Early days: 1974–1975
The original members of the band met in and around the middle-class neighborhood of Forest Hills in the New York City borough of Queens. John Cummings and Thomas Erdelyi had both been in a high-school garage band in 1966–67 known as the Tangerine Puppets. They became friends with Douglas Colvin, who had recently moved to the area from Germany. Jeffrey Hyman was in the short-lived early 1970s glam rock band Sniper.
The Ramones began taking shape in early 1974 when Cummings and Colvin invited Hyman to join them in a band. The initial lineup featured Colvin on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Cummings on lead guitar, and Hyman on drums. Colvin, who soon switched from rhythm guitar to bass, was the first to adopt the name Ramone, dubbing himself Dee Dee Ramone. He was inspired by Paul McCartney’s use of the pseudonym Paul Ramon during his Silver Beatles days. Dee Dee convinced the other members to take on the name and came up with the idea of calling the band the Ramones. Hyman and Cummings became Joey Ramone and Johnny Ramone, respectively.
A friend of the band—Monte A. Melnick, later their tour manager—helped to arrange rehearsal time for them at Manhattan’s Performance Studios, where he worked. Johnny’s former bandmate Erdelyi was set to become their manager. Soon after the band was formed, Dee Dee realized that he could not sing and play bass at the same time; with Erdelyi’s encouragement, Joey became the band’s new lead vocalist. Dee Dee would continue, however, to count off each song’s tempo with his signature rapid-fire shout of “1-2-3-4!” Joey soon similarly realized that he could not sing and play drums simultaneously and left the position of drummer. While auditioning prospective replacements, Erdelyi would often take to the drums and demonstrate how to play the songs. It became apparent that he was able to perform the group’s music better than anyone else, and he joined the band as Tommy Ramone.
The Ramones played before an audience for the first time on March 30, 1974, at their rehearsal space. The songs they played were very fast and very short; most clocked in at under two minutes.
Around this time, a new music scene was emerging in New York centered around two clubs in downtown Manhattan—Max’s Kansas City and, more famously, CBGB (usually referred to as CBGB’s). The Ramones made their CBGB’s debut on August 16. Legs McNeil, who co-founded Punk magazine the following year, later described the impact of that performance: “They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song…and it was just this wall of noise…. They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.”
The band swiftly became regulars at the club, playing there seventy-four times by the end of the year. After garnering considerable attention for their performances—which averaged about seventeen minutes from beginning to end—the group was signed to a recording contract in the later part of 1975 by Seymour Stein of Sire Records. Stein’s wife, Linda Stein, had seen the band play at CBGB’s; she would later co-manage them along with Danny Fields. By this time, the Ramones were recognized as leaders of the new scene that was increasingly being referred to as ‘punk’. The group’s unusual frontman had a lot to do with their impact. As Dee Dee explained, “All the other singers [in New York] were copying David Johansen [of The New York Dolls], who was copying Mick Jagger…. But Joey was unique, totally unique.”
Spearheading punk: 1976–1977
The Ramones recorded their debut album, Ramones, in February 1976. Of the fourteen songs on the album, the longest, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement”, barely surpassed two-and-a-half minutes. While the songwriting credits were shared by the entire band, Dee Dee was the primary writer. The record, coproduced by Tommy and Craig Leon on an extremely low budget of about $6,400, was released in April. The now iconic front cover photograph of the band was taken by Roberta Bayley, who shot regularly for Punk magazine.
Ramones made little commercial impact, reaching only number 111 on the Billboard album chart. The two associated singles, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, failed to chart at all. At the band’s first major gig outside of New York, a June date in Youngstown, Ohio, approximately ten people showed up. It wasn’t until they made a brief tour of England that they began to see the fruits of their labor; a performance at The Roundhouse in London on July 4, 1976 (second-billed to the Flamin’ Groovies), organized by Linda Stein, was a resounding success. Their Roundhouse appearance and a club date the following night—where the band met members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash—helped galvanize the burgeoning UK punk rock scene. The Flamin’ Groovies/Ramones double bill was successfully reprised at The Roxy in Los Angeles the following month, fueling the punk scene there as well. The Ramones were becoming an increasingly popular live act—a Toronto performance in September energized yet another growing punk scene.
