Ramone at punk rock's birth

Guitarist grounded ground-breaking band


September 17, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

They were four of the biggest punks around, influencing generations of angst-filled young men, but the Ramones never thought much of their power.

The seminal band that formed in 1974 was the underdog of the genre, a group whose frenetic, bare-essentials music paved the way for such mega-successful '90s groups as Nirvana and Green Day. But the Ramones were never fully understood or embraced until it was too late. And now another one is gone.

Johnny Ramone, the group's acclaimed guitarist, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, losing a five-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 55.

Born John Cummings, Ramone (each of the band's members - all unrelated - adopted the surname) was the one who predicted the group would become only a "footnote in rock 'n' roll history." The guys certainly never got rich.

Because none of their songs (including "Blitzkrieg Bop," "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Beat on the Brat") rocketed into the Top 10, because their music was primitive (four chords, a catchy melody, inane lyrics) and because their look wasn't exactly camera-friendly (dark mop haircuts, torn jeans and leather jackets), the Ramones barely rose above cult status.

Yet their influence was great enough to land a 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And in theaters now (though not yet in Baltimore) is End of the Century: The Ramones Story, a documentary that details the band's tumultuous history. It's typical that artists who were underappreciated in their time are re-evaluated and celebrated after death. Now that Johnny's gone, only one member of the original quartet is still alive: drummer Tommy Ramone. Singer Joey died in 2001 from lymphatic cancer and bassist Dee Dee died from a drug overdose the next year.

Johnny was the group's anchor, the one who insisted on better pay for concerts. He was conservative with the band's tight budget. (Speaking of conservative, the guitarist was an outspoken Republican who adored Ronald Reagan. He was also a supporter of the National Rifle Association.)

Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee formed the Ramones in Queens in early 1974. (Initially, Joey doubled on drums and vocals and Tommy was the manager. But he became the Ramones' drummer after the band's first gig in March of '74.) The group's name came from the alias Paul McCartney used when he reserved hotel rooms during his years with the Beatles.

The Ramones favored pre-Beatles rock, speeding up the tempo considerably. The sound, at the time, was revolutionary. The band's 1976 self-titled debut, recorded for less than $7,000, was (and remains) the blueprint for hardcore punk music.

Other albums - Ramones Leave Home, Rocket to Russia (both 1977) and Road to Ruin (1978) - garnered critical acclaim and cemented the band's musical legacy. But the records charted poorly. Still, despite drug addictions, vicious infighting and an artistic decline in their albums, the Ramones chugged through the next decade, playing small gigs around the world. By the '90s, the band somehow became hip again.

In 1992, Spin magazine named the Ramones one of the top seven acts of all time. The next year, the band was featured in cartoon form on The Simpsons. Despite the new appreciation of the group, the Ramones split in 1996. Johnny didn't play his guitar much afterward.

Born into a blue-color Italian family, Johnny led a relatively quiet life after the band dissolved. He loved movies and baseball. He and his wife, Linda, had no children.

Assessing the Ramones' legacy in a 2003 interview with The New York Times, Johnny said, "I'm very competitive and I want people to see us as one of the best bands, and when most people you talk to don't even know who the hell you are, yeah, it never feels good."

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