You come upon a certain type of music and all of the sudden you realize it’s something a little bit different than what everybody else is doing. Then you just work hard and long. It’s hard work and trying your best not to compromise to any outside pressure. Try and keep doing what you really believe in. Compromise as little as possible. You gotta fight it as much as you can…”
story/interview by john richen
Joey Ramone died on April 15th.
The news of Joey’s lost battle with lymphoma brings back a flood of memories including the time I meet the Ramones in late 1984 before a show they play at Portland’s Starry Night club. They are just beginning a tour in support of a new record, Too Tough To Die, an album that the band believes reestablishes the powerful sound from their earliest recordings which have been lost on the previous three records: End Of The Century, Pleasant Dreams and Subterranean Jungle. It is one of those weird situations where you’re escorted back stage a half-hour before the show with a micro cassette recorder, tape a brief interview, in this case with Johnny, and then get the hell out. Not the ideal set-up for a conversation, but it is the best the magazine can manage in the circumstances.
I wind my way down flights of stairs backstage at the Starry Night (there are multiple below stage level in that cavern). There is really no entourage to speak of — the only folks I run into down there are actual Ramones and a curt manager who I dutifully follow into the backstage area. Wow! There’s Dee Dee sitting on a stool, giving a smile and quick nod. Marky is missing. As I move into the dressing room a shadow falls over me.
“Hey! What’s up? ” I recognize the voice. There is all 6’6″ of Joey Ramone, complete with rose-tinted shades and leather biker jacket, sticking his hand out. A cartoon come to life. As if he just jumped from the cover of Road To Ruin, grinning and peeking through those little pink ovals. And it registers instantly, that this is one of those moments. The ones you never forget. Standing face to face with a man that you know – are just fucking sure — helped to change the face of rock music forever.
I shake the hand. “So cool to meet you.”
“Johnny’s in back,” the manager nudges me into a room further back. “Don’t got all day here.”
Joey laughs, waves me off.
Johnny is of equal legend and rock and roll pedigree. He is also, however, all business. Which explains why the burden of dealing with the interviewer falls on his shoulders. He nods, cordial the same way you’re cordial to the guy who’s about to give you a root canal. Snapping out of fanboy mode I realize there is maybe ten minutes here tops, and stick a Tandy microphone on the stool between us, peppering the guitarist with questions as quickly as they come.
Sadly the long tape is gone now. But looking back on the transcript so many years later I have to laugh. It’s a Polaroid of the no-bullshit philosophy of the Ramones. Having gotten used to dialogues with artists willing to converse for hours, getting a five sentence answer out of Johnny Ramone feels like no small triumph. In the end our conversation is fast, hard and distilled – no filler. Just like the music discussed. Perfect really.
25 minutes after this interview is completed I am front-stage holding on for dear life as the band rips through another of their ferocious live sets. To the right Dee Dee counts off as the crowd in front of him pulses and erupts. Center stage Joey leans into the microphone stand as in front of me Johnny angrily punts a stage diver off the Starry Night’s platform while buzzsaw-riffing the breaks of “Havana Affair” on his White Mosrite without missing a fucking chord. The sheer power of the moment is astounding.
Seventeen years later, it’s still my enduring memory of the Ramones: four tough hombres kicking our collective ass. Never missing a note. No filler, no bullshit — just playing loud, fast crazy rock and roll the way it is meant to be played.
John Richen: You have just recently released your 8th record titled Too Tough To Die. Anything particular you were striving for when you recorded it?
Johnny Ramone: Well, we tried to make it harder and more raunchy. The last couple albums were kind of soft for us.
John: The band thought they were soft?
Johnny: They were soft. There isn’t anything to think. The first five records were fine, and then came Phil Spector. That’s when soft started.
John: So you weren’t happy with Phil Spector, with what he did to the Ramones sound?
Johnny: Things went wrong with Phil Spector. Things went wrong for the next three albums. This new album we try to sound harder. That’s the feeling we always try to get. Look at our first five albums.
