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Off the Beaten Tracks: 1-2-3-4 Ramones!

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A COUPLE of columns ago we examined how Dr Feelgood evolved in early-1970s Essex as a dagger to the heart of the (in some cases) increasingly overblown and narcissistic rock scene. At the same time, in the New York City borough of Queens, four young guys named Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, Thomas Erdelyi and Jeffrey Hyman formed a band with similar intent. You possibly know them better as punk rockers Dee Dee, Johnny, Tommy and Joey Ramone.

While the Feelgoods were strongly based in R and B, and subsequent British punks roared nihilistic spite from the school of Iggy and the Stooges, the Ramones had their roots firmly in pop, idolising the Beatles and Phil Spector, the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, even Herman’s Hermits and the Bay City Rollers. They wore leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans and sneakers on stage and off, and every one of their early songs clocked in around the two-minute mark. The tempo was manic, the chords were few. They were fast, furious and, best of all, funny, portraying themselves as hopeless pinheads.

It was in 1974 that former high school buddies Cummings and Erdelyi invited Hyman, singer with the glam-rock band Sniper, to join their group along with their friend Colvin. Hyman was pencilled in as the drummer but switched to vocals in a line-up that also comprised Cummings on guitar, Colvin on bass and Erdelyi on percussion.

Colvin changed his name to Dee Dee Ramone in tribute to Paul McCartney, who used to check into hotels under the name Paul Ramon (sic). The rest of the band quickly followed his example. All were in their early to mid-twenties. Singer Joey said: ‘We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard. In 1974 everything was tenth-generation Elton John, or overproduced, or just junk. Everything was long jams, long guitar solos. We missed music like it used to be.’

The Ramones were heaven-sent for the fresh music scene emerging in New York and centred on the clubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. August 16, 1974 saw their CBGB debut. Journalist Legs McNeil, who would later found Punk magazine, was there to see Dee Dee start off each song with the shout ‘1-2-3-4!’ ‘They were all wearing these black leather jackets,’ he said. ‘They counted off this song and it was just this wall of noise. They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.’

Richard Hell, the original bassist with Television, said the Ramones were ‘really ramshackle. They only had five or six songs and were so broke they had to carry their guitars in laundry bags, and they’d get mixed up about what they were doing and start yelling at each other. But they were already completely themselves. They were like the Three Stooges, always getting angry with each other, but in a funny way. They’d toss their guitars away in frustration or forget what song they were supposed to be playing. You had to love them. They were completely uncompromising.’

By the end of that year the Ramones had played CBGB 74 times, with an average set lasting a grand total of 17 minutes. The focus was always on Joey, a 6ft 5in beanpole whose appearance was compared to a praying mantis. Bassist Dee Dee said that all the other singers in New York at that time ‘were copying David Johansen (of the New York Dolls), who was copying Mick Jagger. But Joey was totally unique.’

Having signed to Sire Records, the band released their first album, Ramones, in April 1976. It was produced by Craig Leon and recorded on a budget of $6,400. Fourteen songs, 29 minutes in total. The opener, Blitzkrieg Bop, is one of several to feature Nazi images. According to Leon: ‘They put references to Nazis in their songs just to antagonise people, even though half of them (Joey and Tommy) were Jewish.’

The one slow track, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, is a salute to Sixties love songs. Longest, at 2 min 35, is I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement, which is said to be based on the ‘scary’ downstairs bogs at CBGB. On a crazed cover of Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, Leon plays Radio City’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Chris Stein of Blondie described the album as ‘a return to rock innocence’. In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, he added: ‘I still play that album in my car. My daughters are 10 and 12 and they love it. They’ve been singing I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement since they were five.’ Although it was greeted ecstatically by the critics, Ramones was not a commercial success, reaching only number 111 in the US charts. However a transatlantic trip changed the band’s fortunes dramatically.

On the Fourth of July, 1976, they made their British live debut at the Roundhouse in London, second on the bill to the Flaming Groovies with the Stranglers third. They were a huge hit with the crowd and with Marc Bolan, who joined them on stage. The following night they played at Dingwalls in Camden Lock. Manager Danny Fields said: ‘We’d never seen so many people as at those shows. They were all there: the Sex Pistols, the Damned, Chrissie Hynde, Vic Godard, Adam Ant, the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers – but we didn’t know who any of them were! They’d come over and say, “Hello, we’re in a band called the Clash!”

‘People had had enough of Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, all that 1970s pretentiousness. They wanted to know the secret of the Ramones’ fame. We told them: it wasn’t about virtuosity, it was about “just do it”. The band kickstarted the whole DIY, you-don’t-have-to-play-well ethos. Also, coming from New York was seen as very exotic. It gave us a mystical glamour. Their look was very downtown: leather jacket, T-shirt, Levi’s, sneakers. People thought the Ramones were stupid, but they were dazzlingly smart.’

In January 1977 came the second LP, Leave Home, produced by Tommy Ramone and Tony Bongiovi. It is even faster than the first. The opening track, Glad to See You Go, is addressed to Dee Dee’s ex-girlfriend Connie, who once sliced his buttocks with a broken beer bottle. Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, all 1 min 38 of it, has been described as a ‘singalong ode to mental illness’ while the boys go all romantic on I Remember You and Oh, Oh, I Love Her So, on the latter of which Joey sings about falling for his girl by the soda fountain at a Burger King. 

