I Remember You
A eulogy: Joey Ramone (nee Jeffrey Hyman), 19.5.52 – 15.4.01
I was jolted by Joey Ramone’s death from lymphoma at 49. The Ramones were part of my youth, a precious part, for they opened the floodgates on a movement that changed the course of rock history and many lives, and as anyone who was there will tell you, that was something special.
In the days following Joey’s death, I searched the web news sites for obituaries, but apart from a few references to The Ramones as pioneers of punk, Joey was denied the recognition he was due. Some reporters even seized on the occasion as an opportunity for more stale jibes about the band’s musical ineptitude. Which only goes to show that the mainstream understands as little today about The Ramones and their pivotal place in rock and roll history as when they tossed their grenade of a first album to an unsuspecting world in 1976.
Indeed, perhaps only those of us who were in the epicentre of the punk explosion of the 70s really understand the profound importance of The Ramones.
I was 21 in 1976 when news began filtering through the pages of the NME of something exciting happening in New York. A scene was generating at a dingy little club called CBGBs under the curious moniker of punk rock, at the vanguard of the fledgling movement a bunch of unsigned bands: Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Ramones.
Most fascinating were the write-ups on The Ramones. They belted out short songs at manic speed and vast volume. Used solely white lighting on stage. The singer was a stick insect six-and-a-half-feet tall. There were rumours of an album that was recorded so loud it kept popping the tweeters in the studio monitors during the mixdown – I ordered it from 78 Records immediately, although the guys were doubtful it existed. The myth was building, and I was sucked into its vortex.
What was the attraction? Well, let me try to set a context – by necessity sweeping and general. All the greats, the important, groundbreaking bands, were over (or should have been – The Stones and Beach Boys cases in point). The Doors, Love, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges…these were my chosen few, the very highest peaks in my journey into rock’s glorious past. Glam was the most recent development of significance, but was too close to circus for my liking. I was grateful for its UK legacies, Roxy Music and early Bowie, and due acknowledgement must be paid the commercially ignored prototypes, the New York Dolls. By the mid 70s, though, glam had run its course and rock and roll was at a dead end.
Rock’s lean, hungry stars of the 60s had become the establishment of the 70s; spotlight-hogging guitar heroes wanked endlessly up and down their fret boards in the stadiums of the world, interminable drum solos had become obligatory (Jon Bonham was still alive, remember). Rock music had scattered in experimental directions and was now musically respectable. In my neck o the backwoods, Perth, local newspaper art critics wrote earnest pieces in praise of touring highbrow acts such as John McLaughlin and his tedious Mahavishnu Orchestra, Perth Entertainment Centre concertgoers applauded dutifully as Rick Wakeman, garbed in silly white robes, wrung pretentious pseudo-symphonic drivel out of a bank of mysterious keyboards, which one suspected might have been custom-engineered at expense prohibitive to all but the rock elite enjoying major record company support (yes, I was there – I was a rock fanatic and saw just about every international act that made it to Perth, whether I liked them or not).
Mid-70s radio was dismal (Abba’s Fernando was Number 1 for eleven weeks in succession, Pilot’s January for eight), well summed up by Lou Reed’s lyrics of a decade earlier: Gina turned on the radio and there was nothin’ happening at all…
The Perth live music scene was virtually 100% cover bands, mandatory on every playlist Long Train Running, Stairway To Heaven and Cocaine. Worse, poofy Peter Frampton’s cursed plastic talk-tube thing was endemic amongst the local guitar hero pretenders. The only Perth band I liked at this time was an outfit called Vambo, who covered Scotland’s wild, comic and criminally under-rated Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs were doing originals, but were yet to come to public notice.
