t's hard to
picture Joey Ramone ever sitting behind a set of drums which,
in the early 1970's, was his original seat in
He didn't physically belong there. And his better technical skill
was that of vocalist for the soon-to-be-called Ramones. That's the
Ramones the band that brought the least amount
of technical skill to the rock-&-roll stage.
So, Tommy Ramone took the sticks, and Joey went forward to the microphone,
spelling bassist Dee Dee, whose voice couldn't hold up for the length
of a Ramones' set (which was only about a half hour in the early
days). Another repair of a technical miscalculation, and the Ramones,
pretty much, were born.
The band was fronted by Joey in 1974, the Ramones's coming-out year.
Nothing like this act had been seen before. In retrospect, their
uniform of black biker jackets and tight, ripped jeans seems tame
enough. But it was the young men in the jackets and jeans who provided
the band's trademark deformity. Each band member wore the surname
"Ramone" a binding oddity out of the gate. Bassist Dee Dee
and guitarist Johnny wore neck-length, bowl haircuts. Their hair,
as much as their suspect guitar playing, was the equivalent of flipping
the bird to the rock establishment. And then there was Joey, the
embodiment of the Ramones's divergent look. Tall, lanky, long-faced,
sallow-cheeked, bushy-haired, and droopy-eyed, here was a thing
conjured from the underworld.
Together, this band of not-really-brothers performed lighting-quick
sets, featuring no talk between songs and a wall of crushing, yet
simple, sound. Rock was again reinvented by the outrageous. And
punk had a godfather.
Joey Ramone, born Jeffrey Hyman in Queens, N.Y., died of lymphatic
cancer at the age of 49 this week. Expectedly, deservedly, the tributes
poured in. Joey's "signature yelp," the obits reminded, helped trademark
the band that would pave the way for the Clash, the Sex Pistols,
and, eventually, Green Day. The obituaries also made frequent mention
of the limitations of the Ramones. Yes, this was a breakthrough
band the group that unleashed popular punk. But this was
also the "limited" band, the "amateurish" band.
Which is all true. And which was exactly right for their time. In
the mid- to late '70s, to be a three-chord band with shallow lyrics,
short songs, and questionable musical ability was to go counter
to the rock-&-roll establishment. And counter, of course, is what
rock-&-roll thrives on.
In 1976, the Ramones first put their brand of punk on vinyl, sneering
at the pop movements du jour 20-minute suites, moody ballads,
disco, etc. They would punch it out without ever gaining
a coveted top-10 album until disbanding in 1996. Here and
there, the band's sound strayed, but it never moved too far from
the Ramones's true center, which was a blend of volume, speed, childish
simplicity, and humor. (This is the band that wrote and performed
"Everytime I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You.")
"Blitzkrieg Bop" was an initial hit for the Ramones in '76. The
song's chant of "Hey ho, let's go/Hey ho, let's go" is burned forever
into the rock-&-roll canon. For the next twenty years, the band
tackled such subjects as sniffing glue, having nothing to do, finding
something to do, being bored again, and living the punk-rocker life
which usually happened at night, after being bored all day.
Their songs are mostly three-chord and four-chord constructions.
The controversial early hit "Carbona Not Glue" actually has eight
chords (six if you don't count the trademark power-slide which delivers
an A from a G#, and a G from an F#). But you won't find any diminished
chords, or minors, or sevenths. The Ramones were the 8-Crayola set
no aquamarines or burnt siennas.
Joey fit three-chords very well. He was exceptionally good at looking
bored and doing hard punk at the same time. He was influenced by
Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and the Beach Boys. In a
way, he mixed all those into his delivery. His voice featured minimal
range, and his sound was pouty energized, but assuredly sedated.
There was little talent there, which was, of course, a key requirement
for all members of the Ramones.
Like most rock-&-rollers, Joey's band life included infighting,
drugs, and booze Dee Dee being the worst offender in each
of these categories. Joey did his cocaine and drank, but he cleaned
himself up by the early '90s. After the group ended their run with
Adios Amigos, Joey went on to do some DJing, host some punk
shows, and begin the terrible rock-&-roll process of fading away.
But Joey was spared much fading. His illness, as life-threatening
illnesses go, was as quick as an early Ramones's set. But his legacy,
and that of the Ramones, will be much longer.
Joey Ramone was once asked by an interviewer what it's like to be
a living legend. He said, "It's amusing." That's the attitude Joey
and the Ramones brought to rock they were reactionary punks,
but they were just looking to "have some kicks," as the lyric goes.
Joey had his kicks, but he also launched punk. His seat in rock's
pantheon is secure.