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They are black leather jackets. They are grown-out Beatles haircuts. They are frustrated teenagers. They are drug users. They are loud and they are fast. They are the most frantic, energetic, extraordinary punk band you have ever seen. They are the Ramones.
The band - name inspired by Paul McCartney’s pseudonym, Paul Ramon - was formed in 1974 in Queens, New York when a certain John Cummings bought a guitar from a pawn shop, and told his friends Douglas Colvin, Jeffrey Hyman and Thomas Erdelyi that they were forming a band right that second. Douglas (Dee Dee Ramone) was on bass and vocals, whilst Jeff (Joey Ramone) was on drums and Tommy (Tommy Ramone) and John (Johnny Ramone) were on guitar. Unfortunately they got off to a bad start - Dee Dee couldn’t sing and play at the same time, and Joey had a hard time keeping a beat. So Tommy moved in on drums and surprisingly, shy, awkward Joey took up the role of lead vocalist.
Inspired by The Stooges, New York Dolls, and 1950s rock n’ roll, early Ramones songs were extremely fast, short and nothing like the pretentious, 10-minute-guitar-solo prog bands around at the time. People were amazed. They didn’t know what they were hearing. It was new and it was exciting.
Early Ramones concerts were held at the infamous CBGB’s in Manhattan’s Lower East Side with other New York bands such as Blondie, Television and also Patti Smith. Lasting just under 20 minutes long (although they often played longer shows where they just repeated their set once or twice), and described as loud, fast, energetic and frantic by local journalists, they soon became legendary, must-see gigs in New York.
After just a few nights playing at CBGB’s, the word spread, and the Ramones were quickly signed by Sire Records in the autumn of 1975 and set about to record their debut album, ‘Ramones’.
The Ramones were soon touring Europe with Talking Heads in 1976, influencing fledgling British punk bands The Clash and The Sex Pistols, replacing exhausted drummer Tommy with new, more enthusiastic Marky (Mark Bell of The Voidoids and Richard Hell) in 1977 and recording two albums in one year (‘Leave Home’ and ‘Rocket to Russia’). Fourth studio album ‘Road to Ruin’ was a direct bid for mainstream success, with much poppier, radio-friendly songs. Sadly, the US rejected the obvious teen appeal of the Ramones even after they starred in their very own, spectacularly fantastic teen rebel movie, ‘Rock N’ Roll High School’ in 1979. Around this time, legendary producer Phil Spector became interested in the band and after he was taken on as Ramones’ producer, he claimed that the “Ramones are going to be bigger than the Beatles”. During recording sessions for ‘End of the Century’ Spector was reported to have waved a gun at Dee Dee and he amplified tensions within the group, especially between Johnny and Joey.
Two albums later (‘Pleasant Dreams’ and ‘Subterranean Jungle’) relationships between band members were wearing thin. Johnny had married Joey’s girlfriend, Marky was an alcoholic and Dee Dee was addicted to heroin. Marky was subsequently fired and replaced by Richard Beau (Richie Ramone) who lasted several albums (‘Too Tough To Die’, ‘Animal Boy’ and ‘Halfway to Sanity’) until a sober Marky returned in 1987. Dee Dee Ramone left the band after 1989’s ‘Brain Drain’ after being released from rehab and finding a new love in the form of rap. He released several hip-hop albums under the name Dee Dee King. Dee Dee was replaced in the band by young Christopher John Ward (CJ Ramone).
The Ramones recorded three more albums, ‘Mondo Bizarro’, ‘Acid Eaters’ and ‘Adios Amigos!’ and after an appearance at Lollapalooza festival in 1996, the Ramones finally disbanded, due to personality clashes and frustration with never achieving mainstream US success.
On 15th April 2001, Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in New York. The last song he listened to was ‘In A Little While’ by U2 (some may crudely state that this is what caused his death, but that is probably not true). Dee Dee Ramone was found dead in his Hollywood home on 5th June 2002 after overdosing on heroin. And Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer on September 15th 2004 in Los Angeles, after not talking to Joey for 15 years. Tommy Ramone is the last living original member of the Ramones, and contributed a lot of information about the band, and the relationships within the band in the 2005 “rockumentary” ‘End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones’.
Whilst the origins of punk rock are not quite clear, the Ramones can definitely be credited with popularising it. They were a hugely influential band, mostly because of their simple song structures (Slash of Guns and Roses was said to have learnt to play guitar by listening to ‘Road to Ruin’) and catchy lyrics.
They were a voice for teenagers everywhere, a three-chord, one-minute-thirty riot in your bedroom, a glue-sniffing soap opera, dirty shoes and ripped jeans. They were a family, a solid unit held together by the need to make music. Despite line-up changes and failing friendships, the Ramones stayed together for twenty-two years. They created a buzz, an identity and a feeling of acceptance. And after listening to their eponymous debut album, you – just for a second – are a Ramone. Gabba Gabba Hey!
“The world was not ready for the Ramones. Look what happened after them, Green Day comes along and BOOM! Blink 182, Sum 41, Good Charlotte. Where would they be without the Ramones? And they don’t even touch the Ramones. They are not even close.” Ed Stasium, producer and friend of the Ramones.