The complete history of the four weirdest kids in Forest Hills, New York
Tommy Erdelyi didn’t know quite what to expect when he arrived for the Ramones’ first band practice. Guitarist John Cummings and bass player Doug Colvin had bought their instruments just the week before, meanwhile the only thing any of them knew about drummer Jeffrey Hyman was that he was a fan of The Stooges and the New York Dolls. But when they had all convened at Performance Space Studio in New York on January 28, 1974, Erdelyi was astonished to discover the existence of two brand new songs. “I was shocked because not only were they original but I’d never heard songs like this before, they were so bizarre,” remembers Erdelyi, the only surviving original Ramone. “I saw them as very artistic. One was ‘I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You’ and the other was ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Involved With You’, which was the same song with slightly different lyrics.”
The formula the Ramones laid down that afternoon on E 20th St and Broadway served them for the rest of the decade – a busy and exciting time for the band during which they recorded five classic albums and also helped define the stylistic parameters for a new genre of music. They were called punks, but if the Ramones looked tough and acted dumb they were a hard act to pigeonhole. Birthed in New York’s CBGB’s scene, they shared a dense knowledge of popular culture and rock music that they distilled into minimalist pop poetry, reducing musical and lyrical concepts to their base elements with pop art economy. They wanted to be The Bay City Rollers, but they looked like The Velvet Underground and played faster, louder and more intensely than anybody around. It was genius but America didn’t want to know. Now, the legacy – and logo – of the Ramones is everywhere. “If the Ramones were still around they’d be playing stadiums,” says Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye. “They became the template for punk rock – very fast eighth notes, call-and-response lyrics, deliberate dumbness, incredible propulsion.” Erdelyi sighs, “We were influential in more ways than a lot of people realise. I always thought eventually everybody would catch up with us. I didn’t realise it would take 30 years.”
Thomas Erdelyi was born in 1952 in Budapest but his family moved to America, settling in Forest Hills, a middle-class New York suburb where Erdelyi would soon bump into some like-minded souls.
“I met Johnny [Cummings] at my first day of high school in 1964,” says Erdelyi. “He was charismatic, outgoing, holding court at the lunch table. I had a feeling that one day he’d develop a cult around him.”
The pair bonded over music. Also on the scene was a lanky, gawky kid, Jeffrey Hyman, who Erdelyi met at a jam session: “I played guitar, he was drumming and didn’t say a word but I always saw him around – he was so unusual-looking you couldn’t miss him.” A year later, an army brat called Doug “Dee Dee” Colvin moved to the neighbourhood from Germany, where he told his new friends he sold Nazi paraphernalia to buy morphine. “He would tell these great stories that we later found out were kind of tall tales,” says Erdelyi.
All four loved pop music and Cummings and Erdelyi formed a garage band, Tangerine Puppets, with Cummings on bass. After they broke up in 1967, Cummings sold his guitars and drifted into dope-smoking delinquency, often in league with the impish Colvin. “Johnny was bad,” says Erdelyi. “He did things like drop TV sets off roofs. He was trying to scare people but he could have killed them. Eventually he turned it round.”
Erdelyi remained in music, playing in bands with another local boy, Monte Melnick, while also working as an engineer at the city’s Record Plant studio. “And I stayed in touch with John. I thought he should be in a band, he had such charisma. I kept encouraging him to take up music when he was working on construction sites.” Tired of seeing serious, untouchable bands play endless solos, the pair went nuts over The Stooges before discovering the New York Dolls. “They were so different,” enthuses Erdelyi. “They weren’t virtuosos but they were the most exciting thing I’d seen for years. I thought that if John could put a band together they could do something because they didn’t need to be amazing players.”
Cummings bought a $50 Mosrite guitar from Manny’s on 48th St in January 1974. “It didn’t even have a case, he had to carry it around in a shopping bag,” recalls Erdelyi. “He talked Dee Dee into getting a bass. I thought this was great, they’d put a band together and I’d be manager. We put Jeffrey on drums because he had a set and looked right. They were a trio, with Johnny on guitar and Dee Dee on bass and singing.”