Their next two albums, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, were released in 1977. Both were coproduced by Tommy and Tony Bongiovi, the second cousin of Jon Bon Jovi. Leave Home met with even less chart success than Ramones, though it did include “Pinhead”, which became one of the band’s signature songs with its chanted refrain of “Gabba gabba hey!” Rocket to Russia was the band’s highest charting album to date, reaching number 49 on the Billboard 200. In Rolling Stone, critic Dave Marsh called it “the best American rock & roll of the year”. The album also featured the first Ramones single to break into the Billboard charts (albeit only as high as number 81): “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”. The follow-up single, “Rockaway Beach”, climbed to number 66—the highest any Ramones single would ever reach in America. On December 31, 1977, the Ramones recorded It’s Alive, a live concert double album, at the Rainbow Theatre, London, which was released in April 1979 (the title is a reference to the 1974 horror film It’s Alive).
Recordings turn more pop: 1978–1983
Tommy, tired of touring, left the band in early 1978. He continued as the Ramones’ record producer under his birthname of Erdelyi. His position as drummer was filled by Marc Bell, who had been a member of the early 1970s hard rock band Dust and punk icon Richard Hell’s backing band The Voidoids. Bell became Marky Ramone. Later that year, the band released their fourth album, and first with Marky, Road to Ruin. The album, coproduced by Tommy with Ed Stasium, included some new sounds like acoustic guitar, several ballads, and the band’s first two recorded songs longer than three minutes. It failed to crack the Billboard Top 100. However, “I Wanna Be Sedated”, which appeared both on the album and as the B-side of the single “I Don’t Want You”, would become one of the band’s best-known songs. The artwork on the album’s cover was done by Punk magazine co-founder John Holmstrom.
After the band’s movie debut in Roger Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), renowned producer Phil Spector became interested in the Ramones and produced their 1980 album End of the Century. During the recording sessions in Los Angeles, Spector pulled a gun on Dee Dee, forcing him to repeatedly play a riff. Though End of the Century was to be the highest-charting album in the band’s history—number 44 in the United States, number 14 in Great Britain—Johnny made clear that he favored the band’s more aggressive punk material. A stance also conveyed by the title and track selection of the compilation album he later oversaw: Loud, Fast Ramones: Their Toughest Hits. He later commented on working with Spector, “It really worked when he got to a slower song like ‘Danny Says’—the production really worked tremendously. ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio’ is really good. For the harder stuff, it didn’t work as well.” The syrupy, string-laden Ronettes cover “Baby, I Love You” released as a single, became the band’s biggest ever hit in Great Britain, reaching number 8 on the charts.
Pleasant Dreams, the band’s sixth album, was released in 1981. The record continued the trend established by End of The Century, diluting the rawer punk sound showcased on the band’s initial three albums. Slick production was again featured, this time provided by Graham Gouldman of UK pop act 10cc. Johnny would contend in retrospect that this direction was a record company decision, a continued futile attempt to get airplay on American radio. While Pleasant Dreams reached number 58 on the U.S. chart, its two singles failed to register at all. On August 1, 1981, however, the Ramones became the first band to be interviewed on the newly formed cable network MTV, which temporarily provided a more receptive outlet for the band’s music.
Subterranean Jungle, produced by Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin, was released in 1983. Billy Rogers, who had performed with Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, played drums on the album’s second single, a cover of The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today”. Subterranean Jungle peaked at number 83 in the United States—it would be the last album by the band to crack the Billboard Top 100.
Shuffling members: 1983–1989
After the release of Subterranean Jungle, Marky Ramone was fired from the band because of his alcoholism. He was replaced by Richard Reinhardt, who adopted the name Richie Ramone. The first album the Ramones recorded with Richie was Too Tough to Die in 1984, with Tommy Erdelyi returning as producer. The band’s main release of 1985 was the British single “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”; though it was available in the United States only as an import, it was played widely on American college radio. The song was written by Joey in protest of Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German military cemetery where SS members were buried.
