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The Ramones: Tommy Ramone On Rocket To Russia, Rockaway And The Beauty Of Simplicity

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It's the 35th anniversary to the month of the Ramones' third studio album Rocket to Russia -- which rates #106 on Rolling Stone's most recent list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and a lot higher on my own personal list -- so I got on the phone with Tommy Ramone, the last living original member of punk's greatest band, to get his thoughts on the legacy of that great record, on Rockaway in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and on why the Ramones' unique style and sound seems as urgent today as it did in the 1970s.

What do you think of Rocket to Russia after all these years?

We came into our own on that record. We had a little higher budget, we were using really good recording studios, we wrote a lot of the songs together on the road. By that time our playing was really tight. We thought we were just one step away from being successful, you know, so we had a lot of enthusiasm. So that record, it's just my favorite. You put it on, and from beginning to end it's just a great listening experience.

I have to ask in the wake of Hurricane Sandy if you, as someone hailing from Queens, have any thoughts about hard-hit Rockaway, the subject of one of the Ramones' greatest songs, "Rockaway Beach"?

[Hurricane Sandy] was a one-of-a-kind situation. That's why the devastation was so intense because nobody was expecting it and, yes, it's just terrible. Dee Dee Ramone was the one who would go to Rockaway Beach, and he wrote that great song about it. He was the beach boy, he loved getting a tan and stuff, and he would ride the bus down Woodhaven Boulevard to Rockaway. It's a wonderful beach, actually -- the surf is a bit higher there than at other New York beaches, I'm not sure, that's the way I remember it. I've been there a number of times in my life, but Dee Dee would go all the time.

Seymour Stein, co-founder of Sire Records, first tried to sign the Ramones to a singles contract, and after that the band continued to believe in the radio viability of songs such as "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," "Blitzkrieg Bop," and of course "Rockaway Beach" -- if ever a punk song should have gone to #1 on the charts, that was it. Was the band disappointed in the lack of pop chart success?

One of the reasons that "Rockaway Beach" wasn't a hit was that it was released in the middle of winter, that's the way I remember it. [The song, released in November of 1977, reached only as high as #66 on the Billboard charts, the band's highest charting single ever.] Mostly, we were writing sort of schizophrenic, psychotic pop songs, so the fact that they didn't become hits is not really surprising in the long run. Plus, I don't know if this is paranoia or not, but it could be there was a feeling of not wanting to deal with the Ramones. The music industry was terrified by punk rock -- "You know, punk rock, what the hell is this?" They didn't want to have anything to do with it, so we didn't get the radio play.

The band went into the recording studio for Rocket to Russia a few days after the death of Elvis. Was he an early influence?

Elvis, along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, all of the late 50s to early 60s stuff -- we grew up on rock 'n' roll, so we were like connoisseurs of the stuff, that's a great word for it. Elvis was way up there. Johnny was the big Elvis freak, he just loved Elvis. But all of rock 'n' roll influenced the Ramones.

Most of the Ramones played in Glam or Glitter bands at one point or another -- so how do you think of some of those folks, from the Stooges to Lou Reed or David Bowie? How important were these immediate predecessors for the Ramones?

Bowie's Hunky Dory influenced me, Ziggy Stardust influenced Johnny Ramone a lot, especially his guitar parts. Of course, we were big fans of Lou Reed, and huge fans of The Stooges and MC5 and of course the New York Dolls, they were the greatest party band New York City ever had, a big influence on the scene; and non-musically a big influence on all of us was Andy Warhol. I was too young, I only hung out on the fringes of it, but that whole [Warhol] scene pervaded all of New York bohemian culture, underground culture, and it effected everything, especially what became the CBGB scene later. Another influence would be Mad Magazine, which I grew up as a child reading -- I think that sensibility had a lot to do with my sensibility.

How did Warhol influence you? What did he allow that generation of young musicians to see or feel?

