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  News arrow Members arrow Johnny Ramone arrow 1999.08 — Interview with Johnny Ramone (Earpollution #1.08)
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Marky Ramone (Sheremetyevo-2 Airport, Moscow, Russia 23.09.04)

“For their twenty-two years as brothers-in-arms, the “Ramones” proved that it just takes attitude and determination to make a difference. They reinvented the musical wheel without reinventing themselves or forgetting what it was that made them what they were. More importantly, they never forgot who it was that stuck by them through thick and thin: their fans. A stronger loyalty is hard found. In July of 1976, on their first tour of England, the “Ramones” were welcomed as heroes by the burgeoning U.K. punk scene. Chrissie Hynde, the “Sex Pistols”, members of what would be “The Damned” and “The Clash” — and probably every kid who was part of the U.K. punk explosion — turned out for these shows to see their heroes. At one point, guitarist Johnny Ramone (born John Cummings) recalls members of “The Clash” approaching him, saying they were still rehearsing because they didn’t feel comfortable enough yet with their musical chops to start performing. “Are you kidding?” Johnny said. “We can’t play. If you wait until you can play, you’ll be too old to get up there. We stink, really. But it’s great”.
  
Twenty-five years after they formed, the “Ramones” influence is still felt both far and wide; from “Soundgarden” and “Pearl Jam”, to probably every kid who owns a “Marshall” stack... chances are they all have “Ramones” albums stashed in their collection, can readily recite the words to “Beat on the Brat”, and if asked, would name the “Ramones” as one of their top musical influences. Personally, I cannot recall a time in my life where the “Ramones” music wasn’t involved on some level. “Sire Records” President (and original “Ramones” fan) Howie Stein summed them up best: “To me, what was great about the “Ramones” was that they were like the Johnny Appleseeds of the whole movement. Wherever they would go, a new scene would start. That was what I really loved about them”.

On the eve of the release of “Rhino Records” “Hey Ho Let’s Go! — Ramones Anthology” (whose fifty-eight songs and accompanying eighty page booklet is probably the definitive retrospective on the band’s twenty-two year career) I had the honor of talking with Johnny Ramone. As I was putting together the questions for the interview, I was repeatedly nagged by an overwhelming one: What do you ask the “Ramones” that they have not already been asked and have answered a million times before? So, as a fan, my first question was instead a statement.

— Thank you. Thank you for the music and thank you for being the “Ramones”.
— Great! Thank you.

— Twenty-two years, eighteen albums... Let’s see... two thousand two hundred and sixty-three shows, probably several hundred guitar strings and a few blown amps along the way...
— Very few broken guitar strings! Very few. I went five years without breaking a string. It just looked like I was strumming hard!

— Do you miss the band much, do you miss playing for your fans?

— Oh, of course! Of course. I knew that before I stopped. I knew just from a life of seeing how hard it was for athletes to tear themselves from the sports; how bands never stop, they always go on until they break up and then as individuals they continue on. I knew this thinking that when it comes time to stop it was going to be difficult, having seen how other people went through it. But there’s got to be more to life, you’ve got to get on with your life. You can’t just keep getting up there playing and not perform at the level that kids have come to expect.

I knew twenty-two years was already stretching it. Going into it I always felt that a band does what they’re going to do musically and make their impact on the music world in a five year period. After that you’re just basically going along with things.

— In Jim Bessman’s book, “Ramones: An American Band”, you were quoted as saying: “I’ve always felt that (bands) who changed, changed for the worse”.
— Yeah. Not very many bands were able to change. “The Beatles” were able to continue to change from year to year and still be great, but I notice that most of the bands who have changed I haven’t ended up liking any more.

— Well, so in a business whose sound and direction changes on the turn of a dime, how does it feel to have had such an impact by not changing at all?