Retitled “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)”, the song appeared on the band’s 1986 album, Animal Boy. Produced by Jean Beauvoir, formerly a member of the Plasmatics, the LP was characterized by a Rolling Stone reviewer as “nonstop primal fuzz pop”. Making it his pick for “album of the week”, New York Times critic Jon Pareles wrote that the Ramones “speak up for outcasts and disturbed individuals”. The following year, the band recorded their last album with Richie, Halfway to Sanity. The record was produced by Daniel Rey, formerly a guitarist with the late-1970s punk band Shrapnel. Richie left in August 1987, upset that after being in the band for four years, the other members would still not give him a share of the money they made selling T-shirts. Richie was replaced by Clem Burke from Blondie, which was disbanded at the time. According to Johnny, the performances with Burke—who took on the name Elvis Ramone—were a disaster. He was fired after two shows because his drumming could not keep up with the rest of the band. Marky, now clean and sober, returned.
Dee Dee Ramone left after 1989’s Brain Drain, coproduced by Beauvoir, Rey, and Bill Laswell He was replaced by Christopher Joseph Ward (C.J. Ramone), who performed and recorded with the band until their break-up. Dee Dee initially pursued a brief solo career as a rapper, adopting the name Dee Dee King. He quickly returned to punk rock and formed several bands, all of them in much the same vein as the Ramones. He also wrote a number of songs for the Ramones, many of them sung by C.J.
Final years: 1990–1996
After more than a decade and a half at Sire Records, the Ramones moved to a new label, Radioactive Records. The band’s first album for Radioactive, released in 1992, was Mondo Bizarro, which reunited them with producer Ed Stasium. Acid Eaters, consisting entirely of cover songs, came out the following year. In 1993 as well, the Ramones were featured on an episode of The Simpsons titled “Rosebud”, providing the music and voices for their animated versions. Booked to sing “Happy Birthday” at a party for industrialist Mr. Burns, the cartoon version of the band demonstrates its distaste for the job with various shouted invectives: “I’d just like to say this gig sucks!” (Joey), “Hey, up yours, Springfield!” (Johnny), and “Go to Hell, you old bastard!” (C.J.). On the other hand, the cartoon Marky quips, “Hey, I think they liked us!” Afterward, a confused Mr. Burns orders his assistant Smithers to “have The Rolling Stones killed.”
In 1995, the Ramones came out with ¡Adios Amigos! and announced that they planned to break up if the album was not a hit. Its sales were unremarkable, garnering it just two weeks on the lower end of the Billboard chart. The band spent the latter part of 1995 on what was promoted as a farewell tour. However, they accepted an offer to appear in the sixth Lollapalooza festival, which toured around the United States during the following summer. After the Lollapalooza tour’s conclusion, the Ramones played their final show on August 6, 1996, at the Palace in Hollywood. A recording of the concert was later released on video and CD as We’re Outta Here! In addition to a reappearance by Dee Dee, the show featured several guests including Motörhead’s Lemmy, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen.
Aftermath and deaths
On July 20, 1999, Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, Tommy, Marky, and C.J. appeared together at the Virgin Megastore in New York City for an autograph signing. This was the last occasion on which the original
four members of the group appeared together. Joey, who had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 1995, died of the illness on April 15, 2001, in New York.
In 2002, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which specifically named Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, Tommy, and Marky. At the ceremony, the surviving inductees spoke on behalf of the band. Tommy spoke first, saying how honored the band felt, but how much it would have meant for Joey. Johnny thanked the band’s fans and blessed George W. Bush and his presidency, Dee Dee humorously congratulated and thanked himself, while Marky thanked Tommy for influencing his drum style. Green Day played “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” as a tribute, demonstrating the Ramones’ continuing influence on later rock musicians. The ceremony was one of Dee Dee’s last public appearances; on June 5, 2002, two months later, he was found at his Hollywood home, dead from a heroin overdose.
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, a Ramones documentary, was released in theaters in 2004. Johnny, who had been privately battling prostate cancer, died on September 15, 2004, in Los Angeles, almost exactly as the film was released. On the same day as Johnny’s death, the world’s first Ramones Museum opened its doors to the public. Located in Berlin, Germany, the museum features more than 300 items of memorabilia, including a pair of stage-worn jeans from Johnny, a stage-worn glove from Joey, Marky’s sneakers, and C.J.’s stage-worn bass strap.
The Ramones were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007. That October saw the release of a DVD set containing concert footage of the band: It’s Alive 1974-1996 includes 118 songs from 33 performances over the span of the group’s career.