In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Jeffrey Ross Hyman was an odd boy. Disturbingly tall, gangly and gaunt, his facial features -typically hidden under an unruly thatch of hair – seemed disproportionate to his angular head, giving him a distinctly amphibian cast. Crippled by obsessive-compulsive disorder so severe that his mother feared he would spend his life housebound, he instead channeled his anxiety and alienation into music, starting a band with three other self-described “creeps” from the neighborhood, giving himself a new name and in the process changing pop music forever.
Onstage, he was transformed: Long limbs draped casually around an overextended mic stand, left heel pumping to the blistering jackhammer beat of his unstoppable band, it was impossible to take one’s eyes off this otherwise gawky and unsteady-seeming kid.
We’re talking, of course, about Joey Ramone.
Joey Ramone died, a few weeks shy of 50, on April 15, 2001, after a long struggle with lymphoma. And if 17 years isn’t one of the more-observed anniversaries, it’s never too late (or too early) to celebrate the life of a truly original artist, especially one so largely unheralded by the mainstream.
It’s difficult to overstate both the impact the band had on music and culture, and the depth of its fans’ adoration. Decades after Ramones hit the shelves on April 23, 1976, the band’s uniform – worn-out jeans, Keds, leather jackets – inspires fresh generations of imitators and admirers in every corner of the globe. And while the band never once cracked the US Billboard Top Ten – or Twenty, or Thirty, or Forty, for that matter – the band’s sound was simultaneously forward-thinking and backwards-looking, primal rock and roll dipped in paint stripper and thrown in a blender set on “liquify.”
The idea was either devastatingly brilliant or impossibly dumb, and much of what eventually tipped it towards the former was Joey’s vocals. Influenced as much by bubblegum pop like Herman’s Hermits as by the Stooges, Joey’s delivery was like no one else’s: Broken by hiccups, half-enunciations, and croons, perfectly modulated where his many imitators resorted to histrionics and shouts.
What’s more, his deadpan delivery was the perfect vehicle for slyly hilarious lyrics – “Jackie is a punk, Judy is a runt, They both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades…” – that flashed by in an instant, leaving one wondering how much more there was to this band than met the eye.
As regular Cover Me readers know, at this point we typically pivot towards cover versions of our featured artist’s songs. But that presents a problem in the case of the Ramones, a band whose singular style resists replication. The Ramones owned their sound lock, stock and barrel. In dredging the morass of earlier decades – ’50s rock and roll, ‘60s girl groups, British Invasion and bubblegum, the unbridled aggression of ‘70s proto-punks the Stooges – the Ramones synthesized something utterly unique.
So instead, let’s dig into the origins of a few of the many songs the Ramones covered for clues to their particular genius.
“Let’s Dance,” Chris Montez
A 1962 hit for then 19-year-old Montez, the song opens with a dark, pulsing and aggressive-sounding floor tom pattern quickly deflated by a rinky-dink electric organ. In hindsight, this melding of the dark and the comical is a perfect precursor to the Ramones, who covered the song on their 1976 debut. In their version, the organ makes a reprise in the last chorus, and Joey somehow makes the line “Yes I know that tonight’s the night” sound like a threat.
“California Sun,” The Rivieras
Itself a cover – taken from a 1961 Joe Jones single – this surfy, guitar-vs.-organ faceoff was a blast of purely wishful thinking on the part of the landlocked Indiana band. Despite its less-than-polished production, the song went to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early 1964. Many subsequent covers followed, but perhaps the one most pertinent to the Ramones was by their friends the Dictators, a band of NYC proto-punks who committed their version to wax two years before the Ramones did.
“Needles and Pins,” The Searchers
Most likely another cover of a cover, given the massive popularity of the Searchers’ version of the Jack Nitzsche / Sonny Bono tune. Their rendition, released at the dawn of the British Invasion, was a bona fide smash – hitting #1 in the UK, Ireland and South Africa, and #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US – while the original recording, by Jackie DeShannon, only made it to #84 in the US in 1963. Oh, and that squeaky, strangely rhythmic sound most noticeable in the intro? A worn kick-drum pedal.
The Ramones’ version came at a pivotal moment for the band. Frustrated by the lack of a commercial breakthrough and the stress of touring with three notably difficult bandmates, drummer Tommy Ramone (nee Erdelyi) had quit. With replacement Marky Ramone (nee Marc Bell) in tow, the band regrouped in the summer of 1978 to record Road to Ruin, their fourth album in two years.
In a calculated gamble for increased airplay and an acknowledgement that they’d outgrown their 120-second song formula, Road to Ruin marked the first stylistic departure for the band. Drawing more explicitly on their love of ‘60s pop, the inclusion of songs like “Needles and Pins” was intended to make more plain the throughlines to the mainstream in the band’s tastes, as opposed to merely solidifying their status as punk progenitors.
Unfortunately, the mainstream success the Ramones felt was within their grasp never materialized. Though Road to Ruin did poorly in the charts, the band would soldier on for 18 more years and 10 more studio albums.
And while the band members had made the ultimate pact of brotherhood – discarding their old identities and taking the name of their band as their own – the remainder of their story would not be a happy one. Tommy Ramone, perhaps the most reliable witness of the original band members (and, as noted, the first to leave), described his personal dynamic with the others thusly: “[I was] physically threatened by Johnny, treated with contempt by Dee Dee, and all but ignored by Joey.” Tommy would die in 2014 at the age of 65, having far outlived all his bandmates.
For Joey’s part, he and guitarist Johnny Ramone (nee Cummings) had barely been on speaking terms for years, in large part due to Johnny’s having married Joey’s ex-girlfriend Linda Daniele. Struggling with alcoholism, and in 1995 diagnosed with the lymphoma that would eventually claim his life, Joey’s final years both in the band and outside it were not easy ones.
But consolation sometimes takes cosmic rather than earthly form, or so we like to hope. For all the ways in which he may have been disappointed – in the band’s failure to find commercial acceptance, in the betrayal of his friend and onetime collaborator, in the debilitating challenge of navigating the world through the funhouse mirror of OCD – when Jeffrey Ross Hyman dared to prop his ungainly frame up on stage and add his voice to the most blistering rock and roll band the world had ever heard, he became a creature of rare power and grace, arm outstretched to bless his fans with the healing fire of rock ‘n roll. There most definitely won’t be another Joey Ramone.
Want to read more about cover versions of Ramones’ songs? Check the archives!