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