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Credit: Masao Nakagami

Music

Why Johnny Ramone was a terrible punk

Ahh punk, you strange and contradictory beauty. The first wave of punk was a zeitgeist shifting groundswell that reacted to the grey social landscape of the ’70s. It rewrote the handbook in what was acceptable in both music and society. Without it, culture would not be where it is today. If you refute this, we advise that you take 5 minutes to ponder this point.

The original movement gave us legends such as Joe Strummer, Poly Styrene and Joey Ramone. They helped shine a light on society’s ills and galvanised the younger generation to not commit themselves to a life of idle service to the minimum wage as their parents had done. Figures such as the aforementioned are widely hailed as campaigners of the righteous, and their detractors can only really be described as, well, arseholes.

The interesting thing about punks is that they have an innate ability to be outspoken. Over the years, some of the original cohorts have veered off the punk ethos songsheet and betrayed their younger selves. When ex-Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten outlined his disdain for same-sex marriages in 2005 and his labelling of Nigel Farage as “fantastic” in 2017, this was made extremely clear. 

However, another figure from that original set of punks whose political opinions were literally the antithesis of the movement he was part of, making him a leather-clad contradiction. This was the bowl-cutted, long-lost brother of Dave Hill, Johnny Ramone.

The strange thing about Johnny Ramone is that what he did for punk was incredible and should never be forgotten. He re-appropriated the fast downstrokes of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page when he fell in love with a live BBC version of their 1968 track ‘Communication Breakdown’. 

Almost single-handedly, he helped establish it as one of the most critical punk blueprints by repackaging the technique within Ramones’ blistering brilliance. 

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Outside of the music, though, Johnny Ramone was an outlier. Labelled the ‘the Rush Limbaugh of rock and roll’ by his bandmates, you get the picture of where we’re heading with this one. 

He expertly managed to hide his political persuasion from the masses until 2002, when Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, given 9/11 as still fresh in the memory and the magnitude of the platform he found himself on, he could not help himself from ending his acceptance speech by proclaiming ‘God bless President Bush, and God bless America’.

Fans were shocked, but they shouldn’t have been. In fact, Johnny Ramone forced the band to change the name of their classic 1986 track ‘Bonzo Goes To Bitburg’ to ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down’. The song is a critique of then-Republican President Ronald Reagan, who visited a Nazi cemetery in Germany to many people’s shock.

We said Ramone was a walking contradiction, and here’s why. Showing himself to have always carried that contrary punk ethos, he once explained to the Washington Post why he was a Republican. 

“It was in 1960, the Nixon-Kennedy election,” Ramone told the publication, explaining that he first realised he was a Republican aged just 12-years-old. “People around me were saying, ‘Oh, Kennedy’s so handsome,’ and I thought, ‘Well if these people are going to vote for someone based on how he looks, I don’t want to be a party to that.”

He always showed himself to be deeply cynical of the world, a trait shared by many punks and a perspective closely shared by the likes of Rotten. He later told the same publication: “People drift towards liberalism at a young age, and I always hope they change when they see how the world really is.” 

With the “see how the world really is” comment, Johnny Ramone cast of his punk status and showed himself to be what he truly was, a boomer. He was born in the post-war world in 1948, and Ramone’s world-weary comments have nothing of the innate anti-establishmentarian spirit of his punk brothers and sisters, rather the opposite.

His almost conspiracy theory level cynicism concentrated on the big, nasty world that was hard on the little old, hard-working ‘Muricans. 

His widow, Linda, offered up an explanation of his political thinking. She told Billboard, “Johnny was always a leader, never a follower so he wouldn’t care if everyone he knew is a Democrat it didn’t matter.” 

She continued: “He was a Republican. He worked hard and saved. That was his thing. The Ramones didn’t really ever have a big hit single so do you want to get out of The Ramones and what, get a regular job.” 

This account is fair enough, we all have personal reasons behind our beliefs, and that’s just life. It’s just deeply ironic that one of the vital cogs in one of the most important punk bands of all time was also a Republican. However, this is made even more ridiculous by the fact he once listed the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Richard Nixon among his favourite Republicans of all time.

Furthermore, there are rumours surrounding ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away‘. This 1981 classic by Ramones features a protagonist that sings about how the Ku Klux Klan has kidnapped his girlfriend, and he pleads with the authority’s to find her.

Although it has long been debated by Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh and ex-drummer Marky Ramone, the band’s tour manager, Monte Melnick, stated that the song is actually a not-so-thinly veiled reference to Johnny. 

Long tales have abounded that Johnny was pretty awful to Joey and that he used to tease him of his Jewish origins, a very KKK-esque thing to do. Then, there’s also the story that Johnny allegedly “stole” Joey’s girlfriend, Linda, yes that one. How un-punk of him.

Johnny Ramone should never be forgotten for his blistering guitar skills and the massive impact he had on shaping punk’s musical character. However, he was a terrible punk. Whilst not a nazi punk by any means, regardless of his teasing of Joey’s Jewish origins, it is certain that Jello Biafra and Co. would have in no uncertain terms told him to “fuck off!”

Watch his President Bush speech below.

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