The band wrote out a list of 40 possible names before agreeing on the Ramones – Dee Dee took it from Paul Ramone, a pseudonym Paul McCartney used in the early days of The Beatles. In the first of several brilliant creative decisions, the band decided to adopt Ramone as a collective surname – Cummings became Johnny Ramone, Colvin was Dee Dee Ramone and Hyman was Joey Ramone. People assumed they were brothers. “It created a sense of unity, a bond of sorts,” Joey would say. “We might have got it from the Walker Brothers, but we liked it as an idea,” admits Erdelyi, and the name went to the heart of his emerging grand plan. “What we were doing was almost like a concept. I realised that what you needed wasn’t musicianship, what you needed was ideas. Anything that worked, we kept. A lot of things were discarded, we were dropping things left and right – if it didn’t work, boom, it was out. We were very conscious about what felt right.”
The Ramones made their debut on March 30, 1974 at Performance Space, the studio Erdelyi ran with old schoolfriend Monte Melnick. A chaotic set concluded with Dee Dee stepping on the neck of his bass and breaking it.
“Oh my God, they were raw,” remembers Melnick, who attended those early rehearsals. “The Ramones were so bad, forget about it. It was painful.” In front of around 30 friends, the band blasted out seven brutishly brief songs, all written by themselves with self-explanatory, brattish, titles – “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement”, “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You”, “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, “I Don’t Wanna Be Learned/I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed”, “I Don’t Wanna Get Involved With You”, “I Don’t Like Nobody That Don’t Like Me” and “Succubus”.
Inevitably, there were teething problems. “Joey’s hands would blister up and start bleeding, and after every song his drums would fall apart,” explains Erdelyi. “After two or three songs Dee Dee would get hoarse so Joey would sing, and he had a really good voice. I thought Joey would look good as a lead singer because he wasn’t the cliché of a lead singer. We tried out new drummers and eventually the guys said I should play drums. My drums locked into what Johnny was doing on the guitar. All of a sudden the sound of the Ramones came together.” Erdelyi became Tommy Ramone, the Ramones were a quartet.
Even at this early stage, the band were developing their trademarks. Dee Dee introduced songs with a bellowed “1-2-3-4”, Tommy drummed like a guitarist, Johnny played chainsaw guitar, all thunderous down-strokes and unique in style, while gangling hairball Joey sang crazy, funny songs in a weird Brooklyn-mockney yelp. “From very early, he sang with this strange British accent,” laughs Erdelyi. “I don’t know where it came from, maybe his love of Herman’s Hermits, but we encouraged it, we thought it was cool because it was different.” The content of the songs was also unusual. “We liked horror comics, B-movies, Mad magazine,” lists Erdelyi.
“At that time, everybody was so serious that anybody who used humour couldn’t be taken seriously. They thought we were retarded and on the surface, it might have seemed that way. You had to have intellect to get the Ramones. We had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and all forms of culture. We had our tastes and they’d get filtered and the crap thrown out.”
On August 16, 1974 the Ramones made their debut as a four-piece at CBGB’s in the Bowery. “It was under a flophouse where you could get a cot for $1.65,” says Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. “There’d always be passed-out bums on the sidewalk outside. We found this place and started to play every Sunday. We decided to do double features, two bands alternating two sets each. There was dogshit on the stage, and urine and wine dripping from the ceiling, but it was an incubator.”
Bands treated CBGB’s as a live rehearsal space, with an audience full of fellow musicians including members of Blondie, Talking Heads, the Heartbreakers, Patti Smith’s band and Television. The Ramones were regulars, working on their stage show almost as diligently as they worked on their songs. Soon, they had developed a uniform of sorts – leather jackets, jeans, trainers and Beatles haircuts. “It was a bit constructed,” notes The Damned’s drummer Rat Scabies. “But if only one of them dressed like that, nobody would have noticed. They realised a small collective makes a louder noise.”
Roberta Bayley, a photographer who was dating Richard Hell, worked the door at CBGB’s while Television were performing. “I first saw the Ramones at Performance Space Studio on 20th Street with Richard. It was like a showcase and they were in a very primitive state. Then they started playing CBGB’s, opening for Television. At first, it seemed like a comic act. You couldn’t believe what you were seeing. They were very simplistic and their songs were always very short, fast and there weren’t many of them. But they went down great because there were only 14 people there. That’s really not an exaggeration, that’s how many people were there in those days. We all knew each other. From very early on they were in leather, although there are photos of Johnny in gold lamé pants before they found the uniform.”
