GRAND OLD PUNKERS
Johnny Ramone is a Republican.
Actually, Johnny prefers the term "conservative American," but in a pinch, "Republican" is fine by him. And while he still wears a black leather jacket and tattered jeans while performing classic punk-rock songs such as "I Wanna Be Sedated" before throngs of dope-using hooligans, he admits that he wishes George Bush was still president. Ask him what Bill Clinton has done wrong since taking office and you'll soon be on the receiving end of a feverish rant that gets louder and more passionate with each syllable.
"You've got to be kidding me," he says in his trademark Noo Yawk bark. "Like, everything. Clinton is a liar. He's been a liar since he was a teenager. He lies his way out of everything and gets away with it. He lied to get out of the draft. He lied about smoking pot but not inhaling. What a bullshitter." Adds Johnny, almost conspiratorially, "He's still having affairs all over the place. It's still going on."
So, against all odds, is Johnny--and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the guitarist for the hard-rocking quartet that in many ways laid the foundation for the punk revolution is now a staunch defender of the status quo. After all, he's been on the road for twenty years--twenty years!--and if there's one thing he's learned during that time, it's that you need to stick with what works.
Some carpers have charged that the Ramones (currently Johnny, Joey, Marky and C.J.) have made a respectable living by doing nothing more than playing the same song over and over again, and maybe that's true. But as Johnny knows, it's a damn good song. If it ain't broken, don't fix it. Or, as he puts it, "I still sound the way I did when I started, because I've never practiced a day in my life. I figured that if I didn't practice, I wouldn't develop a different style. That's probably the lazy way of doing it, but it works."
To the Ramones, change is bad--and so unnecessary. For proof, look no further than the band's latest album, the Radioactive label release Acid Eaters. The disc consists entirely of song covers that originally appeared at the height of Sixties psychedelia, and eschews arrangements that might complement each tune's individual characteristics in favor of musical assaults reminiscent of every Ramones recording issued since 1975. You see, any composition, properly played, can be a Ramones song. Hell, even Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life" could be a Ramones song if the players put their minds to it. "It would be tough," Johnny admits, "but some songs would be tougher. Like that Singing Nun song--`Dom-i-ni-que, ni-que, ni-que.' And that `Sukiyaki' song. But you could probably do a funny version of it."
Among those given the Ramones treatment on Acid Eaters are several artists whom Johnny concedes he doesn't even like. For instance, he sniffs at Jefferson Airplane, whose "Somebody to Love" gives the group an opportunity to combine forces with former porn queen Traci Lords, and at Creedence Clearwater Revival, initial performers of what may be the album's most quizzical track, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" And then there's Bob Dylan, the conscience of his generation as well as the author of "My Back Pages," another Acid Eaters cut. "He's just an old hippie with a whining voice," Johnny says. "Still, I think I suggested doing the song. I thought it would be funny to do a Bob Dylan song and make it into a punk song. I was hoping he would hate it."
Although Dylan has yet to cast a vote one way or another, an angry response wouldn't surprise the Ramones, a band accustomed to provoking strong reactions. Even Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGB's, the legendary New York punk club the Ramones helped put on the map, has been quoted as saying that when he first heard the band in 1974 he thought they couldn't play a lick. The next year, when the band released its groundbreaking, self-titled debut, observers lacking a sense of the absurd sniped at the boys for a wide range of sins, including the Nazi paraphernalia the players pinned to their jackets and the lyrics to such inspired goofs as "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue."
About the latter, Johnny now sounds vaguely apologetic. "We didn't think anybody still sniffed glue," he insists, "and we didn't think anybody still took LSD, either. I guess they still did, but we didn't know it. We were just writing songs that we thought were normal songs, songs that came naturally to us. We couldn't sing love songs, because we didn't have any girlfriends, and we couldn't sing about cars, because we didn't have a car. So we sang about, you know, teenage frustrations."
This angst, expressed with unforced, deadpan humor, provided the propellant for a terrific series of late-Seventies albums, including Leave Home, Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin. By then, however, even the players themselves began to search for ways to liven up their formula. The man they chose as their savior was producer Phil Spector, the exceedingly eccentric creator of the so-called "Wall of Sound." Their resulting collaboration, heard on 1980's End of the Century, was a disappointment on practically every level, in part because Spector, in Johnny's opinion, was "torture to work with. He was terrible to everyone--not to us, but to everyone around him. Joey and Marky feel a little different about it, because they worshiped Phil Spector, but he was just not a good person. And if the material had been produced by someone else, it would have been a better-sounding album."
Johnny has similar complaints about much of the Ramones' Eighties recordings, many of which he seems not to remember at all. With the exception of 1984's Too Tough to Die, a bracing reunion with producer Tommy Erdelyi, the Ramones' original drummer, the albums represented failed attempts to convince the public that the band was still relevant. Johnny and company eventually lost their record deal with Sire, the label where they'd spent their careers to that point, just as bass player Dee Dee, who had been with the group since the beginning, was showing signs of flipping out. Dee Dee eventually shaved off all his hair and left the Ramones in order to front a rap band; fame and fortune has not followed.
Rather than simply fading away, however, the Ramones signed a contract with Radioactive, an MCA subsidiary, and released 1992's Mondo Bizarro. Produced by Ed Stasium, who engineered many of the group's earlier punk blitzkriegs, Bizarro was a big step in the right direction; even the song titles ("The Job That Ate My Brain" and "Cabbies on Crack," for example) showed vast improvement. And while Acid Eaters smacks of commercial calculation (Johnny admits that Radioactive pressured the band to include versions of old hits that the players opposed), it seems more like a brief interlude than a swan song.
Clearly, Johnny--who, when he isn't on the road, "just sits around and watches movies all day"--isn't ready to hang up his ax. The group is already writing material for a new album, which Johnny concedes will surprise no one. "We have our own style," he announces, "and no matter what anybody thought about us in the beginning, they can't do what we do. Maybe I can't do what some great guitar player can do, but there's no way he can down-strum for an hour like me."
A conservative approach for a conservative American. And who would Johnny like to see run for president against Bill Clinton in 1996? He answers quickly, without a moment's hesitation: "I'd say Jack Kemp."
Man, that's punk.
The Ramones. 8 p.m. Friday, March 18, Glenn Miller Ballroom, CU-Boulder campus, $16, 290-
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