From Creem Metal, October 1987
GREAT MOMENTS IN METAL – THE RAMONES
by Toby Goldstein
Seeing that this issue features Motorhead and a feature on the hardcore scene, what Great Moment In Metal could be more apt than a look at the legendary Ramones? From an encounter with writer Toby Goldstein in mid-1981, here’s a look at New York’s massively influential thrash punks at the peak of their power. Read it not only for its sheer historicity, but to avoid certain death in a collision between our planet and a wayward asteroid, should such occur.
Joey Ramone is not my brother. For six years, people have been approaching me at Ramones gigs, giving my uncontrollable wavy hair, pale skin and nearsighted squint the once-over, comparing me to the similarly-hued and peering gangly lead singer. Once or twice I mistakenly wore little round granny glasses to a Ramones show and was stared at by hundreds of their fans. True, both Joey and I were raised in the boroughs of New York City, are approximately the same age and revere a 1960s disc jockey called Murray the “K,” but Joey was a high school rebel who moved to the grotty Lower East Side as soon as he could slip away, while I sucked up the academics and relocated to his former middle-class Queens neighborhood.
It’s for that reason I feel like I’m about to spend an afternoon with a distant member of my family when I arrive at Joey’s apartment building. We know each other casually from over the years, and it’s hard for me not to inquire after the health of some fictitious mutual cousin. When Johnny arrives, he starts to stare and wonders why I look so familiar. I say “writer” and hope for the best.
Not that a Ramone should live in sleaze, but Joey’s doorman-patrolled, small but airy high-rise apartment is a shock. “I only moved uptown nine blocks from the Bowery,” he responds. “Next year, I might move nine more. It’s just one small step for Ramone-kind,” he puns. There are to be a lot more puns, then Joey leaves the radio playing the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and disappears into a back room while I check out the items left on public view. A surprisingly small number of records
(apparently the only ones to have survived Bowery life intact), ranging from Frankle Lymon to Gary Glitter. A row of Instamatic photographs of him and friends, but very few Ramones artifacts. Some Disney items. An Atari system with a lot of game cartridges. Barbells. Barbells? Joey, as we all know, is six-foot-something weighing next to nothing. Is he trying to become the Incredible Skulk?
John explains that the barbells, in addition to his goal of daily running, are to help build up endurance, especially in the legs. His arms are wire cables, able to sustain the Ramones’ relentless motor-drive for an hour. “Your legs go first, like in baseball. You feel like they’re gonna collapse under you,” says Joey cheerfully. When they started out in CBGB’s as one of punk’s founders, the Ramones played five songs in ten minutes, blazing through from start to finish without breathing, and completely burned themselves out every night. Since those days, through umpteen tours and six albums, they’ve learned to pace and become, how-you-say, professional.
Says John, “Every month or two we added a song, until we reached this length, about 32 songs with an encore. And we have a lot of stamina. We don’t really get tired. We could play twice as long, but there wouldn’t be any point to it; it’d just get monotonous. We do one or two slow songs which pick you up. You take off your jacket after ten songs—that revives you. It starts feeling like a 50 pound weight on your back.” They ponder the idea of inventing Ramones clones, androids that could go out and do their shows, like Kraftwerk were rumored to have devised. “We’ll send them on the English tour,” says John. “But,” Joey points out, “they’d have to be water resistant so when they get spit on it doesn’t wear out the machinery.” Things have rarely gone brilliantly for the foursome in the U.K.
According to John, “It’s still pretty anti-American. We toured there twice last year. They sort-of liked us. The kids in England are real nice, maybe a bit bitter. I guess ’cause we invented rock ‘n’ roll in America.” The Ramones are unyielding in the pride at being U.S. ambassadors of rock, as Joey describes an outdoor festival the band played in Barcelona, Spain, to an audience of 2,000. They treat the U.K. press as a necessary evil, but reserve a large share of their own bitterness for the lesser success they’ve won at home, compared to many of their early CBGB’s stage-mates. The possibility of their sixth Sire album, Pleasant Dreams, acting as a make-it-or-break-it record draws a hasty denial from them both.
John: “I don’t think so. You don’t like to think that way.”
Joey: “Every other album’s been make it or break it, too. We’ve always been controversial, to say the least.”
John: “We’ve got another album guaranteed, anyway.”
Joey: “If Sire drops us, we could always sign with Stiff.”
John: “I don’t think any one album decides that you have to make it or break it. You build up a following, it gets bigger and bigger and it happens gradually. Once you’re at an in-between stage, you’ve made it already. Also, people become big without having hits, like Frank Zappa or the Grateful Dead.
