Ramone, Johnny

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Ramone, Johnny

(b. 8 October 1948 in New York City; d. 15 September 2004 in Los Angeles, California), lead guitarist for the Ramones, regarded by many critics as the first important punk rock band, whose guitar playing is acknowledged as the original punk guitar sound.

Ramone was born John Cummings, the only child of John Cummings, a construction worker, and Estelle Cummings, a homemaker. Ramone’s early upbringing included attendance at several military schools before his family moved to Forest Hills, Queens, New York City. His teenage years were marked by rebellion and the attraction to two future career choices: baseball player or rock star. In 1957 he saw the singer Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and was consumed with the idea of being in a rock band. He attended and eventually graduated from Forest Hills High School. By his own admission he was an unsuccessful juvenile criminal; petty crimes were combined with such activities as sniffing glue and dropping televisions off rooftops.

In high school Ramone met Tommy Erdelyi, future drummer for the Ramones. They performed together in a band called Tangerine Puppets, which developed a reputation for controversial and violent performances. Ramone played bass. The band disbanded in 1967, and Ramone spent several years working in construction. It was not until the age of twenty-two that Ramone focused on the guitar; he bought himself a $50 Mosrite and taught himself how to play the instrument. He developed a rapid playing style. In later years aspiring punk guitarists would attempt to emulate his sound, but few could duplicate his speed.

Ramone met the other members of the Ramones in Forest Hills High School and in the neighborhood where they all lived. All Queens residents, the musicians who founded the Ramones in 1974 shared many things in common. They all had a sarcastic sense of humor; a love of raw rock like that of the Stooges; and an upbringing filled with comic books, horror movies—they sang about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) on their first album—and borderline juvenile delinquency. The rock critic David Fricke noted that there was “something irreducibly American about them. They could not have existed in any other country, or in any other city, or been born in any other borough than Queens.” They called themselves the Ramones in homage to 1950s bands made up of brothers. And they all changed their surnames to match. Jeff Hyman became Joey Ramone. He started on the drums but quickly took over on lead vocals; his distinctive voice would be a staple of the band for the next three decades. Cummings became Johnny Ramone; his guitar playing was fast and furious and became a kind of punk template. Douglas Colvin took up the bass and became Dee Dee Ramone. Erdelyi became the drummer Tommy Ramone. They assumed a kind of Ramones uniform they would wear for the entire life of the band: ripped jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, and leather motorcycle jackets. They never appeared on stage dressed in any other way. This style was in part a product of Johnny Ramone’s conception of the band. He believed that they should never shed their “uniform” or change their sound. It was a belief that made them hardworking rock legends.

On 16 August 1974 the Ramones played their first gig at CBGB, the Lower East Side club that would become the home of New York punk. Along with such groups as Television, Blondie, the Dictators, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys, the Ramones helped give birth to a native New York punk that would eventually alter the course of rock history. The rock writer John Rockwell observed that the Ramones stood out from the rest of the New York bands: “The Ramones were the purest conceptual band of the bunch, and possibly the wittiest.” Onstage the Ramones were rock dynamos: all their songs were under two-and-a-half minutes in length, they played fast, and they gave their all during every performance. It was not uncommon to hear them play fifteen songs in thirty minutes. The songs were about deviant behavior (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), outsiders (“Pinhead”), and the emerging punk aesthetic (“Judy Is a Punk” and “Blitzkrieg Bop”).

The Ramones quickly established a loyal following at CBGB, and 1976 saw the appearance of their first album, called simply Ramones. Constantly touring, the band played a now legendary show in London, England, on 4 July 1976. This performance is famous for its influence on British punk; such bands as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Buzzcocks all took up instruments after having been exposed to the Ramones.

The band toured endlessly. Ramone became known as the “drill sergeant” because of his tireless business approach to performing. It was not uncommon for the Ramones to play over 150 shows a year. A lifelong obsessive New York Yankees fan, Ramone spent a lot of time watching and listening to baseball during the band’s extensive road trips. In 1977 the Ramones released two more albums, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. These recordings have been called classic punk statements, and they helped shaped the emerging punk subculture. Such songs as “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” and “Rockaway Beach” quickly became punk standards. In 1978 Tommy Ramone left the band and was replaced by Marky Ramone (Marc Bell) on drums. The band’s fourth album, Road to Ruin, was released that year and included the quintessential Ramones anthem, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” In 1979 the Ramones appeared in the film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, produced by Roger Corman.

Although the Ramones never had a hit record, their reputation and fan base grew in the 1980s, partly because of their constant touring. In 1980 Joey Ramone had the opportunity to work with one of his music heroes when Phil Spector produced the Ramones’ fifth studio album, End of the Century. Ramone resisted the band’s moving in this direction because he did not want the Ramones to become just another overproduced rock dinosaur. However, there was a more serious problem within the band. Joey Ramone’s girlfriend, Linda, left him for Johnny Ramone. They married soon after (the couple never had children). This event completely altered the band, and Joey and Johnny Ramone never spoke to each other again. The album Pleasant Dreams (1981) included a song about the rift called “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” by Joey Ramone. But as a testament to the professionalism of the band, no one outside the Ramones knew that two of its founding members were not on speaking terms.

In 1989 Dee Dee Ramone, one of the founding members of the Ramones, left the band and was replaced by C. J. Ramone (Christopher John Ward), a former fan who had grown up listening to the band. The Ramones’ fame grew throughout popular culture. The band composed the title song for the Stephen King film Pet Sematary (1989), reportedly at the request of King, a fan of the band. The band also appeared on the television series The Simpsons in 1993.

The Ramones reached the apex of their popularity as a performing band in the early 1990s, and they released three albums that solidified their reputation and their influence: Mondo Bizarro (1992), Acid Eaters (1993), and Adios Amigos (1995). The last album was a fitting goodbye for the band; in 1995 Joey Ramone was diagnosed with lymphoma. The Ramones officially ceased performing as a band in 1996. Joey Ramone died in 2001. In 2002 the Ramones—the band from Queens who used to ride the 7 train to gigs with their instruments in shopping bags—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony Ramone shocked some listeners when he accepted the honor by proclaiming, “God bless President Bush, and God bless America.” A lifelong Republican and supporter of the National Rifle Association, Ramone wanted the world to know that his politics differed from those of most of the rock world.

After the breakup of the Ramones in 1996, Ramone moved to Los Angeles, where he continued work on the Ramones’ image through organizing tribute events. In 2000 Ramone was diagnosed with prostate cancer; he battled the disease for four years before dying at his home at the age of fifty-five. His body was cremated, but a large bronze statue of the guitarist in classic Ramones pose was unveiled at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It is a fitting monument to a musician who changed the approach to the electric guitar. As the punk historian John Holmstrom observed, “He played the guitar the way Mondrian or Jackson Pollack approached painting.” Ramone’s guitar playing changed rock music, or as Glen Matlock, former bassist for the Sex Pistols once remarked, “Johnny had the guitar sound that launched a thousand bands.”

There are several book-length studies of the Ramones and their influence on rock culture, including Jim Bessman, Ramones: An American Band (1993); Everett True, Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of the Ramones (2002), the most comprehensive work on the band; and Dick Porter, Ramones: The Complete Twisted History (2004). Dee Dee Ramone wrote about his life in the Ramones in Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 Sept. 2004).

John Rocco