Friday, April 15, 2011

The 10th Anniversary of Joey Ramone's Death

It was ten years ago today that a rock 'n' roll legend died. On 15 April 2001 Joey Ramone, lead vocalist of The Ramones, passed at the age of 49. The cause was lymphoma.

Joey Ramone was born Jeffry Hyman on 9 May 1951 in Queens, New York. He grew up listening to The Beatles, The Who, the girl groups Phil Spector  had produced, and later David Bowie and The Stooges.His mother encouraged Joey's interest in music. When he was thirteen years old Jeffry Hyman began playing the drums.

It was in 1974 that Jeffry Hyman founded The Ramones with John Cummings and Douglas Colvin. The band's name came about when Douglas Colvin adopted the stage name "Dee Dee Ramone," drawing upon a stage name used by Paul McCartney in the early days of The Beatles, "Paul Ramon." Jeffry Hyman then became Joey Ramone and John Cummings then became Johnny Ramone. Naturally, the band was named "The Ramones." Thomas Erdelyi, who had played with Joey in various bands, became the group's manager. Initially Dee sang lead and played bass, while Joey played drums. Eventually Dee Dee found that playing bass and singing at the same time was difficult for him. It would be Thomas Erdelyi who would suggest that Joey become lead vocalist. Thomas Erdelyi then took over drums and became "Tommy Ramone."

It was on 16 August 1974 that The Ramones would play at the famous club CGGB in New York City for the first time. The band soon became regulars at the club and they also started to receive a good deal of recognition. This was perhaps for good reason, as The Ramones were a sharp contrast to the rock music fashionable at the time. Unlike many of the progressive rock bands of the time, The Ramones played songs that were very short, usually only two minutes or less. Unlike the glam rock artists of the time, they eschewed sequins and spandex for leather jackets and blue jeans. In fact, The Ramones were regarded as being at the forefront of a new movement in rock called "punk," although in my mind it is debatable whether The Ramones themselves were actually a punk rock band.

By late 1975 The Ramones would be signed to Sire Records. Their first album, Ramones, was released in Feburary 1976. The album's longest song was "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement," which was barely over two and a half minutes. The album would not prove to be a smash hit by any stretch of the imagination. It only reached 111 on the Billboard albums chart. Neither of the singles, "Blitzkrieg Bop" nor "Beat on the Brat," even charted. The Ramones' next , Leave Home would prove to be even less successful, but their third album, Rocket to Russia, would surpass the first two albums. In fact, Rocket to Russia featured "Sheena Was a Punk Rocker," the first Ramones single to enter the Billboard Hot 100. While commercial success escaped The Ramones, however, they proved to be one of the most influential bands of the time, particularly among punk rockers.

While The Ramones had a huge impact on punk rock, in my humble opinion they were not themselves a punk rock band. As a genre punk rock is defined by short songs, instrumentation stripped down to the bare essentials (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums), and such simplicity in form that it can often be played with three chords. While The Ramones certainly did perform short songs (although their songs increased in length as they went along) and they certainly did rely on the basic format of lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, their music was hardly simple. They can and did play more than three chords. Indeed, The Ramones were musically sophisticated enough that their first album utilised recording techniques used by both The Beatles and symphony orchestras.

Of course, punk rock is not simply defined by a back to basics approach to rock 'n' roll. It is also characterised by an anti-authoritarian, nearly anti-establishment attitude that at times approaches nihilism. Indeed, this anti-authoritarianism is at times even directed towards influential figures in the history of rock music. The Clash song "1977" characterises this attitude with the line, "No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977." In 1977, when Glen Matlock was booted out of The Sex Pistols, Andrew McLaren sent a telegram to NME not only clarifying that Mr. Matlock was no longer part of the band, but he also alleged that Mr. Matlock had been kicked out of the band "because he went on too long about Paul McCartney.... The Beatles was too much." A few months later Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols would repeat this claim. While The Clash and The Sex Pistols evinced disrespect towards rock's greatest idols, The Ramones held them in a place of extreme reverence, even more than many fans. Indeed, the band's name was taken from a stage name used by Paul McCartney. Indeed, "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" is a virtual hymn to the early days or rock music, citing Jerry Lee Lewis and John Lennon among others. The Ramones had such a love for rock music and its history that they even covered a bubblegum song--"Indian Giver," originally performed by The 1910 Fruitgum Company. The Sex Pistols or Black Flag would have never done this. As to being anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment, The Ramones were strictly apolitical. Indeed, Joey was a liberal, while Johnny was a conservative--something that often brought them to heads.

I then believe that The Ramones were not a punk rock band, despite the claims that some that they were a first. Instead, The Ramones were a garage band like The Troggs, The Stooges, and The New York Dolls who had a huge impact on punk rock.  The Ramones were not rebels against mainstream rock music, they simply embraced the rock music of an era earlier than the Seventies. This was the reason they would prove to be a huge influence on not only punk rock, but on power pop, heavy metal, and, of course, garage rock to come. Much of the reason The Ramones would prove to be such an influence would be Joey Ramone.

Joey Ramone grew up listening to The Beatles, The Who, and Phil Spector's girl groups. Indeed, he shared his birthday with his idol, Pete Townshend, leader of The Who. Joey took that love of The Beatles, The Who, Phil Spector's various girl groups, and other early rock legends and brought it to the Ramones. It was largely because of Joey's love of early rock, as well as the other members of The Ramones, that they played short, often catchy songs. Indeed, the influence of Phil Spector can even be seen in their first album, on which they offer a Wall of Sound with only four instruments.

In fact, in my humble opinion, Joey may have been the best song writer of The Ramones. At the very least, he composed most of my favourite songs by The Ramones: "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "I Wanna Be Sedated," and "The KKK Took My Baby Away." Joey had a gift for writing basic, catchy songs that few others possess. And his style was not limited to garage rock. "The KKK Took My Baby Away" has a harmony that is close to power pop (here I must also point out that its riff resembles that of Cheap Trick's "'E's a Whore").

While Joey was not a great vocalist as far as his range is concerned, he was certainly a distinctive one. His vocals echoed that of early rockabilly, full of hiccups, snarls, and cracking. At the same time, however, he could be melodic. A perfect example of this is their cover of "The Shape of Things to Come" from the album Acid Eaters, perhaps the closest the group ever came to pure power pop.

Here I must note that I respected Joey for more than his talent as a rock performer and a songwriter. Joey was also a man of conviction. While The Ramones as a band eschewed politics, Joey always spoke his mind. Indeed, the one instance in which The Ramones performed an openly political song would be one written by Joey. "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" criticised Ronald Reagan for his visit to the former Nazi concentration camp. He would also join other rock artists in supporting Steven Van Zandt's activist group, United Against Apartheid, in boycotting the South African resort Sun City. Like many rock musicians, Joey also stood against the Parents Music Resource Centre in its efforts to censor rock music. While I cannot say I always agreed with Joey, I must say I admired the fact that he stood by his convictions

I must confess I did not cry for days on end when Joey Ramone died, as I did when John Lennon, George Harrsion, John Entwistle,and Doug Fieger died, but I did mourn him a good deal. The Ramones were a part of my youth, and I could not help but feel sad at his passing. My own thought then was that The Ramones were over. I thought that even more so when Dee Dee Ramone passed several years later. For me Joey and Dee Dee were the heart of The Ramones. They were the band's best composers and the ones who brought the most to the band's plate. As such they became two of the most influential rock performers of all time. Today I told my brother it does not seem like it has been ten years since Joey Ramone died. Perhaps it is because that, through his music, he is still with us.

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