If you never heard the Ramones, or knew them only as the punks who pretended they were brothers and dumbed rock down in the ‘70s, the public outpouring of grief over singer Jeff “Joey Ramone” Hyman’s death from lymphoma on April 15 might seem incommensurate. The Ramones never appeared on the Top 40, and they hadn’t recorded much of consequence in a long time. Still, they were the open secret of rock ’n’ roll—the most famous band that never had a hit, and easily the most influential group of the last 30 years.
The Ramones were terrific live, and they had lots of witty, catchy songs, but plenty of bands fit that description. The reason they’re important is that they were a generation’s teachers: the Master Demystifiers of pop music. Their first four albums—Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Road to Ruin—comprise the easiest great songwriting of the rock era. (If you’ve ever taken even one guitar lesson, you’ll look at the Complete Ramones Tab Compilation and realize that you can already play virtually their entire repertoire.) In the mid-’70s, when rock was the province of sterile virtuosity, the Ramones were a gentle corrective—delivered at freight-train speed and thunderous volume, but gentle all the same.
The attitude they were up against was that “simple” and “stupid” were the same thing, so they made a lot of smart jokes about stupidity. Yes, yes, they declared, we are cretins, we are no-hoper glue-sniffers who have to keep reminding ourselves how to count, fine, but we did this, and so can you. They reduced and reduced and reduced the immediate pleasures of rock to a supersaturated essence. (Johnny Ramone’s genius guitar solo on “I Wanna Be Sedated” is played on a single note.) For those who hadn’t yet gotten the message, they even made their first album an instructional record. Ramones is mixed with the guitar in the left channel and the bass in the right channel. Turn the balance knob and you can play along: music minus one, as they used to say.
That’s how thousands of kids learned to play. Some bands inspire tribute albums; some bands inspire tribute acts. The Ramones inspired a tribute genre. Just as any rock ’n’ roll group in the ‘60s could pull out half a dozen Chuck Berry songs on demand, any punk group right now can do the same for the Ramones. Ten bands have now released covers of entire Ramones albums, as a gesture of fealty (the latest in the series is Too Tough To Die, replicated by the mischievously named Jon Cougar Concentration Camp). The Donnas, the most fun punk-pop band of the moment, are effectively the female Ramones, from their matching names and matching outfits to their bag of compositional and stylistic tricks. (Compare their ” Skintight” to, say, ” Teenage Lobotomy.”) There’s even a little subgenre of songs about the Ramones: Frank Black’s “I Heard Ramona Sing,” Motörhead’s “R-A-M-O-N-E-S,” Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.”
Of course they’d want to be your Joey. Anyone would. Guitarist Johnny was the Ramones’ fury and drive; bassist Dee Dee was their bitterly hilarious soul. But Joey was their heart and their conscience, and by extension the heart and conscience of punk. They made dangerous jokes early on—”I’m a Nazi Schatze,” German-raised Dee Dee wrote for nice Jewish kid Joey to sing. When the time came to get sort of serious, though, Joey’s the one who was willing to swallow his pride. The “wanna” of their early songs (“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”) gradually became an optimism that extended beyond immediate desires; by the end, their grabs at pleasure had more or less mellowed into a philosophy.
Joey didn’t have much of a singing voice in the familiar sense—what he could manage was partly a scruffy Queens bark, partly the hyper-nasal melisma of his idol, the Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector (” The KKK Took My Baby Away” is essentially a twisted sequel to “Be My Baby”), pasted together with a hilariously affected British accent. But, and this is what set Joey apart from everyone who’s imitated him over the last quarter-century, he never, ever sneered. When he sang about punks and cretins and pinheads, he celebrated them. Even the tone of “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” about Ronald Reagan’s visit to a Nazi storm trooper cemetery, isn’t contemptuous, just confused and angry. Joey was an outcast from the get-go, but his gangly arms were long enough to wrap around everyone. The punk generation he created is still learning to follow his example.