When I read today of the death of Tommy Ramone, original drummer with that great, no-nonsense New York punk band the Ramones, my first thought was, “God, is that another one of them gone?”
Time waits for no man, or woman, of course. And one of the most dispiriting things about becoming middle-aged is that you start to notice how the musical icons of your youth – folk like Joe Strummer, Stuart Adamson and Ronnie James Dio, who didn’t seem that much older than you were when, as a kid in the 1970s, you saw them on TV on Top of the Pops or in the pages of Sounds or the New Musical Express – are dying off in ever-increasing numbers. But even compared to other bands of the era with unusually high death-rates among their members, like the New York Dolls or the Pretenders, the Grim Reaper has been particular merciless with the Ramones. Joey Ramone expired in 2001, Dee Dee Ramone in 2002 and Johnny Ramone in 2004.
When I saw Motorhead play a gig in Newcastle-upon-Tyne ten or eleven years ago, the band included a cover of a Ramones song in its set. Singer Lemmy introduced the song in a disgruntled tone of voice: “We keep saying we’re never going to play another Ramones song again. But then another of the bastards goes and dies on us, so we have to do another Ramones song, as a tribute.” (Although Motorhead are a heavy metal band, and the Ramones were a punk band, the two outfits were very similar in that they always served up a hard, fast, no-frills sound that was exactly what their fans wanted.) I suppose that when Motorhead play Crocus City Hall in Moscow on the 25th of this month, Lemmy will be, reluctantly, leading the band into yet another Ramones cover – Pinhead or Blitzkrieg Bop or whatever – this time as a tribute to poor old Tommy.
Actually, with Tommy Ramone’s passing, that’s the entire original line-up of the band now dead. All its founding members are no more. There are, however, four other Ramones still on the go, all of whom joined the band at later points in its history: Marky Ramone, Richie Ramone, C.J. Ramone and Elvis Ramone – Elvis Ramone being Clem Burke, the drummer with Blondie, who played as an emergency-substitute drummer at two Ramones gigs in August 1987. That’s a tenuous link, but in my book it’s still good enough for Burke to have Ramone status.
I got to see the Ramones once, during their Adios Amigos tour in 1995, which was billed as their farewell tour. The gig took place at a venue called Xanadu in the Japanese city of Sapporo on Wednesday, 25th October, and it was a superb and rather moving occasion – at the end of the final encore, when Joey Ramone said, “Adios amigos!” and walked offstage, a number of thirty-something Japanese guys with long hair, dark glasses, black leather jackets and skinny jeans promptly burst into tears. At the time, I didn’t really believe it was their farewell tour – surely, like nearly every other band in the world, a few years after they’d supposedly disbanded, they’d get back together again because they’d have tax bills, divorce settlements, etc., to pay off? But of course that didn’t happen – Joey himself was dead six years later. So I’m bloody glad I took the opportunity to see the band when I did.
Incidentally, if you’re a lover of 1970s punk rock music and you’re ever in Berlin, you should pay a visit to the city’s Ramones Museum. Yes, that’s how cool Berlin is – it has a museum dedicated to the Ramones. This is possibly due to the fact that Dee Dee Ramone was the son of an American soldier and he spent part of his boyhood in Berlin, where his father was stationed for a time. And punk generally was big in Germany in the 1970s, especially in East Germany, despite it being frowned upon by the authorities there. (Punks in Great Britain only had to deal with the hostility of Mary Whitehouse, a few excitable tabloids and the occasional, violent Teddy boy. In East Germany, they had to deal with the hostility of the Stasi.)
Among the many exhibits in the museum are this poster for the Adios Amigos tour of Japan – yes, that’s how I was able to identify the precise day and date that I saw the band in Sapporo. There’s also a front page from the 19th August, 1976 edition of the local Glasgow newspaper, the Evening Times, which featured a shock-horror report about the band’s song Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. The Evening Times announced it was backing a campaign by Scottish Labour MP James Dempsey to have the song and the LP it appeared on banned, in case it encouraged youngsters to abuse solvents. (Read about the controversy here: http://rippedandtorn.co.uk/punk-rock-news/now-i-wanna-sniff-some-glue/.)
Among many other things, the Ramones appeared in the 1979 Roger Corman movie Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – although this was made shortly after Tommy had left the band and been replaced as drummer by Marky Ramone. If you’re in the right frame of mind, this is possibly the greatest rock-and-roll movie ever made. You can’t not like a movie that has the Ramones, P.J. Soles and Dick Miller in it.
(c) New World Pictures
Near the end, when the Ramones perform the title song and the school gets blown to pieces, Miller (playing the local police chief) says despairingly of the band, “They’re ugly, ugly people!” But they weren’t ugly, of course. They were beautiful.