Marc Bell, drummer for Wayne County’s band, caught one of those early CBGB’s gigs. “They weren’t fully developed image-wise, John and Joey were in satin pants and Dee Dee had these shirts with the collar buttoned high. The next time I saw them, they were in brand new leather jackets. They were sloppy, they had to stop songs and go back to recount the intro, they’d argue about songs, but that’s how it was, we were there to hone our skills.”
“Those early shows were chaos,” Erdelyi agrees. “They acted like The Three Stooges at times.”
“They were complex, strange, mutant personalities,” adds Lenny Kaye. “The fact they could get together and make music is a great triumph of what music exists for. It’s a place to channel your weirdness into something that is magical, and the Ramones were certainly magical.”
“They were all dazzlingly intelligent and that manifested itself in radically different ways,” says Danny Fields, who later became their manager. “Tommy was quiet but very organised. He loved detail. Dee Dee pretended to be dumb and crazy. He was crazy but not dumb, but liked being seen as out-of-control. He was the clown everybody wanted to fuck. He was a great songwriter and a great poet in his bizarre, very funny, very charming, way. Joey was one of the strangest people I ever knew, so full of irony. I could never work out whether he meant something, was being droll or was just rolling it around in his incredible mind. Johnny was ferociously smart and strict, definitively scrupulous. He could be cruel, mean, difficult, but he had a superb sense of justice and he was always right, as unpleasant as it often was to be on the end of one of his lectures. It was like the four weirdest kids in the neighbourhood and they hated each other right from the beginning, the way teenagers hate each other.”
For now, though, the band were focusing on tightening their set, making it all muscle, no fat. “They had rules,” explains Melnick, by then their road manager. “They never tuned onstage and they never talked between songs. It was 1-2-3-4 song, 1-2-3-4 song after song after song. I’d hang up their jackets after the show and they’d be soaking wet with sweat. Sometimes the next day they still weren’t dry.”
“It requires a great deal of physical strength to play those downstrokes for half-an-hour,” notes Kaye. “It’s exhausting to keep that sense of metric propulsion going.”
“Over 23 minutes Led Zeppelin couldn’t match them,” says Richard Lloyd.
As 1975 progressed, CBGB’s began to draw larger crowds. The club’s founder, Hilly Kristal, had settled a dispute with Village Voice and was at last able to advertise gigs. In July, he launched the Unsigned Band Festival, whose lineup included the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads. The festival was covered by the music press; the Ramones were getting noticed.
“I’d watched them develop,” confirms Sire Records producer Craig Leon. “By summer ’75 I decided it was time to get my bosses along to see them. The root of all these punk bands was The Fugs, who were poets and beatniks who played music, and that tie-in with the New York art scene and the folk tradition of New York – folk in the sense of music from the streets being played back to the people, like The Fugs and The Velvet Underground – was important to me. I saw the Ramones as an extension of that, as well as a return to the cool record of the 1950s, Sun Studio and Eddie Cochran. There was this raw energy and they were also hysterically funny. Plus they wrote catchy songs. It was all the things rock and roll wasn’t at that time. I didn’t see it as a breakthrough, just something that was radically different. We thought they would give Bay City Rollers a run for their money.”
Another admirer was Danny Fields, former manager of Lou Reed, the Stooges and The Doors who now wrote for Soho Weekly News. After prompting from Erdelyi – and a tip-off from fellow writer Lisa Robinson – Fields made the trip to the Bowery. “I was overwhelmed,” he remembers. “The first song I heard was ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement’. I thought it was a brilliant idea for a song. I’m not a lyric guy, but I couldn’t miss this one – it’s the only sentence in the song. I wanted to have a successful management venture because all my previous ones had been with lunatics, so I met them after the show. Meetings at CBGB’s always took place on the sidewalk because that way you could hear each other even if you had to kick the bums out the way. I told them I wanted to be their manager. Johnny said, ‘OK, but we need $3,500 to buy drums.’ I flew to Florida, told my mother I needed to make an investment and she wrote me a cheque.”
