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What the Ramones really thought of the other CBGB bands

@TylerGolsen

If you ever want to feel depressed, disenchanted, or incredulous towards the typical grandeur and epic nature that is associated with rock and roll, just watch End of the Century: The History of the Ramones. Over an hour and a half, the documentary makes being in the Ramones, one of the most legendary and important bands of all time, look like an insufferable experience.

From a lack of mainstream success to disheartening failures that seem to follow the band like a bad incurable disease, life as a Ramone is about as unglamorous as can be. Gross touring vans, dingy clubs, constant internal conflict, and drug abuse are everyday realities within the group, and it only gets worse once the original foursome fractures. For any bass player or drummer who comes in, a disappointing lifestyle, lack of income, and a dictator-like rule from Johnny quickly dashed the joy of being a part of punk’s greatest band.

Throughout the runtime, you can feel the documentary crew attempting to craft something resembling the mythos and legend of the Ramones, but the members themselves are having none of it. Tommy visits the group’s home neighbourhood of Forest Hills, Queens, early on, but when asked if he feels anything special about the area, he responds with a curt “no”. At one point Johnny is asked if the Ramones saved him from delinquency, but he shoots down that notion as well. 

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However, perhaps the harshest reality comes from both Johnny and Dee Dee. When asked if Tommy, the band’s founder, foundational member, producer, and songwriter, was important to the sound and style of the group, they both dismiss the notion and his contributions to the band. When Dee Dee, who is generally the nicest in relation to Tommy’s influence within the group, states that Tommy was simply “in the right place at the right time”, you can feel just how unsentimental and fucked up the group’s dynamics were.

But the documentary is nonetheless a fascinating and necessary document for any punk rock true believer, music nerd, or fan of true life drama. With all the layers of sappy exaggeration stripped away, what’s left is a raw and uncut look at a band that almost single-handedly shaped an entire genre’s sound, look, and ethos. The viewer also gets plenty of great quotes, whether they come from the surprisingly erudite and insightful Dee Dee, the genial and good-natured Joey, the calm and collected Tommy, or terse and direct Johnny.

Some of those great lines come when the members size up their contemporaries in the New York punk scene, specifically some of the other bands that also played at the legendary Bowery club CBGBs. First and foremost is Television, one of the original CBGB bands: one of the best parts of the documentary comes from the different assessments of Television.

Joey concedes that the Ramones originally played at CBGB’s because they heard Television played there. Dee Dee was a major fan, claiming: “I loved Television. That was CBGB’s to me: some lonely night with ten people there and Television playing. Tom Verlaine playing the Venus de Milo song, you know, it was great”. But Johnny offered a different assessment, rounding up the rest of the acts with a succinct analysis: “Talking Heads were doing something completely different; Television I didn’t see as no competition; The Heartbreakers were all a bunch of junkies, so I knew their careers were going to be short.”

Alan Vega of Suicide was at the first Ramones gig at CBGBs, and he approached Johnny afterwards to offer his opinion. “The first person that came up to us was Alan Vega of Suicide,” remembers Johnny. “He said, ‘You guys are great. This is what I’ve been waiting for.’ And I thought, ‘This guy’s nuts.’ First fan.” 

Joey offered that there was “a decent kind of camaraderie to some degree,” explaining that the venue’s bands were often the majority crowd for the other groups and that they would all hang out outside of the club’s walls after the shows. But things got very territorial very quickly. “I remember the early bands there. It was getting to be a nightmare,” Dee Dee recalls. “With the Mumps, Mink DeVille, and the Marbles, all these jerk off bands thought they were big stars and they weren’t. The Ramones were big stars. You know, we were very stand-offish and very snobby, so we irritated the hell out of everyone.”

Ultimately, when the original wave of punk rock burned out, the Ramones were one of the rare bands to stick by the genre. Blondie and Talking Heads jumped ship, Television and The Heartbreakers had broken up (as Johnny predicted), but the Ramones were one of the few bands to continue on. At the same time, the band couldn’t really play at CBGB anymore: new, more intense bands like the Bad Brains and Reagan Youth invaded the space. The Ramones now had to move on to their next era, even if major stardom eluded them. After all, the Ramones were never about success: they were about survival.

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