By Jim Sullivan
The Ramones are dead. Long live the Ramones … spinoffs. Lord knows, there’s bunches of bands inspired by the Ramones and a whole lotta tribute bands going on out there. What better, perhaps, than drummer Marky Ramone’s outfit – Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg – now featuring the irrepressible let’s-get-the-party-started boy Andrew WK who is stepping into Joey lead vocalist role? At the Paradise Friday Oct. 4, you can expect about 35 songs, most of the (duh) Ramones songs, staring with “Rockaway Beach” and ending with “Blitzkrieg Bop,” which is not just a let’s-go sports snippet heard in ballparks around America, but the song that kicked off the first Ramones album and has a few unsporting bits in it like “Shoot ‘em in the back now!”
I talked with Andrew the other day about his love for the band, how he jumped at Marky’s offer and how the Ramones (1974-1996) are like Bach. Marky Ramone’s Marky took over the drummer’s seat in 1978 in time to record the band’s fourth album, “Road to Ruin.” The second of the Ramones four drummers, he held that chair the longest. (He and original drummer Tommy were inducted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 with the departed others, singer Joey, bassist Dee Dee and guitarist Johnny.)
JSInK: Let’s start with this: What is your first Ramones memory? When did they enter your world?
That’s a great question. They’ve been a group that’s been around, obviously, since the day I was born and I sort of feel like they’ve had a presence somewhere inside me in some way or another since that day. They are so formidable and so vast in their influence, not just the music, but just in American culture, in human civilization at this point, they had a sometimes shadowy and sometimes very prominent presence at all moments. I remember seeing what they looked like and their logos and their sensibility permeated every area, even if you didn’t know what it was. When I was really little, I thought maybe it was a movie. Of course, there was “Rock and Roll High School.” It was so cinematic what they offered and it seems like they’ve always been there. I guess if you were born in 1979 like me, they have always been there.
You have done your rock history, so you know what a radical break it was from mainstream rock, back when Ramones first started.
Absolutely. It was shocking. And they intended it to be. Very pure and very direct.
Exactly, and just the idea, the impression that many people had when they first heard them – myself included – was “Jesus, this is amateurish!” Then, of course, you get it – the joke, or whatever – in a couple of plays. Now, you deal with humor, a bit of parody in your music, and I think the Ramones did as well. Do you see the link there?
That’s a great observation. I had not thought of it that way before but they certainly are. Marky very much into having fun, very smiley person as well as being intense and focused and serious about having fun. So, we relate to each other in that we’re both serious about having fun. I think when you love something very much it just comes out of you in every different emotional form: There’s happy and sad and funny and mad and excited and exhausted and everything in between. Life as it’s represented in all these different shades. I just try to make the most intense, exciting stuff I can and usually the way to get there is to include those different feelings.
I remember talking to the Ramones, back then, and talking to Dee Dee and critic’s would love them down for being like a cartoon or a rock and roll comic book and he thought that wasn’t a negative at all: He loved comic books.
Sure, yeah. There’s a purity and ability to visually cutting and stylistically unique that a lot of folks probably couldn’t handle it. I can only imagine how perplexing it would be. People have said stuff to me that I don’t know anything about fashion and that’s why I wear white jeans and a white t-shirt – ‘cause I don’t know any better – and I just thought it looked really cool and wanted to have something that was easy for people to recognize and remember and draw and dress up as. Just come up with something you could make your own and stick with it. That was more important to me than impressing someone in any other way, fancy clothes. I mean I like fancy clothes a lot, but what was more important was occupying a space.
The Ramones were part of a wave of bands that said we dress the same way onstage as we do offstage. There’s no dressing room transition. And that was part of the appeal. One thing I want to ask: Joey was certainly a very different singer from you – and certainly in the way he moved or didn’t move on stage and the way you move. How do you step into his shoes?