It's so multi-faceted, aspects of the minimalism, which I've always been into personally -- Van der Rohe in architecture, I've always gravitated toward the beauty of simplicity. And of course Andy Warhol had his own minimalism type of thing. But it was a cultural thing too, the way he collected people and doted on unusual people or charismatic, strange people, semi-outcast types or very eccentric types, and then made stars out of them. We could talk for hours about Warhol, his aesthetic and everything was just so different, his art work was just so different from everyone else, the way he made you look at things, how ordinary things became works of art, or was it really, or wasn't it really?

Where do all the Ramones songs about insanity come from, songs such as "Cretin' Hop," "Teenage Lobotomy," or "I Wanna Be Well" on Rocket to Russia? Is there an attempt to spin mental illness as a metaphor -- Gabba, gabba, hey, we accept you, one of us -- the punk rocker as eternal outsider?

Most of the songs were totally or semi-autobiographical, based on the lives of the individual songwriters. I think these were personal themes, and the humor was how they dealt with it. We always thought that the best stuff also has a humorous slant to it. I look at someone like Bob Dylan, especially on the early records, and a lot of those songs were humorous. So we thought it was a perfectly valid statement to add humor especially to situations that were maybe painful. A lot of frustration and pent-up anger powering that stuff -- that's what makes the whole thing explode in a very melodic way. The personalities of [Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee] are all over all of those songs.

After that record you made the decision to retire as the band's drummer, though you'd stay on to produce Road to Ruin and return for one album in the 1980s. Why did you leave?

It was getting hard for me because in the studio I was in total control, and I would put the records together, I really enjoyed doing that. Then I would go out on the road with them, and you know, what made those guys great was their personalities. But their personalities were very volatile and hostile --it just wore me down. There's also a sense of unreality. When you're with a group of semi-psychotic people, you kind of lose track of reality, it's almost like being in some sort of cult or something. So before I was going to lose my mind totally [laughs], I decided it would be great to keep my sanity and keep producing the records and helping them write the songs and bring in another drummer.

Can you talk about the Ramones uniform? Did you see it as a fashion statement? I know when the band started out, for example, Johnny was still wearing gold lame pants, so why did the band switch to wearing leather jackets, ripped jeans, t-shirts, and Keds forever thereafter?

It happened early on, within the first four to six months. We sort of settled in on what worked -- that looks good, that doesn't look good, that fits the music, that doesn't fit the music, basically what we were looking for is, well, what's us? And everything we arrived at, if you want to call it a uniform, what we ended up wearing was what we had worn through the years, put together. We had worn those sneakers when we were younger, and we wore the motorcycle jackets later, and of course we had always worn jeans -- we just put them all together and it was perfect, that look I felt was appropriate to the music, it was comfortable, it suited us, it was timeless.

Can you contrast the Ramones vibe to the art-college-drop-out stylings of Malcolm McLaren's brainchild the Sex Pistols, a band that was so consciously positioned as a fashion statement and movement? Was there a statement in what you wore?

I would say it was maybe an anti-statement. We were coming out of the glam era, and to me the Sex Pistols were just continuing the glam era, with their clothes and their haircuts. What we were doing was taking a new road. And the other thing was anybody could take up and dress like that, really, with a little money for the motorcycle jackets, that was the most expensive thing, but everything else, you know, is obtainable. To wear clothes designed by a fashion designer is a whole different trip.

What are you doing musically these days? What are your contemporary projects and how do they take account of your Ramones past?

I'm continuing what I've been doing, what I was doing with the Ramones, and I'm just moving on. I've transferred to mostly acoustic instruments. I'm working on a new record, I have this act called Uncle Monk [with Claudia Tienan] and we're finishing up the second record now. It will probably appear in spring of 2013. The framework is the same. The classic simplicity, simple structure, and on that structure you put on meaningful lyrics, life experiences, and again autobiographical themes.

What do you listen to these days?

Mostly I listen to old-time music, some bluegrass, some Americana stuff, too many to name. But of the younger acts there are The Freight Hoppers, who were big in the 90s, and The Foghorn Stringband from Oregon, and there's a lot of young string bands coming up now, basically punkers who play acoustic instruments forming new bands. It's a scene that's actually been around a while, but it's kind of brewing under the people's noses -- that's where the intense stuff is coming from nowadays.