Say It’s Your Birthday: Johnny Ramone

One of the greatest albums every recorded. It started a revolution.

When a group of four friends graduated (or dropped out)
from high school in Forest Hills, New York in 1974, they planned to do nothing
less than change the face of rock ’n’ roll. The fact that none of them had any
musical experience to speak of did not deter them, and seizing on the every man
nomiker of the Ramones, Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, and Tom
Erdelyi ditched their respective last names, convinced they were going to
change the world, or, at the very least, popular music. Over two decades later,
the band may have broken up, the former members of the Ramones can go to bed at
night knowing they accomplished what they set out to do. Cummings, known to
world as Johnny Ramone, was born today in 1951 in Long Island, and until they
broke up this summer, he and Hyman, better known as Joey Ramone, remained the
core of perhaps the most influential punk band in modern music.

In 1975,
several years before the Sex Pistols would storm the world, The Ramones had
already set up shop in New York’s CBGB, where they honed their 2 1/2 minute
sonic assaults, devoid of solos, gimmicks, or melodic playfulness. Simple
chords, burning-rubber fast rhythms, deadpan lyrics, and a devil-may-care
attitude: these were, and continue to be the formula for Ramones’ songs, which
proved definitively that there was an audience for music based on raw emotion,
or, perhaps more accurately, raw anger and frustration. In a decade that thus
far had spawned arena-rock, the musician as public-conscience, and Peter
Frampton, the Ramones were truly revolutionary, and they seemed an unlikely
formula for commercial success. Nonetheless, in 1976 they scored a record
contract with Sire, and that year’s Ramones (and not, as is widely
claimed, the Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks) was the original,
definitive, punk statement. Fourteen songs, clocking in at under 30 minutes,
addressing subjects such as nihilistic anger (“Beat on the Brat”) and pointless
boredom (“I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), Ramones, was, and continues to be,
one the purest expressions of what was then a nascent punk rock movement. That
same year, the Ramones toured England, exposing the Brits to music that,
although it would have much more success in the U.K. than it did in the U.S.,
was born and bred in New York’s Lower East Side, and not the working-class
slums of England…

While the Ramones have experimented with bubblegum pop,
surf music, and even with a string-section (reportedly at gun-point under the
threat of producer Phil Spector, who worked with the group on 1980’s End of
the Century
) they have always returned to their bare-boned roots; indeed,
to this day, every song they perform in concert is marked by the bassist’s
full-throated count-off of “1-2-3-4.” Over the years, the Ramones have flirted
with mass success, working with super-producer Phil Spector (see above),
starring in Roger Corman’s 1979 film Rock ’n’ Roll High School, and
experimenting with glossier production (1978’s Road to Ruin, also the
first Ramones’ album to top the half-hour mark); and while they have become
cultural icons over the years, they have never achieved commercial success on
par with their influence. Over the past decade, with Joey and Johnny remaining
at the core, The Ramones have undergone some of their most significant line-up
changes. Original bassist and songwriter Dee Dee left the group in 1989 (and
recorded a sadly comical rap album) and was replaced Christopher Ward
(re-christened C.J. Ramone), a full decade and a half younger than Joey and
Johnny and AWOL from the Marines. Many members of the band, including Joey and
the departed Dee Dee, sobered up after years of hard-core substance abuse, and
1992’s Mondo Bizarro featured a guest spot by Living Colour’s Vernon
Reid, arguably the most purely skilled musician ever to appear on a Ramones
album. The Ramones also became overtly political, attacking music-censorship
and drug use, surprising not so much because of its content but because it The
Ramones had always seemed, at their core, too nihilistic to speak out about
anything. In 1995, the band released what they claimed to be their last album,
the critically acclaimed Adios Amigos; however, despite a farewell tour
that same year, the band appeared on last summers Lollapalooza. Whatever the
future holds for The Ramones, their place in history as the pioneering
no-frills, three-chord, petal-to-the-metal punk band is secure. Other
birthdays: the Drifters’ Doc Green (1934); Redbone’s Butch Rillera (1945);
Procol Harum’s Ray Royer (1945); Hot Chocolate’s Tony Wilson (1947); the
Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart (1949); and Robert “Kool” Bell (1950).
–Seth Mnookin