— I felt from the start that the closer we stuck to what we were doing, the better off we would be. I mean, we have all these examples to go by before us; things to learn from. There’s so much to learn from seeing bands live, seeing how people try to keep up with time. How it becomes lame when you see a band like the “Rolling Stones” try to change with each different change with society, changes within the band. You can’t keep up with trends. You have to stick with what you’re doing, because whenever you get onto a trend you’re already late. If Elvis would have continued with the same image he had from the Fifties, you know, he would have been fine. It was when he started getting into the Las Vegas image and started wearing capes and jumpsuits that we started looking at him differently. Later on in the Seventies when he started gaining weight and with the outfits he was wearing, that’s when all the jokes started. If he would have stayed in shape and kept doing the original songs... Even with his comeback in 1968, even that image with the leather suit was fine.
  
— As someone who tried hard not to be influenced by anyone else, how does it feel to know you’ve influenced an entire generation of punk rock upstarts?
— Heh heh heh!

— I mean, everybody... You had an enormous influence on “The Clash” and the “Sex Pistols” during your first tour of England in ’76, back before they were even proper bands. And up through today with “Pearl Jam”, “Soundgarden” and probably every kid who has a “Marshall” stack in his basement and three chords under his belt.
— You know... I mean, back in ’76 we were aware that we were influencing bands, that we were important. But from the late ’70s throughout the ’80s I stayed so isolated and didn’t communicate at all with any band. I wasn’t aware of this, I had forgotten about these other people. We just had our “Ramones” fans and that was it. I did not know that we were influencing these other bands until the ’90s and playing with “Soundgarden” in Australia. That was the first contact I’d had with another band — or been friends with someone in a band — and got to see that we actually mattered to these kids, that they grew up on us. And it felt good.

— It had to be a real feeling of pride.

— Oh, it did! They’d say, “I can’t believe you never realized that!” And I didn’t. I stayed so isolated... I never knew anyone in a band, I never had one friend in a band. Now, most of my friends are “Soundgarden” and “Pearl Jam”.

— Have you picked up the guitar since the “Ramones” disbanded?
— Well, I played a “Ramones” song with “Pearl Jam” when they played L.A.

— When was that?
— Uh... maybe six months ago. When was the last tour they were on? Not often, right...

— How did it feel to be back up onstage in front of a crowd?
— It was nervous. I was never nervous in the “Ramones” because I knew the crowd was there because they liked you. But playing for “Pearl Jam’s” audience... I didn’t know if they were going to like it.

— What song was it that you played?
— We did “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. Jim Carrey was on the side of the stage and he kept making jokes and making faces. (chuckles) That helped a little bit.

— Do you find it hard to escape your identity as a Ramone? Does it frustrate you that that is how you’re recognized?
— Oh... it’s nice. It’s nice that they know you’re something. Most people go through life and never get that, never get that feeling. Everyone’s been very nice wherever I go. I’ve been very fortunate.

— The first (and last) guitar you ever picked up was a “Mosrite”.

— Yeah, I went to “Manny’s” on 48th in New York. I wanted a guitar that no one else was using, I wanted to be identified with a guitar. They made a mistake on the price of the guitar. They had quoted me seventy dollars or something. I asked them about ten others and when we got back to the “Mosrite” I asked them again how much it was and they said it was fifty dollars, so I took it thinking I was getting one over on them.

— You played “Mosrites” exclusively. Was there something special about them? — I’d just found something to be identified with. It was a good guitar for me. Lightweight, very thin neck, easy to barre chord. It just had a sound of it’s own. I was happy with it. Later on I met Mr. Moseley and he was very nice to me.

— Getting back to the “Ramones” influence, you were quoted as saying: “(in the ’70s)
We knew what we had. We thought we could be the biggest band in the world”. Recently, “Entertainment Weekly” voted your first show in ’74 at CBGB’s as one of the greatest moments in rock.
— Right, I saw that.

— The “Ramones” came in at #11, wedged between James Brown’s live at the Apollo and John Lennon meeting Paul McCartney. What did you think was the defining moment for the “Ramones”?
— The defining moment? Umm... probably around the summer of ’75. The “CBGB’s Rock Festival”. “Rolling Stone” covered it, did a full page on it and I believe we were three quarters of the article. I think we realized then that we were good and we could succeed. Before that we just thought we were fooling people. People would comment: “Oh, this is good! No, really. It is”. Me and Dee Dee would make jokes about it, because it was all still just a joke to us. We started to take it serious then.

