THE RAMONES MEAN BUSINESS (1976)

by Richard Hell



The Ramones are cagey boys. Forest Hills, Queens was the first cage, now itís Manhattan. (Tomorrow, the world.) The city may be a jungle but to the Ramones it felt more like a zoo. They were all brought up in Forest Hills, a neighborhood that apart from a certain exaggeration in scale and proximity to New York City looks and feels like 9/l0thís of the populated territory of the modern USA (sounds like a German corporation). Big hatchery brown brick apartment houses along wide hot boulevards, with the spaces in between occupied by blacktop playgrounds, two story drugstores with storage space or a dentistís offices upstairs, ice cream parlors, fast food, and supermarkets. (Elvis Presley, in fact, spent much of his boyhood in a similar housing development neighborhood in Memphis.) Theyíve known each other for ten years, since their earliest teens.

They hung out at an ice cream parlor called Janís in the summer, on top floor stairwells in winter. Girls were another species. Dee Dee says, "I didnít have any girlfriend." (Now he has more than he wants. I think he figures, "Where were they when I needed them?") When the boys got really hungry for amusement they would go to the mammoth Alexanderís department store in Queens and watch people buy things. (Naturally their ambition now is to see their lp in its record department.) One last time-killer was a trek to the Empress Diner where you might be able to lay your eyes on a Vagrant. The Vagrants were Forest Hills guys and the idols of five boroughs, a rock group now best known for supplying us with Leslie West but at the time true wild stars, wrecking the stage as well as tearing the house down. Ainít it boring? Itís so boring. Itís driving me crazy just writing about it. It makes me feel so weak that if "Stranger on the Shore" came on the radio I might break into tears. The first song the Ramones wrote was "I Donít Wanna Walk Around With You," the second was "I Donít Wanna Get Involved With You," then came "I Donít Wanna Be Learned I Donít Wanna Be Tamed," soon followed by "I Donít Wanna Go Down to the Basement." So Dee Dee says, "We didnít write a positive song until 'Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue.'"

Tommy says, "Weíre frustrated. From getting up to eating breakfast... general frustrationÖ Performing creates more frustration. Music is born from it but doesnít relieve it." Though he adds that recently itís been a higher class of frustration. The music the Ramones create from these feelings is incredibly exciting. It gives you the same sort of feeling you might derive from savagely kicking in your smoothly running tv set and then finding real thousand dollar bills inside. Some of their more recent song titles are "Blitzkreig Bop," "Listen to My Heart," "Gimme Shock Treatment," "Babysitter," "Havana Affair," and "Commando." Most of these songs are comprised of six or eight lines that are repeated for two and a half minutes at which point Dee Dee yells "One Two Three Four!" and a new song begins. Following are the complete lyrics to "I Donít Wanna Go Down to the Basement":
Hey Daddio I donít wanna go down to the basement
Thereís something down there
I donít wanna goÖ Hey Romeo!
Thereís something down there

When I asked them for the lyrics it took the boys ten minutes to agree on exactly what order these sentences were sung in. Finally Joey, who must have sung it at least once a week for over a year and a half got his judgment accepted. The Ramones collaborate equally on every aspect of their songsí composition.

Joeyís an amazing guyóbuilt like a praying mantis with the coloring of Snow White, never without his oval shadesóand offstage generally grinning and if you wonder why just look in the direction heís looking and heíll comment in your ear, "Itís really sick, yíknow." He has a slight English accent for which Iím grateful because itís probably the only thing that enables him to speak at all. Onstage he wraps himself around the mike stand, and sings in this incredibly melodic vibrato-laden voice reminiscent of the best mid-sixties English pop singers. Though the Ramonesí songs are usually composed of only three or four chords with virtually no guitar soloing, the songs are placed in a class completely superior to even the most energetic of that type of power rock by the suavity of their melodies. Dee Dee is the temperamental heart-throb of the group, as you can probably tell by his picture. Johnny plays savage guitar like an athlete, frequently leaving blood on his pick guard and grimacing with determination to get through. Tommy drives the beat and is the acknowledged spokesman of the group.

I asked the Ramones what music they listened to, who were their rock and roll heroes as kids, and this is what happened: Stooges, Roy Orbison, Beatles, Dion, Hermanís Hermits (Joeyís one offer), Walker Brothers (the way they looked), Little Richard, Ricky Nelson (Dee Dee goes: !!!), Ronettes, John Lennon, Shangri-Las, Elvis, Beach BoysÖ Theyíre still rattling them off and Iím thinking Iíd better get a little more experience at this interview racket when Dee Dee figures it out: "Anybody with ten hit singles." (Thatís the truth, but Iíd figure it as Tommy heavy on Elvis and Lennon, Dee Dee on Ricky, Johnny on the Stooges, and Joey with the Hermits.)

The Ramones were among the original five or six groups drawn to CBGB in New York by Televisionís "success" there in mid-1974. By now a hundred groups must have played the club and it receives calls from all over the country from acts seeking dates simply for the prestige of being able to say theyíve appeared there. The scene is frantic and the most exciting thing happening in rock music today and probably for the next few years. The ambition level is staggering but what distinguishes the scene as exemplified in the five or six best groups (among which are the Ramones of course) is that they really mean what they are doing. Without being pretentious, theyíre not just killing time. They use the stagelights like blowtorches to burn away whatever garbage lies canít take the heat and light up whatís left.

Ideally what the Ramones want is to create hysteria in their audience. If they have a good audience they want to give more and if itís bad they play with a vengeance, so either way, they deliver.

[from Hot and Cold]

[Hell's short post mortem tribute to Dee Dee]
[1975 Dee Dee Ramone & Richard Hell photo]
[12/31/75 Ramones/Heartbreakers poster]


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