For this week’s new ten-years-later “re-view,” please welcome Brian Beckley, a writer and former bass player of The Disenchanted. He is a Tommy with a Joey rising and still has his leather jacket ready if needed.
“I want to live, I want to live my life…” – “I Want to Live,” 1987, menu song “Ramones: End of the Century”
There are very few Perfect Bands, bands that get it right on the first time and never have to change.
There are very few bands with such a unique sound that whenever you drop the needle on any song on any record, you know the band; Very few bands that on their first record define a sonic pattern so singular, so immediate that there was nowhere to evolve to as their career grew.
There’s AC/DC. Public Enemy. Rage Against the Machine.
And there’s the Ramones.
They were the beginning of everything. Not only were they a Perfect Band, but as a band, as a vision, they invented and defined a genre – Punk – changing all of music, all of culture, in a way that only the Beatles before them had done.
(As an aside, while the Beatles may be The perfect band, were never a Perfect Band, because while they defined and changed the culture around them, they evolved with the changing times, instead of holding true to the initial vision…)
The Ramones were the Founding Fathers, the archetypes of everything that came after them, everything that sprang from their vision: Skinny, gawky white kids in black leather jackets and jeans, standing against a brick wall singing twisted and pure, if FAST rock and roll songs about dancing and girls and being an outcast.
They were perfect. They were rock and roll. They were punk.
From the beginning, they were the basis for all punk to follow. They were, each of them, the archetypes of punk rock:
Johnny is the Libertarian Rebel. He probably doesn’t like you, has no need for you, thinks he’s better than you and doesn’t care what you think of him. He has a Vision.
Joey is the Introvert. He’s the outcast, the dreamer. Joey longs to be accepted, but knows he never will.
Dee Dee is the Drunk Punk. He’s uneducated, doesn’t care, doesn’t want to be and is just looking to have a good time right now, no matter the cost for later.
Tommy is the Big Picture Punk. He’s the punk-by-choice. He’s the Philosophical Punk.
Each of them are outsiders, loners, brought together with a single vision, a single idea.
And all sealed with the last name “Ramone” to form that sense of unity, that false family that we all find in a scene of outsiders looking for a place to be themselves.
But the Ramones, in their rigid purity, were left behind, respected and loved for the way they stayed true to their ideals, but generally broke and struggling while watching others pass them by.
Like punk itself.
“Anyone else would probably be happy if they had what we had.” -Dee Dee Ramone, opening scene
End of the Century opens at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002. Everywhere there are voices, voices you recognize, talking about how important the Ramones are, how no one could make the music they make without the Ramones setting the standard and starting it all, how everyone thought the Ramones would be “bigger than the Stones.”
But that was never the case.
Like the Ramones, The End of the Century is an almost perfect documentary about the band. It’s honest (sometimes to a discomforting fault), cynical, angry, gritty and in the end, you can’t help singing along.
Ten years later, it’s still the same. Like the Ramones, it could have come out yesterday or it could have come out 25 years ago and it probably would have looked and sounded the same.
The Ramones, like punk rock, never change.
But we do.
End of the Century was released in 2004. At that time, I was living in a studio apartment in Tacoma with nothing on the walls and aside from my stereo and my air mattress and some makeshift bookshelves, all I had was my guitars.
I’m not good at the guitar and I never have been. I’ve never had a real lesson, though I was told where to put my fingers to make chords and which knobs to turn to chase respectable people of the room.
And I’ve played in several bands. Good bands.
I am a punk. And I am a punk because of the Ramones.
I didn’t see this documentary until it hit DVD, but I was still in that same studio with the same bare walls, clinging to the punk rock ideal that what I wanted to do was more important than the material possessions I gave up in that chase.
I was not a fulltime musician, but I was a writer who came up in the East Coast DIY Punk Rock scene of the mid-’90s – a scene that traces its roots directly to the Ramones – and I believed deeply the worst thing in the world is Selling Out and that eventually I would be rewarded for not only doing what I did, but doing it damn well.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
“There were no standards after the Ramones. All you had to do was be yourself.” – Kirk Hammett, Metallica
From the start, the Ramones are outcasts. In the mid-’70s world of earth tones and 27-minute Emerson Lake and Palmer theremin solos (which we get a clip of to remind us how depressing rock and roll had become), the Ramones didn’t fit in with anyone else, which brings them together.
What they all had in common was a love of music, specifically of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, one of the proto-punk bands who along with the MC5 and the New York Dolls helped pave a transition for the emergence of a true punk rock.
In the ’90s, I was an outcast. I fell in with other outcasts and we bonded over not fitting in and over music that didn’t fit in, music that was also a little outside the mainstream, but bubbling up at the time. And, obviously, the Ramones. If they could do it, we could.
