"You come upon a certain type of music and all of the sudden you realize it's something a little bit different than what everybody else is doing. Then you just work hard and long. It's hard work and trying your best not to compromise to any outside pressure. Try and keep doing what you really believe in. Compromise as little as possible. You gotta fight it as much as you can..."
ramones: too tough too die
interview with johnny 1984
Joey Ramone died on April 15th.
The news of his unfortunate, and ultimately losing battle with lymphoma brought back long catalogued memories of the time I met Joey and Johnny in late1984 before a show the Ramones played at Portlands Starry Night club. They were just beginning a tour in support of a new record, Too Tough To Die, an album that the band believed reestablished the powerful sound from their earliest recordings which had been lost on the previous three records: End Of The Century, Pleasant Dreams and Subterranean Jungle. It was one of those weird situations where I was supposed to go in half-hour before the show, and conduct an interview, in this case with Johnny, and get the hell out. Not the greatest set-up, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances. So in I went.
I wound my way down the flights of stairs backstage at the Starry Night (theres about four or five floors below stage level in that cavern). There werent many folks around, in fact to my best recollection the only folks I ran into were the actual band members and a friendly but curt manager who I dutifully followed into the backstage area. Dee Dee gave a quick nod as I walked by, and I dont know where the hell Marky was, but as I moved into the dressing room a shadow fell over me from a veritable giant of a man.
"Hey, what's up? " I knew the voice. I looked up and saw all 66" of Joey Ramone, complete with trademark rose-tinted shades and leather biker jacket, sticking his hand out. He was a cartoon come to life. It was as if he just jumped off the cover of Road To Ruin. Grinning and peeking through those little pink ovals. It almost seemed like he was shy or something. But even then it registered that this was one of those moments you never forget if you're at all moved by the relevance of cultural luminaries. Coming face to face with a man who you knew were just fucking sure of it -- helped to change the face of rock and roll forever was not something I would ever forget. And there he was, the Joey Ramone, giggling and sticking his hand out like one of your buddies at the bar.
I grabbed his hand. "Great to meet you." I said. "Really, uhhh... its just
"Johnnys in the back," the manager muttered moving me into a room in the back. "You dont got all day you know."
Joey started laughing.
Johnny was more business-like. Which probably explained why the chore of the interview fell on his shoulders. I got the impression he wasn't too keen on the PR side of the business this evening -- nothin personal of course. He was cordial the same way you're cordial to the guy who's about to give you a root canal. I think I had ten minutes, so I stuck a Tandy microphone in his face and peppered the wary guitarist with questions as quickly as they would come.
Looking back on the transcript so many years later I have to laugh. It 's a snapshot capturing the no-bullshit philosophy of the Ramones. Having gotten used to interviewing loquacious artsy types whod happily pontificate for hours, getting five sentences out of Johnny Ramone felt like playing for the Stanley Cup. In the end the conversation was fast, hard and unpretentious no filler. Just like the music we were discussing. Perfect really.
25 minutes after this interview was completed I was watching the band rip through another of their ferocious live sets. Dee Dee was counting 'em off while bouncing around like an amphetamine-fueled mutant as the crowd in front of him pulsed and erupted with every carniverous beat. Joey was leaning into the microphone stand as Johnny literally punted stage divers off the Starry Nights platform while buzzsaw-riffing the breaks of "Havana Affair" on his venerable White Mosrite without missing a fucking chord.
Seventeen years later, thats still my enduring memory of the Ramones: four tough hombres kicking our collective ass. Never missing a note. No filler, no bullshit -- just playing loud, fast crazy rock and roll the way it was meant to be played.
Gabba Gabba Hey.
John Richen: You have just recently released your 8th record titled Too Tough To Die. Anything in particular you were striving for when you recorded it?
Johnny Ramone: Well, we tried to make it harder and more raunchy. The last couple albums were kind of soft for us.
John: The band thought they were soft?
Johnny: They were soft. There isn't anything to think. The first five records were fine, and then came Phil Spector. That's when soft started.
John: So you weren't happy with Phil Spector, with what he did to the Ramones sound?
