“Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us! Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us!” If the lyrics from the song ‘Pinhead’ do not sound familiar, you are probably not alone. Although the Ramones released over twenty albums, stayed together for two decades, and played literally thousands of shows, many are unfamiliar with this influential American band. This is the story of the Ramones.
It all started in Queens, New York, in 1974. The founding four members of the Ramones—Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, and Tom Erdelyi—would quickly become known as simply Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy. To complement their new names they also created new personas: each member sported ripped jeans, high-top sneakers, a tight T-shirt, black leather jacket, and a modified bowl haircut.
Credit: Wikimedia CommonsLead singer Joey Ramone came from a rather well off, dysfunctional Jewish family. His parents divorced when he was around ten years old, and he basically had three fathers growing up. Free time as a child was spent playing drums to the Beatles and other band records spinning on Joey’s turntable; at the age of 13, his grandmother bought him his first drum set. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew he would much rather pursue music than higher education. However, before joining the Ramones, Joey would have a brief stint singing with a glitter band called Sniper.
Credit: Wikimedia CommonsThe only son of a mechanical constructor, Johnny Ramone grew up in Long Island. Johnny had two passions at that time: New York Yankees baseball and music. Since he was not willing to make the compromises to play baseball—which included cutting his hair—Johnny instead bought a guitar. Among his favorite bands were Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix. Frustrated that he could not play guitar like these icons, Johnny gave up temporarily. However, the New York Dolls quickly helped him realize there were other, more non-traditional ways to play guitar. Johnny’s trademark feet-wide-apart stance and downstrokes-only guitar style would endure for many years.
Dee Dee Ramone was by far the biggest loose cannon in the band. The bass player explains his dependency and drugs in great detail throughout his book Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones. Dee Dee was quoted as saying, “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds, because it’s not that civilized an art form.” He is credited for coming up with the name Ramones, which was inspired by a period in 1960 when the then Silver Beatles’ Paul McCartney called himself Paul Ramon. Almost every live Ramones song would be launched by Dee Dee’s signature scream of “1-2-3-4!” Although not confirmed, it has been joked that this audio intro originated because the band could not follow a silent count.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, Tommy Ramone was the first of three drummers the band would have. Also heavily influenced by music as a child, Tommy became a recording engineer with Manhattan’s Record Plant after graduation. The most notable of his projects while there was working with Jimi Hendrix during his Band of Gypsies sessions. Before joining the Ramones, Tommy was the lead singer/guitar player for a band called Butch, which also featured future Ramones tour manager Monte Melnick.
On March 30, 1974, Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee had their first official gig as the Ramones, at New York’s Performance Studio. Two months later, drummer Tommy joined the band and Joey moved from drummer/vocals to the role of lead singer. Later that year, on August 16, 1974, the foursome would play to a small crowd at the venerable New York City club CBGB. Their first performance at the historic venue left much to be desired, with more time spent by the band members yelling at each other than actually playing.
Fortunately, they rapidly improved and it was soon obvious they were on to something. Many believe their cult popularity grew quickly because they were a refreshing change to the pretentious art-house bands popular during the mid 1970s. The Ramones did not have synthesizers, orchestras, or elaborate light shows; instead they offered three-chord, two-minute explosions of audio dynamite. Their message was clear: a band did not need to consist of musical virtuosos, as long as it could have a good time and put on a great show for its fans. Ironically, Dee Dee Ramone even joked about their lack of musical ability, saying, “Years later, Johnny Ramone and I would laugh about how someone like Doug Scott, a local guitar player in Queens, could play Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ at sixteen years old and still never amount to anything. I couldn’t even play the Stooges’ No Fun and I achieved fame and fortune in the music business.”
Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy early 1976, the band had recorded its first full-length album Ramones. This notably low-tech album was produced in a mere two days at the cost of only $6,400. During a time when bands such as the Eagles were spending large amounts of money on albums like Hotel California, this was an obvious change from the normal production formula. Their debut album received some attention by the critics, but would only reach number 111 on the United States charts. However, more impact was definitely felt across the pond later that year. Their July 4th British debut heavily influenced both the political band the Clash and the anarchic band the Sex Pistols. Although these bands had noticeably different styles from the Ramones, they both emulated the Ramones’ strong DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude.
Later that same year, amidst non-stop touring, the Ramones’ sophomore album Leave Home was released. Although this album did not sell well in the United States, it peaked at number 48 in England. Included in the traditional “Ramones dozen” (fourteen tracks) of this album were the songs ‘Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment’ and ‘Pinhead.’
