The Late Movies: The Ramones
Sure, the Stooges came first, and Green Day blew up to the point where they had a Broadway show, but the Ramones will always be, at least to me, the definitive American punk rock band. Growing up, almost every kid I knew with a guitar got one because of the band. Not only did they create the musical blueprint for almost all punk rockers that followed them, but possessed a coolness and swagger that seemed more accessible and attainable than the aura of traditional rockstars. It was something kids pogoing with Stratocaster knockoffs in their suburban bedrooms could emulate and even achieve. They’re American icons right up there with Hank Williams, John Coltrane and Woody Guthrie, only hairier and with more leather. Today, we celebrate some of my favorite Ramones songs and covers. If I left off yours, leave the video link in the comments. Hey. Ho. Let’s Go.
When founding member Dee Dee Ramone left the band, CJ Ramone was brought in to replace him on bass and give frontman Joey Ramone an occasional break from singing. When he joined the band, CJ was younger than the other members by almost a decade, and it’s hard not to hear the energy he put back into the group on this song.
"Bonzo Goes to Bitburg"
The Ramones didn’t write many overtly political songs, but when they did, they were doozies. The titular Bonzo is President Ronald Reagan, referencing the chimp in Reagan’s comedy film, Bedtime for Bonzo. The song was written in reaction to Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in West Germany, which contains the graves of several Nazi SS members that helped run the concentration camps. Singer Joey Ramone, who was born to a Jewish family with the name Jeffry Ross Hyman, explained in an interview that “we had watched Reagan going to visit the SS cemetery on TV and were disgusted. We're all good Americans, but Reagan's thing was like forgive and forget. How can you forget six million people being gassed and roasted?”
"Sheena is a Punk Rocker"
Joey once said of this song, “To me ‘Sheena’ was the first surf/punk rock/teenage rebellion song. I combined ‘Sheena, Queen of the Jungle’ with the primalness of punk rock.” I don’t know that there have been many surf/punk rock/teenage rebellion songs since, but I’m glad we have this one.
"Do You Wanna Dance?"
Originally written and recorded by Bobby Freeman in 1958 and made a hit by the Beach Boys in 1965, “Do You Wanna Dance” got turned up to 11 by the Ramones for the movie Rock 'N' Roll High School. Keep an eye out for a young Clint Howard.
"The KKK Took My Baby Away"
More Beach Boys influence noticeable here, with those sweet backing vocals taking the edge off the music.
"I Wanna Be Sedated"
Perhaps the Ramones best known song (or at least tied with “Blitzkrieg Bop”), this was inspired by a less-than-exciting trip to England. As Joey explains in this interview/performance (in his wonderful, honking Queens accent), when the band arrived in London for the first time, it was around Christmas and the city had essentially shut down for the holidays. There was nothing do, nowhere to go, and the band wound up sitting, bored, in their hotel room for much of the trip watching movies.
"Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?"
The recording of End of the Century with famed producer/crazy person Phil Spector marked a change in the structure of the Ramones’ songs. "Rock 'n' Roll Radio,” in particular, is much more complex than many of their older three chord blasters. Piano, trumpet, saxophone and synthesizer all make appearances, with the sax providing the main riff through most of the song. The lyrics are filled with references to musicians and TV and radio shows and personalities that influenced the band members when they were younger, including Hullabaloo, Ed Sullivan, Alan Freed, T. Rex and Jerry Lee Lewis.
This tune about getting to Rockaway Beach, the largest urban beach in the U.S., is pretty much an irreplaceable summer anthem for me. It sounds like salty air, hot sun, ice cream and freedom.
The Who’s original version rocked pretty well, but the Ramones really give the song a kick in the pants. The bizarre video also features Motorhead frontman Lemmy and B-movie icon Michael Berryman.
Arguably the Ramones' finest performance.