Dee Dee wrote most of the songs -- at least most of the good early ones -- and got to call out the band's trademark rapid-fire "One, two, three, four!" lead-ins. And Joey was the frontman, the singer, the guy with the words, the focal point. But Johnny Ramone (who did help pen a couple of Ramones classics: "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Blitzkrieg Bop") was the guitar player who without uttering a word showed all the other punks how to do it.
The split-legged stance, the guitar slung just a little too low, the buzzsaw barre chords sans solos, the frenetic downstrokes of his right hand, the ripped jeans and leather jacket -- he was in so many ways the image of what punk-rock guitar looked like. And he was the sound, too. On the first few Ramones albums, before Phil Spector got hold of the band and made the obvious connection between their wall of sound and his, the overdriven industrial hum of Johnny's guitar signified the essence of this new thing called punk rock. Without that guitar, there could not have been a Ramones (Sire, 1976), a Leave Home (Sire, 1977), a Rocket to Russia (Sire, 1977). And without those albums, well, it's hard to imagine what punk rock would have looked or sounded like -- or even imagine it would have emerged at all.
Following in the path of Dee Dee and Joey, Johnny Ramone, who was born John Cummings, finally gave in to a five-year battle with prostate cancer and passed away last week at the age of 55, leaving only a couple of drummers and one replacement bassist (CJ) to carry on the Ramones name.
Of course, except for Tommy, the band's first drummer, Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee were the Ramones. So the punk-rock legend that began 30 years ago when four friends from Queens decided to start a band has reached its conclusion. It may be a harsh thing to say, but we can all now breathe a sigh of relief that there won't be a Johnny or Joey or Dee Dee Ramones roadshow to contend with at any point down the line. Because if nothing else, the Ramones proved they were more than willing to overstay their welcome.
Not that there weren't plenty of kids willing to shell out for tickets to pay their respects to the band who started it all. It's just that even by the time I started seeing the Ramones, in the mid- to late '80s, they were already all business, playing the same set night after night with more volume than passion as "rebellion" turned into money before your very eyes.
Yeah, they still had a few gems left in them -- "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," "Pet Cemetery." And more important, they still had the power to inspire another generation of punks-in-training to write its own simple three- and four-chord songs. But to steal a phrase from one of their better meat-and-potatoes punk-rock tunes ("I Don't Care"), they didn't look as if they cared very much anymore. And after seeing them for the third or fourth time, that was a little disheartening.
Yet that doesn't take anything away from what the Ramones accomplished by coming up with a brilliantly simple idea and then carrying it to its logical conclusion. And perhaps more than any other member, Johnny was instrumental in that. Because the Ramones emerged as an affront to the bloated, chops-ridden music that had come to rule the '70s, and the long, complex, blistering guitar solo was in many ways the essence of that music. Johnny defiantly didn't play solos -- hell, it was unusual for him to play anything but barre chords -- and that was a big deal. It was a big part of what set the Ramones apart from the mainstream rock of the day. He may have been a guitar hero, but he did it without any guitar heroics. And if you didn't need the chops to lay down a string-shredding solo, well, then, maybe anyone could play rock 'n' roll. That notion is so ingrained in the philosophy of punk that it's hard to appreciate how bold a statement -- how revolutionary -- it was at the time.
Very little of what I've heard or read about Johnny Ramone suggests he cared much about any of that. He was the one who stepped in and ran the band's business affairs to ensure that being a Ramone remained profitable. And I'm fairly certain that he had little or no use for punk-rock philosophers who develop ethical constructs around notions like DIY and no flashy guitar solos.
He probably would have been as happy to play standard rock-guitar solos as he was playing barre chords if that would have sold more records. But Johnny, whose favorite president was Reagan, knew the value of a good shtick. And his was hard to beat. All he had to do was dress up like Johnny Ramone with his guitar slung low, his legs spread, and his hair in his eyes, wait for Dee Dee or whoever was playing bass that gig to yell, "One, two, three, four," and bash his way through "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" one more time and there'd be a check waiting for him at the end of the night.
No, he wasn't a noble punk-rock warrior -- a "music is my life" kind of guy. But that didn't stop him from creating a personal style that continues to define what it is to play punk-rock guitar. And for that, he will always be remembered.
This feature originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.