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(photo by author)Joey, Tommy, Dee Dee Ramone, Cincinnati, 1977
The Ramones leave home
Joey moved from drums to lead vocal when he could no longer play at the amphetamine tempos Johnny and Dee Dee were putting down at rehearsals. Manager Tommy took over on the kit when drummer after auditioning drummer failed to understand the stripped-down style he was hearing in his head. When Tommy finally sat down behind the drums, the first Ramones lineup was complete. They found their way to CB's on August 16, 1974. Early sets were chaotic 20 songs in 17 minutes but promising enough for Hilly to bring them back 22 more times in '74 alone.
Reading various accounts while researching this article, I was impressed by how similar the reactions were to the Ramones. There were definitely people who didn't get it (Linda Ronstadt reportedly ran out of CB's screaming), and there still are, in fact, but for those of us who did, the effect was incredible. The band walked out on stage without ceremony and started with a four-count from Dee Dee: "One two three four" BAM! You could feel "the wind from the amplifiers" as Lenny Kaye put it.
There was nothing remotely like the Ramones' pile-driver attack. Nothing fancy, no filigrees or solos. Johnny's guitar emerging from the Marshall stacks behind him was like a storm-surf breaking on your face. You could feel the pressure on your chest, just like you could feel Dee Dee's down-picked tonic eighth notes (no one ever strummed in the Ramones) in your stomach and bowels. Tommy's drums were metronomic, massive with almost no fills, just sledgehammer kick and snare.
On top of it all was Joey, phrasing like a girl-group singer with nothing special in the way of chops. His everyman voice, weaker every year from the strain of constant touring, was all the more effective for being so ordinary. It was a voice that didn't call attention to itself. No strutting rock god here, no Robert Plant.
Why it all mattered
I was living in small, half-finished house in Cincinnati with five other people when I first heard the Ramones. In one corner of the dining room I slept on a sleeping bag. In the living room just adjacent was my stereo, the one I saved up for during the first summer of college: big Bose 501 speaker cabinets, a 100-watt Kenmore amp and a Philips electronic turntable with fancy heat-sensing buttons like an elevator's. I picked up the first two albums on the same day. They were released only months apart: "Ramones" and "Ramones Leave Home".
Hearing the record for the first time, playing it as loud as I played everything in those days, I had no idea how much it would change my life. I just knew I liked it a lot. The first song was just perfect " Blitzkrieg Bop" opening with what became one of the patented Ramones chants: "Hey ho, let's go!" over a fast tom-tom pattern. Suddenly the guitar and bass came in, and the effect was like a plane taking off; you felt driven back into your seat. It was the heavy unison riffs we loved so much on Led Zeppelin records, but without the silly Tolkeinesque or savagely misogynistic lyrical maunderings on top. And it was much faster than Zeppelin; it seemed like it was twice the tempo of anything else I was hearing.
After this first perfect little gem of a song, two minutes and 12 seconds long, the strangest thing happened. The second song, " Beat on the Brat," was exactly the same! Well, not exactly, different lyrics, different tune, but the guitar attack was still unremitting, the tempo unforgiving, and the bass and the drums were still threatening the integrity of my speakers. And the lyrics! I quote them in their entirety:
Beat on the brat
Beat on the brat
Beat on the brat with a baseball bat
Oh yeah, oh yeah, uh-oh.
What can you do?
What can you do?
With a brat like that always on your back
What can you do?
It was a combination of cartoonish violence and ironic posturing that wasn't matched until years later, when Itchy and Scratchy started showing up on "The Simpsons." I think they were saying, "Forget about propriety. Forget about meaning. Forget about what music is supposed to be. Lose yourself. Bang your head into the wall." Is this a significant message? I don't know, I just loved it. It was pure sensation, a two-and-a-half-minute kick-ass blowout with hooks and a catchy melody, too! (Did I mention how utterly melodic the Ramones were? How the tunes stay with you for years? How "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," one of the great car-radio anthems, ranks with "Don't Worry Baby" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Hound Dog"?)
By the time I realized the third song was going to do the same thing, and the fourth, and the fifth all the way to the end of the album, in fact, just like the live shows I was a total fan. I heard it all there, the cosmic blend of influences: the Beatles, the Stooges, the MC5, Brian Wilson, "Be My Baby," Little Richard, the whole history of Western pop.
Three years later I was living in New York City, and everything was different. I came with all the other kids from all over the country who couldn't make it where they were. I was going to start an East Village band, I was going to play CBGB, I was going to run into Joey around the neighborhood, and the boring part of my life would all come to an end. I was going to get my second chance. And oddly enough, it kind of happened that way, for me and a lot of people I knew.
When Joey passed, I made a few phone calls and talked to some friends and saw some of the same raw emotion I hadn't felt since John Lennon got shot in 1980. Joey was a good guy, a hero to punks and fans of punk; he was like Mickey Mantle or Orson Welles, a man both loved and respected. And punk mattered, it changed lives like jazz did or the '60s did. It was only stupid when it wanted to be; if you couldn't hear that, you would never break on through to the sheer sensual pleasure it offered. I'm grateful I was there, that I saw the Ramones, that I heard their music.
A few links that might interest you:
Try the official CBGB web site for pictures and Hilly Kristal's own serialized testimony.
Link from there to an online edition of Mojo Magazine from the U.K. for the most coherent and well-written history of early punk that I've seen anywhere.
An online set list by Joey, featuring his comments and samples of the tunes he loved, can be found on the Uplister site.
Or follow up with these books, both consulted for this article:
Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones by Dee Dee Ramone with Veronica Kofman
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, edited by Legs MacNeil and Gillian McCain
Other articles by The Obsessionist: