands that followed. They didn’t always put out great albums, but the greatest bands aren’t perfect. It’s even possible to argue that they may have overstayed their welcome, becoming more of a novelty curio long after the punk scene died out, but they were always respected and loved until they disbanded. Much credit is now deservedly given to the Ramones.
The band formed in 1974 in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. The group had taken their name when original vocalist and bassist Doug Colvin was impressed that Paul McCartney had written under the pseudonym of “Paul Ramone.” Colvin referred to himself afterward as “Dee Dee Ramone” and suggested the rest of the band members follow suit with their own takes on the “family” name. The rest of the band would then become “Joey” (Jeffry Hyman), “Johnny” (John Cummings), and “Tommy” (Thomas Erdelyi). Soon after, the Ramones played their first gig at Performance Studios in New York City. Their songs were usually extremely short, often coming in at two minutes or less, a bit of an anomaly at the time, considering it was now the mid-‘70s and prog bands from all four corners of the globe were taking their own sweet time, often creating entire epics that would stretch across one whole side of an album. But the Ramones were doing things their way, having been inspired by the garage rock of the ‘60s.
In 1975 the band signed with Sire Records and cut their first album for under $7,000. Outside of New York, the band was met with indifference and even dislike. Yet a short tour of England in 1976 with the Flamin’ Groovies proved very successful for the band. Two more albums followed in 1977 (Leave Home and Rocket to Russia), though neither were commercial successes. Around this time, Tommy quit the band to become a full-time producer. Marc Bell took his place as well as the new moniker “Marky Ramone”.
The band’s fourth album, Road to Ruin, continued the band’s tradition of reaping critical acclaim with zero commercial appeal, despite each of the albums released up to that point having been chock full of great songs. Public tastes had been leaning towards disco, however, and when punk started to die, leading to its more commercial offspring known as new wave, the masses gravitated towards that. This left the Ramones behind farther still, becoming a cult favorite that was already looked upon as a leftover novelty act by those who hadn’t been fans or weren’t into the punk scene initially.
Yet the group persisted, appearing in Roger Corman’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and teaming up with infamous producer Phil Spector for End of the Century. It was the first album the band wasn’t happy with, citing flakiness on the part of Spector, and a general moving away from the loud and fast tunes that the band was known for. Still, the formula was replicated (minus Spector’s production) on the follow up Pleasant Dreams in 1981, produced by Graham Gouldman. Despite the continued trend of watering down the Ramones, the band did find itself being the first group ever interviewed on the then-fledgling MTV. After another album release (Subterranean Jungle), Marky Ramone was fired due to alcohol problems and was replaced by Richard Reinhardt (Richie Ramone).
More albums of varying quality were recorded and released (Too Tough to Die being a standout), and more members came and went in the band’s lineup (Marky returned after sobering up; Dee Dee quit in 1989 and had a brief solo gig as a rapper). During the ‘90s, the band would move to the Radioactive Records label, issue an underrated all-covers album (Acid Eaters), and appear on “The Simpsons” in the episode “Rosebud” in 1993. In 1995, they appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards and also released what would become their final studio album, ¡Adios Amigos! A spot in Lollapalooza in 1996 followed, with the band’s own final show given on August 6, 1996 at the Palace in Hollywood, California and released later as We’re Outta Here!
On April 15, 2001 Joey Ramone died after a long battle with lymphoma (a posthumous album, Don’t Worry About Me was released shortly thereafter). The next year, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Shortly thereafter, Dee Dee Ramone would also die; his untimely demise due to a heroin overdose. Three years later, Johnny Ramone would pass away as well, having succumbed to prostate cancer. His death would eerily coincide with the theatrical release of “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones”.
Though the band’s recorded legacy may not be the greatest after the 1980s rolled around, the Ramones’ catalogue is chock full of classic albums and songs that are still revered to this day. Countless bands have copied their recipe and reaped far bigger rewards (Green Day, for one). One wonders in this day and age of pop punk, emo punk, and all the other unoriginal derivatives if the Ramones would be a bigger success if they were still around. It seems like they were just starting to find a home in the early ‘90s before they decided to call it a day. Nevertheless, the band shall forever remain an important musical and cultural touchstone that will be looked upon as something truly special.
The Ramones on the Web
The band’s official site.
The home of the only official Ramones club and store offering one-of-a-kind t-shirts and other items.
Official site of Joey Ramone.
MySpace - Dee
Photos and links to Heath Ledger’s movies, plus info on his upcoming films and a detailed bio.
True Words from the Ramones
Joey Ramone, on staying true to oneself in the music biz:
“Hang in there if you believe what you’re doing is unique. Otherwise, give up or sound like Nirvana or Pearl Jam.”
Johnny Ramone, on his favorite album:
“My favorite album would have to be Rocket to Russia. I feel this album has the most classic Ramones songs.”
Dee Dee Ramone, on his tastes after leaving the group:
“I got tired of the Ramones around the time I quit and I really got into rap. I thought it was the new punk rock. L.L. Cool J was my biggest idol.”