Of the countless genres in music, no group of genres may be as well respected and loved world-wide than those that fall over the broad umbrella of rock-n-roll. Of the genres that belong to rock-n-roll, and beyond, few genres are as big as punk. Throughout the years punk rock has giving the world memorable songs my memorable musicians: Social Distortion, Bad Religion, Green Day, MC5, Pennywise, and Rancid. All of the aforementioned bands have carved their musical niches in many subgenres ranging from garage to hardcore to psychobilly and more; but they all fall under the parent category of punk. So, you may ask, who is considered the fathers of punk? Unlike many other genres in music, the answer to this question is clear. The fathers of punk or none other than the legendary Queens, NY group The Ramones.
John Cummings and Thomas Erdelyi, who had both been in a garage band from 1966-1967 while attending Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York City, NY, met and became friends with Douglas Colvin, recently moved from Germany, and Jeffry Hyman.
When Cummings and Colvin requested Hyman to join a band with the in 1974 The Ramones began to take shape. The initial lineup featured Colvin on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Cummings on lead guitar, and Hyman on drums. Colvin soon switched from rhythm guitar to bass. Inspired by Paul McCartney’s pseudonym of Paul Ramon during his Silver Beatles days, Colvin was the first to adopt the name “Ramone”, calling himself Dee Dee Ramone. Dee Dee convinced the other members to take on the name and came up with the idea of calling the band the Ramones. Hyman and Cummings became Joey Ramone and Johnny Ramone, respectively.
Dee Dee soon dropped lead vocal duties and concentrated on bass guitar due his inabilities to sing and play simultaneously, Joey stepped from behind the drum kit to provide lead vocals after his failed attempt to sing and play simultaneously as well. Erdelyi then joined the band as drummer and took the pseudonym Tommy Ramone. The Ramones played before an audience for the first time on March 30, 1974, at Performance Studios. The songs they played were very fast and very short; most clocked in at under two minutes. Around this time, a new music scene was emerging in New York centered around two clubs in downtown Manhattan, Max’s Kansas City and, more famously, CBGB (usually referred to as CBGB’s). The Ramones would become staples at the now legendary CBGB’s, playing seventy-four shows there by years end. Their look was as unique as their sound, with Punk magazine founder later describing the impactful performance: “They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song…and it was just this wall of noise…. They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.”
The Ramones released their self-titled debut album in April 1976. The longest, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement”, barely surpassed two-and-a-half minutes. Punk, which was largely responsible for codifying the term for the scene emerging around CBGB, ran a cover story on the Ramones in its third issue, the same month as the record’s release. The debut LP was met with rave reviews. The Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau wrote, “I love this record—love it—even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality (Nazi especially)…. For me, it blows everything else off the radio”. Rolling Ston’s Paul Nelson described it as “constructed almost entirely of rhythm tracks of an exhilarating intensity rock & roll has not experienced since its earliest days.” And thus, just as a child kicking and screaming as it leaves the womb, punk rock was officially born.
Tommy grew tired of being on the road and left The Ramones in early 1978. His replacement would be Marc Bell, who would go by the pseudonym Marky Ramone. The band continued to make records and even had renowned producer Phil Spector produce their 1980 album End of the Century. Spector infamously held Dee Dee at gun point, forcing him to play a riff repeatedly (how punk is that!). During this time the band adopted more popular sounds compared to their earlier minimalist approach. Johnny made clear that he favored the band’s more aggressive punk material: “End of the Century was just watered-down Ramones. It’s not the real Ramones.” On their next album, Pleasant Dreams, the band began to venture into more a heavy metal territory. Johnny would contend in retrospect that this direction was a record company decision, a continued futile attempt to get airplay on American radio.
Following their next release, Subterranean Jungle, Marky was fired due to alcoholism. His replacement was Richard Reinhardt who went by Richie Ramone. The first album the Ramones recorded with Richie was Too Tough to Die in 1984, with Tommy Erdelyi and Ed Stasium returning as producers. The album marked a shift to something like the band’s original sound. In the description of Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the “rhythms are back up to jackhammer speed and the songs are down to short, terse statements.” Richie left the band in August 1987, upset that after four years in the fold he still was not getting any money from t-shirt sales. Richie was replaced by Clem Burke from Blondie, which was disbanded at the time. According to Johnny, the performances with Burke, who adopted the name Elvis Ramone, were a disaster. He was fired after two performances because his drumming could not keep up with the rest of the band. Marky, now clean and sober, returned.
Dee Dee left The Ramones as they began recording their eleventh album. He went to pursue other musical interests, including rapper under the name Dee Dee King and starting severall punk groups in the vein of The Ramones. He was replaced by Christopher Joseph Ward (C.J. Ramone), who performed with the band until they disbanded. Dee Dee would continue to write songs for The Ramones.
In 1995, the Ramones released ¡Adios Amigos!, their fourteenth studio album, and announced that they planned to disband if it was not successful. The sales were lackluster and the band set out plans to keep their promise of disbanding. The band spent late 1995 on what was promoted as a farewell tour. However, they accepted an offer to appear in the sixth Lollapalooza festival, which toured around the United States during the following summer. After the Lollapalooza tour’s conclusion, the Ramones played their final show on August 6, 1996, at the Palace in Hollywood. In addition to a reappearance by Dee Dee, the show featured several guests including Motörhead’s Lemmy, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen.
In 1995 Joey was diagnosed with lymphoma and died of the illness on April 15, 2001, in New York. In 2002, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which specifically named Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, Tommy, and Marky. At the ceremony, the surviving inductees spoke on behalf of the band. Tommy spoke first, saying how honored the band felt, but how much it would have meant for Joey. As of today, the founding members, except Tommy, have passed. Dee Dee Ramone was found dead on the evening of June 5, 2002, by his wife Barbara at his Hollywood, California apartment. An autopsy established heroin overdose as the official cause of death. On September 15, 2004, Johnny Ramone died in his Los Angeles home at age 55 after a five-year battle with prostate cancer.
The Ramones changed punk, and pop, music forever. Music historian Jon Savage writes of their debut album that “it remains one of the few records that changed pop forever.” Though their debut was just a modest commercial success, the lasting effect it had was truly grand. According to Tony James, a member of several seminal British punk bands, “Everybody went up three gears the day they got that first Ramones album. Punk rock—that rama-lama super fast stuff—is totally down to the Ramones. Bands were just playing in an MC5 groove until then.” The mark that they have left on punk music is undeniable and well documented. The Ramones also influenced musicians associated with other genres, such as heavy metal. Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett has described the importance of Johnny’s rapid-fire guitar playing style to his own musical development. Their influential mark on music is so great that in February 2011, the group was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Many bands from many genres, from punk to heavy metal to alternative rock to pop, have The Ramones to thank for inspiration and influence. Their place in musical legend is as esteemed as names like Elvis, B.B. King, The Beatles and Michael Jackson. A lot of bands may have called it quits during the years The Ramones struggled to sell records and were losing creative control in an attempt by labels to fatten the bottom line. Thnakfully, The Ramones did not. And speaking thanking The Ramones, the next time to turn on you radio dial, pop your favorite CD into your car stereo or download a hot new band that was recommended to you on your MP3 player, chances are you should thank them.