It’s impossible to step into his shoes. I don’t even know if you could attempt to do so. I’ve heard people mimic his voice before but I don’t know if that’s the best thing or even the most respectful thing. The songs are so good and the vocal parts are so fantastic that anyone who can make a sound out of their voice can sing them and sound good. I just sing the songs as best I possible can and put everything I have into it, and I think that’s what Joey was trying to do. I don’t think he was trying to “sound” a certain way. It’s to follow the spirit of the singing the best you can. I think that’s what I try to do and I have a blast doing it. It couldn’t be more pleasurable singing those songs. We have a similar vocal range, but no one has a voice like him.
I’m guessing you’re treating the arrangements of the songs very faithfully.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m doing what Marky says to do and that’s a great aspect of this experience is being able to serve him, to serve the legacy, to serve the music and the music is so strong if you just give yourself over to it, it does all the rest for you.
Marky is one of four Ramones drummers, and with them the longest time. But I know some people think the “genius” in the band Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee and the drummer, well, you know all the drummer jokes. Especially with a guy playing a 4/4 beat all the time – the drummer must be pretty simple-minded. Maybe you can disabuse us of that notion.
Well, there are some very challenging drum parts and there are very few drummers in any band I’ve played with that play the way that he does. I don’t think his concern has been to impress anybody; it’s to play these songs the way they’re supposed to go and that I think is much more impressive to have the commitment and pull it off night after night. He plays in some ways even better now than in years before. So many groups that are massive fans of his drumming, they can’t drum like that. I don’t know if they realize it. The constant eighth notes that he provides is very rare. There’s a lot of discipline, concentration and focus. A very aware sense of the pulse of the song, the feeling of the song. Sometimes slower feels faster; sometimes faster feels slower. The musicality is extremely high and delivers what it’s supposed to. Just like Bach, Bach is really locked into a steady tempo and people, even in his day, thought it was primitive and simple because he didn’t do a lot of fluctuating of tempos. Or these really exaggerated emotive phrasings that Mozart ended up doing later. But there’s a reason he did that: Because it sounds awesome! Which is the reason the Ramones did what they did, not because they couldn’t do any better, but because it sounded good.
The drum fill in “Rockaway Beach,” where another drummer would take some kind of solo, it’s just four on floor: Thump, thump, thump, thump. Brilliant.
It is. It’s really high level, visionary genius and I think people are reckoning with it, still wrestling with it and recognizing it. The Ramones themselves I think were blown away and amazed by their own work. That’s how it goes sometimes: If you were born to do this thing, it can even be mystifying to you.
Little anecdote, where two of ‘em were talking. Dee Dee and Johnny I think. One said, “I’ve got this new song called ‘I Don’t Care’” and the other said, “We’ve already got a song called ‘I Don’t Care’” but the first guy didn’t know ‘cause he didn’t write it.
(Laughs) It’s amazing. It’s a privilege to be anywhere near the epicenter of the inspiration for all of that stuff. It shows anything is possible. Everything is still in front of us. It’s not over or wrapped up. There’s a sense of optimism, the whole feeling. It’s not just a style or a song or a lyric or an image or an attitude. It’s all those things work to create this good feeling. It makes you feel good to be alive. And that’s the best thing – not just artists – that any person can offer the world, to make it better to live in.
How does this affect or intersect with your own career as an artist? You’ve got your rock and roll world, your piano improve world …
It’s making me better at singing. Any time you’re around any kind of master, that’s just extremely inspiring, challenging and rewarding. It wasn’t one of those things where “Should I debate doing this or not?” It was just like I didn’t have to think twice when Marky Ramone asked me to be the singer. I can’t believe I’m getting to do it. I want to stay in that state of mind as long as possible. Never take anything for granted. Never ever forgetting how many people around the world would want to be in this position and have this chance. I feel like I’m representing them as well. This is all of our chance to keep the songs going. I feel very humbled. There’s a lot of humility and feeling really excited.
Is this indefinite, this gig with Marky?
I guess so. That’s up to Marky. I know he will do whatever it takes to keep it going and this has meant the world to me. With me, we did a European run in May and another a couple of months after that. I must be close to 30 gigs. After these, we’ll see. I would never say that I’ll do more ‘cause that’s up to him, but if he wants me I’ll do as many of these as I can.
In terms of your own music, do you have plans?
