In this episode, we meet The Ramones and follow their career going through the recording of their iconic debut album.
In episode one, we drew a line from the Greenwich village folk scene, to The Velvet Underground, to Danny Fields, to Stooges and MC5, to Max’s Kansas City, to the NY Dolls to Television, to CBGB’s and finally to the Ramones. In this Episode we’re going to look at who the Ramones were, how they became the Ramones and take a look at the first few years of the band, going up to their 1976 debut album.
My Name is Harley Isaac Rother, I’m a musician, rock n roller and now podcaster. welcome to Guitars and Stolen Cars - Season 1 The Ramones Episode 2 Tomorrow the World
Dee Dee Ramone was born Douglass Cloven, to a military family. He grew up on military bases both in The US and in post-war Germany. Dee dee’s earliest memories were of his parents fighting. They fought at lot, and it often got violent. Between the regular moves, from army base to army base, and the fighting at home, Dee Dee’s childhood was chaotic. And his whole life would be chaotic. Aside from chaos, another thing Deedee got from his childhood, was rock n roll. His mom was hip, and she had rock n roll records in the house. Dee dee said he had to live in a fantasy world, because the real world was too fucked up for him. In Germany, he would hide under the covers, and listen to the pirate radio stations playing rock n roll music from America.
By the time Dee Dee was a teenager, his mom had had enough. She divorced her abusive husband, and took Dee Dee out of Germany, and back to America. They settled in Forest Hills, in the Borrow of Queens, New York. Forest Hills was a quiet suburb, but dee dee could take the train into Manhattan. He started hanging out where else, but Greenwich village, which at this point, had little to do with folk music, but still had lots of music and creative people.
Dee dee started taking drugs. Acid was fun and he got high on acid many times, but it wasn’t really his thing. Heroin was his thing. Deedee said “Early on I could sense the big problem with narcotics was that they tended to lead to crime.” And it did. He started dealing. He would go to Manhattan to cop dope. Buy a half load for $24. He would divide the half load into fifteen $3 bags to sell back in Queens. Well he would sell 12 bags, and then do 3 of them. He was making $12 profit per trip, and he was getting high. Keep in mind this was the 60’s so $12 a day wasn’t a bad hustle. Dee dee was enrolled at Forest Hill high school, but he never went. Instead he decided to hitch hike to CA. It was 1969, and Sunny CA seemed a lot better than New York. While hitchhiking, he was picked up by some guys who tried to rob to a gas station. They did the robbery with Deedee in the car. The driver floored it on the get away, and the car stalled. When the police showed up, they hadn’t gotten very far. Since Dee Dee was in the stalled get away car, they took him to jail where he stayed for a few weeks. When they let him out, he continued hitch hiking, and eventually made it to ca.
But it wasn’t long before he was back in jail. In California, Deedee was getting high on tuinols. Tuinal were a now discontinued sleeping pill that could be used to get high. So he was high on Tuinals, and decided to steel a car. But he was high, so he crashed the car in Malibu and got arrested. When he got out of jail, he felt it was time to go back to Forest hills, in New York.
Dee Dee got a job as a mail clerk, and worked in a Manhattan building, where ran into an acquaintance from forest hills, John Cummings. Later to be known as Johnny Ramone. John or Johnny was working a construction job on the same building that Deedee was working in the mailroom in. Johnny and Dee dee started talking about music. They discovered they were both into Iggy and the Stooges. Dee Dee couldn’t believe someone else from Forest Hills was into the Stooges. In the early 70’s, rock had become tame, and most people were into bands like YES and Steely Dan. Finding a guy from your same neighborhood, into the same weird rock music as you, was unreal. So the two Stooges fans, from Forest Hills, that both worked in the same building, started hanging out everyday. Johnny says they would hang out and talk about the bands they liked and what shows they wanted to go to. Dee Dee says they would sniff glue, and throw television sets off buildings. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
By the time Deedee and Johnny were hanging out in 1972, Johnny was a relative straight shooter. He was married, worked construction, and never missed a day of work. But just like Deedee, Johnny had been a juvenile delinquent.
