The Ramones played their final show 25 years ago, at the Los Angeles Palace on 6 August 1996, which was probably at least 15 years too late. The Ramones had one idea that was brilliant enough to change the course of rock music and they never sought another. When their record label asked guitarist Johnny Ramone to hear some of the songs intended for their eighth album, he told them “to listen to the last five albums, and that’s what these were going to sound like, but different”.
That one idea was at once reactionary and revolutionary. The Ramones reduced rock’n’roll to its core values (loud, fast, catchy, fun) and spiked it with the stink and danger of 1970s New York, thus inventing punk rock. Recorded in just a few days, their 1976 debut album squeezed 14 songs into 29 minutes, none of them grazing the three-minute mark. What’s more, these four men from Forest Hills, Queens — 1, 2, 3, 4! — styled themselves as a tight-knit street gang. They were the Beatles for people who thought the Beatles peaked in Hamburg in 1962, when they wore black leather, chomped amphetamines and got into punch-ups.
Now they are all gone. Like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Motörhead, the Ramones belong to that small, unlucky category of bands who have no surviving members from their classic line-up. Frontman Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman) died in 2001 from lymphoma; bassist Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) in 2002 from a heroin overdose; Johnny (John Cummings) in 2004 from prostate cancer; and drummer/producer Tommy (Tamás Erdélyi) in 2014 from cancer of the bile duct.
The Ramones brand, however, has proved much more durable, thanks to their entrepreneurial designer Arturo Vega. He made their heraldic logo as recognisable as the Rolling Stones’s tongue by licensing it for use on pillowcases, licence plates, baby bibs and, of course, T-shirts, which you can currently buy in Primark.
“They sold more T-shirts than records,” former manager Danny Fields told the New York Times when Vega died in 2013, “and probably they sold more T-shirts than tickets”. The fascination endures. Following the numerous tribute albums, the tribute songs, the Lower East Side street corner called Joey Ramone Place, and the absurd 40th anniversary edition of their debut which is longer than the first five albums put together, there are now plans for a biopic, with comedian Pete Davidson as Joey.
Vega based the logo on the US presidential seal because, he said in 1993, they were “the ultimate all-American band… To me, they reflected the American character in general — an almost childish innocent aggression”. Though they were not technically all American (Dee Dee grew up in West Berlin and Tommy was a Jewish Hungarian), Vega was on to something. Even as they yearned for the sweet teenage kicks of early rock’n’roll, covering pre-Beatles hits by the likes of Bobby Freeman and Chris Montez, the Ramones had a thick streak of nihilistic brutality: a razor blade concealed in a wad of bubblegum. It was the dream of innocence combined with the reality of violence that made them truly American.
The Stooges and the New York Dolls heralded punk, but Joey’s voice, Johnny’s riffs, Dee Dee’s tunes and Tommy’s machine-gun beat forged the template. When they started playing shows in 1974, only pausing between songs if a fight broke out, people couldn’t tell if they were a serious band or a satire on rock’n’roll.
Photographer Roberta Bayley, who worked at New York’s punk crucible CBGB, remembered: “It was almost like conceptual art or something. It was so great that you couldn’t believe that it could exist.” The sleeve of their debut album alone — brick wall, leather jackets, ripped jeans — created an eternal template for grubby New York cool. When the Strokes arrived in 2001, shortly before Joey died, they looked like the Ramones if they had read Vogue and smelled nice.
The Ramones didn’t have entirely one-track minds. Dig into the lyrics on the debut alone and you’ll find references to Patty Hearst, CIA spies and World War Two. But their selling point was simplicity. They dug the trashy ephemera of the American century, from monster movies to cheeseburgers, and made the musical equivalent. They sang most often of desire and its opposite, crying I Wanna… (Sniff Some Glue, Be Your Boyfriend, Be Sedated) or I Don’t Wanna… (Go Down to the Basement, Walk Around with You, Fight Tonight). No title sums up punk’s foundational impulse better than 1978’s I Just Want to Have Something to Do.
Nobody could ever be that basic, and thus that accessible, again. When they played their first UK show on the unimprovable date of America’s bicentennial, members of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers and the Damned flocked to see them because they got the message: If we can do this, so can you. Joey later clamed that the “Hey ho, let’s go!” chant in their debut single Blitzkrieg Bop was a call for listeners to start their own bands.
On one level, the Ramones were a classic four-cornered band. Tommy had the vision, Joey the misfit charisma, Dee Dee the tunes and Johnny the discipline. Beyond the stage and studio, however, they were stunningly dysfunctional. Joey was sickly and sensitive and suffered from OCD. Johnny was a monstrous control freak with a contempt for weakness, especially Joey’s. Dee Dee was a heroin-addicted chaos agent who dug Nazi memorabilia and claimed that “the Ramones stand for nothing but pure hate”. Tommy was fine but he quit in 1978 because he was “losing my mind” and his replacement, Marky Ramone, drank too much. Tommy once made a startling comment to author Steven Lee Beeber: “Growing up with fear of Holocaust, being with Johnny and Dee Dee was like living with danger.”
When the surviving members were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, they sat at separate tables. The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis described the subsequent backbiting documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones as “one of the bleakest films ever made about rock music, an unsettling cautionary tale about the benefits of quitting while you’re ahead”.
By the same token, Johnny’s posthumously published Commando is perhaps the most unwittingly hilarious rock memoir I’ve ever read, cleanly dividing life into the things he loved (America, Elvis, Coca-Cola, baseball) and hated (pretty much everything else in the world). Fanatically incurious, he calls Andy Warhol’s Factory “a bunch of freaks”, the CBGB crowd “a bunch of assholes” and Stonehenge “a bunch of rocks”.
One of rock’s few arch-conservatives, he boasted of being a Republican from the age of 12. When Joey, who was Jewish and staunchly liberal, railed against Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German military cemetery in the 1985 song Bonzo Goes to Bitburg, a furious Johnny demanded that he change the title: “You can’t call my president a monkey!”
The Ramones thought that they deserved to be huge but it was not to be. They had no Top 40 hits in the US and only four in the UK, the biggest by far being a cover of the Ronettes’ Baby I Love You. It must have been hard, being outpaced not just by their peers but by their followers and, eventually, their followers’ followers. After the failure of their big crossover bid, 1980’s Phil Spector-produced End of the Century, they accepted that they had plateaued and became a punk-pop assembly line, as stolidly reliable as a burger chain. “A machine of habit,” Johnny called them.
On a purely aesthetic level, the Ramones would have been better off pulling the plug in 1978 after their first four albums. Their fidelity to their original sound and image meant that they could never grow up. Dee Dee bailed out in 1989, tired of “four middle-aged men trying to be teenage juvenile delinquents”. By that point, their tour bus had four separate compartments so that they didn’t have to talk to each other, Joey having never forgiven Johnny for stealing (and marrying) his girlfriend. Joey hit back, it is said, by writing The KKK Took My Baby Away.
Johnny thought his outrage ridiculous. Just imagine being on the road with someone you hate for that many years, only acknowledging each other’s existence for an hour a night. Johnny didn’t even visit Joey in hospital before he died, claiming that it would be hypocritical. In the documentary, he defends himself by saying he felt sad for a week.
The problem with writing about the Ramones is that the more you know, the sadder the story becomes. It’s easy to sneer at people who wear the T-shirt as a fashion statement without knowing the half of it but perhaps it is better to remember them as an imperial abstraction: one band, indivisible, with one perfect notion. The reality can break your heart.