“The time is always a little bit better for us with each album, and we’re a litlle more accepted. But still, the bands that have made it have gone very MOR. Nobody’s really made it playing hard rock. They had to go very soft to make it, iike the Clash. Same with Blondie, the Knack. the Cars.”
Joey: “You listen to Sandinista! and you listen to the first Clash album and it’s like day and night.”
John: “I don’t want their name mentioned in our article.” Joey alludes to his disappointment with the Clash’s recent Bond’s performance. However, the Clash sold out almost two full weeks at Bond’s. On the Ramones’ last tour, they played and sold out two nights at that venue. It seems justified for a local band who’ve worked so hard for so long to express the “whythems.” But since they brought up several band’s mellowing tendencies on record, I venture that the difference between Pleasant Dreams, with its pop phrasing and Graham Gouldman production, and the Ramones1 first album forms a perfect example of opposites. Joey: “We see it is as evolution.” John: “Welt, you have to go somewhere, to make changes on each album, so your fans don’t grow tired and it
Joey: “So you don’t get tired of it yourself.”
John: “We were always into slow, pretty songs. It’s just that in the beginning, it was hard for us to write them. In the beginning we were only able to write the fast ones. But we don’t want to lose track of what we set out to do and that’s to play high energy rock ‘n’ roll and write the best songs possible and not to do anything to
Joey: “We have the same ideals that we’ve always maintained: to give our audience 100 percent of ourselves, not to let them down. Look at any of our albums: we’ve never put a filler in or put out a triple album, a double album or an EP in the same year, of crap. We care. And anybody that knows us, respects us because we do. We care about them. We have integrity and high ideals and stick by them. We’re probably the only band that hasn’t gone mainstream. Besides the audience, you can’t do it to yourself. We love our audiences and we love music and we love what we’re doing, and that’s why we’re still doing it.
“It’s been tougher for us than for anybody. I feel like the underdog. We came out first and everybody else seems to have made it. It’s funny when people ask you, if you had to credit so-and-so for making your career what it is today, who would you choose? ‘Cause I guess most bands would go on for a half-hour crediting people for their careers.” Like the wagon train defending itself against hostile Indians (who, after all, were fighting to protect their familiar turf), the Ramones have been forced to close ranks against the inheritors of the movement they helped start.
Ironically, Pleasant Dreams, just like End Of The Century, ought to satisfy both the monolithic rock purists and the pop pickers. For the first time, songs are credited to either Joey or Dee Dee, instead of to the group as a whole. Although Joey was reluctant to elaborate on what the individual listing meant, he admitted that he felt it was another sign of maturity within the band. The tunes are clearly split, with Dee Dee contributing the sonic attacks such as “You Sound Like You’re Sick” and “All’s Quiet On The Eastern Front” and Joey responsible for the slyly humorous “7-11” and that crowd pleaser “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” “For some reason, we’re getting a lot of black kids in the audience now, and they really like that one,” he says innocently. Several of the songs are definitely singable, and if “Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio” wasn’t a hit due to the biggest oversight of 1980, “It’s Not My Place (In The 9 to 5 World)” ought to rectify that loss.
Pleasant Dreams continues the Ramones tradition of recording in New York, with Graham Gouldman, prolific songwriter and 10cc founder, imported as producer. “He was the only one who’d work with us,” says John, and it’s hard to tell if he’s kidding. “I think he was our manager’s first choice. We all listened to the 10cc albums and they sounded good. The time was perfect for Graham because his partner, Eric Stewart, had been in an automobile crash. So when Graham heard about it he jumped, because he had nothing to do. He was great to work with; you could talk to him.”
Joey: “And he would talk back. He was a normal, nice guy. And he kept his guns out of sight.” (Phil Spector reference)
No, I say, they all had rubber bullets. Arggh.
Joey and Graham returned to England, where after being strip-searched by over-zealous airport customs officials, they mixed the album at lOcc’s Strawberry Studios. Without dissipating the Ramones’ live fervor, Gouldman has given them a presentable album which may finally leap one of the Ramones’ biggest hurdles, the lack of radio airplay. Even the most conservative programmer would find it hard to resist the teen-death parody of late night adventures at the “7-11,” “our watering hole on the road,” says Joey, or the early Who aura of “It’s Not My Place.” “Pete Townshend couldn’t have done it better.”
The Ramones are talking Americana here, a lot more healthy teenage rebellion and a lot fewer seedy characters doing the “Cretin Hop” or sniffing “Carbona Not Glue.” There wasn’t a “Gabba Gabba Hey” all afternoon, and the doorman doesn’t give John’s shining Prince Valiant locks and well-worn jeans a second glance. When the Ramones talk their g-g-generation, they just want you to look at ’em and say “You’re What’s Happening, Baby!”