— But that’s one of the reasons I think you had longevity: you took it seriously, but in the right way.

— Yeah, I agree with you. We took it very serious to be as good as we could possibly be, but still we were trying to have fun. I never took myself serious with what I was doing other than being the best I could be each night. We’re just entertainment... that’s it. Nothing important. We’re there to entertain the fans for the hour they’re at the show. It’s just rock ‘n’ roll. No one’s doing anything of importance, you know... The world goes on, you don’t exist any more, and the fans go listen to something else.
  
— The “Ramones” wrote some of the best songs (pop, punk, otherwise) ever. Almost without exception, every song on each album had the potential to be a hit. And even though your sound and your importance was recognized, the band had a tough time making it big commercially and financially. Was this lack of material “success” frustrating?
— Of course. Yeah, it’s frustrating. It still remains that way, but I have to remind myself that I got farther than I ever thought I would when I bought my first guitar. I’m retired and I don’t have to work anymore. I have to remind myself of that because otherwise you can sit there and think that “I didn’t make it”. I don’t know... And if I would have sold records but not have been an influence? I don’t know if I would have “made it” then, either, so I don’t know if I ever would have thought I would have “made it”.

Unless you’re critically acclaimed and have sold more records than anybody, then you’ve “made it”. There’s always going to be something where you feel like you didn’t succeed.

— But you did succeed in having an impact.
— Yeah, I know! I know! You have to remind yourself of these kinds of things. You know... You’re an athlete, you win the championship. Okay, you know you won the championship and you’ve succeeded because there is that moment in time where you are at the top. And music is hard. I don’t know. How do you know whether you’ve succeeded or not? Is it whether you’ve influenced people? Okay, great... but what if you didn’t sell records? Because you sold records, does that mean you’ve succeeded, really, if you haven’t influenced anybody and they all think you’re a lousy band? I don’t know. There’s no real defined way of “succeeding”.

— You’ve definitely succeeded in having some of the most dedicated fans to be found.
— Oh yeah! In that way, yeah. The fans are great! People go: “Oh, don’t you want to do something?” You know, I couldn’t go out there and do something and not get that reaction. “Well, why don’t we call some clubs and see if you can play”. No. Unless I can get the reaction that I got from “Ramones” fans nothing is going to live up to that and it’s just not worth doing it. It was just so great every night (because of) the fans. They made if all fun.
 
— When Dee Dee left the band and C.Jay came into the fold, I remember reading how you spent hours drilling him on how to stand, how to wear hiss bass strung down low...
— Yeah, yeah.

— How to walk forward when you walked forward, all these things that the fans expected from you. Did you ever come to the realization that maybe it was your fans, and not the band, calling the shots and directing the “Ramones”?
— Well, I guess that to me number one was always keeping our fans happy. Some people were bent on updating our focus, but the most important thing was to keep our fans happy. If we made any new fans, great! But our focus was to keep our fans happy, ’cause everything we had we owed to them. You know?

— So were they the fifth Ramone then?
— Yeah. You know, you could sit there in your house and have your car and everything, but everything you have is because the fans came and they loved you and they were dedicated.

— Can’t beat that.
— No. I think a lot of bands take themselves too seriously.

— I think it was Tommy Ramone who said: “Eliminate the unnecessary and focus on the substance”.
— Ha ha ha! I don’t know. 
  
— When you auditioned C.Jay, you said immediately after the tryout you knew he was the one, yet you and Marky Ramone went on to audition another 40 some odd drummers. Why?
— Right. Marky and our road manager kept saying: “Nah. He’s not good. He’s not good”. Then they’d say: “Oh, he’s young, he’s inexperienced. He’s got a mohawk. He plays with his fingers”. I knew the moment he walked in the room. “Ah, this is going to be easy”. And it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought.

