Top ten Ramones songs to celebrate the great Joey Ramone who died ten years ago
It’s hard to believe that it’s 11 years since the great Joey Ramone died.
I once stood next to Joey Ramone at a gig. It was an experience. He was so damn tall and towered way above me and I’m pretty tall! It was the mid nineties and he looked the part. Those lanky limbs, the leather jacket, the long, bedraggled hair and the never removed glasses.
The most unlikely frontman of all time succumbed to the cancer that he’d been fighting for years on April 15th 2001, it was ironically just before his band got the mass acceptance that he so rightly craved.
I remember once having a really heated argument with the late, great Tony Wilson over who was the most influential band in punk. Tony said the Sex Pistols, I said The Ramones – the argument raged through the programme we were recording, over the ads and back live on the air on the other side.
Of course no one won. It’s impossible. The Pistols changed so much and their cultural impact is enormous, but the Ramones provided the ultimate template for every garage band on the planet and have been copied endlessly for years. When they played the Roundhouse in London in the summer of 1976 every punk band in London speeded up and nicked their image.
The band, who formed in Forest Hills in the early seventies, hit first gear in 1975 and were the ultimate fresh breath of air when their first album was released in 1976. The record was bought by a clutch of dysfunctional pre-punk youth across the UK.
I still clearly remember this freaky long haired guy called Mad Ted who went to my school walking down the road clutching that debut album. He had long hair, a greatcoat, drainpipes and brothel creepers – the whole bus stared at him whilst I stared at the Ramones album – the band’s picture on the front looked like four more versions of the school freak – gonzoid, strange and somehow cool as fuck.
The music was the same. Odd now that it sounds like pure pop- at the time it sounded like a chainsaw of avante garde sound- it took a bit of time for your ear, tuned to the seventies post glam, to get a grip of this fantastic sound but once you were in there you realised that the Ramones, who were playing that d.u.m.b. card to the hilt were total pop genius- the distillation of all that was great about pop.
The Beach Boys made great records with a sophisticated arrangement of instruments, the Ramones got the same result with that infernally brilliant guitar drone, those tough bass lines and the amazing simple drums that thumped their way through the songs with no drums rolls! There was also no guitar solos- how perfect is that?
It was all you needed from music- stripped away of all artifice- just the chords hammered out for the trump card, which was Joey’s voice- which sounded like a duck on helium for the first listen but was actually an emotional, powerful, idiosyncratic tool that was rock n roll perfection. The way he chewed the words up into shapes, his Brooklyn accent to the front wringing all the humour and emotion from the songs made the band. Joey sounded introverted, hurt and wounded - all the right sounds for a great pop voice. Whilst the rest of his brothers were doing their utmost to do the simplest and most perfect thing musically, Joey’s singing was a sophisticated and powerful and totally original thing.
On stage he looked incredible- seven foot of flapping limbs and long hair and those impenetrable sun glasses- it just shouldn’t work but somehow he was pure charisma, a wackoid crane fly who gripped his mic stand for comfort in the maelstrom of Ramone sound.
I remember seeing the band live at Lancaster University in the late seventies and they were stunning. A drilled military machine with Dee Dee melded to his bass copping the coolest moves ever from a bassman whilst his cohort Johnny was doing his bowl cut, thug shapes- in the middle there was Joey, turning his introverted discomfort into something really powerful.
Their whole look was perfect as well. Those Lewis leather jackets, battered blue denims and sneakers topped off with all that drilled long hair- the most perfect band as four headed animal since the Beatles. They were the coolest looking, hoodlum street gang in the world and turned their ugliness into something stunningly attractive. They were so good at the brudders’ schtick that most people actually thought they were brothers!
And how smart or dumb they were was always difficult to discern- I’ve been to the Ramones museum in Berlin, read the books and seen the film and the whole internal band dynamic does seem pretty dumb- Johnny and Joey not speaking to each other for decades, Dee Dee’s manic craziness. They could have been playing it up though- their songs were far too clever to be seriously stupid. They made three chords into hundreds of songs which is a tough trick and their detailed love of classic pop must have taken some intellectual hunting down.
Their songs were brutal and fast- sick, dark and funny as fuck. They had a great sense of humour- strange and hilarious but also peppered with Joey’s tearjerkers where he could mash his love of Spector girl group dynamics with band’s buzzsaw sound. They were a band in a hurry- banging out three albums in two years- their creativity as urgent and impatient as Dee Dee’s iconic 1234 count ins.
The band lasted for years and released a lot of albums. Their live album from 1979 is probably their best- the songs are fast and heavy without losing all that emotion- they were rumoured to have re-recorded it after the gig but who cares, it sounded amazing.
Joey, himself, was the least obvious icon of all time but whenever a guitar gets cranked through a fuzzbox and the glory of classic, guitar pop is celebrated the ghost of Joey is in the room. Every song he sang he sang perfectly. He had a beautiful voice and also had a beautiful personality. His life was complex and his autism and illnesses have been documented but somehow he turned this all into a victory and his dream of carrying the banner of all that was great about sixties pop and safeguarding it into the future was fully realised.
Joey Ramone is one of the greatest frontmen of all time and his band is treasured by everyone who really loves their rock n roll.
Their T shirt is everywhere, even worn by many who don’t know who they are but feel that their name and logo represents something really cool and hip- and they are right.
Sorry to lose you all those years ago Joey- we loved you then and we still love you now.
Top ten Ramones tracks
1. Blitzkrieg Bop
Has to be number one. For that riff (and the way its repeated twice at the beginning), for the lyrics, for Joey’s urgent vocal, for the ”Ëhey ho lets go!’ chant which has become part of rock’s lexicon.
2. Havana Affair
The Ramones at their most goofy. That weird were they being funny or were they being Republican lyrics written for the liberal Joey to sing.
Commando is even more lyrically dumb but also really funny- it also has a series of perfect chord changes and a well drilled military power.
4. Baby I Love You
Most rockers hate this one but I love it. Joey’s obsession with Phil Spector finally put in the spotlight on this cover. I also love Spector’s production on the ”ËEnd Of The Century’ album ”â the perfect escape route for the Ramones who had burned out the 1234 shots of the original albums”Â¦
5. Sheena Is A Punk Rocker
Pure pop genius, Upbeat and brisk- it had that same sort of rush of naÃÂ¯ve power of pop excitement as the early Beatles. Also really cool lyrics.
6. Now I Wanna sniff Some Glue
For the use of the word ”Ëwanna’ and its controversy seeking lyrics that detail stupid bored tenager behaviour and were probably far closer to home than the band would ever admit- and also a great example of how to utilise a chant perfectly in a song.
7. The KKK Took My Baby Away
Joey’s song about Republican voting Johnny stealing away the love of his life, twisting his pain into a funny yet perfect slice of heartbreak pop that doubled as a great punk rock anthem.
8. Surfin Bird
The Ramones, like the Cramps, knew their covers and were unfailingly brilliant at picking off the wall songs and doing fantastic new versions of them.
9. Rockaway Beach
Anbother pop gem that was alsoa great ruch of wall of sound guitars. The song is also a great example of how to make the most of simple pop dynamics with a great vocal from Joey that captures the rush of youth.
10. What A wonderful World
The lead track from Joey’s solo album recorded just before he died. Right to the end he knew how to deliver a song and like a true music fanatic he knew how to choose really unlikely songs and make them work for him.