This week I finally watched “End of the Century” a 2003 documentary about the Ramones which you can watch for free here.
I’ve never really been a big fan of the band but that didn’t mean I didn’t like them. I remember the first time I heard them (Blitzkrieg Bop) in that movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. I love that song, but for some reason they still just passed by me and it was only in the last 8 or so years that I’ve come to truly appreciate them.
It was actually in 2006 when things changed. The band I played bass in at the time — the Little Lovers — were asked to play at a Ramone-a-thon and it was then that I started – or in reality – was forced to pay attention. Acutely.
Ramone-a-thons were organised by Tim – that beautiful, beautiful man from Tym’s Guitars – and they featured maybe 20 or 30 bands all smashing out Ramones songs, with very short sets, over about 12 hours. They’d been running for years and years previous so it was quite an honour to be up there.
So us Little Lovers suddenly had to learn a bunch of Ramones songs and initially I thought that would be a piece-of-piss. Cause, the songs were all pretty straight-forward punk rock — right? There didn’t seem to be any technicality to them.
But how wrong I was. We soon discovered there was nothing “straight-forward” about a Ramones song. We were rehearsing and rehearsing trying so hard to get the time changes right, and then when that eventually seemed to be covered, Wintah and I would get the chords all wrong. For example, if there were 4 chords in the entire song, those 4 chords would on the surface appear to be structured the same way throughout, but we soon discovered there was always a trick to the order of them later in the song which constantly threw us. And added to that a lot of detail found its way into the typical Ramones song that was easily missed (or dismissed) on a casual listen.
Anyway – it goes without saying I had a whole new appreciation for the band after that. I remember coming up to Tim on the eve of the 2006 Ramone-a-thon and saying, “Holy shit man, these songs are fucking HARD.” And he laughed and agreed but there was a look in his eye like he had heard these very same words from all the deadshit musos just like me that had come before playing at their first Ramone-a-thon.
So getting back to the film. It was actually quite a story. They were all such characters. I was genuinely surprised and bewildered by the fact this band functioned for so long, or more appropriately – dysfunctioned.
Johnny was such a disciplined robot, not to mention an asshole. The bit where he has to ask Linda about whether a power-struggle had developed in the band (after Linda, who had been Joey’s girlfriend, left him for Johnny) and later he says he felt bad when Joey died and asked why he felt that way – it was like he had never even wondered up until that point.
And so you just wanted to give Joey a big, fat hug and say, “I feel for you buddy.” Another revelation was the fact he had OCD and was so fragile – both physically and mentally. But then he kinda came out of his cave. All he needed was confidence and rock n roll gave that to him. He initially had confidence on stage cause he was kinda “acting”, but when he got used to the praise and the attention he almost realised he was actually valuable and could stand up for himself. If you look at this story and wonder which of the characters have that “arc” – that was Joey.
Dee Dee was the definitive cartoon junkie, but also their main song-writer and almost the band’s rock, though he hated it. The moment he walks off down the corridor outside the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame after-party – tragic. Even though it makes me gag just to say it – but it was “poignant”.
Then Tommy and pretty much all the other drummers — even Marky — were solid and just a bit dumb-struck by the intense politics going on around them.
The other thing that interested me about their story was how they felt quite cheated – something I can totally relate to. Like they had been pioneers, yet never really made much money out of it. They made more money from t-shirts than records and playing live. There was also an overwhelming sense that rock n roll was not just a job, it was a fucking shit job.
One last thing, I loved their gimmicks. I think rock n roll is about 50% gimmick. A good gimmick differentiates you from other bands and internally it binds you. And the Ramones had a bunch of gimmicks. They had the uniform — like they were modern-day Beatles – but more suburban. They all had the same surname – like a family and they had Dee Dee counting in the songs almost to scientifically demonstrate how fast they were. And thus they had ultra-short sets with almost even shorter songs and no gaps between these songs when they played live.
And now Johnny is dead. The only Ramones left are Tommy and the other drummers. There’s an exerpt from Johnny’s posthumous autobiography in a New York magazine I read recently. He was a list-maker (just like me) and quite anal and methodical. But we knew that already. He also liked cats.
And just saying, but he has some pretty wise insights. He has a story to tell which I suspect anyone in rock n roll would get a hell of a lot out of. Even though he was an asshole.
From New York Magazine – Johnny rates the Ramones’ albums