For Johnny Ramone, the Dolls were that band.
“No way am I ever going to be able to play like this,” he says as ELP wank around in front of a laser show at some arena. But the Dolls? That he can do.
The band came together like almost every punk band: one guy has a cheap guitar, someone knows a drummer, maybe a bass player and someone thinks they can sing. There’s a shift of instruments here, a role change there and maybe even someone who never before played an instrument to give the sound something no one else has, like Tommy, figuring out how to play drums along with whatever it was Johnny and Dee Dee were doing to that guitar and bass.
And when Joey, the gawkiest, nerdiest, OCD-i-est outcast in the neighborhood steps to the mic, he transforms and all of sudden, everything clicks.
Ugly becomes beautiful for the Ramones, for all of punk. Celebrate the ugly things! Transform the establishment’s idea of trash, of useless and rejected and thrown-off garbage and make it strong and great.
Like Johnny and Dee Dee pushing the limits of the 12-bar blues and their amplifiers all at once. Like Joey transforming from a nobody wallflower to a howling front man. Like black leather jackets, ratty jeans and brick walls being the height of cool and fashion.
Tommy was the first to recognize it, of course. In the movie, Tommy says that while listening to “Judy is a Punk” he realized they had something, something new, something fresh, something Perfect.
At their first show, at a Bowery bar called CBGB that no one had ever heard of, the Ramones came out on stage, amps cranked, counted off and went into different songs. They stopped, stormed off stage, regrouped, came back and blew the doors off the place with “Blitzkreig Bop.”
“Immediately half my record collection became obsolete.” – I didn’t write down who said this because it doesn’t matter.
The Ramones first album hits like a bomb, but a very localized bomb. It’s raw, stripped-down sound appeals to New York and other areas of urban desolation, but fails to get a lot of traction. But everyone agrees it’s amazing and new.
When they hit the road, the Ramones play for nobody, despite growing crowds and a growing scene at CBGB of other musicians, inspired by the Ramones not letting a lack of training or true ability stop them. Wherever they went, the Ramones were pied pipers of punk rock. Bands sprung up everywhere, formative bands, bands that inspired the bands that took over the world in the mid-’90s: The Replacements, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys.
In England, the impact of the Ramones was even bigger. Joe Strummer of the Clash and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and members of the Damned, the Buzzcocks and every other British punk band you can think of all trace their formation back to the first appearance of the Ramones in London.
St. Joe even goes so far as to say there probably wouldn’t have been a scene if not for the Ramones.
“We do what we believe in. We have our integrity. We do what we do.” – Johnny Ramone on “Heart of Glass.”
As they head back to the states, the Ramones are still nobodies, playing in small clubs and watching the records fail to break the band in the same way some of their contemporaries are beginning to break.
In the CBGB scene, the Talking Heads and Blondie each passed the Ramones on the charts and in the public eye, each taking the same DIY idea as the Ramones, but tweaking it and making it a little more palatable for a general audience, maybe with a disco beat.
Punk is not for everyone. It’s aggressive and cynical and holds to a fairly rigid set of ideologies, fairly liberally applied of course. In some ways it is perfect, but it’s not easy.
The Ramones know this and they look down on their peers for compromising.
But soon Dee Dee starts to chafe against the iron fist of Johnny’s simple vision. It’s understandable, he’s getting older, starting to get a little success and he wants to branch out. But Johnny forces the uniform, from the haircut to the jacket.
Punk rock is a young man’s game and it’s fairly rigid in its ideological outlook.
From the very first record, the Ramones are strict to their vision. Right off the bat, the head of their first label was concerned about the lyrics to “I’m A Nazi, Baby” and wanted the band to change the lyric.
Johnny refused. He was not going to compromise. Period.
But Johnny’s iron fisted rule wore on band members and Tommy, the Philosophical Punk, leaves the band to pursue a career as a producer. Tommy had bigger ideas and understood the vision, but saw how rigid the application was and worked to find a way to apply that vision while still, well, growing up.
At its core, punk rock is a teenage artform. Only when you’re young can you afford to hold rigidly to a set of principles above all else. As punks get older, we find ourselves faced more and more with the ideological cage of punk rock and its ethics of staying true to oneself at all costs – the very core of what punk means.
Because while the Ramones may have helped define the punk rock sound, it is only because it was Perfect. The real punk rock revolution started by the Ramones was that idea of staying true to yourself and your vision and that conventional wisdom and culture can go fuck itself if it doesn’t like it. Their true gift to music, to culture, to politics is the idea that not only is it ok to question the standards around you, it’s ok to not care fuck all what that culture thinks of you.
