In today's Weekend section, which was printed in advance, a review of the documentary "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones" refers to Johnny Ramone as battling cancer. Ramone died Wednesday, and news of his death was released after the section went to press. (Published 9/17/04)
THE RAMONES would have been rock's Rodney Dangerfields, except they got nothing but respect. Or might that be nothing beyond respect? In fact, "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," a new documentary by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, is framed by their 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, made bittersweet by the passing a year earlier of lanky, string-bean frontman Joey Ramone after a long battle with lymphatic cancer, and the heroin overdose just a few months after of bassist Dee Dee Ramone. Both men were 49.
Now, guitarist Johnny Ramone is battling prostate cancer.
"It's not easy being in a rock 'n' roll band," Dee Dee Ramone says presciently at one point.
Fortunately, "End of the Century" was so many years in the making that all of its key players had been interviewed for what could just as well have been titled "Dysfunctional Family Ties." The Ramones were not brothers, of course, and they shared little beyond their surname and, once upon a time, a passion for the anarchic artistry of the New York Dolls and, especially, the Stooges.
For Joey (Jeffrey Hyman), Johnny (John Cummings), Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) and original drummer Tommy (Tom Erdelyi), becoming Ramones was equal parts familial conceit, in-joke and a desperate prayer that rock could roll them right out of Forest Hills, Queens. Sporting the shaggiest of haircuts, they dressed in new band uniforms -- sneakers, T-shirts and matching black leather jackets -- and, starting in 1974, blitzed audiences with rough-hewn, accelerated guitar rock forged in surf and metal yet leavened by sharp pop instincts. The phrase invented for the Ramones' sound was bubblegum punk and on classics like "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Rock & Roll High School," it was a jubilant cacophony.
Punk historian and eyewitness Legs McNeil, recalling the band's debut at CBGB's, insisted, "It looked like the SS had just walked in." Probably sounded like it, too. For a long time, speed covered the Ramones' deficiencies in actual musical skills, but the film shows, as their records did, that the band quickly reached a level of confident competence. Sadly, those records never sold -- no Ramones album ever went gold -- and in those days radio never played the kind of hook-laden punk rock that bands like the Offspring and, more recently, Good Charlotte, have built careers on.
It's not as if the Ramones didn't want commercial success: The film takes its title from what they and their label (Sire) had hoped would provide a breakthrough, the 1980 collaboration with uber-producer Phil Spector, who was so obsessed with the guitar chord that he spent 12 hours recording the opening chord of "Rock & Roll High School." Spector even insisted on giving Joey singing lessons as the Wall of Sound met the Wall of Noise.
Johnny ends up dismissing the onetime legend as "a little man with lifts in his shoes, a wig on top of his head and four guns," and even though "End of the Century" became the Ramones' biggest seller and highest-charting effort, in reaching only No. 44 on Billboard's album chart, it may also have been their biggest disappointment. Unless you count the history books, which tend to date punk rock's birth to England's Sex Pistols and the Clash, both on record here acknowledging the crucial influence of the Ramones' 1976 show at London's Roundhouse club (Johnny not-yet-so Rotten was reportedly scared to meet them backstage.)
Despite such heartbreaks, the Ramones stayed together and toured for 21 years in rented vans, changing drummers like Spinal Tap after Tommy wisely figured out this was a better scene to be behind than in the middle of (he would move to producing). Dee Dee left in the late '80s to pursue an ill-fated rap career (the video is hilarious). That left Joey and Johnny as the road warrior Ramones, and the film shows how delightful that was. In the mid-'80s, Johnny "stole" and married Joey's then-girlfriend (she's just off screen in his interviews). After that, Joey and Johnny may have toured together, but for the last decade before the band's 1995 demise, they barely spoke to each other; usually it was at each other, through a third party -- kid stuff, really, as was Joey's thinly veiled song about the betrayal, "The KKK Took My Baby Away." Of course, Ramonesian squabbling was a career-long problem: Rare early footage shows them forcefully arguing on stage -- about what to play next!
Thankfully, Gramaglia and Fields have uncovered plenty of good historical footage, and the interviews with band members, managers, friends and peer fans confirm not only how influential, but how beloved the Ramones were, particularly the ever-visible Joey. In his final interviews, Dee Dee seems the unrepentant madman (at the 2002 induction, he simply said, "I'd like to thank me, me, me!"), Tommy the inevitably sensible one. But it's Johnny who's the most interesting character, the serious, business-minded, openly controlling Ramone who managed to keep the band together 15 years past the Spector debacle.
"At that point, I knew, I finally accepted, that we wouldn't sell any records," he says. "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."
Twenty-five years earlier, the Ramones sang "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment." That's exactly what they visited upon rock 'n' roll, and it's a good reason to be fondly remembered.
END OF THE CENTURY: THE STORY OF THE RAMONES (Unrated, 110 minutes) -- Contains a few explicit phrases. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.