September, 2004 — The third Ramone to go in just as many years, Johnny was an odd ball. While Joey was the heart of the Ramones, and Dee Dee was the arms (muscled and lined with track marks, no doubt), Johnny was the brains. For those that believe the Ramones to be tough-guy simpletons who luckily stumbled across their sound, well—you bought the press release, but didn’t look very closely. The Ramones were custom built for super-stardom from the ground up. Named after a pseudonym that Paul McCartney used when the Beatles toured, and carefully studied in the Phil Spector wall-of-sound, their rapid-fire set lists and Dee Dee’s famous “1-2-3-4" countdown to every song launch were as deliberately planned as their ripped jeans and leather jackets.
Which is not to say that they were inauthentic. They just knew their landscape. Imagine it — 1976. If you turn on the radio you hear Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton, dripping with intricate guitar solos. You hear Queen’s lush arrangements from a parallel world 1930's era. You hear Kiss, and the Who and Sweet — guitar solos, guitar solos, guitar solos. You can go to a Yes concert and listen to one song for an hour. Or go to a Dead show and listen to one guitar solo for an hour.
And let’s say some clerk at the record store shows you this album with these four punks on the cover. Mind you — punks didn’t mean punk rocker, but it meant criminal, undesirable. These guys that looked like they’d mug you as soon as sing to you. You put on the album, after switching off the radio that is playing ‘Play That Funky Music’ by Wild Cherry, and your speakers explode with fucking POWER CHORDS mixed loud. Three chords, and a singer that sounds like his nose is stuffed up and he doesn’t quite finish his words.
The whole album clocks at under thirty minutes. Imagine! In this age of gatefolds, double albums, thirty minute sides — you could swallow the whole thing during your lunch break.
If you’d never heard the Stooges, never heard MC5, didn’t listen to the Sonics or any of the garage stuff, you’d be knocked on your ass. You get excited and go see them play. Thirty minutes of high-decibel assault, and it’s FUN. Imagine that after going to see Kiss rise 15 feet above stage on pneumatic risers in pretentious boots. Unardorned power-chord rock that never stops.
Johnny Ramone ran the band. He was the business manager, the record keeper. Despite feuds and disagreements, he kept them together. He told one journalist, who wrote a recollection I was reading, that he wanted to open the door for kids to pick up a guitar and play, without feeling that the need to be Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix. He wanted to democratize rock.
Too bad this dude named Eddie came along and blew that idea away. It would be until the 90's before Johnny’s ripple hit the mainstream, but before that it thoroughly saturated the underground. The Ramones played London, and that show influenced the Damned and the Sex Pistols. There would be no punk rock, no hardcore without them.
Too bad that they never hit it big. They never had their mega hit — they were just too much too handle for most music lovers. Too direct, too intense, too mean looking, or people just didn’t get the humor in it. I remember hearing rumors in high school about skinheads slamming at a Ramones concert with razor blades. Stupid and untrue, but it just goes to show that even when they seemed on the precipice of being a cartoon, they still had an edge.
So, to the Ramones — to Dee Dee the criminal, Joey the sweetheart, Johnny the business man. To Tommy, the lone survivor. Spin this track, and imagine it’s 1976 and you’re hearing it for the first time. Imagine that you’ve never heard anything like it, or anything influenced by it — no CBGB, no London politicos or melodic Buzzcock/Damned/999, no California hardcore, no Grunge, no straightedge, no (thank god) Limp Bizkit.
Imagine you’ve put down your guitar after trying to figure out some stupid impossible Robert Fripp lick, and then you hear this. You listen again and again, and then you pick up your guitar and start to play along full blast. You can’t quite keep up, but it’s in your grasp. You pick up the needle and move it to the first groove over and over. You’ve almost got it, just try to do those down-strokes at his pace. Then, after a bunch of tries you got it. You’re playing along with Johnny. You’ve got it, and now you can’t lose it.
You’re in the Ramones, goddammit. We’re all in the Ramones.