Fields enlisted a co-manager, Linda Stein – wife of Sire Records’ boss Seymour Stein. After her husband saw the band, Sire offered the Ramones a singles deal. There was a plan to record a compilation of CBGB’s bands called “New York’s Finest”, but Leon wanted more. “Seymour wanted to make two singles, but I said I could make a whole album for the same cost. What’s the point in setting up the Ramones for five songs when you can get an album? There had been inklings in the British press that something was happening in New York and Sire felt that if we could make a cheap album and get our money back in Europe it wasn’t a risky proposition.”
The Ramones entered Plaza Sound Studios above Radio City Music Hall to record their debut album in February 1976. Although Leon was producing, his guide was Erdelyi. “I was very conscious I was interpreting his vision. Tommy had the whole concept already planned. He designed the sets like one long art experience rather than a bunch of songs.”
Ramones was recorded in five days. “We had a very low budget so had to work quickly,” explains Erdelyi. “The first day we all had really bad colds so we had to redo the songs and lost some time there. It was hard to work with the engineers because what we did was so different they couldn’t work it out. We then mixed it in one marathon session. In the end, it sounded almost arty.”
That was precisely Leon’s intention. “Nothing about it was conventional,” he recalls. “Every track was done three-piece live, but there was considerable doubling, tripling, quadrupling of guitars. Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy were all in different rooms, playing along to earphones. Tommy was playing to a visual metronome set at 208bpm because that was as fast as it could go, although for ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ we slowed it down to 192.”
Leon mixed three versions – mono, stereo and the one released, which had “extreme separation, with guitars in one speaker, bass in the other and drums coming down the middle with vocals all around. It was meant to be high impact.” The album cost $6,300 and was packaged with Roberta Bayley’s photograph of the band slouching meanly against a brick wall – a happy accident, even if Leon had proposed just such an image, inspired by that on The Fugs’ debut. From the opening salvo of “Blitzkrieg Bop”, with Joey’s “Hey ho, let’s go” battle cry, this was a dramatic hello. Songs were belligerent, comic, romantic and autobiographic, often all at once, as with Dee Dee’s “53rd & 3rd”, which recalled his experiences turning tricks to pay for his continuing heroin habit. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” was beautiful and yearning, “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” gleeful, funny and dumb. The songs were deceptively simple – Richard Lloyd once tried to write a song with Joey, but discovered Joey’s guitar only had two strings because that was all he needed – supremely melodic and incredibly fast. “Their songs are sweet, they have great melodies, they are hummable and they are on those basic chords that often change in a strange place in the bar,” says Kaye. “When you add Joey’s sense of romantic longing, there’s a real sense of desire in those songs.”
Although the album was well-reviewed, it sold poorly and was ignored by radio – a pattern that would become familiar. But Leon says that “where radio took a chance, you could see these little pockets of bands popping up – in Ohio, in Athens, Georgia, and in Europe.” He sent a copy to Paul McCartney, with a note that the band had been named after him. “He wrote back saying his mind was blown, he couldn’t believe it,” says Leon.
In July 1976, the band landed two gigs supporting The Flamin’ Groovies at the Roundhouse and headlining Dingwalls in London, where the first stirrings of punk were taking shape. “We knew that we had sold out these places so we had an idea something was going on,” says Erdelyi. Fields recalls the three-day trip with astonishment: “They played for 3,000 people; their biggest audience before had been 50. There were people lining up to meet them, to sleep with them, to sleep with me. The dressing room was full of people from The Clash, The Damned and the Sex Pistols – Johnny Rotten had to climb up knotted sheets to get through the window. They were amazed that a band could put out a record like this. Johnny told Paul Simonon, ‘We suck, we can’t play. But don’t worry, just do it.’”
But back home it was a different story. “We bought a van [Melnick was designated driver] and hit the road, playing smallish venues, 200-300 people, all kinds of places like lumberjack bars and bowling alleys,” confirms Erdelyi. “We weren’t making money but by the time we left each town, six bands would start up.”
In 1977, the band released two albums, Leave Home and Rocket To Russia. Erdelyi enlisted an old contact from his Record Plant days, Tony Bongiovi, as producer. “Tony was a kid genius who ran off to Motown when he was 16,” Erdelyi explains. “On Leave Home we wanted a hard-pop album, and he knew where all the first-rate equipment was that came within Sire’s budget. But my hands were on everything.”