John: What was the major problem with Spector’s approach?
Johnny: He’s talking outside pressure, he’s talking about other things. It’s not just him. Forget about him. It doesn’t matter. Let’s just say the last three albums were a little soft for what we should be doing.
John: You felt some outside pressure as to how the Ramones should progress as a band?
Johnny: Oh yeah, you always get pressure to, you know, come up with something. But you can’t be worrying about that kind of stuff. The record companies don’t know what they are doing. I mean, they’re ideal with you when you are a success. But that’s not what the Ramones do best. We want to put out records for our fans and do what we like best. What we’re identified with is hard, fast, crazy songs and we’re not worried about any sort of commercialism. We can worry about commercialism on one song on the album, but the other ten songs should be left alone. So we make them hard.
John: The Ramones have been together–
Johnny: For ten years now.
John: Within that span of time you have achieved pretty much a cult status among your fans. Ramones fans are a tough breed. With that sort of allegiance, what is your attitude regarding continued success for the band?
Johnny: You don’t want any Ramones fans to lose respect for your product, you know, become a joke like other bands. I can’t respect a lot of bands anymore, bands that should have quit a long time ago. When you do quit, you just want to go out with respect, to get out before you start slipping away.
John: I understand that your ex-drummer Tommy (Tommy Erdelyi) produced Too Tough To Die. Has that enabled you to get at more of the gut feeling of the band? Are you happy with the sound of things this time around?
Johnny: Yeah, I guess. I mean he was in the band. He understood it better ’cause we used to talk about these things. It’s a lot different from someone who just doesn’t understand what you’re talking about.
John: Like your last producers…
Johnny: Yeah. They don’t understand you. When you tell them that you want to put out a good Ramones album, they don’t know what you’re talking about. They all think “hits” and that sort of thing.
John: All considered you seem to have stayed true to the qualities which fans identified you with from the start.
Johnny: Well that’s real important. The show is as good as always. It’s better than ever. Like I said, I was disappointed with the last three albums. I felt that they were soft. I mean you can’t have Graham Gouldman from 10cc trying to produce the Ramones. What does he know about the Ramones?
John: Do you see Too Tough To Die as a sort of renaissance for the band?
Johnny: I think we’re re-establishing ourselves with the kids who felt we had gone soft.
John: What about the whole visual aspect of rock music in the ’80’s? How does the recent video phenomenon affect the Ramones?
Johnny: Well, I guess you have to put out a video alright. You talk about MTV, where if you get a video shown, it’s like getting played on the radio for the whole country. Everybody gets to see you in different cities.
John: Do you find that at all restrictive in terms of what you’re trying to say as a band?
Johnny: No. You just have to find the best video-maker that you can, and hopefully they’ll make a decent video. We’ve made a lot of videos, it’s just that MTV doesn’t show them, that’s all. We did two for the last album, “Psycho Therapy” and “Time Has Come Today” and one for the new album–a whole bunch. But the video thing is really ridiculous when you get right down to it. It’s all coliseum bands, and we don’t ever wanna be a coliseum band. Besides, you never get paid for your video work. They show them, but you never get paid for them.
John: At the same time, you can’t deny video’s impact on todays music scene.
Johnny: Oh yeah, it’s really huge. It’s become quite ridiculous.
John: You don’t like it?
Johnny: I don’t watch it. The kids might like it. They might love it. I don’t know, I don’t watch it. I don’t put the radio on either, so it makes no difference. I mean, I guess there are some good radio stations, say in California for instance. They tend to be more open-minded and that’s alright.
John: Ten years is a long time for a band to be together. People must wonder what the key or secret to your success is–
Johnny: You just have got to be lucky. You come upon a certain type of music and all of the sudden you realize it’s something a little bit different than what everybody else is doing. Then you just work hard and long. It’s hard work and trying your best not to compromise to any outside pressure. Try and keep doing what you really believe in. Compromise as little as possible. You gotta fight it as much as you can.