Lou Reed did more for punk rock than just about any figure in popular music. With an aggressively anti-commercial attitude that he carried throughout the first two Velvet Underground albums, Reed wasn’t afraid to sound confrontational on record. Reed also played at some of the clubs that would later become synonymous with the 1970s punk rock scene, including Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan.
However, it was his fearlessness over the drug-infested street world of New York City that had a direct effect on Dee Dee Ramone. Tracks like ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ and ‘White Light/White Heat’ illustrated the day to day lives of drug users in ways that were blasé, even normal. It was his seminal composition with the Velvets, ‘Heroin’, that would end up being the starting point for one of Dee Dee’s seminal songs.
One day, former Television bassist Richard Hell approached his friend Dee Dee and proclaimed that he was going to write a song better than ‘Heroin’. The exact placement of events after this are up for debate, but the seeds were planted for Dee Dee to write a song that would be better than whatever Hell was attempting. He wanted to tap into the normalcy and unadorned reality that was heroin addiction, including pawning your belongings and getting calls from friends to score.
What Ramone eventually came out with was ‘Chinese Rocks’, which Hell then added a verse (or two, depending on who is asked) to. Dee Dee brought the song to the Ramones rehearsal, but Johnny Ramone didn’t want to perform the song due to its explicit allusions to heroin. Hell then decided to bring it to his own newly formed band, The Heartbreakers. With former New York Dolls members Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, plus guitarist Walter Lure, the Heartbreakers attitude to heroin was more relaxed (and indulgent), so they decided to take on the song for themselves.
Whether out of admission of the song’s greatness or out of rivalry with the Heartbreakers, Johnny eventually relented and the Ramones recorded their own version of ‘Chinese Rocks’ without the plural for their 1980 album End of the Century. Although most of the album featured the typical Wall of Sound production style of Phil Spector, ‘Chinese Rock’ was more in tune with the band’s stripped-down punk rock style.
The Heartbreakers played the song at their sporadic gigs, but The Ramones continue to play the song throughout their two decade long live career. At the band’s final show on August 6th, 1996, ‘Chinese Rock’ was the first song of the final encore, solidifying the song’s place among the group’s all time classics.
Check out both versions of ‘Chinese Rocks’ down below.