One of the very first punk bands, the Ramones (1974 – 1996) distilled the core of rock and roll and pop music that came before them in short, fast, loud songs two minutes or less in length. Armed with a distinctive visual style and trademark musical approach, they changed the history of rock and pop.
Formation and Early Years
The original four members of the Ramones first met in the suburban middle-class Forest Hills neighborhood in New York City’s borough of Queens. The names John Cummings, Thomas Erdelyi, Douglas Colvin, and Jeffrey Hyman are not familiar to most fans of punk rock from the 1970s. However, the names they adopted — Johnny, Tommy, Dee Dee, and Joey Ramone — certainly are. Douglas Colvin, aka Dee Dee Ramone, adopted the name first in honor of Paul McCartney’s pseudonym of Paul Ramon when the band that became the Beatles was known as the Silver Beetles. He encouraged his bandmates to adopt new names as well and came up with the idea of calling the band the Ramones.
The Ramones played their first live performance on March 30, 1974, at Performance Studios. They played fast and short songs rarely lasting longer than two minutes. The band soon connected with other groups performing at the New York clubs Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. By the end of 1974, the Ramones performed 74 times at CBGB alone. Dressed in black leather and playing fast-paced, 20-minute sets, The Ramones quickly gained a reputation as leaders of the city’s early punk scene.
In late 1975, Sire Records founder Seymour Stein signed the Ramones to their first recording contract. Along with Patti Smith, they were one of the first New York punk acts to receive a contract. In their early days, the Ramones followed a policy of creating a new song every time they practiced. That gave them an enormous repertoire to choose from once they began recording. In 1976, they released their self-titled album, which cost only $6,000 to record. Although the album failed to reach the top 100 on the U.S. album chart, rock critics embraced the album and the Ramones garnered international attention. On a U.K. tour in the summer of 1976, they met their British counterparts, members of the groups the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
The group’s third album, 1977’s “Rocket to Russia,” broke them into the top 50 on the chart. It included the single “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” which landed on the Billboard Hot 100. The follow-up “Rockaway Beach” climbed even higher than its predecessor, reaching #66.
In 1978, Tommy became the first group member to leave the band. He was exhausted by touring but continued his Ramones association as their producer. He was replaced on drums by Marky Ramone. Despite the relative commercial failure of the album “Road to Ruin,” the Ramones made their film debut in the Roger Corman-directed Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in 1979. The film has become a cult classic.
An unlikely pairing took place when legendary producer Phil Spector was hired to work with the Ramones on their 1980 album End of the Century. Reportedly, Spector held Johnny Ramone at gunpoint during the recording sessions insisting that he play a guitar riff over and over. The Ramones scored a top 10 pop hit single in the U.K. with their cover version of the Ronettes’ classic “Baby I Love You.” The album peaked at #44 on the chart, the most successful of the group’s career.
By the early 1980s, many members of the first wave of punk acts evolved into different music. The Ramones shifted their focus, too, and played music more reminiscent of pop and heavy metal than punk. 1983’s “Subterranean Jungle” was the last Ramones album to reach the top 100 on the U.S. album chart.
Despite their lack of commercial success, the Ramones continued to record and release albums into the mid-1990s. Their 1985 single “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” drew widespread attention on college radio. It was more serious than a typical Ramones song and written to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German military cemetery. “The Village Voice” annual poll selected it as one of the top five singles of the year.
After the release of their 14th studio album “Adios Amigos!” in 1995, the Ramones conducted a farewell tour. They performed their final live show at the Lollapalooza festival in August 1996.
The Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Green Day played three Ramone’s classics — “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Rockaway Beach,” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” — in the band’s honor. While it was a celebration, the event was surrounded by personal tragedy for the group members. Founding member Joey died of cancer in 2001 and fellow founding member Dee Dee passed just two months after the induction, victim of a heroin overdose. A third founding member, Johnny, died in 2004, also a victim of cancer.
In 2014, the Ramones earned their first and only gold record certification for a studio album. It was awarded to their debut album 38 years after its initial release.
Despite their uniform appearance onstage, the Ramones struggled with interpersonal tensions behind the scenes. Group leaders Joey and Johnny Ramone were distinctly different from each other, leading to constant tension between the pair. Politically, Joey was liberal and Johnny was conservative. The tensions were strong enough that Johnny admitted to not speaking with Joey in the days before his death.
Dee Dee Ramone suffered from bipolar disorder and drug addiction. His struggles caused tension in the group, too. The band rarely hid their interpersonal squabbles from their fans or the press. Conflicts bubbled up in personal appearances and interviews.
The Ramones found a way to distill the influence of 1960s rock, 1960s girl groups, and 1970s bubblegum pop into a loud, fast style that emphasized hooks and simple chords. All of the group members admitted to being fans of the British mid-1970s bubblegum pop group the Bay City Rollers. The Ramones worked against a tendency of corporate rock music to become more and more bloated with over-production and long, indulgent guitar solos.
With their visual trademarks of long hair, leather jackets, torn jeans, and sneakers, the Ramones helped create the look as well as the sound of the late 1970s punk revolution. Their early album covers are also considered iconic.
Pop and rock historians and critics consider the Ramones to be one of the most influential bands of all time. They set the standard for punk, and they brought back a focus on the core of what made rock and roll revolutionary in the first place. Rolling Stone magazine listed the band at #26 among the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
- Ramones (1976)
- Leave Home (1977)
- Rocket to Russia (1977)
- Road to Ruin (1978)
- End of the Century (1980)
- Too Tough to Die (1984)