Another beautiful thing – sometimes your schedule is determined by forces beyond yourself that you never could have predicted. I wanted to have finished my new album many months ago, but when Marky asked me to do this, I said, “Well, OK, I guess the album’s going to be on hold.” And I can feel good about it. I’m on this road, this destiny I never could have predicted any of this Maybe predicting and planning is over-rated and I’m just open to wherever fate is going to take me and have trust. My album will come out when it’s meant to come out and to enjoy everything in the meantime.
A cynic might say – not me – that Andrew’s got other abilities – he does all these piano improve gigs, he’s a very ambitious guy – is this just slumming for him?
I know you’re not saying that. Anyone who would call Ramones songs slumming is probably not going to like anything else that I would do anyway. It all counts to me. I have to be entertained by my own career in entertainment and if I’m bored with it or it becomes too comfortable for me, I don’t think I would make very good offerings for an audience. I wanted to do this so I would have an adventure in my life. The greatest thing that I get to do is have fun. This has only made it more fun. You’re on this incredible roller-coaster adventure and maybe I can see a big loop or a hill coming up but sometimes it’s more exciting to just be surprised by your own life. And no one’s more surprised than me by things like this happening.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE RAMONES
JSInk again: Me, I spent a lot of my time with the Ramones, as fan, critic, sorta friend. First show: CBGB Halloween 1977 and Hilly Kristal put me and my college radio buddies from Maine right up front. Ears rang for a week, but it was one of the best rock ‘n’ roll times of my young life. I’m looking forward to whatever Marky and Andrew have corked up. Andrew’s quite a different live performer than Joey was – Joey just kind of leaned into the mikestand. Andrew is, uh, pretty animated. If this is nostalgia, gimme gimme that old shock treatment.
Fun anecdote from the mid-’80s: Johnny is asked backstage at the Boston club Metro what a new, as-of-then-unrecorded song called “The KKK Took My Baby Away” might be about. A first foray into political rock? An anti-racist rocker? “I don’t know,” he says. “Joey wrote it.”
Excerpts from the Farewell Ramones story I wrote in 1996 …
“I think we’re leaving an historical legacy,” says Joey Ramone. “We really changed rock ‘n’ roll. When we came out in ’74, rock ‘n’ roll was pretty much dead. It was just totally disco and corporate rock. It was totally synthetic. All the fun was totally gone. We rocked the boat, you know what I mean?
“It’s simple, but effective,” he continues. “The greatest art or music was always simple, but effective. I mean Andy Warhol’s soup cans were simple, but effective. The best rock ‘n’ roll appears simple, whether it be Buddy Holly or Little Richard or the Beatles or the Stones or the Who or the Stooges.”
It began at CBGB, in the heart of New York’s Bowery, where four leather-jacketed guys who termed themselves brothers and called themselves the Ramones took the stage and played 20 minutes of hyperfast noise-rock churned out in front of a handful of gawking disbelievers. No leads. No solos. Songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” and “Beat on the Brat.”
You might call ’em the Grateful Dead of punk — if only because both bands played out a much longer career than anyone expected, they both did their time in drug hell, and both called it a day around the same time with a certain degree of honor. And because equating the Dead and the Ramones might irritate the punks. Punks thrive on irritation. And if there was any movement punk was antithetical too, it was hippie.
Q: Without the Ramones, would there have been punk rock?
A: Sure. You can’t keep a wild horse tied down forever. But consider: The rock landscape of 1974 was every bit as bland as Joey Ramone recalls. The New York Dolls and Iggy & the Stooges were on the fringes, but the mainstream was inert — a wasteland of REO Speedwagon and Journey, Yes and ELP.
The Ramones’ idea wasn’t to spearhead a movement called punk. They were, as Joey says, “an isolated band, doing it.” As to the punk rock movement: “It just kinda happened, the chemistry.”
The Ramones toured England in 1976, and a drastically different audience heard their bursts of two-minute songs punctuated only by Dee Dee’s count-offs — “One-two-three-four!” Just like that, they jump-started that country’s punk movement while musicians who formed the Damned, the Sex Pistols and the Clash caught their shows. Suddenly, rock had an angry, agitated underground sound on both sides of the Atlantic.
