New York, 1974 — the city is falling into some sort of comic book dystopia. Andy Warhol’s factory stepped one toke over the line, and the prelapsarian dream of the sixties lies in ruin, like a long-forgotten civilization that the History Channel will say was built by aliens and abandoned centuries from now. The zeitgeist is one of gritty tumult and grimy turmoil. Flower power has been supplanted by a barren field of dirt. Opiates have replaced opulent excesses, and the only ubiquitous munificent bounty that money can’t buy is poverty.
The boon to this drudgery was the greatest decade of music in history; however, by the mid part of the seventies, like a champion sports team worrying about its roster’s average age, even music needed something new. As ever, that impetus would not be a bolt from the blue but a gold seam unearthed amidst the dirt. Just as rock ‘n’ roll was the inviolable crop plucked from the despairing pastures of plantations, punk clawed its way out of the plashy depths of degeneracy and never even brushed itself clean after it clambered into a sauntering snarl. Joey Ramone was the bowl cut Frankenstein monster that the cultural New York cocktail shaker had poured out. He was a most-vile concoction, barely palatable, he came with no ice or garnish, and he made for one hell of a good time.
He was born Jeffrey Ross Hyman on May 19th, 1951, to a Jewish family in Queens, New York. He came into the world with a partially formed parasitic twin growing out of his back. Thus his first hours after abseiling from the mother cave into capricious existence were spent in lifesaving surgery. He grew up with his brother Mickey Leigh, attending Forest Hills High School, where he met his future Ramones bandmates. He was happy and contented as the perennial outsider. Aged 18, he would be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. In 1974 he would form the Ramones and inexplicably, irrevocably and entirely inadvertently, change the world.
The hodgepodge mess of how the Ramones came to be is a tableau that proves very befitting. Joey Ramone was a drummer all through high school, and when he picked up an acoustic guitar at the age of 17, his skills were hardly Jimi Hendrix-Esque. As the old construction adage goes, Joey knew just enough to mess it up when it came to playing the guitar. His singing was hardly what you might term ‘acceptable’ either. And yet, this doggerel hollering and slapdash strumming proved to encapsulate punk perfectly when fate thrust him into the spotlight.
Dee Dee Ramone was the original frontman of the band, but when his voice gave out, Joey stepped up from behind the drumkit and took up the mantle. As his brother and bandmate Mickey Leigh once said, “I was shocked when the band came out. Joey was the lead singer, and I couldn’t believe how good he was. Because he’d been sitting in my house with my acoustic guitar, writing these songs like ‘I Don’t Care’, fucking up my guitar, and suddenly he’s this guy on stage who you can’t take your eyes off of.”
When the band failed to find somebody to occupy the sticks that Joey had left behind, their manager Thomas Erdelyi, became Tommy Ramone and climbed onto the drumming throne himself. The rest, as they say, is history….
…Or at least that is how hindsight tells the tale. Just like fellow New York band The Velvet Underground, The Ramones’ debut album was initially met with pitiful chart success but now resides as an LP that you couldn’t imagine the evolution of music without. The album might have only shifted around 5,000 copies in its first year, but since then its made one hell of an impact and turned the Ramones into legends. Everything about their debut record is now iconic; the cover image, taken by punks foremost photographer Roberta Bayley for only $125; the trashy sound recorded in seven days on a meagre budget of $6,400; even the snarling quickfire songwriting. Everything about the record seems quintessentially punk too.
The timeless appeal of the Ramones was best summed up by none other than the eponymous punk poet himself, John Cooper Clarke, who wrote in the Ramones fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, the following pithy piece of punk proclaiming prose: “I love Bob Dylan but I hold him responsible for two bad ideas: a) the extended running time of the popular song and b) the lyric sheet. […] In late 1975, I read an article on the Ramones, a four-man gang from Queens. Much was made of their snotty asocial stage manner and the speed and brevity of their songs. […] I bought the LP. The Ramones were and are an enthusiasm of mine. They understood that it was better to have clever lyrics about moronic subjects than the other way round.”
This, in short, was punk defined. The free love freeway of psychedelia was great. Still, the flower paved roads they sang of — or rather didn’t sing of but implied with via a cacophonous mud of effects peddles — were nowhere to be seen in these parts, those parts or anywhere else without a Rolls Royce splashing about in a swimming pool. The Ramones recognised that much of society was lamentable, but what was the point of grumbling when you could choose to laugh instead.
The life of Joey doesn’t just mirror the punk rock paradigm that the Ramones proved to be — they are one and the same. Rarely has the life of any artist been so indelibly entwined with their creative output. He imparted a leather-clad sonic overload so paradoxically singular and orchestral it was as though Genghis Khan’s marauding empire of horns, hooves and death chants had been channelled from the ether of history into one weird looking mutant lovechild of a dentist with shares in a leather emporium and Pepé King Prawn from The Muppets.
This containment of multitudes defined the band, its existence and the lives of its members. Joey was, by all accounts, a kind-hearted, soppy, liberal romantic. Johnny was the nuclear reverse. He stole Joey’s girlfriend, and the two bandmates barely spoke to each other in the 22 years that they spent occupying the same 10 square feet that a band coinhabit. Is there anything more conservative than planting a flag on the pastures of someone else’s toil and claiming it for your own? That is near enough what Joey spat at Johnny on the track that they played together ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’.
Johnny eventually married Joey’s sweetheart Linda Danielle. Thereafter, his drinking and cocaine consumption surpassed the roof he had already broken through and journeyed into the sniffing and supping stratosphere. Somehow the band managed to sustain this head-slide up until 1996. In the marauding maelstrom of their listless spleen, they stirred up a slew of contemporaries and steered punk towards something sincerely chaotic and meaningfully manic. For all intents and purposes, the troubled Joey was steering this equally troubled ship like a champion sailor of the choppy high seas. Stories of Dee Dee and Johnny’s antics may be bountiful, but antics alone do not last. If there is a reason that the bloom of the Ramones still has not withered within the plucked scarlet bouquet of punk, then Joey is it.
He wove his own path saying, “For me, punk is about real feelings. It’s not about, ‘Yeah, I am a punk and I’m angry. ‘ That’s a lot of crap. It’s about loving the things that really matter: passion, heart and soul.” And he later guided the way to the path for others, “Hang in there. If you believe what you’re doing is unique. Otherwise give up or sound like Nirvana…” It is a legacy still very much alive 20 years on.