Or as Dee Dee put it. “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds, because it’s not a civilized art form. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”
Johny Ramone was born John Cummings, and Grew up in Long Island New York, in a working class neighborhood. His parents owned the neighborhood bar, and Johnny got into rock n roll, because they had it on the jukebox at the bar. By the time Johnny was a teenager, his parents sold the bar, and relocated to the nicer neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens. For his first two years of high school, Johnny went to a military academy and played baseball. He was a menace. He broke into his teachers apartment, and stole the answers to every test for the whole year. Johnny got A’s on all the tests, and would make money by selling the test answers to other students. If Johnny was a menace at military school, when he transferred to Forest Hills high school, he was outright vicious. He even described himself as the neighborhood bully.
The same year Johnny transferred to forest hills high school, 1964, the Beatles stormed the airwaves of America. Johnny was already a committed rock n roller, since the days with the-jukebox at his parents bar. He made Friends with the other kids who were into rock n roll, and this new band, the Beatles. One of the other rockers at Forest hills high was Tommy Erdelyei. Who would eventually be Tommy Ramone.
Influenced by the Beatles, and the other British invasion bands, Tommy and Johnny started a band called the Tangerine Puppets. Johnny played bass, and Tommy played guitar. But like I said, Johnny was vicious. One time he beat up the singer of Tangerine Puppets on stage, at a show, in front of audience. Another time, they all went to see their heroes, the Beatles, at Shea Stadium. Johnny snuck in rocks to throw at the Beatles while they played, but he was disappointed when he saw that he wasn’t close enough to pelt them. Thats makes sense right? You get to see your favorite band, so you should pelt them with rocks. Well to Johnny, that made sense.
Johnny was a menace at military school, vicious at Forest Hills High, and a full on delinquent when he graduated. He went to Florida to go to college, but he didn’t like it. He was back in Forest Hills two days after he left. Johnny said of this period “I was just bad every minute of every day”. He got in fights, he took drugs, he threw bricks threw windows just for fun, he broke into buildings, he robbed people. He was bad news. One time he got into a fight with a kid and beat him up. When the kids dad came out to break up the fight, Johnny beat up the kids dad too. The cops came, but no one in the neighborhood dared to rat on Johnny.
Another time, Johnny and a kid broke into a bakery because they heard they left the cash in the register at night. A security guard saw what they were up to, and called the cops. Johnny got away, but the other kid got arrested. While in custody, the kid ratted on Johnny. But the cops asked the security guard to ID Johnny to confirm the kids account, and the security guard wouldn’t do it. He knew Johnny was not someone to mess with. Like clockwork, when the kid who ratted got out of jail, Johnny wooped his ass for snitching.
This is how Johnny lived until one day he had what he called a spiritual awakening. He was 20 years old, and decided he wasn’t here to be a bad, and he went completely straight. Well straight for a Ramone anyway. He stopped with the criminal behavior, and he never got high or drunk again. Not ever. He got a job doing construction, got married and never missed a day of work. Dee Dee said of Johnny “He’s a good American. When the cops used to harass us all the time, he thought they were just being good cops”.
This brings us back to Dee Dee, and Johnny hanging out and bonding over rock n roll. They started going to shows together, and hanging out with Johnny’s high school buddy Tommy, that he used to play with in the Tangerine Puppets. The band they saw the most was the NY Dolls. Johnny remembers thinking “Wow I can do this too. They’re great and they’re terrible”. Tommy was still playing music, and was part of the local scene, playing in a band called Butch. In addition, to playing in Butch, Tommy and his bandmate, Monty Melnic, opened a rehearsal space called Performance. Since Performance was run by musicians, everyone wanted to use it as their rehearsal space. Even the local heroes, the NY Dolls practiced there. Tommy was ambitious, and wanted to use his experience in the music industry to manage a band. Eventually, he convinced the weirdest, most interesting guys he knew to get together, and start a group. Deedee, Johnny and Jeffrey Starship. But who was Jeffrey starship?
