I wrote a song back in the day called “Children of the Disco Age.” One of the lines is “Fager Lee turned us on to The Clash.” If you are taking time to read this, you probably know who Fager Lee is. But if not, he is a long-time friend from way back when. “Us” is me and a few friends who were hearty enough to embrace punk rock in its relative infancy. Fager Lee also turned us on to The Ramones, and he is also known as Chud, so the line could have been, “Chud turned us on to The Ramones,” but somehow that doesn’t sound right in relation to the other lyrics.
I first heard The Ramones in 1977. Chud’s brother John (AKA Bookie – I know, it’s getting confusing now) borrowed (or stole) his cassette of Rocket to Russia and let me borrow it. That record changed my outlook on rock-n-roll and I haven’t listened to music the same way since. Through The Ramones I learned: three chords are more than enough for any tune; the same three chords in a different order can constitute a completely new tune; the shorter the song and the faster you play it, the quicker you can get to the next one; Carbona is not an Italian dish; a Cretin is not someone from Crete; and lots of other things. And I still listen to them with the same enthusiasm today as I did back then.
I got to interview Marky Ramone once after the Ramones had broken up and after he had started his new band, Marky Ramone and the Intruders. (It must have been after 1998, because there’s a veiled Monica Lewinsky reference in there.) The story wasn’t groundbreaking or anything – written for the masses (well, in Des Moines, anyway), many of whom probably didn’t know who The Ramones were. Although I didn’t include much about it in the story, we actually spent a lot of time talking about his time as drummer for Richard Hell and the Voidoids and their amazing record Blank Generation – still one of my favorites.
Despite what Hollywood and Madison Avenue try to sell today’s youth about the 70’s, that decade was not a particularly fun time. On the big screen, John Travolta was a skinny, dancing geek instead of the fat, ruthless killer that we know and love today; the only person going down in the oval office was Gerald Ford tripping over his dog; people wore polyester every day, not just for theme parties; and popular music was just plain bad.
But out of the darkness came the Ramones. In the fertile New York underground that included artists like Talking Heads, Blondie and Patti Smith, the four young toughs from Queens virtually invented punk rock, slashing through the musical malaise with three chords, no guitar leads and songs with choice themes and titles like “Beat on the Brat” and “Carbona Not Glue.”
“Punk was a form of New York angst,” says drummer Marky Ramone. “We hated those 10, 15 minute songs by Yes and Journey, and songs like, I hate to say it, ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Rock was getting fused with jazz, and there were just no good, straight-to-the-point songs anymore. That’s what we tried to do.”
The Ramones made their point and made it quickly. With a blistering backbeat, the Ramones tore through three-minute anthems at a pace that left audiences weened on the likes of Pink Floyd aghast.
“We played fast,” Marky understates. “We plowed right threw everything. It was crazy in the beginning. People sat there with their mouths hanging open, their eyes staring and saying, ‘What is this?’ It was like aliens had landed. Music at the time was like Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton and ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’ But along came the Ramones.”
Having carried the punk rock torch for twenty years, the Ramones finally called it quits in 1996. Instead of sitting around and thinking about what was and what could have been, Marky quickly formed his own band, Marky Ramone and the Intruders. Not surprisingly, the sound and the attitude of the Ramones is there.
“I try to keep it fun,” says Marky. “There’s a lot of problems in the world, but it’s important to be entertaining. I’m sick of these multi-millionaires that sing about how they’re mad that they’re in a band. I don’t need that. I write about picking yourself up and doing something with your life. You can’t write songs about pinheads and creeps all the time.”
Marky’s resume includes a pre-punk gig with the outrageous Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys and a short stint with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, with whom he recorded the classic LP, “Blank Generation.” From start to finish, Marky has had a unique view of the evolution of punk rock and it’s fans.
“Audiences were a lot more reserved back then,” he says. “The pogoing and slam dancing and spitting came later on. At CBGB’s people just sat and applauded. Eventually a Ramones show became more of a contact sport.”
While punk rock struggled for mainstream acceptance in the ’70’s and ’80’s and was generally pushed into the underground, the Ramones did enjoy large, enthusiastic live audiences, if not radio airplay. When punk suddenly and inexplicably hit the big time a decade and a half after they invented it, the Ramones felt a certain degree of satisfaction.
“The world finally caught up,” says Marky. “We always knew we were right. We hear it in so many bands, like Rancid and Offspring. It’s good that they’re keeping the Ramones’ sound alive. I think it’s cool that we helped create something.”