To the short list of great rock docs — "Don't Look Back," "Let It Be," "The Kids Are Alright," "The Decline of Western Civilization," etc. — must now be added "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," which is currently in limited release and worth tracking down, if you're a fan, even if it involves airfare.
If the Ramones hadn't been such a magnificent band, if their songs hadn't been so instantly transporting and their style so unendingly influential, their utter commercial neglect wouldn't have been so heartbreaking. But they were, and they were, and it was, and heartbreak courses through this movie like a cold, subterranean stream.
"End of the Century" — a years-long labor of love by filmmakers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields — lays out the Ramones' story through extensive interviews and electrifying, back-in-the-day concert footage. Four glue-sniffing mooks from suburban Forest Hills, Queens, decide to form a band in 1974. First they have to learn to play some instruments, which they sorta do. (In the film, guitarist Johnny Ramone says that a Manhattan group, the proto-punk New York Dolls, had demonstrated for him "how great you could be with limited musicianship.") They record their first album in 1976. It contains 14 tracks; its total running time is less than 30 minutes. The songs' subject matter is eccentric, drawn from singer Joey's adventures in mental institutions and bassist Dee Dee's exploits scoring drug money as a teenage male prostitute. The group's idea of a love song is "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You." The album barely charts, then disappears.
But the Ramones are sudden stars at a Bowery wino bar called CBGB, along with other young bands like Television and Blondie; and when they fly to London to play a club called the Roundhouse in the summer of 1976, they spark a loud-and-fast musical revolution, leaving new groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash bobbing in their wake — groups whose colorful snottiness and media-ready anti-fashion sense would soon eclipse the New York musical originals who inspired them.
The Ramones' first four albums are fundamental punk-rock classics, but they didn't get played on the radio and they didn't sell. Desperate for a hit, they agreed in 1979 to put themselves in the hands of producer Phil Spector, the legendary teen-pop king of the early 1960s. This proved disastrous. The recording of the band's fifth studio album, End of the Century, was enlivened by heavy drinking, drugs and Spector's well-known fondness for firearms. Obsessed with the ringing guitar chord that opens "Rock & Roll High School," Spector — according to New York producer Ed Stasium, who was present at the sessions and who recalls them in the film — insisted on playing it back for the band a total of 160 times. This took something like 12 hours. Johnny — an abrasive person himself, by his own admission — finally bailed out. In the movie, still disgusted, he dismisses Spector as "a little man with lifts in his shoes, a wig on top of his head and four guns."
End of the Century only reached number 44 on the Billboard albums chart. Statistically, it was the Ramones' biggest hit, but it was a bitter disappointment. In the movie, Johnny says he saw the writing on the wall. "At that point, I knew, I finally accepted, that we wouldn't sell any records. That's it. Just try to maintain our career and keep making money. This is a job, let's do the best we can do ... This is your spot in life."
The Ramones made their money on the road, and Johnny kept them out there, touring the world relentlessly, for 20 years. They were miserable — not least because Johnny, a hard-nosed political conservative, ran the band like a drill sergeant. (When Dee Dee once blew a note onstage, we learn in the movie, Johnny punched him in the head afterwards.) Even more problematic was the fact that Joey's onetime girlfriend had left him in the early '80s to take up with (and later marry) Johnny; because of this, the two men essentially stopped speaking to each other for the rest of the band's career — despite the fact that they spent much of their lives cooped up in tour vans together. (Joey memorialized this romantic betrayal, as he saw it, by writing a song called "The KKK Took My Baby Away.")
By 1995, the Ramones had had it. They titled their final album Adios Amigos, and played their final gig (gig number 2,262, to be exact) in Los Angeles on August 6, 1996. After the show, Johnny says, "I just went and changed my clothes and walked out ... Maybe I said, 'See you later.' " Joey, whose health had always been delicate, began a long battle with lymphatic cancer. But even when he lay dying in a New York hospital in 2001, Johnny stubbornly refused to call him. "If I didn't like someone," he says in one of the movie's most chilling moments, "I wouldn't want them callin' me up if I was dyin'. I wouldn't want them to have any regrets for not talking to me — I'm happy that they didn't talk to me ... That's how it goes."
The Ramones were often portrayed — even portrayed themselves — as punk-rock idiot savants, clueless geeks who happened to stumble upon a formula for creating art out of the most disreputable materials: heavy-metal power chords and bubblegum-pop melodies. But in "End of the Century," we see them as they really are (or, in the case of the late Joey and Dee Dee, as they were): uniquely gifted musicians who were too inspired to worry about technical shortcomings, and who thereby inspired a whole generation of younger bands. And best of all, we see them onstage at their absolute peak, in rare footage from the 1970s and early '80s, playing their unforgettable music at full roar. (Says Dee Dee at one point, "We could blow this place apart if we wanted to." No joke.)
Was this great, timeless sound worth all the pain and heartache the Ramones went through to create and sustain it? For us, absolutely. For them? After watching "End of the Century," you may wonder if that's not still an open question.