Jeffrey star ship, born Jeffrey Hyman was another guy from Forest Hills. He went to Forest Hills highschool like Tommy and Johnny, but he was a few years younger. And he wasn’t a delinquent like Johnny and Deedee. He was different. He was tall. Really tall. 6’5”. But he wasn’t fast and athletic. He was slow and gangly. He wore glasses, and his parents were divorced. It made him an easy target for bullies. His escape was music fandom. He got into rock n roll as a kid by listening to radio DJ’s like Murray the K. He was obsessed with singers, and girls groups and when the Beatles hit, he was an instant huge fan. He played drums in a few minor highschool bands, but he had a lot of strange habits that made it difficult for him to make friends. When walking down stairs he would have to walk up and down the steps over and over for no apparent reason. up and down and up and down. When he washed his hands, he would turn the faucet on and off repeatedly. On and off and on and off. He didn’t like throwing things away, and accumulated piles of garbage in his pockets, and in his room. Jeffrey had a bad case of obsessive compulsive disorder, but it went undiagnosed. Finally, after high school when he seemed incapable of living a normal life, he checked into a mental institution for an evaluation. He had OCD, but the institution wasn’t all bad. There were a lot of girls in there, and Jeffrey had a string of girlfriends he met at the hospital. He started getting SSI checks from the government because he was deemed too dysfunctional to work. When the glitter scene started taking off in NY, he took on the name Jeffrey Starship, and started singing in a band called Sniper, that played the same circuit as The New York Dolls and KISS. But Jeffrey Starship was weird. Too weird for Sniper, so they kicked him out. Since he was out of a gig, Tommy thought it would be cool to have Jefferey Starship play drums in his new project.
So Tommy got these guys together, with the idea that he would manage them, and work out of the space he ran, Performance Studios. Johnny on guitar, Dee Dee on Bass and vocals and Jeffrey on drums. Johnny had just got his first guitar 4 days earlier. In high school, he had only played bass. He went into a music shop and bought the cheapest guitar they had, a Mosrite. Johnny like the price, and he liked that no other bands were using one. The list price was $70. Johnny offered them $50, and walked out with the guitar. He played a Mosrite his entire career.
So Tommy got these three guys together, and they tried to learn covers but they couldn’t figure out the chords to any songs. Jeffrey, although a drummer, had learned three chords on guitar from his brother. They were the chords to 18 by Alice Cooper Emin, C and D<>. Jefrey had already written some songs of his own, using only those same 3 chords. The other guys thought that was cool and it inspired them to write. Dee Dee especially, who would turn into a prolific song writer. One of Jeffreys songs was called I don’t Care. The lyrics were I dont care / He Dont care / I dont care / He dont care / I dont care about this would / I dont care about that girl / I dont care. That was it. over and over. Deedee caught on quick and started writing songs in a similar vein. I don’t wanna walk around with you. I don’t wanna go down to the basement. They thought all their songs were too negative, so they wrote one called Now I Wanna Sniff some Glue. See that was positive, they wanted to do something. The lyrics were cartoonishly comical and the guys had a sense of humor about their music, but they were also serious. They were weird guys, so writing these weird songs wasn’t an act. It was who they were.
They needed a name and Deedee suggested the Ramones as a tribute to The Beatles, Paul McCartney, who he had heard would check into hotels with the name Paul Ramone to avoid paparazzi. Since the guys were all huge Beatles fans, they went with it. They would be the Ramones. As part of the band, they would have band names. Jeffrey Starship would be Joey Ramone, Doug Cloven would be Deedee Ramone. John Cummings would be Johnny Ramone. That way, whenever they met someone, they would still be promoting the band just by saying their name.