Pinhead  begins with a chant of: ‘Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us.’ It also contains the line ‘D-U-M-B, everyone’s accusing me.’ Tommy Ramone said the song was about how ‘all the freaks were welcome to join the Ramones. It was our way of goofing on the media, for saying we were not too bright.’

Although again a critical success, Leave Home sold fewer copies than its predecessor in the US. But it was a top 50 hit in the UK, always earlier to recognise a good thing. Three singles were taken from it, I Remember You, Swallow My Pride and Carbona Not Glue. Only Swallow My Pride made any impact in Britain, reaching No 36, but a further single, Sheena is a Punk Rocker, almost cracked the British top 20.

In April 1977 the Ramones began a UK tour with fellow New Yorkers Talking Heads, whose drummer Chris Frantz described a culture clash between the two bands. ‘I remember our tour manager, on the way from Bristol to Penzance, asking, “Would you like to stop and see Stonehenge?” And we said yes. But Johnny said, “I’m not getting off the bus. It’s just a bunch of old f***in’ rocks!” Dee Dee said, “No, Johnny, I wanna see Stonehenge.” Talking Heads wanted to see it, too. But Johnny stayed on the bus.’

Sheena crops up again on album number three, Rocket to Russia, released in November 1977 under the same production team of Tommy and Tony. With more of a surf music influence, and a lot of humour, it’s a hoot. Highlights include Cretin Hop, Rockaway Beach with its immortal opening line ‘Chewin’ out a rhythm on my bubble gum’, Teenage Lobotomy and a cover of the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird, which provoked much debate in last week’s column about the World’s Worst Record Showwith most readers saying they loved it.

This was the Ramones’ most successful LP to date, cracking the US top 50 and also selling well in the UK, Canada and Sweden. However drummer Tommy, who found touring depressing, decided to quit performing while continuing to write for and produce the group under his original name of Erdelyi.

For the next album, he was replaced by Marc Bell, latterly of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, who was instantly renamed Marky Ramone. Road to Ruin is a more conventional rock album and even includes guitar solos, while Marky’s drumming is more sophisticated than his predecessor’s, to the dismay of many fans. Producer Erdelyi said the record ‘reflected not just the Ramones’ enduring love for Sixties pop, but a nagging desire to expand beyond the confines of 120 seconds in search of a new vocabulary of harmonic hooks, albeit linked to the guitar-crunching sonics established on their first three albums’.

On the opening track, I Just Wanna Have Something To Do, Joey achieves the feat of rhyming ‘Second Avenue’ with ‘chicken vindaloo’. There is also an affecting version of the Searchers hiNeedles and Pins while I Wanna Be Sedated  (great video, this) refers to a hospital stay when Joey needed to be treated for burns to his face and throat after a kettle exploded as he tried to treat a sinus problem with steam.

The new sound failed in its intention of being more commercial and Road to Ruin sold far fewer copies than Rocket to Russia.

On New Year’s Eve, 1977, the band played the Rainbow Theatre in London and the concert recording was released the following April as a double LP, It’s Alive, after the horror film of the same name. This is a jolly romp through the first three albums. Twenty-eight tracks. Total time 53 min 49. A minor hit in the UK and Sweden.

In a desperate attempt to sell more records, the Ramones teamed up with Phil Spector as producer for their fifth studio album, End of the Century. It was a difficult relationship, with Spector’s legendary perfectionism coming up against the young rockers’ desire to get everything recorded at full pelt. Dee Dee reported: ‘Phil would sit in the control room and listen through the headphones to Marky hitting one note on the drum, hour after hour, after hour, after hour.’

He added that one night at Spector’s mansion the producer disappeared somewhere with Joey. ‘The next thing I knew Phil appeared at the top of the staircase, shouting and waving a pistol. He levelled his gun at my heart and then motioned for me and the rest of the band to get back in the piano room. He only holstered his pistol when he felt secure that his bodyguards could take over. Then he sat down at his black concert piano and made us listen to him play and sing Baby I Love You until well after 4:30 in the morning.’

Baby I Love You, the Ronettes hit from 1963, features on End of the Century, complete with string section. Johnny Ramone wrote in his autobiography Commando that he hated the song and did not play on it. ‘What am I gonna do – play along with an orchestra? There’s no point. End of the Century was trying to get a hit on each song, instead of trying to get a hit on one or two of the songs on the album and trying to make the rest as raunchy as you can.’ Joey was similarly unenthusiastic. ‘I think that some of the worst crap I ever wrote went on the album. That was me at my worst.’

This was the last Ramones record I bought. The band soldiered on into the mid-1990s before breaking up. The original members are all dead – Johnny at 55, Dee Dee at 50, Joey at 49 and Tommy at 65. In 2005 the Ramones Museum opened in Berlin, with its items of memorabilia including (what else?) torn jeans and dirty sneakers. Must go there one day.

PS: Thanks for all your suggestions of tracks for a World’s Worst Records part two. I shall compile the best with a view to a future column.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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