Remember, these were the days before there was a so-called “alternative nation.” Mainstream artists laughed at or scorned the punks. The underground rock press barely existed. Radio? Except for blips on college radio, forget it. MTV wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye.
On “Ramones,” the band’s debut, the group sang “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” which engendered protest in certain circles. Ever responsible, the Ramones changed their tune on their second album, “Ramones Leave Home,” by singing “Carbona, Not Glue,” suggesting an alternative sniffing experience. The manufacturers of Carbona spot remover were not amused; they sued, and the Ramones deleted the song from the UK editions of the album.
Who loves the Ramones? Stephen King loves the Ramones — he enlisted them to perform “Pet Sematary.” Green Day loves ’em — two dads in Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong and Tre Cool, have kids named Joey and Ramona, respectively. Spin magazine named the Ramones one of the seven greatest rock bands of all time. The Who’s Pete Townshend joined them on a Ramonization of “Substitute.” Pearl Jam asked Joey to join them onstage in New Orleans last year to rip through the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” a 1976-era punk classic. There are at least two tribute songs dedicated to the band: “RAMONES,” by Motorhead, and “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” by the Human League. Kirsty MacColl sings “I Wanna Be Sedated” in concert. The Riverdales, California punks, are almost a carbon copy of the Ramones. You could argue that virtually every three-chord band in the land owes something to these guys from Forest Hills, NY.
The original and remaining Ramones are singer Joey (Jeff Hyman) and guitarist Johnny (John Cummings), both 44. Bassist-songwriter Dee Dee (Doug Colvin), 43, stopped playing onstage in 1989, but has continued to write with the band. C. J. (Christopher Joseph Ward), 30, a former Marine and longtime fan, replaced him. Tommy (Tommy Erdelyi), 44, was the original drummer; he was supplanted by Marky (Marc Bell), 39, then Richie (Richard Reinhardt), then Marky again.
When C. J. heard the band was looking for a bassist to replace Dee Dee, he took an early unauthorized leave to audition. Unfortunately, he was leaving the Marines, who don’t take too kindly to people who go AWOL. The Corps tracked him down at his parents’ house in Deer Park, on Long Island — but not till after he had passed the audition. C. J. had to wait several months to finish his hitch before he could join the band, but he’s been wearing his new uniform — torn jeans, T-shirt, sneakers and black leather jacket — since 1990.
When the Ramones began, what they did was radical — under-two-minute songs, no solos, limited chops. The Ramones’ early world was one of TV, junk food, boredom, love and hate, horror movies, shock treatment. They did get more serious, over time, and occasionally new musical wrinkles would surface — a country lick, a short lead guitar line, Beach Boys harmonies, faster tempos a la hardcore punk. But the Ramones would never be confused with a progressive band; they carved out a territory and worked it.
“The sound and style is like a trademark,” says Joey. “That is something that bands want to achieve. Think of the bands that have their own signature sound — the Beatles, the Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix. I feel like we were the last band that did something major and didn’t say, like, consciously, `We’re gonna do it like this.’ It was just the chemistry.”
The Ramones have been essentially a conservative band since, well, the early 1980s. The blueprint had been drawn, and from then on it was followed with minor deviations from form. Sets remained pretty constant over the years — a handful of new songs bracketed by classics from the first two albums. On record, the Ramones have taken some chances: hardcore songs penned by Dee Dee, a wonderful (if panned at the time) punk/pop wall-of-sound collaboration with Phil Spector — but the concerts remain the same 70-minute, 30-plus-song experience of yesteryear.
“I know we still play the songs the same,” Johnny said, before an Avalon set last year. “You watch tapes of us, 10, 15 years ago — it sounds the same. We play what they wanna hear. I’ve played `Blitzkrieg Bop’ 2,100 straight shows. I’m not tired of it.”
Pop culture isn’t tired of it, either. Kids now discover at Green Day shows what their older siblings discovered at Ramones shows: That low culture and high energy make a volatile cocktail, that three chords sound great if you play ’em right, that this music can still connect.