Bongiovi recruited Ed Stasium to help. “I thought I was co-producing until I got my copy of Leave Home and saw I was just the engineer,” says Stasium. “In truth, Tony was hardly there, Tommy did most of the producing and I jumped in.” Leave Home was an appendix to Ramones with songs about war (“Commando”), insanity (“Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”) and adhesives (“Carbona Not Glue”), but the combination of Erdelyi and Stasium would click on Rocket To Russia. “It is the Ramones at their peak,” confirms Erdelyi. “It’s my favourite and it was Johnny’s favourite. We mixed it at the Power Station, we were the first act to use it – Tony had just finished building it. That’s why it sounds so good, we were able to use the best studio, the songs were great and the band was playing well. It all came together.”
Rocket To Russia was a fabulous, punchy, album, featuring gorgeous single “Rockaway Beach” (a classic summer song, released in the winter), the belting “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker”, the pleading “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” and the desperate, snotty “I Wanna Be Well”. Despite the brilliance of the songs, the band, who were aching for chart success, were struggling to get airplay. “We thought their songs were catchy, they sounded like hits,” acknowledges Fields. “We never had any problems with subject matter, although we did suggest they stop singing about Nazis. The Ramones were tarred more by the subject matter of another band, who were getting a great deal of publicity, and that was the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols were huge news when they came over and this thing called punk was all over the national news. Radio stations thought that if the Ramones had a hit they’d have to get them into the studio and then they’d puke all over the console or swear at everybody.”
Punk wasn’t the only problem. “One way to sell records is to open for bigger bands and steal their audience,” confides Fields. “But the Ramones were a terrible opening act. They were always getting things thrown at them.” This was no exaggeration, as audiences reacted in horror to the Ramones’ unique approach, a problem dating right back to June 1975, when the Ramones played their first gig outside New York, supporting Johnny Winter in Cincinnati. “We were doing our thing, which meant we didn’t stop between songs until we’d done about six, when we took our leather jackets off,” says Erdelyi. “There was silence. Then slowly this noise, this rumbling, came up from the audience and they went crazy – ‘What the hell is this! Get off the stage!’”
“We’d be on crazy bills opening for Black Sabbath, it was painful,” says Melnick. “The audience didn’t want to hear it, they threw batteries, coins, ice picks – they weren’t kidding. Ted Nugent’s audience were a little easier, they just threw sandwiches. We opened for Toto, who were so laidback that by the time they worked out what was going on, the Ramones had played their set and were off.” It took years before booking agents realised the Ramones could only work as headliners, which for much of the 1970s meant they had to play smaller clubs.
The Ramones had something special, but they were hurling themselves against a brick wall trying to prove it. “It was hard for me,” notes Erdelyi. “We got along great until we started touring, which is true of a lot of bands, but the Ramones were different, they were a little higher strung than other bands. What made the music so different and exciting was their personalities, but their personalities were kind of rough to be in a band with. I lost touch with reality. I was in the Ramones world, not the normal world. It was like being in a Picasso painting, everything was sideways. You only have to listen to the songs to get an idea of what it was like to be with these people.”
In 1978, Erdelyi decided to concentrate on producing. As Dee Dee once said, “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from a stable background” and a huge number of early Ramones songs referenced mental illness. This wasn’t fiction: Dee Dee was bipolar, Joey had OCD. “Joey’s OCD wasn’t diagnosed so everybody thought he was out of his freaking mind,” reveals Melnick. “He couldn’t help himself, he had to touch the door knob six times, walk on the kerb then walk off the kerb. One time we came back from a tour and he said, ‘I have to go back to the airport to touch something’ and jumped in a cab. He had to do it. And Dee Dee had multiple personalities. You never knew who would turn up, the good one, the naughty one, the happy one, the sad one.”
Bell took over on drums, becoming Marky Ramone just as the relationship between the band was starting to fray. “From the moment I joined, Joey and Johnny didn’t talk,” Bell recalls. “Joey didn’t like Johnny because he didn’t like his politics. John didn’t like Joey because he thought he was a freak but Joey and Dee wrote all the songs and Johnny wouldn’t have a band without them. Dee Dee and Joey had mental problems, Dee Dee did drugs, I liked to drink and Johnny’s problem was having to deal with us. It was a nuthouse, we were the real deal, borderline mental cases.”