— For the wrong reasons.
— Soon as I saw C.Jay walk in I knew he was exactly what I was looking for. He hadn’t played yet, and that didn’t matter. All that mattered was the image and that’s what no one could understand. That’s why you don’t have your road manager making these kinds of decisions.

— Heh, heh. Especially if you’re the one that has to interact with them.
— Right. Joey didn’t even come down at all at the point. I said, “Joey, don’t you have any interest in what I’m doing?” He said, “No, I’m sure you picked the right person”. I thought, “Great! I’d rather have less interference”.

— You and he never really seemed to get along.
— No.

— Was it more personal our musical? Or both?
— Uh... some personal, but I’d say it’s seventy-five percent artistic differences with what the band should be doing. Uh... yeah, it really just came down to what the band should be doing and not worrying about success.

— This tension became noticeable during the recording of “End of the Century” with Phil Spector producing.
— Yeah, that was the start of it. You’re right on with that. (Joey) doing “Baby I Love You” with Phil and an orchestra after we left, thinking that... You know where it started? It was even before that. It probably started back when Tommy left the band. Tommy was our main spokesman. Joey had the least to say. 
  
— Tommy was the mediator?
— Yeah. Dee Dee and Joey would go along with me if I was going along with Tommy. Once Tommy left and by the time “End of the Century” came out, it was a power struggle at that point.

— Yeah, it seemed to be a very strenuous period for the band. The time it took to record the album...
— Right. Me and Dee Dee had a strained relationship at that point for the next year because of the cover of “End of the Century”.

— Right, you’re not wearing jackets on that one...
— Yeah, no jackets. I got voted down two to one on that. They wouldn’t count Mark’s vote.

— I take it that was really a big argument then?
— Yeah. They were trying to compromise our look and image, blaming the jackets for our lack of success.

— You were quoted as saying: “Nobody was trying to change our sound (...) until we started to work with Phil, people like that. They’d come in, think they knew what you were doing and why you didn’t have any success”. But Spector himself was a bit of a crazed loon in his own right.
— Yup.

— I’ve read stories about him brandishing a gun at one point during the sessions.
— Yeah, that was horrible. He was horrible. What I wanted to do was capture the “Ramones” sound. I thought there was enough variety within the songs that it wouldn’t have to be done in the production.

— Were you satisfied with End of the Century”?
— Production wise: no. Song-wise: probably. The songs are okay, they’re fairly strong. Not as strong as the first four albums, but strong enough. There’s enough classic “Ramones” and decent songs on there. Production wise... no. It might have worked on certain songs like “Danny Says”, songs like that.

I knew... we knew... we all knew that he wasn’t the right person. That’s why we avoided him on “Rocket to Russia” and “Road to Ruin”. He already wanted to do those records. We basically agreed to do it because we thought his name would help us out. That was enough of a compromise without having to go and take pictures without our jackets. I should never have agreed to take the photo to begin with without my jacket, I should have known that they would pull something.

So because of that me and Dee Dee had a falling out. We didn’t write any songs together for the “Pleasant Dreams” album. Shortly after that we made up and tried to get back on the right course for the “Subterranean Jungle” album. Then by “Too Tough To Die” we were all focused as a band to do the right record, which was good. Then “Animal Boy”, I think is a good record. I don’t like the production, but we stayed focused. Then after that we started losing focus again.

— Do you have a favorite album?
— “Rocket to Russia”. That was far enough into our career where we were reaching a peak as far as songwriting, playing our instruments and understanding what we were doing. It was all so new to us. I mean, I bought a guitar the day we started the band.

— You pretty much had the first three albums in the can before you recorded them though, right?
— Yeah, the first two and a half or so. By the time we got signed in late ’75 we just went and basically recorded them in the order we’d written them.

— So did you have much input with the upcoming anthology and the songs that went on it?
— We didn’t have any say in the songs that are on it.