Eventually, they had enough songs for a short set, so Tommy, their manager, put together a showcase at his space, Performance Studios. The Ramones played… and they sucked. Joey was an uneven drummer and took hours to setup his kit because of his OCD. Deedee couldn’t play, and sing at the same time so he kept started and stopping. They needed to figure something out. So Tommy, acting as their manager, suggested that Joey sing instead of playing drums. He already had experience singing in the band Sniper, and would look good standing in the middle of Deedee and Johnny. Just like Alice Cooper. Tall guy in the middle with a bass and guitar player on either side. Deedee could now focus on just playing his bass. But since Joey was singing, now they needed a drummer. They started auditioning people, but nobody was right, and nobody wanted to be in a band with these three weirdos. Tommy was telling the drummers what to play during the auditions, and eventually he just sat behind the drums, and played the parts himself. It worked. So Their manager Tommy Erdelyi, became their drummer, Tommy Ramone.
Tommy was the relatively normal guy of the original Ramones. He was born in Budepest Hungy, but his parents immigrated to NY after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. After some shuffling, they moved to Forest Hills Queens, where Tommy went to high school, and hung out with the other rock n rollers like Johnny. They played in the band Tangerine Puppets together.
After graduation, Tommy got a job working as an audio engineer at the Record Plant recording studio. He was low on the pecking order, but he got to work with some famous people including Jimmy Hendrix, and the jazz fusion guitarist John Mclaughlin. While he was working at the record plant, he was also playing guitar in a band called Butch. Butch was a minor band in the glitter scene, with the New York Dolls being the top band. Tommy and his bandmate from Butch, Monte Melnick, partnered to open the rehearsal studio, Performance. Since Tommy had been in bands, had worked as an engineer with famous musicians, and was now running a studio - one that even the mighty NY Dolls rehearsed at - he felt that he was in a good position to get into management. But now, he was playing drums in the band he was also managing. They started practicing almost daily. They had already made two musical innovations. Down-stokes on the guitar and 8th notes on the hi-hits of the drums. On the into to Communication Breakdown by Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, the guitarist plays only down stokes on the guitar. Johnny thought thats how every song should be played, not just one intro to one song. Here is how most guitar players would play 8th notes on an A chord. Down up Down up Down up. Heres how Johnny played. Down Down Down Down Down. On the drums, Tommy was playing 8th notes on the hi hat. Most drummers were paying 1,2,3,4. Tommy was playing one and two and thee and four and. <>
Like we talked about in the last episode, Deedee had auditioned for a band that would eventually become Television. He didn’t get the gig, because he didn’t know the names of the notes. Deedee would go his entire career without ever learning the names the notes. If he needed to learn something, he would just watch Johnnys hands, and if he needed to teach Johnny something, Johnny would watch his hands. He explained, “I go by dots and frets. I don’t even know the names of the strings”
Anyway, when Deedee heard that the guys from Television were playing a new club, CBGB, he hit them up about getting his new band a show there. August 16th, 1974 at CBGB’s was the first show they played as a four piece, and their second show ever. Also playing that night was a band called the Angel and The Snake who would soon change their name to Blondie.
The early Ramones shows were sloppy. They would argue on stage, take a long time between songs, and make mistakes. They were still honing their craft. They played CBGB’s ten more times in the month following their debut. At their 11th CB’s show on September 15th 1974, a theatre troop was the opener. The theatre troop had a camera, and they filmed the Ramones set. The Ramones, especially Johnny, studied this footage with intent, and decided they could be better. They made some changes. At this point, The Ramones look was still ill defined. Even Johnny, the tough guy he was, was still wearing leopard print glam clothes on stage. No more. From now on they would all dress the same. Sneakers, blue jeans, ideally with hole in the knees, t shirts and leather jackets. This was a look that was iconic, and cool, but also a look that fans could pull off easily. Most rock fans were not about to wear flamboyant glam rock clothing, so by contrast, the Ramones look was much more accessible. They already all had Beatles-esque haircuts, only longer, but now it was part of the uniform. They didn’t want to waste time on stage anymore. They would blitz through the set in an orderly manor. No talking to each other on stage, no looking at each other on stage, no tuning on stage. It was a performance, and the audience should be what they were focusing on. Joey was doing Alice cooper inspired stage moves, prancing around and crawling on the ground. No more. From now on, he would lean into the mic, and stay there the whole show looking cool and tough. Johnny and Deedee would move in synchronization, stepping to the front of the stage at key moments. They developed into a tight band, with an iconic look, and uniquely tight live show. They started to own the stage when they played.