Johnny responded to the instability around him by becoming increasingly controlling; what had once been Tommy’s band was now Johnny’s, and although contemporaries speak fondly of the guitarist, he could be ruthless. “Johnny felt insecure when he wasn’t in control,” says Erdelyi. “He was incredibly controlling,
but he was a complex person and it kept everybody on their toes, which they needed.”
“It was Johnny’s band,” continues Fields. “There was no situation he would be in, in which he was not the leader. I considered myself to be working for him. He’d make everybody crazy. Why isn’t there ketchup? Why can’t they make a hamburger in France? Why do we have to eat curry in the UK? He didn’t like foreigners or being in a foreign place. It took him a long time to work out that curry is not the enemy.” It was tough for the others, but Richard Lloyd isn’t alone when he points out “Johnny’s rigidity brought them great opportunities. You think Dee Dee could have been leader of that band?”
Marc Bell was thrown in at the deep end. “I had to learn 40 songs in two weeks,” he remembers. “We did Road To Ruin, then we made Rock’n’Roll High School, then we did the Phil Spector album, all in 18 months. What Tommy was doing is what Ringo did in The Beatles but faster. I had to bring what I knew into the songs that Tommy couldn’t because he wasn’t a drummer. There were players like Van Halen coming out and they needed a stronger backbone.”
1978’s Road To Ruin was the first album credited as an Erdelyi-Stasium co-production and it showed the band beginning to explore new areas in search of that elusive hit. “We were trying for something a little more commercial,” agrees Erdelyi. “We added some country elements and acoustic guitar. We did what we thought were radio-friendly songs – ‘Questioningly’ and ‘Don’t Come Close’ – which the radio completely ignored.” Again, the songs were superb – “I Wanna Be Sedated” is among their very finest – but after another flop Johnny Ramone put on a brave face: “I don’t feel desperate. Although I don’t feel like waiting another two years to get big.”
Sire – now owned by Warner Bros – were also getting anxious. Ed Stasium first sensed something was afoot when he went to Los Angeles to mix the title song for their B-movie Rock’n’Roll High School. “I went to the studio and Tommy wasn’t around,” he says. “Johnny just said, ‘Tommy’s not coming.’”
It was a sign of things to come. When the Ramones recorded End Of The Century, their fifth album, there was a new face in the studio. “Phil Spector wanted to produce the Ramones ever since he saw them at the Whisky in 1977,” explains Stasium. “He was always calling Seymour and it got to a point where the band couldn’t say no. Joey wanted to do it, Johnny was more wary, but they’d had no success selling records or getting on the radio.”
While Stasium, on Johnny’s insistence, was in LA working with Spector as “musical director”, Erdelyi didn’t get the call. The band’s chief architect had been ditched. He remains phlegmatic: “The record company decided that to get a hit, they needed a hit producer. I didn’t have a problem with that. I felt lucky we still had a label. I didn’t do anything with the band again until the mid-1980s. It was rough, but that’s the way it was.”
At the same time, Fields and Linda Stein’s management contract was not renewed. The band, perhaps blindly, were looking for anything that could break their bad luck. In some ways, Fields and Erdelyi had a lucky escape. The End Of The Century sessions were legendary for Spector’s bizarre behaviour, which was too much even for the Ramones. “Phil would make us do take after take and then listen back for an hour at excruciating volume while he stamped his feet and swore,” recalls Stasium. “It was so loud he couldn’t talk so had this sign language worked out with his engineer – like if he wanted reverb he’d slap his tongue. He’d listen to tapes on playback 300 times. He’d pick up the phone and yell at imaginary people. There was a Nice Phil and Evil Phil. Nice Phil would be casually dressed with glasses and a paperboy hat, like Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night. Then he’d disappear for 45 minutes and Evil Phil would come back, with sunglasses and a wig, Beatle boots, a purple jacket… and a cape.” One evening, Spector refused to let the band leave his mansion, making them repeatedly watch an Anthony Hopkins film, Magic. “He didn’t want people to leave, he was lonely,” says Stasium, who, along with Marc Bell, refutes the claim that Spector pulled a gun on the band. “I saw no gunplay,” confirms Stasium. “Nobody pointed a gun at anybody,” agrees Bell.
