‘End of the Century’ at 40: The Ramones cross paths of destruction with infamous producer Phil Spector
40 years on and the Ramones iconic record End of the Century still stands out as one of their most notorious. Not least of all because of its infamous producer, Phil Spector.
When a band is credited with being at the live birth of an institution of rock and roll like the Ramones were for punk, you expect them to be worth a few quid. But while the band were the creators of the most wonderful three-chord bliss, in 1980, they were yet to hit the ‘big time’.
In the midst of their desire to crack the charts, they seemingly only had one hope: Phil Spector, the pop producer extraordinaire whose legacy will always be tainted. This was always going to be a disaster zone.
The band were approaching the maturation of their career. A little way down the road from their fuzzy-heavy inception in the bowels of the New York Scene, the Ramones were looking to feather their nests with a little bit of green paper. With the end of the decade approaching and the loom of the 21st century drawing ever closer Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and, for the first time not Tommy Ramone, all gathered to make their fifth studio album End of the Century.
With their eyes trained on the top of the mountain, Phil Spector quickly became a key candidate to produce the album on Sire records. Spector had hit mega-stardom with his work with The Ronettes and The Crystals in the sixties and after working with The Beatles, was now keen to help move the heavy metal bubblegum band of leather jackets and ripped jeans into the mainstream. It would become the stuff of punk legend.
Marky Ramone remembers “I understood [Spector’s] attitude, he was from The Bronx, I was from Brooklyn. We got along very well and had a nice rapport…”
The record rated highly among critics and approached a far wider range of subject matter in the songs. It opened the band up to a new audience. It allowed the band to breach into new areas, using their music to talk about addiction and tour life. The partnership even had a mark of approval on the album itself as the Ramones covered The Ronettes ‘Baby I Love You’. In fact, it was this song that would signify the relationship between band and producer and how it may have crossed the line from strange into downright deranged.
The signs of Spector’s notorious obsessive behaviour soon began to appear. Dee Dee Ramone said of his techniques: “Phil would sit in the control room and would listen through the headphones to Marky hit one note on the drum, hour after hour, after hour, after hour.”
The rest of the band agreed too, Johnny Ramone remarked in a 1982 interview about their conflicting styles, “Working with Phil was very difficult because I guess he’s a perfectionist so he likes to spend a lot of time redoing things and re-listening and it’s very time consuming. It’s very hard for us. Rock n roll’s got to be very spontaneous and a little faster.”
In the same interview Johnny explained that Spector once listened to a chord for 12 hours straight: “The opening chord to our song ‘Rock N Roll High School,’ he spent 12 hours sitting there and listening to the same chord over and over again. I mean, it’s just not worth it. I mean, nobody else could hear the difference. The chord came out sounding okay, but 12 hours worth ain’t really worth it, you know?” it was enough to drive Johnny crazy and he almost left the band. The tension between the two leading Spector to hire a bodyguard, bringing him along to band meetings in case Johnny jumped him. It surely couldn’t get worse?
It got worse. The recording sessions may have provided a lot of strange behaviour from the split-personality of Spector. But a scary preview into the future of Spector was laid out in front of the band as he often used bodyguards and even guns as a form of intimidation.
Dee Dee Ramone remembers in his autobiography how Spector had threatened him at gunpoint: “He levelled his gun at my heart and then motioned for me and the rest of the band to get back in the piano room … He only holstered his pistol when he felt secure that his bodyguards could take over. Then he sat down at his black concert piano and made us listen to him play and sing ‘Baby, I Love You’ until well after 4:30 in the morning.”
The partnership would naturally not see a reprisal. But the erratic behaviour of Phil Spector would drastically become a more and more frequent and dangerous occurrence. The ‘Wall of Sound’ producer would eventually be sentenced to jail time for his part in the murder of Lara Clark but would continue to produce music during the lengthy trial period. Spector was finally sentenced to 19 years in jail in 2009.
The Ramones wouldn’t ever hit the ‘big time’ as they had hoped. The group would maintain a career until 1995 but never quite afford the designer leather jacket and jeans, failing to ever sell-out successfully.
While End of the Century didn’t propel them into mainstream mansions they had been aiming for, it did add to the band’s legend. It cemented their rock royalty status and leaves them labelled as the prince of punks.