Johnny: Things went wrong with Phil Spector. Things went wrong for the next three albums. This new album we try to sound harder. That's the feeling we always try to get. Look at our first five albums.
John: What was the major problem with Spector's approach?
Johnny: He's talking outside pressure, he's talking about other things. It's not just him. Forget about him. It doesn't matter. Let's just say the last three albums were a little soft for what we should be doing.
John: You felt some outside pressure as to how the Ramones should progress as a band?
Johnny: Oh yeah, you always get pressure to, you know, come up with something. But you can't be worrying about that kind of stuff. The record companies don't know what they are doing. I mean, they're ideal with you when you are a success. But that's not what the Ramones do best. We want to put out records for our fans and do what we like best. What we're identified with is hard, fast, crazy songs and we're not worried about any sort of commercialism. We can worry about commercialism on one song on the album, but the other ten songs should be left alone. So we make them hard.
John: The Ramones have been together--
Johnny: For ten years now.
John: Within that span of time you have achieved an admirable longevity and a cult status among your fans. Ramones fans are a tough breed. With that sort of allegiance, what is your working attitude regarding continued success for the band?
Johnny: You don't want any Ramones fans to lose respect for your product, you know, become a joke like other bands. I can't respect a lot of bands anymore, bands that should have quit a long time ago. When you do quit, you just want to go out with respect, to get out before you start slipping away.
John: I understand that your ex-drummer Tommy (Tommy Erdelyi) produced Too Tough To Die. Has that enabled you to get at more of the gut feeling of the band? Are you happy with the sound of things this time around?
Johnny: Yeah, I guess. I mean he was in the band. He understood it better 'cause we used to talk about these things. It's a lot different from someone who just doesn't understand what you're talking about.
John: Like your last producers...
Johnny: Yeah. They don't undestand you. When you tell them that you want to put out a good Ramones album, they don't know what you're talking about. They all think "hits" and that sort of thing.
John: All considered you seem to have stayed true to the qualities which fans identified you with from the start.
Johnny: Well that's real important. The show is as good as always. It's better than ever. Like I said, I was disappointed with the last three albums. I felt that they were soft. I mean you can't have Graham Gouldman from 10cc trying to produce the Ramones. What does he know about the Ramones?
John: Do you see Too Tough To Die as a sort of renaissance for the band?
Johnny: I think we're re-establishing ourselves with the kids who felt we had gone soft.
John: What about the whole visual aspect of rock music in the '80's? How does the recent video phenomenon affect the Ramones?
Johnny: Well, I guess you have to put out a video alright. You talk about MTV, where if you get a video shown, it's like getting played on the radio for the whole country. Everybody gets to see you in different cities.
John: Do you find that at all restrictive in terms of what you're trying to say as a band?
Johnny: No. You just have to find the best video-maker that you can, and hopefully they'll make a decent video. We've made a lot of videos, it's just that MTV doesn't show them, that's all. We did two for the last album, "Psycho Therapy" and "Time Has Come Today" and one for the new album--a whole bunch. But the video thing is really ridiculous when you get right down to it. It's all coliseum bands, and we don't ever wanna be a coliseum band. Besides, you never get paid for your video work. They show them, but you never get paid for them.
John: At the same time, you can't deny video's impact on todays music scene.
Johnny: Oh yeah, it's really huge. It's become quite ridiculous.
John: You don't like it?
Johnny: I don't watch it. The kids might like it. They might love it. I don't know, I don't watch it. I don't put the radio on either, so it makes no difference. I mean, I guess there are some good radio stations, say in California for instance. They tend to be more open-minded and that's alright.
John: Ten years is a long time for a band to be together. People must wonder what the key or secret to your success is--
Johnny: You just have got to be lucky. You come upon a certain type of music and all of the sudden you realize it's something a little bit different than what everybody else is doing. Then you just work hard and long. It's hard work and trying your best not to compromise to any outside pressure. Try and keep doing what you really believe in. Compromise as little as possible. You gotta fight it as much as you can.
(The interview portion of this feature is an excerpt from an article by the author originally published in Events Magazine, December 1984)
John Richen is an on again, off again writer and graphic artist living in Portland, Oregon. He produces Smokebox with his abundant free time. Mail him at mr.grant here at the box.