Johnny took things particularly badly, infuriated with the way Spector fawned over Joey while making Johnny play the same chord hour after hour. “John thought Phil was busting his balls,” admits Bell. “He wasn’t, he wanted a certain feedback sound. Phil was meticulous; the Ramones were quick but this was Phil Spector and this was how he worked. Johnny tried to be in control and when he was belittled he couldn’t take it. But Phil wasn’t his girlfriend, Johnny couldn’t push him around, and Seymour was paying the bill. Me and Joey understood that, Dee Dee and Johnny didn’t.”
After a week, Johnny threatened to return to New York and Stasium called Seymour Stein to arrange a summit. “We met in Joey’s room at the Tropicana,” reveals Stasium. “Phil took his bodyguard in case Johnny jumped him. I told Phil that Johnny couldn’t work like that and Phil gave in. After that, things went a lot quicker.”
Despite the hours in the studio, Stasium says, “Phil didn’t do anything. The arrangements were the same as on the demos. Phil’s presence is really felt on the mixing, with tons of reverb and handclaps.” Spector was convinced it would be the biggest record of his career, but when Stasium heard the finished album he “was shocked. It didn’t sound like any Ramones I’d heard before. In retrospect, what Phil did in the mix had a certain charm but I don’t think it represents them as they should be represented. Johnny wanted to remix it, de-Spectorise it. That was his final wish, get Phil’s stuff off and make it a Ramones record.”
End Of The Century was the band’s best-selling album but still didn’t give them an American hit and remains an oddity. “Do You Remember Rock’n’Roll Radio?” points to a more mature take on the signature Ramones sound, “Chinese Rock” has real bite, while the stunning cover of “Baby, I Love You” could come from a Joey Ramone solo album, itself a bone of contention for Johnny, who feared being sidelined. There is, though, too much forgettable material on the record; a sign, perhaps, that the Ramones were reaching some kind of plateau. Starved of chart success but with an increasingly fanatical fanbase, the band had painted themselves into a corner. “Their concept was so firm they had to become that concept,” is how Lenny Kaye sees it. Things got worse when Joey’s girlfriend, Linda, started seeing Johnny. They eventually married. Joey and Johnny didn’t speak for the rest of their lives. There is, on End Of The Century, a particular poignant song, “Danny Says”, which begins with Joey referencing their former manager. “That song isn’t really about me,” admits Fields. “It’s a love story Joey wrote to Linda. It’s a poisoned song and I get introduced as the person it is about. Well, it’s not about me, I had nothing to do with the fucking album and it’s about a love affair that turned into a tragedy.”
When the Ramones came out of Spector’s studio, relationships were damaged and loyal companions cast aside. The ’80s and ’90s would be a long, hard slog for a band that continued to release albums but had more or less given up on chart success. They instead focused on playing to adoring fans in Europe, South America and Japan, never deviating from the purity, the audacious simplicity, of that original vision. Of that, Erdelyi remains proud. “Through my life, I came up with a lot of ideas,” he says, “but this one not only happened, it worked out better than I could ever have imagined.”
The Ramones split in 1996 and affirmation would arrive when they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002. In 2003, they featured in a documentary, End Of The Century. By then, Joey was gone, dying of lymphoma in 2001. Dee Dee and Johnny followed within three years.
“They wanted to be on Top 10 radio, and maybe they should have done, but in the long term they are revered in the iconography of rock’n’roll,” says Lenny Kaye. “With their very short songs they brought everything back down to ground zero, in the same way The Stooges had performed that alchemical reduction in form. Because it was so easy to play and understand, it was incredibly infectious. They made a load of great albums and their sound went around the world.”
The October 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on David Bowie, plus Margo Price, Lou Reed, David Crosby, Devendra Banhart, Van Der Graaf Generator, The Turtles, The Beatles, Granny Takes A Trip, Kate Bush, Drive-By Truckers, Jack White, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Wilco and more plus 32 pages of reviews and our free 15-track CD
Uncut: the spiritual home of great rock music.