But damn that gets hard as you get older.
“What year is this?” – Rob Zombie on seeing the Ramones in the early ’90s.
Like the band, and like punk rock, the second half of End of the Century starts to get a little, well, redundant.
The band continues to make records, all of them good and all of them with bigger and bigger name producers. They get movie soundtracks and MTV play (back when MTV would play any video they could get their hands on) and even had a gun pulled on them by the legendary Phil Spector, whose wall of sound style had trouble translating to the stripped-down Ramones aesthetic they adhered to.
Though, to be fair, Joey’s vocals never sounded better.
The band continued touring and continued on with their adherence to their vision. There was infighting and “something happened with some girl” but they stayed true. Like the punk world, drummers come and go – even Dee Dee comes and goes – but the Ramones remain.
***AT THIS POINT IN THE MOVIE Dee Dee becomes a terrible rapper, just awful.
He knows it too, but he’s trying so hard. He sees the connection between rock and rap and he gets it, he understands the drive, the flossing, the need to flash. “It’s about rising above oppression,” he says before admitting that he’s “not a negro” and probably shouldn’t be rapping and goes back to being a Ramone. Seriously, it’s so bad it goes past good and lands back on bad. ***
Even as a resurgent form of punk rock re-created the musical landscape around them with the same stripped-down honest vision of rock the Ramones had forged, the originators still failed to truly break, to truly get the success they’d seen in other countries (countries where the same no-future mentality the punk rock fed on was taking hold).
In 1996, they finally called it quits.
I saw the Ramones on that final tour. Or maybe it was the one the year before. Doesn’t really matter.
That was the beauty of the Ramones. They were always the Ramones. It didn’t matter when you saw them, it didn’t matter which album, from the opening “1,2,3,4!” to the final “Gabba Gabba Hey!” the Ramones were Perfect.
But their adherence to that vision made them an immediate nostalgia act. They were never a novelty act, never. The Ramones were real and true. But they did become a nostalgia act, almost immediately.
They were locked in their time. Punk does that. It is a young man’s game and it will trap you. It’s ideological box – once you decide which of the ideological strands will make up your particular version of that ideology, of course – is tough to break from, tough to move on from and tough to give up.
Ten years after first seeing End of the Century, I am still wrestling with that box. There comes a time when every punk is faced with needing to give up some aspect of oneself for the Almighty Dollar. There’s no way around it. This is America.
At some point, something has to give. At some point almost every one of us, even those of us who punked and rocked our way through our 20s, have to give up some part of that vision, it has to be edited, trimmed, compromised.
Only Tommy ever had post-punk success. Only in leaving the rigid vision of the Ramones was Tommy able to go to a career of his own, as a producer. He had to let go of Tommy Ramone to let Tommy Erdelyi succeed.
“Why am I caring? But I cared. It bothered me. We’re all in it together, even if we didn’t get along.” – Johnny Ramone on Joey’s death
As the movie ends, only Johnny and Tommy are still alive.
Joey died of cancer in 2001. Neither Johnny nor Dee Dee said goodbye while he was sick. Seeing his obit on the screen filled me with an intense sadness, even today.
Dee Dee died in 2002 of a heroin overdose, just week after the Ramones were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Johnny died soon after the movie was released, also of cancer.
Tommy died this past summer, 2014.
Their deaths officially seal them, lock them in place. At the end, Dee Dee, Joey and Johnny were never really “successful,” not in the traditional sense. They were famous, respected, but all lived in what appeared to be small, crowded apartments, nothing that would indicate their importance, their imprint, their legacy.
To the end, they even looked the same. To the end, they were locked in to the vision. Never a parody of themselves, but only not quite.
Kind of like punk rock.
Only Tommy, interviewed mostly in his studio, seemed to have moved on, grown up.
Ten years later, End of the Century is still the perfect testament to a Perfect Band. And ten years later, it’s a reminder that the rigid adherence to ideology gets tougher and tougher as the world changes.
Punk rock is a young man’s game. But the lesson of the Ramones and of End of the Century is no matter how perfect the vision, no matter how pure the ideal, without the room for growth or without evolving, we all become a nostalgia act.
Me? Ten years later, I’m no longer at that apartment. I’m now in the suburbs, a little more settled and a lot less angry – happy, even – but every bit as cynical and idealistic. I have stuck to my principles and am still doing what I want and what I believe, but it’s getting to the point where that game is running its course.
I still like it loud though. And honest and aggressive. I still question. I still stick true my beliefs, to myself.
I’m still a punk.
Now I’m just a punk who waters his lawn.
Punk fucking rock.
“What would I have done without them? What would they have done without me?” – Dee Dee Ramone