They invented the punk template, not as a Malcom McLaren-style sales gimmick, but as a vehicle that allowed them to be themselves. They were Boomers, if you allow that sort of labelling; they grew up as outsiders in post WWII America. Joey was the geek, Johnny was the angry misfit, Dee Dee was the self-hater, and the drummers — Tommy, Marky, Ritchie — were the guys who tried to get along. Some days they all hated each other: “We’re A Happy Family” wrote Dee Dee and it was a joke. Johnny and Joey weren’t on speaking terms for a decade but Joey wasn’t going to leave a group that gave him meaning and validated him as a person and Johnny wasn’t going to leave what was, after all, his band.
In the 60s, Johnny was playing with a high school band. The amp kept cutting out so Johnny kicked it a couple of times. The lead singer wanted to be helpful so he kicked the amp, too, only he put his foot right through the front of the amp and trashed it. Johnny beat the crap out of him, right there on stage. People didn’t like Johnny; he was too aggro. His face was distorted by constantly clenching his jaw and sticking out his chin. “A harsh taskmaster”, Joe Strummer called him, but he held the group together and made certain they got paid. After a performance he would stop by the nearest 7-11 and buy a package of cookies and a carton of milk. After all that raging on stage he needed comfort food.
Dee Dee wrote most of the songs; the lyrics came right out of his life. He wrote about hustling and heroin and hating himself. He had a bad brain, like Frankenstein’s monster, and he knew it. He admired Tommy because he was organized. Tommy could take some hamburger and potatoes and make a meal; Dee Dee envied that ability. He went around to Tommy’s place once and Tommy wouldn’t let him in and DeeDee understood that he frightened Tommy, that Tommy was afraid of his disruption. Dee Dee was trouble and he knew it. For a little while, the Ramones all lived in Arturo Vega’s loft, just like the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night or Help! , all living together. Arturo finally kicked them out because of the fighting. Dee Dee wasn’t bitter; he understood: He was trouble.
Joey found his voice with the group. He started off as the drummer and then discovered that he could sing. Who knew? His mother had already been told that he would wind up in an institution or that he would die early. He was sickly and obsessive-compulsive. He drove his bandmates crazy by having to walk down the stairs a second time because he hadn’t properly touched each step the first time down or having to do things in a certain order or touching each pale in a fence or every other one or some other pattern. Joey knew he was a misfit but people came to hear him sing and he felt like he was somebody after all. He was a nice guy. It came through in his singing; you could tell, even through the angriest lyric, that this was a decent human being. Filming Rock and Roll High School, a crowd was assembled to act as extras in a concert scene. The crowd grew restless over endless retakes and began jostling the actors. The actors were already wary of these strange people, now they were shit scared. Joey calmed the crowd: “They don’t understand you,” he said. He appealed to the decency and kindness that he knew wounded people possess, no matter how frightening their appearance. Joey found love with the Ramones and he thought it was forever but she left him for Johnny. Joey never spoke to him again.
The drummers always tried to smooth things over but wound up being outcast from the outcast group. Tommy was their first producer, then he was the drummer. He found it difficult not to be the band leader. There is a clip of him trying to get the band to play a different song on stage; right there, in front of the audience, all three turn on him. Exhausted, Tommy gave over to Marky. When things got tense between Johnny and Joey, Marky would try to lighten the atmosphere. Dee Dee called him “the Good Bunny”, always gets his carrots, said Dee Dee, always he is good. Marky went out drinking with this or that member of the band. He drank too much and missed a gig. Johnny fired him. Ritchie was never really accepted by the others, but he pulled his weight and tried to make things work. Finally, he quit because Johnny wouldn’t give him a share of the T-shirt sales. Marky, all dried out, came back to the band.
Their manager sent them out across America. They played places where no other band had ever played before. Sometimes people hated them and threw bottles at them. That was okay, Johnny hated them right back. Sometimes they opened people’s ears who suddenly saw that being an outcast didn’t mean that you couldn’t Do Something, that you couldn’t Be Somebody. They played Denver and a young man named Eric Boucher heard them: “Johnny hit one chord and I knew they were going to be a fuck of a lot louder than we’d ever thought.” He went back to the dressing room and talked to them, “I couldn’t believe they’d actually talk to me, this anonymous teenage nobody.” Eric went on to form his own band, renaming himself Jello Biafra. The Ramones went to England. Anonymous teenage nobodies Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Steve Jones, and others got into their dressing room. “You have a band?” asked Johnny. “We call ourselves The Clash but we aren’t very good,” said Simonon, “We just rehearse a lot.” Johnny shrugged. “Wait till you hear us. We can’t play at all. Just go out and do it.” So they did, The Clash, the Sex Pistols — The Damned went on stage for the first time two days after hearing the Ramones.
A year or so after touring England the second time, the Ramones were invited backstage to American concerts featuring The Clash and other groups that they had inspired. They were invited backstage to venues that would never, ever put them on a bill. The Sex Pistols came to America, openly avowing to make a lot of cash. But America could never embrace its own cast-offs, because that would mean that the country had taken a wrong direction somehow. Johnny saw the future: the Ramones would never get rich though some of their pupils would. Johnny decided to treat music as just a job, a place to go to work every day.
They struggled on for a while. Dee Dee was the driving force behind the last good Ramones album, Too Tough To Die. Tommy produced most of the tracks. “Howling At The Moon”, produced by Dave Stewart, should have been a number one hit — when it first came out I saw a bunch of kids at a bash play it over and over, dancing their brains out, but that was in Canada and the kids were, by definition, American outsiders. Dee Dee left to try other musical avenues, though he never re-discovered the essential chemistry that makes music work. Joey was diagnosed with cancer. The band played for a while longer, Joey still touring, but announced that soon they would call it quits. They had a farewell concert and wanted to invite Dee Dee but no one had the guts to approach him except, of course, Marky. Dee Dee arrived and dissed his replacement on stage. That was it. The show was over.
Joey died first, trying to ignore his cancer right to the end. Then, two months after the Rock Hall of Fame induction, Dee Dee overdosed. Then Johnny succumbed to prostate cancer. With the band safely dead, official channels could recognize it: Rolling Stone called them the second-best band of all time — the Beatles being number one. Sometime early in the 21st Century, when some award or other was presented to the Ramones, Tommy, Marky, and Ritchie showed up to accept it. Only the drummers were still alive.
Most stuff is from the documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones which you can buy here or you can go to YouTube or other places. The DVD extras include some really good stuff, so don’t neglect them.
The anecdote about Tommy not letting Dee Dee into his place is from Poisonheart, one of two Dee Dee autobiographies. I don’t recommend the book — it’s dark and dismal and full of the kind of glorification of junkie lifestyle that doesn’t really convince anyone except would-be junkies.
Dee Dee at the farewell concert is from the video We’re Outta Here.
Jello Biafra is from his spoken word tribute “Joey Ramone” which I heard here but is probably available other places.