Tommy was still acting as their manager, and he was trying to get them some press coverage. He printed up promo sheets. One promo Tommy wrote said ”The Ramones are not an oldies group, they are not a glitter group, they don’t play boogie music, and they don’t play blues. The Ramones are an original Rock and Roll group of 1975 and their songs are brief, to the point and every one is a potential hit single”. Tommy started hounding the local music writers. One of the writers was Danny Fields. You remember Danny Fields from the last episode. He hung out with Andy Warhol, and then worked for the folk turned rock label, Electra, working with the The Doors, and then signing The Stooges and the MC5. Anyway, Fields was annoyed that this band kept calling him. Their name, the Ramones, sounded like a salsa band, and Danny wasn’t interested. He drew straws with another writer for who would have to go and see them, so they would stop getting hounded. Danny won so he didn’t have to go. But to everyones surprise, the other writer loved the show. She told Danny you have to see this band. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Danny came to see the Ramones, and instantly fell in love with the band. He offered to be their manager. The Ramones told him if he could get them a new drum kit, he could be. Danny borrowed money from his mom, and came on board as their new manager. Although, this account may be apocryphal, because Danny didn’t officially become their manager until November of 1975, and he first saw them in the summer. Either way, he was fully converted, and started championing the Ramones.
Danny played a demo of the Ramones for his friend, Lou reed. Reed’s reaction was striking, “That is without a doubt the most fantastic thing you’ve ever played for me. It makes everybody else look so bullshit and wimpy, Patty Smith and myself included. Thats rock n roll. They really hit where it hurts. They are everything everybody worried about. Every Parent in America”.
In the summer of ’75 with help from Fields, The Ramones started auditioning for record labels. They were too weird, and most labels passed. But Blue sky Records was interested, and they got the Ramones a last minute slot opening for its biggest star, Johnny Winter in Connecticut. It was the biggest crowd the Ramones had played for yet, and it was their first show outside of New York. But they were added last minute, and the audience didn’t know they were on the bill. The crowd was there to see the blues rock guitar virtuoso, Johnny Winter. Winter was in many ways the antithesis on the Ramones. His music was blues based, and was all about long intricate guitar solos. His fans did not want to see a weird opening band that sounded nothing like the virtuosic shreddery of Johnny Winter. They Boo’ed the Ramones off the stage. Needless to say, Blue Sky records was no longer interested.
But that was all right, because a few days later, The Ramones were back at CGGB’s playing a festival with all the unsigned band making the scene. Blondie, Television, The Talking Heads and others. The festival got a lot of press in both the US, and in England. Even Rolling Stone magazine covered it. The Ramones stole the show. By the end of 1975, the Ramones were being co-managed by Danny Fields and Linda Stein. Linda Stein was the wife of Seymour Stein, who owned Sire records. In January of 1976 The Ramones had a recording contract with Sire.
Sire records was a small indie label, but they had a distribution deal with a major, Warner Brothers. Sire made its name by licensing European and English rock bands music for release in America. They had some success doing it, with Focus and also Climax blues Band. But Sire were still a minor player by music industry standards. Seymour Stein, the labels owner was a lover of music who cut his teeth in the 60’s, working at King records with RnB singers like James Brown. He understood that the Ramones were doing something incredible. His wife liked them so much she wanted to manage them!