The fall of 1977 saw the death of Elvis, as well as the release of the third Ramones album, Rocket to Russia. This album contained such classics as ‘Rockaway Beach’and the U.K. Top 40 hit ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker.’ The album received great reviews including an “A” in Village Voice and the title of “One of the essential records of the Seventies” from Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond. With three albums now complete, the Ramones were developing a loyal following, especially in New York City.
The year 1977 also saw the departure of drummer Tommy Ramone, and the entry of Marky Ramone. Tommy had been suffering from depression and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Johnny just didn’t seem to understand, stating, “He [Tommy] came and told us that he was having a breakdown and we all laughed.” For the other three members of the Ramones, they simply couldn’t understand why someone would want to quit the band.
New drummer Marky Ramone’s first album was the band’s fourth release, Road to Ruin. Anxious for mainstream attention, this album was the first to clock in at over half an hour, and contained more 60’s pop, bubblegum, and surf influences than previous albums. Although Road to Ruin contains the well-known ‘I Wanna Be Sedated,’ many fans and critics were not pleased with the Ramones’ change in musical direction now underway. Still, the Ramones desperately wanted to break through and become popular stars. This desire led Joey and Johnny to the legendary, intimidating pop producer Phil Spector. Spector is probably best known for his Wall of Sound production technique and collaborations with talent including the Beatles, the Righteous Brothers, and Glen Campbell.
In his book, bass player Dee Dee Ramone explained how nervous he felt while at Spector’s home, even claiming Spector pointed a gun at his chest when he wanted to leave for a while. Supposedly the only time Spector would holster his pistol was when he felt confident his bodyguards could take over if necessary. In Dee Dee’s autobiography, he claims he doesn’t know who really played bass on the Ramones’ Spector-produced End of the Century album. Although the record was very well produced, it received mixed reviews. Still, it was their highest charting album in the United States, at one point reaching number 44.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
From the 1980 release of End of the Century through 1997, the Ramones released on average about an album a year; however, most are viewed as second-tier material when compared to their four releases in the 1970s. Album names include Subterranean Jungle, Too Tough to Die, Halfway to Sanity, and Mondo Bizarro. Although the Ramones three-chord style was never really compromised, the albums simply aren’t revered like the first four have been over the years.
Dee Dee Ramone was the next member to leave the band, choosing in 1989 to unsuccessfully pursue a career as rapper Dee Dee King. His replacement was 24-year-old ex-Marine C.J Ramone (Christopher John Ward.) Dee Dee suffered from major drug issues—both recreational and prescription—for most of his life. After he left, he still lent his input creatively with songwriting, but did not perform on the albums or tour.
The band’s roller-coaster ride neared its end in Los Angeles on August 6, 1996: it was here that the Ramones had their very last show. Over the course of about twenty-three years, the Ramones performed an astounding 2,263 live shows. Their last show, captured on the 1997 CD/VHS release We’re Outta Here! included appearances by original bass player Dee Dee, as well as musicians Eddie Vedder, members of the punk band Rancid, and Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. By the end of the Ramones’ career the stage and production costs had gotten much larger, but the live sound was still pure Ramones.
The years 2001 through 2004 saw the death of all three main Ramones members: Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny. On April 15, 2001, Joey Ramone lost his six-year battle to lymphatic cancer. In retrospect, Joey was the antithesis of the classic rock band lead singer. Although quite tall and gangly, he sat in a protective hunch, seemingly trying to be as invisible as possible. Never pretentious, most accounts say he was the nicest, most humble person one could meet. To quote David Fricke’s 2001 Rolling Stone article on Joey’s death, “Joey never appeared to have much of a life outside of being a Ramone—and he didn’t seem to mind.”
Although little detail is known of what really happened to him on June 5, 2002, that was the day Dee Dee Ramone was found dead in his home. The cause of death: an apparent drug overdose, most likely from the heroin that controlled the majority of his life. Drugs always seemed to have more control over Dee Dee than he had over them.
Guitarist Johnny Ramone died on September 15, 2004, after fighting prostate cancer. It is interesting to note that Johnny was survived by his wife Linda, who was actually Joey’s ex-girlfriend. Amazingly, Joey and Johnny had the professionalism and discipline to continue the Ramones band for over fifteen years, even if they weren’t often on speaking terms.
On March 18, 2002, presenter Eddie Vedder helped induct the Ramones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although the Ramones always wanted to be a mass, mainstream success, they never had a United States Top 40 hit. They are band with as many live performances as the Grateful Dead—a group that influenced numerous bands including Green Day, Offspring, Blink-182, Metallica, Rob Zombie, and the Clash. Like any enduring band, the Ramones had their share of issues in the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. However, they will always be revered as punk pioneers; a group whose success helps remind all potential musicians that popularity, talent, and looks are all optional when making great rock ‘n roll.