— Have you listened to it and are you happy with it?
— Oh... basically, yeah. I mean, everyone’s going to have different opinions on the songs. It’s the not the songs I would pick, especially the later stuff. But I was very happy to see that “Rhino” even had any interest in doing it. I was thrilled and I thought they did a great job with the booklet and with the photos.

We can put an album on and your three favorite songs are probably going to be different than my three favorite songs.

— I see that “Garden of Serenity” made it.
— Yeah, I’m happy with that.

— Also “Carbona Not Glue”.
— Made the album. Very happy with that.

— “Carbona Not Glue” was dropped from “Leave Home” after the first pressing because of copyright infringement, if I’m not mistaken.

— “Carbona” threatened to sue “Sire”, so they just pulled it right off.

— So how...
— What’s happening with it being on the anthology? I have no idea. (“Rhino”) put it on and I ain’t saying nothing! (lots of laughter)

We managed to sneak it on “Loco Live”, but we didn’t put the title down. Are you familiar with “Adios Amigos”?
— Yeah, it’s been awhile.

— Give Adios Amigos a listen, ’cause you sound like a “Ramones” fan. I was happy with that one. It was the first album I was happy with since “Too Tough To Die”.

— Did that one take some time to grow on you? I thought I read something a few years back where you said you weren’t all that pleased with it.

— No, no. I was happy with that right from the start. I knew going in that we were going to make a good record. Production was just right and there were a lot of good songs.

— Who is Zippy the Pinhead and why is he spotted so frequently both in concert and in your videos?
— Ha ha ha ha! I don’t know. I guess we picked up on it and that was it — our little gimmick.

— Better left a mystery.
— Different people played the “Pinhead” and it was our little gimmick.

— So I hear you’ve got quite the collection of baseball cards and memorabilia.
— Yeah! So are you a baseball fan?

— I’m more of a soccer fan, really.
— Oh boy! I’m sorry, but I don’t consider soccer a sport. Heh heh heh! If it’s a successful soccer match because no one got killed in the crowd, then I don’t know if it’s a sport. Heh heh.

— What’s your favorite autograph?
— You know, the lesser the guy the better. If I have a player who played in 1934 and had one at bat in the Major Leagues, I’d be most excited with those, knowing the feeling of how hard it is to get to the Major Leagues... If I had a “Mariner” that had one at bat in his career, that would be more exciting than getting a Ken Griffey, Jr.

— You have a great love for the game and I’ve heard that you always wanted to play baseball since you were a kid.

— Oh, yeah! I came up (to Seattle) two years ago to catch the opening game with the “Yankees” against the “Mariners”. I went with Ben (Shepherd), Kim (Thayil) and Eddie (Vedder) back to the “Mariners” locker room after the game. That was a big thrill! Randy Johnson was... you know, funny thing... I’m a “Yankees” fan and I’d watch the game and I hated Randy Johnson! He’s so mean and he’s so good, and I hated him because he’s so good. Then I got to meet him and he’s such a sweet guy, you know. He was so nice, he and (Jay) Buhner were so nice. And now I love them! Now he’s a pitcher for the “Arizona Diamondbacks” and I’m a huge Randy Johnson fan.

— Were you more nervous to meet them or were they more nervous to meet you?

— I have no idea. Randy was always so mean that I was a little nervous to meet him. Then Buhner came over and said: “Hey, look! Johnny Ramone’s here!” You know...

Jay man! I was bummed out back when the  “Yankees” traded you. That was a bad move!

— If you could go back in time which would you choose: the “Ramones” or playing baseball?
— If I could have had a twenty-two year career in baseball, I guess I would choose baseball! (lots of laughter)

— What position would you play?
— I guess I always wanted to be a pitcher.
  
— And would you cut your hair to do it?
— Oh yeah! Yeah.

— Oh...
— If I could have had a twenty-two year career in baseball? Yeah. I think people in baseball are better remembered, they always go on talking about those guys. You are never forgotten in the baseball world. I don’t know about music... I think you’re sort of forgotten.

— Well, I’m fairly certain you’ve got a place established in the music history books.
— That’d be good... that’d be good.

Craig Young, www.earpollution.com

 
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