From the punk oral history Please Kill Me to Joey and Johnny Ramone on Howard Stern, the mythology around the Ramones lately seems to emphasize failure—the stadiums they didn’t pack, their eventual hatred for one another, endless tours trapped inside a persona they’d outgrown, Dee Dee’s junkie exile to Europe. The indignities never end: Spike Lee sets a film in New York in 1977 and his punk rocker protagonist prefers Who’s Next to “Rockaway Beach”? There’s a new double-CD compilation just out, Hey Ho Let’s Go! It had better suffice because Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Road to Ruin are all out of print.
Yet to the postpunk kids who’d eventually brew up alternative, the Ramones weren’t merely a success; they were Year Zero. Those ecstatic bar chords had long since replaced Chuck Berry riffs as the first thing a rocker learned to play, the only thing needed to play. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Pinhead,” and “Teenage Lobotomy” were homilies: the stoopid Bible. The ’70s Ramones never flagged or compromised, despite recording for a major label. They had hits, or what got played in high school dances like hits, especially the new wave conquest “I Wanna Be Sedated.” They’d even made a movie, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, where their music, compared to as vital a force as pizza, saved the day for everybody.
My point isn’t to recite a list of accomplishments overfamiliar to the minority and paltry to the mass. It’s to explain how, if you were young at a certain time and oriented in a certain way, the Ramones replaced the Stones as the universal medium: if you didn’t love them, you couldn’t love rock and roll. (Is there such a group today? Unfortunately not; the Beastie Boys come closest.) Yes, it was about loving rock and roll, not some Situationist exposé; that, as it applies to American punk, can never be insisted on enough. When the Ramones covered “Surfin’ Bird” or “Let’s Dance” they weren’t being arch. They were filling their tank, and pointing out where others might do the same. They defined the essentials of rock and became rock’s essence.
But weren’t they a joke, the same incredibly smart dumb joke, repeated over and over until no one could bear it any longer? Hey Ho says decide for yourself. Quibbles: excerpts from the first four albums should have occupied all of disc one, or a three-CD set could have included their entirety in a recapitulation of the two, now deleted, All the Stuff (and More) volumes. Not including “We’re a Happy Family” is especially insane. The 95 minutes given their remaining stuff are a bit loose: more selections from the dismal Halfway to Sanity than the reputable Subterranean Jungle. But unlike 1988’s chronologically jumbled, patchy Ramones Mania this is a coherent, comprehensive overview—with plot twists, even.
Everyone who took the name Ramone brought something to the band. Joey, the Frankenstein lead singer, had a hippie past and dreams of pop glory. Dee Dee, the bassist and one true punk, wrote about selling his ass to men for drug money on “53rd & 3rd.” Tommy, the drummer, coproducer, and first to leave, bequeathed ambition and the most impatient of beats, returning to kick the boys into gear on 1984’s Too Tough To Die. Guitarist Johnny hated all things progressive, political or musical, and instituted draconian cool rules: a uniform look, short fast songs, face the audience while playing. He describes his sound in the notes as “Pure, white rock ‘n’ roll, with no blues influence.” Nothing the Ramones did had a greater effect: Beasties aside, the white Negro stance largely disappeared from the rock underground for two decades.
Instead of making like Micks, the Ramones fused their factions into a cartoon: the glue-sniffing runt who’d either beat you up or moon under your window. I Wanna and I Don’t Wanna. That was the first album, the setup. Turned out the real joke wasn’t what world-class puds they were; the real joke was that, as the self-aware end product of every sick urge no democratic consumer could resist, they were destined to take over. By Leave Home, they were campaigning, with a mascot, the Pinhead, and the bald eagle clutching a bat on their homegrown version of the national seal. By “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” the victory lap Rocket to Russia, and the Rock ‘N’ Roll High School film, they had won, Gabba over Abba.
What do you mean, Rocket never charted higher than 49? There are two ways to respond to this real-world indifference. The Ramones lived with it. They kept touring because onstage they were kings, gobbing out classics like they’d never run out of new ones. But after “The KKK Took My Baby Away” and “Psycho Therapy” in the early ’80s they pretty much did. The race for office was over; even the good songs would no longer be stump speeches. In “It’s Not My Place (in the 9 to 5 World),” Joey exulted about his celebrity friends: Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, UHF host Uncle Floyd; guess who he stayed tight with? Producers worked hard to make the Ramones sound as standard-issue as Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” or General Public’s “Tenderness.” But they never even got a fluke like James Brown’s “Living in America.”
For a moment in the Reagan years, Dee Dee and Joey seemed to wake up; they wrote “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” about this B-movie crud they’d seen on TV whose blitheness about Nazis incriminated every pop pose they’d ever clung to—including considerable blitheness about Nazis. Johnny got mad and insisted they retitle the song and never do anything like that again. So, before and after he stopped playing in the band in 1989, Dee Dee concentrated on laments that spun “I Don’t Want To Live This Life (Anymore)” against “I Wanna Live.” They dominate Hey Ho‘s second disc, a creepy solo album in disguise. “Pet Sematary” and “Poison Heart” are wrenching; imagine the ones that were left off, like “Worm Man” and “Eat That Rat.”
Yet there’s a second way to handle the reality, which people choose all the time; you can opt to live in a world where the Ramones did become president. Sonic Youth put a medley of Ramones covers into their set to rev up for their late-’80s rock detour. Frank Black sang “I Heard Ramona Sing” (“if they ever retire, I hope they pull a Menudo”) to steel himself for the long post-Pixies night to come. Courtney Love swears on her current single, “If the world is so wrong/Yeah you can break them all/With one song,” the music swiping the bridge and fervor of “Bonzo Goes.” And when Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker belted out “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” she thrilled me more than a dozen Donnas could because she wasn’t just girling up the lyrics; she was declaring herself a candidate.
Accepting every Ramones dream as the outright truth is a joke, too—a put-on. But a lot of punk works that way. The fantasy of the world put right is at least as powerful as the vengeful need to imagine it shaken apart. These aren’t opposing impulses, they hades of the same color, which is why so many angry rockers have found sweet relief in Ramonesland. Their legacy wasn’t just that anyone could do it, or a sound as easily reproduced as fire. It was a surreality that could be conjured when reality wouldn’t do, that had to be honored, for year after relentless year if necessary. For the band and so many who loved them, the joke had become a calling.