They never recorded with noted producer Phil Ramone. They did record with Phil Spector, who kept them virtually imprisoned in his home/studio and waved a pistol at them when they tried to leave.
The Ramones occasionally dinged the mass consciousness. “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” did it in 1977. “I Wanna Be Sedated,” released in 1978, is an alt-rock staple today. “Pet Sematary” became an MTV hit. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” of all things, mutated into a Budweiser TV ad (albeit without the “Shoot ’em in the back now!” line).
Detractors and fans alike often use the word “cartoon” to describe the Ramones. At least a dozen Ramones songs begin with titles of “I Wanna” or “I Don’t Wanna.” Emotions come in primary colors, clearly defined. A sense of humor is never far from the surface.
“The Ramones used to be called a cartoon and get really offended,” said Dee Dee in 1989, “but I always kind of liked the cartoon image. I’m a big comic-book fan, and I kind of look at life-art-music as comic-pop-art.”
Indeed, the last two Ramones videos — “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” a Tom Waits song, and “Spiderman,” from “Saturday Morning Cartoon’s Greatest Hits” — were done as cartoons.
The Ramones are headlining an outdoor punk festival at a country club in Tyngsborough in the mid-1980s. An all-outdoor, daylight punk event is rare and weird — all these pallid, black-clad folks in sunshine. Dee Dee Ramone, sporting trademark leather jacket, is asked whether, as a kid, he trekked to Woodstock for the festival. “What?!” he responds in astonishment. “And stand in all that mud?”
When they began, they didn’t know how to play anyone else’s songs. They barely knew how to play their instruments and they knew only three chords, so they could play only what they wrote. With low-fi production, an outsider’s worldview and a willfully dumbed-down sensibility, the Ramones took on the paint-by-numbers corporate-rock world.
“You know, the thing about the Ramones,” says Joey, “is that for a lot of peple there was a void, where they just didn’t feel they belonged. The Ramones were outcasts ourselves and a good proportion of our fans are, like, outcasts, misfits, the whole bit.”
It wasn’t a pose or a goof. Dee Dee penned “Chinese Rock” with the late Johnny Thunders, and it remains arguably the best song about junkie life: the thrill of the cop and the subsequent degradation and bankruptcy. Dee Dee himself abused drugs, including heroin, for 14 years. “I’d clean up off one drug and end up on another. I have an addictive personality,” he said. Dee Dee has told stories of syringes being lined up on amplifiers at CBGB, awaiting the boys post-performance. Joey and Marky are also recovering substance abusers. Joey kicked after he tore knee ligaments in a drunken fall from a stage a few years back, and has been sober and health-conscious since.
Joey and Johnny are classic rock band antagonists, like Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who, or Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis. They spend little time together offstage. Joey is a left-winger, the bleeding heart; he wrote “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” because he was so outraged at President Ronald Reagan’s visit to the German cemetery where SS dead are buried. Johnny is a right-winger, the hard-edged guy — he voted for Reagan. Johnny was always the money man, too: As early as 1977, after a club gig in Portland, Maine, he tallied up Ramones T-shirt sales and complained bitterly that the band was getting screwed on sales. When the Ramones retire, Johnny says he plans to move to California, sit by a pool and do nothing. Joey says he’ll throw himself into a variety of projects: recording with Holly Vincent, continuing a column for the on-line “Addicted to Noise” magazine, maybe opening a cool club. He’ll launch an on-line radio show called “Joey Ramone’s Radio Coup” and will probably kick it off with that Pearl Jam/Ramones collaboration on “Sonic Reducer.” He’s definitely not leaving New York City.
When was the best of times, the worst of times?
“I think it’s always been kind of bittersweet,” says Joey. “Right now, at least, we get along pretty well. Things are going pretty strong.”
The Ramones’ final album is called “Adios Amigos!” Its leadoff track, fittingly, is Waits’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.” Sings Joey: “I don’t wanna have to shout it out / I don’t want my hair to fall out / I don’t wanna be filled with doubt / I don’t wanna be a good boy scout / I don’t wanna have to learn to count / I don’t wanna have the biggest amount / I don’t wanna grow up.