Rock music had lost its mass connection, was under siege from a hideous sequined falsetto-voiced dandy called Disco, and had turned its back on the new breed of young warriors with the power, vigour and naiveté to mount a serious rescue mission. I am referring to the young outsider dreamers who are and always will be rock’s lifeblood – like me in 1976, true fans, alienated rock and roll obsessives, hearts aflame with the desires and passions, hurts and frustrations of youth, writing songs on strummed guitars, furtively, behind closed doors in dishevelled suburban bedrooms. We dreamed the dream, but there was no space for us to live it. Indulgent, self-important established artists were crowding the stage, virtuosity strangling the free spirit of rock and roll. The future of rock was a closed window, with a ‘No Vacancy’ sign plastered across its pane.
Then one day at work, I received a phone call from 78 Records to tell me The Ramones album had arrived!
That lunchtime I tore along Hay St to 78s, would have flown if I could, handed over $6.96 (the price sticker is still on the record) and there it was: in black and white, that classic cover shot of the band in black leather jackets, torn stovepipe jeans (not flares!) and sneakers, lined up against a graffiti-adorned brick wall with RAMONES in stark white capitals across the top. This was it – I knew from the cover. This was IT.
I suffered through the eternity of the work afternoon, sped home dragging furiously on a cigarette. Removed the plastic cover wrapping. Slid out the black vinyl with the Sire label (I remember the smell still – you don’t get that with CDs). Laid the record reverently on the turntable. Turned the volume way up.
The needle crackles. Tick tick tick…BOOM!
I am shocked. There is no other word for it. I had been expecting a latter day Stooges or MC5. What was this? I didn’t know what to think. This was…outrageous. Rock and roll stripped shamelessly, brashly naked: an assault of distorted thrash-chord guitar, not even a suggestion of a solo, the twin-tracked vocals somehow cutting through the massive onslaught of noise clean as a razor, the poptunery more Beach Boys than Stooges. Iggy, the MC5, the Dolls were in there somewhere, but the reference points could also have been bubblegum, the girl bands of the 50s even – melodically it was pop, in any case. Yet the beat (the beat) was Rock with a capital R, and talk about blast – they were louder than The Stooges. Louder than?…they were! And the lyrics – beat on the brat with a baseball bat – whaddafuck?
I listened to both sides, then put the record back in its sleeve. All my expectations were confounded. I beheld the cover, staring as if searching for an explanation from the four lounging New York street delinquents who stared right back, blankly. The Ramones look was unforgettable, pure, rock and roll perfect, and defined by Joey. He was the one who really stood out, a great stretched cute shy dumb rock and roll creature hiding behind sunglasses and a sheepdog shock of long black hair, the natural focal point, but he looked like he didn’t know it. In fact, none of them looked like they knew anything except that they were The Ramones and that was all that mattered. I was left with a sense of unease, something verging on disappointment, and a question about my lips – how dare they? So primal, so simple, I could do that.
I “got it” next day during my second listen. As the guitar blazed and the drums blitzkrieg bopped and Joey sliced through in that strange almost English-tinted accent, an excitement grabbed me. This was blatantly disrespectful of the contemporary rock scene and commercially ingenuous; it cut through all the crap with a defiance, an attitude, a sensibility that alluded to the great stuff of the past, yet it was a daring, radical departure, irrepressibly fresh and exuberant, impossibly stripped back, genuinely, gloriously new. A new era of rock and roll was dawning in that same wild joyous innocent rebel spirit that invoked its pulsating birth, that moved Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Elvis before he got rich and fat, that breathed revolution into the musically charged 60s, that moved through all the stuff I loved, the great, important musical breakthroughs that signalled new direction, rebirth, (r)evolution. And for the first time for me, born too late to be part of the 60s or The Stooges or the onset of glam, the spirit was breathing NOW, through the sonic wall of Johnny’s furious Mosrite, the basic frantic beat of Tommy’s skins, the root chord throb of Dee Dee’s bass and Joey’s unique cut-through vocals, and I felt exquisitely privileged to be an initiate, part of the phenomenal loud, proud statement of reclamation that was, is, The Ramones.
