The story of the Ramones: “It was a nuthouse – we were the real deal!”

The complete history of the four weirdest kids in Forest Hills, New York

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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?”


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