A month after signing with Sire records, the Ramones were in the studio recording their first album. They recorded at Plaza Sound, which was normally a radio broadcast studio, but it was cheep so they booked it. It was located on the 8th floor of radio city music hall. They rented it from 7pm to 5am to get an even cheaper rate. They started recording on Feb 2nd and finished mixing the album on Feb 19th. They tracked the instruments in 2 days, did the vocals in 2 days, and spent 10 hours mixing. It cost $6,200 to make. Tommy Ramone produced, as he already had experience in the recording studio. Sire records also assigned their in-house guy Craig Leon to co-produce, just to make sure. Sire couldn’t believe the album was finished so fast, and for so cheap. This was the era of spending months in the studios, and budgets of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Doing a fast cheep album in the 70’s was almost unheard of. On the other hand Johnny said of doing them album in two weeks “I didn’t understand why it took so long.”
The album opened with Blitzkrieg Bop. The Bay city R ollers had a big hit at the time with a song called Saturday night. It started with a chant, and then went into a pop rock song. The Ramones thought they should do a chant song too. But theres never goes into the pop rock <Here’s the Bay City rollers>. Here’s the Ramones <>. Blitzkrieg Bop was written by Tommy. He wrote the song originally as Animal Hop and wrote it about kids going to a concert. Deedee grew up in Germany and changed to Animal Hop to Blitzkrieg Bop. He also changed the lyric, theyre yelling in the back now, to shoot them in the back now. It was flirting with the forbidden as Blitzkrieg was a Nazi war technique. But the Ramones were no Nazi sympathizers. Tommy and Joey were both Jewish. The band shared a dark sense of humor that would often show up in the lyrics, but would also make the music less radio friendly. Every song on the album was great.
Lets next listen to a clip of I dont wanna go Down To The Basement as it perfectly encapsulates the Ramones sound. 8th note down strokes on guitar, 8th note hi-hat hits and strange lyrics all taking place at a fast tempo
Another interesting the about the album was that it was hard panned, Meaning the bass is only coming out of the right speaker, and the guitar is only coming out of the left. They did this because thats how early Beatles albums were mixed. It has the unintended consequence of making it the perfect record for people learning guitar or bass because you could play along by unplugging one speaker. Many would learn to play by doing just that.
Sire records released two singles, Blitzkrieg Bop and I Wanna be Your Boyfriend also written by Tommy. It was the only slow song on the album, and it was a great song that in another world could have been a pop hit. It featured great back up vocals. <> Both singles were catchy enough to be hits and their enduring legacy proves that they were classics. But They were too ahead of there time. The Ramones would never fit in with the mellow rock programming of The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, The Captain and Tenittle. The album cover also iconic. All four Ramones dressed in the Ramones uniform, standing in front of a brick wall in black and white. They looked like a gang.
As far as the band relating to the outside world, like dealing with press and industry people, former manager turned drummer Tommy took the lead. But inside the band Johnny Ramone was running the show and he had a few ideas about album credits. No musicians would be credited except the four Ramones. Even though there were other people singing backups, and on one song, the co-producer Craig Leon played organ, but it would look stronger if it was just credited the Ramones. So it was. Also, Johnny would be credited first. Normally the lead singer gets top billing but on the Ramones early records, It would go Johnny Ramone - Guitar and then Joey Ramone - Lead Vocals. In addition to the credits, on the back of the album was a photo of a belt buckle with an American eagle - in the form of the US seal. It was worn by Arturo Vega. Vega, was a friend of the band and Deedee and Joey would both on again, off again live in his loft. Arturo would eventually redesign the US seal to be the Ramones iconic logo. Replacing E Plubis Unum with Hey Ho Lets Go and A baseball bat instead of arrows, in reference to the Ramones song, Beat on The Brat with a Baseball bat. Arturo would also tour with the band as their lighting engineer, and stay all the way to the end. Arturo said there were only two Ramones shows he ever missed. One because he was in jail, and one because they wouldn’t let him into Canada.
The Ramones album was released April 23rd 1976. The management knew that the band would have a hard time getting on the radio, but they also knew the Ramones were amazing live. It was time to get the show on the road. Linda Stein, who managed the band along with Danny Fields thought that England might understand the Ramones before America did. She was right. We’ll discuss the Ramones helping to kickst punk in England and other places as well, in the next episode Ramones Leave home