The last surviving original member of the Ramones, Tommy Ramone, died on July 11. They weren’t brothers and none of them was called Ramone but I’ll lean against the counter in any saloon bar and argue that despite their music being let’s say rather limited, there hasn’t ever been a more influential band than these four brudders from Forest Hills, New York in all music history. Especially that first album.
They were four misfits from dysfunctional middle class families, all teenage hoodlums getting into fights, sniffing glue, taking drugs and listening to Alice Cooper, the Stooges, Led Zeppelin and especially the New York Dolls. When they formed the band in 1974, Joey was the drummer, but got worse the more he practised. Tommy was the manager and Dee Dee was the singer and bassist who couldn’t actually do both at the same time so they suggested he stick to the four-string and told Joey to stand out front and sing.
The idea they were just scruffy disorganised Herberts in jeans is a myth. There was a vision and Johnny made sure it was implemented with military precision. They constantly refined their act, they all decided to wear the same, they all used the same name because it would be easier to remember. They practiced every day and made their debut at CBGBs, a dive bar on a stretch of the Bowery on the Lower East Side that is now fittingly called Joey Ramone Way.
Signed to Sire, they recorded their debut album in the same huge studio above Radio City Music Hall which NBC had been built for Toscanini and his symphony orchestra in the 1930s. Clearly no respecters of history, they recorded in black leather jackets, white tee shirts, ripped jeans, and sneakers. When producer Craig Leon’s made basic inquiries such as “What key is this in?” or “Can you play that up an octave?”, they just grunted. They had a roadie to tune their guitars.
They were so loud that the drummer had to be in an isolation booth 130 feet away and Johnny’s amps were set up down the hallway into one of the Rockettes’ dance rehearsal rooms, with an extra-long guitar cord running back down the hall into the main studio room so at least he could stand near Dee Dee who stayed in the main studio. They recorded the basic tracks in three days, overdubbed on the fourth day – that’s a real chain saw on ‘Chain Saw’ – and Joey added his vocals on Day 5. Mixing took two days and that was it done, all for $6,000. And released to general disdain and deafening silence from record buyers. Well, it is a bit samey.
Except over here. The NME had been covering the whole new CBGBs scene for a few months and star reporter Nick Kent’s review describing the sound glowingly as ‘drums and bass muscle in behind the guitar, which maintains a sound like a sulphuric acid tab zig-zagging across a bucket of pitch.’ The NME liked them and we had the Sex Pistols kicking off at that time, so unable to get gigs in New York, they decided to come to London in July 1976. They were here for three days. On the flight over, they were worried about two things: whether they had brought enough t-shirts to sell, and what if nobody speaks English? To save money they stayed in a house in Shepherds Bush as there wasn’t enough for a hotel. They hated London. They couldn’t get American food so survived on sandwiches, there were only three channels on TV, they hated the warm beer. The weather was at least stunning in that hottest of all possible summers.
They played two dates. A Bicentennial Independence Day show on July 4 at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm to a sold out crowd of 2,000; and at Dingwalls in Camden Lock the following night to 200. Most of the crowd were familiar with the songs, but as they all sounded a little similar, it took a while to recognise the exact song, maybe thirty seconds, and by the time you did, it had finished and they’d started a new one.
They were some of the most pivotal gigs in music history. It’s that only-200-people-bought-the-first-Velvet -Underground-album-but-they-all-formed-a-band thing. Anyone who was to become anyone in Punk was there: the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Billy Idol, Siouxsie Sioux, the Stranglers, the Damned, Chrissie Hynde, Adam & the Ants’ and Sid Vicious, who if you think about it was basically a mini Dee Dee Ramone. They’d all bought the debut album, most were learning the guitar or the bass by listening to it and pretty much everyone there formed a band or started a fanzine.
London raved about the Ramones, but after three days they were gone. Their success here did nothing for the band’s reputation back home however. When they returned to the USA, they went straight back to playing to 50 people at CBGBs. In fact, as the Pistols gained in notoriety over the next few months, being associated with English punk acts meant commercial death for the Ramones. No radio station would touch them and no one bought their albums. Their debut album finally went gold for 500,000 sold – in April 2014.
Tommy left in 1978 worn down by spending 250 days a year in a bus with three very difficult personalities. They just got a new guy called Mark Bell and said ‘now you’re Marky Ramone’. No slouches to start with, their set apparently got 2 minutes faster with their new drummer. They usually took their girlfriends on tour with them, but by 1981 Joey’s Linda had gone off with Johnny and they never spoke to each other again. For the next 14 years on their small, cramped tour bus, messages were passed via an intermediary. Significantly the song Joey wrote right after Linda left for Johnny was ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’.
Johnny, always obsessed with saving enough for his retirement, finally decided he’d done just that and quit in 1996 after 2,263 shows. He had barely 8 years to enjoy it, succumbing to cancer in 2004. Joey had died of lymphoma in 2001, Dee Dee OD’d a year later and Tommy went this year aged 67, so that’s everyone gone, but a legacy that remains forever.
By the way, they nicked the ‘Hey Ho Let’s Go!’ off the Bay City Rollers of all people, commandeering the chant from the Rollers’ US number Saturday Night. Dee Dee was huge fan – who would have thunk it?