At a time when virtuosity and pretentiousness were threatening rock music with death by boredom, The Ramones spoke directly, undeniably, to the rightful heirs of the rock tradition, and a voice perked up inside us collectively, responding in wonderment: “I can do that…I CAN DO THAT!”
So began the spread of the movement known as punk that delivered rock music a lifesaving shot in the arm and set it back on course for a time, spawning a new generation of out-of-tune guitar thrash rockers the world over.
I was one of them, I am proud to say, encouraged out of the bedroom and into the garage by The Ramones (Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us…) to form Perth’s first punk band. We imploded without playing publicly shortly after Kim Salmon’s first band, The Cheap Nasties, beat us to the punch with punk’s Perth on-stage debut at the Rivervale Hotel. Two of our members left to form The Victims. I remember well their first gig at the Governor Broome. The small room was packed, energy crackling around the crowd, and conversations struck up in the breaks began with variations of: “Hi, I’m ____, wanna form a band?” Out of this culture grew a flourishing Perth punk scene – The Manikins, The Scientists, The Hitler Youth, The Orphans (my band), The Marilyns, The Fakes, The Invaders, The Paper Dolls, The Susans, Blok Music (an early incarnation of The Triffids) – all doing originals, unwittingly laying the foundations for the Perth power pop tradition and, in fact, the entire original band scene which was to follow.
Thus The Ramones kicked out the jams and flung the door wide open for a new generation of rock’s torchbearers and that, for me, is their primary importance. Their tour of the UK in 1976 paved the way for the Pistols and all that followed (although I must confess, I preferred the American brand of punk to the gobbing, politicised and quickly stereotyped Pommy version, which soon collapsed into a fashion statement and, big on attitude and small on substance, too often failed to build musically on The Ramones’ fast-blast pop precedent).
I loved The Ramones second album, Leave Home, almost as much as the first, but thereafter began to lose interest in them. The formula was wearing thin, and there was other great material coming out of the punk movement. The debut recordings by Patti Smith and Television were astounding (Patti’s opening to Gloria was an life-changer for me, and Television’s inimitable Marquee Moon is, in my opinion, rock’s greatest guitar album). Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers’ first release I would nominate one of the greatest rock records ever made (recorded mostly in LA in 1975 and including songs dating back to 1972, this gem slipped in through the gates New York punk opened to the world). To name but a few.
Further, The Ramones were no longer enigmatic. As with anything audaciously different, they lent themselves to caricature, and the Brit rock press delivered in full, painting them (albeit affectionately) as cartoonish figures playing sloppy truncated sets of short indistinguishable songs at breakneck speed, each announced with the mandatory battle cry “Warn, chew, tree, faw.” It seemed to me that the band bought the press’s vision, to the extent that by their third album, Rocket To Russia, they actually appeared on the cover in cartoon form. Ditto the next, Road To Ruin. They were now an identifiable brand marketed to a target audience. The sense of spontaneous expression, the commercial naivety, the purity of vision that set the first album so startlingly apart from anything that had gone before, could not endure the inevitable media and corporate manipulation that lurks backstage of the spotlight.
That first album, recorded for $6,200 in 17 days, will always be close to my heart – it remains one of rock’s finest moments. That the album became a call to arms which delivered rock music from the wilderness of the mid-70s, and that the punk revolution of which The Ramones were an integral part had its second coming in the hugely influential 90s grunge movement heralded by Nirvana’s Nevermind, and that directly or indirectly the spirit that inhabited 70s punk lives on in the rock and roll of the new millennium – Green Day, The Offspring, Blink 182 obvious examples (although I don’t rate any of them) – is surely the stuff of legend.
It is right and fitting that The Ramones now be acknowledged for their vital contribution to rock music, for there can be no nostalgic reunions: Joey’s death is truly the end. He was the voice, the look, the indispensable member.
For those who know and care, Joey’s place in rock history is assured (that, perhaps, is the only memorial he would want). For those who don’t – well, they’d never understand anyway.
RIP, big man.
© Ross Buncle May 2001
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