The Eagles and Captain and Tennille ruled the airwaves, and we were the answer to it. Los Angeles was great. We blew their minds. We were an instant hit. They totally related to us. A sick bunch. The L.A. kids were really wild and insane, much more like the English audiences than the jaded, hip New York crowd was at the time.
—Joey Ramone, reminiscing about L.A. 1977
(excerpted from We Got the Neutron Bomb: An Oral
History of L.A. Glam and Punk Rock 1970–80, by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, coming in November)
When Joey Ramone, a.k.a. Jeff Hyman, died in New York last month from lymphoma just shy of his 50th birthday, it made us think of a time in the ’70s much like right now, when ratings-driven commercial pop radio reeks of preteen garbage, weak metal with pierc.ings, and horribly bad R&B, while in the clubs generic house and trance music and most of its little looper variants are sucking even harder and deeper into utter putrescence and mediocrity. Tune out we did in the ’70s; when things got that bad, enough was enough. Then along came the Ramones, who didn’t get played on commercial radio anyway — but by then it was too late: Every weird record-collecting geek in every town formed a band, and for 10 minutes there, the very young took their own music back.
The Ramones’ impact on the L.A. scene was enormous. Herewith, a few reminiscences. (Joey/Jeff, rest in peace . . .)
I was a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the Ramones. It was already spring of ’77, and even though the band had been kicking around filthy dive bars in the Bowery since ’75 and already had two albums out and had been written up by all the cool New York rock scribes who dreamt of being in their bashed-up sneakers, I still hadn’t been able to get around to actually listening to their music. I was developing cheap rehearsal facilities for unsigned bands and a place to have parties and jam sessions for my friends in a funky old basement off Hollywood Boulevard, the same space that soon came to be called the Masque. My customers happened to be mostly new L.A. punk bands who were all broke like me, all of them trying to create their own distinct sound and interpretation of “punk rock” independent from what was currently raging in London and (from what I’d been told) had already flamed out in New York.
One midafternoon, as I was hauling trash or struggling to staple old carpeting on the walls — the only acousticizing I could afford — I was interrupted by the arrival of a gaggle of scary-looking scruffs in leather jackets and heavy Noo Yawk accents. Sure enough, it was Dee Dee, Johnny and Joey Ramone, plus a few others who’d been sightseeing on Hollywood Boulevard when one of my helpers had recognized them and had dragged them downstairs to see what Slash magazine had called “the pit’s pajamas.”
The tallest, scariest-looking one was Joey, who turned out to be the gentle giant of the group. I gave the band the grand tour of the basement, which was a labyrinth of rooms, cubbyholes and creepy graffiti-splattered corridors. While Johnny was quiet and surly, and Dee Dee seemed uninterested and wanting to leave as soon as he could, Joey enthusiastically interrogated me about the new unrecorded bands that were playing there. Who were they? What were they like? He wanted to talk music, which was okay by me. Joey wished me good luck with my venture, and I was even more chuffed to pieces when he offered to put me on the guest list for the Ramones’ show at the Whisky later that night. I’d never been on anybody’s guest list before!
The Ramones played extremely funky “white rock” grooves. Their sound was massive, sonically devastating. Tight. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that the distortion overtones from fuzzed-out, super-adrenalized hard guitar rock could fill every millimeter of the sonic spectrum and still be melodic, or that it could be played as minimalist locked-in grooves like the best funk or R&B. The Ramones — fronted by Joey, probably one of the all-time unlikeliest candidates for rock star — were the original Hammer of the Punk Gods, even though they were really a great pop band. They equaled the influence (if not the musicality) of Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones, and the Ramones were surely the punk Zeppelin, too . . . dude.
Fred Patterson (a.k.a. Phast Phreddie):
My magazine, Back Door Man, had been out for several months when I first heard of the Ramones sometime in late ’75. When they played their first gigs in California, battle lines were drawn. Fans became close friends. The others — and there were many more of them than us — became the enemy, lovers of things like the Eagles and Peter Frampton . . . and disco. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy made it okay for fans to get onstage. Rock & roll was reborn. Everywhere the Ramones went they were like the Johnny Appleseeds of the punk rock movement.
The genie was out of the bottle. Taking their fashion cue from the new bands in London and their musical cue from the Ramones, some of the new L.A. bands shortened their hair, shortened their songs and began playing fewer chords faster. Bands like X, the Weirdos, the Zeros, the Screamers, the Germs and the Go-Go’s could now exist, have followings and make records.
A social scene formed, and the first Ramones album was played at every one of its parties, alongside Britpunkers like the Pistols and the Clash. During the early ’70s, I attended several “rock & roll revival” shows — Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Ballard. I was there for a history lesson, but folks in their 30s and 40s were sayin’, “Yeah! This is how it was.” At one of the Ramones’ later shows in the ’90s, just before they broke up, I stood there boppin’ my head, thinking to myself, “This is Chuck Berry to me. This is my Jerry Lee Lewis. This is like Hank Ballard.” Kids who must have been in diapers when the first Ramones record was released were there for a history lesson. I said, “Yeah! This is how it is.”
In the wake of a Ramones tour, bands would pop up everywhere. They were as important to popular music as Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones. That important.
The Ramones were genius, and Joey was an amazing front man, the ultimate oddball lead singer for any rock band. It was probably Joey as much as anybody who pioneered nerd chic. He was also a really, really nice guy. The Ramones were a ray of hope for everyone who was sick of deadly dull corporate rock and fringed-buckskin country rock. It was as though they’d sprung fully formed like a bolt of lightning from rock & roll heaven. From their cartoon hoodlum look to their three-chord sound and the faux-retard lyrics that were actually well-thought-out and really hilarious, they were almost too good to be true.
The Ramones did a miniresidency at the Whisky, two shows a night, in ’77. They were so loud that my ears actually watered during the show. I started a punk fanzine right after that and called it Lobotomy: The Brainless
Magazine in honor of the Ramones.
While visiting Manhattan in 1978, Kid Congo
Powers and I — he was president of the Ramones’ L.A. fan club, and not yet playing guitar — somehow got roped into being roadies for the Ramones at a club called Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut. I don’t know how we were hired in the first place — we didn’t know anything about tech work, not even how to tune or plug in a guitar, let alone set up a drum kit — but we needed the money, we were broke. We rode all the way from the Lower East Side to New Haven in the back of a Ryder truck with all the amps.
I was like, “Oh! I know what roadies do — they put water on the stage!” So that was the extent of what I did before getting so drunk during the show that I passed out in the dressing room. We not only got paid, Joey helped carry me to the car. The Ramones influential? I’d put ’em on par with Elvis, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who’d disagree.