Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Rocker Joey Ramone
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we conclude our week-long 30th anniversary retrospective of interviews from our first couple of years as a daily NPR program. In 1988, I spoke with Joey Ramone, the lead singer of the Ramones, the band that in the mid-'70s helped launch the punk rock scene with songs that were short, fast and loud. When the Ramones started playing rock 'n' roll, they thought there was nothing good to listen to anymore. Everything was overproduced or junk. They saw their music as getting back to the roots of rock 'n' roll.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE SEDATED")
RAMONES: (Singing) Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go. I want to be sedated. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. I want to be sedated. Just get me to the airport. Put me on a plane. Hurry, hurry, hurry before I go insane. I can't control my fingers. I can't control my brain. Oh, no, oh, oh, oh, oh.
GROSS: The Ramones were one of the first punk rock bands inspiring new musical trends in both the U.S. and England. The founding members grew up in Queens, N.Y. And all adopted the last name of Ramone when they formed the band. In spite of how influential they were, the Ramones were rarely played on commercial radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Have you been frustrated at all by seldom getting admission onto commercial radio?
JOEY RAMONE: Well, I mean, you know, it's a little frustrating. But then again, we came out with something entirely new in, you know, in '76. I guess when you are sort of the original, I guess it's a lot more difficult, you know. I mean, when you're pioneering something, I mean, you know, I mean, you're doing all the dirty work and everybody else just sort of takes, you know, like, rips off your ideas and sort of, you know, kind of fuse them together for themselves. And then they sort of break with your ideas.
GROSS: Well, you know, as you were saying, the band sounded really radical and alien, different when it started. But I would think that in a lot of ways, you really saw yourself when you started as being more related to the roots of rock 'n' roll than a lot of the, quote, "progressive" rock of the time.
RAMONE: Yeah. Well, that's what we were reacting against. Rock 'n' roll wasn't rock 'n' roll anymore. I mean, it was fused with all kinds of things. I mean, albums became six cuts. You know, like, you wouldn't hear songs anymore. They were non-existent. They were like all kinds of jams and guitar solos and cliche, pretentiousness. I mean, it was - rock 'n' roll was always simple and exciting and pure and from the guts.
And if you listen to Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley or the Beatles or The Stones or The Who, I mean, that was exciting music. That was was exciting rock 'n' roll music. I mean, what, you know, what happened to it, it just didn't - it was a void, you know what I mean?
GROSS: So you were playing really short songs, songs under three minutes.
RAMONE: Well, the songs we grew up on, you know, that was rock 'n' roll music were three-minute songs, you know. I mean, whether it be the Beatles or The Stones or the Kinks or The Who or, you know, the American bands, you know, Phil Spector, you know. Songs were meant to be short. You know, they weren't supposed to go on for hours, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINHEAD")
RAMONES: (Singing) I don't want to be a pinhead no more. I just met a nurse that I could go for. I don't want to be a pinhead no more. I just met a nurse that I could go for.
GROSS: A lot of your songs were basically two, three or four chords with a real thrashing rhythm. And I was wondering if the musicians in the band just played a few chords because that's all they could play or it's because they all - or was it all they wanted to play? Or does it not matter to you?
RAMONE: No because you're wrong there. I mean, yeah, a lot of the songs were like three or four chords. But then if you listen to Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley or Little Richard, those songs are three chords, too. You know what I mean? So I don't, you know, I don't understand what people are saying. You know, I mean, rock 'n' roll was always simplistic. And that's where the intensity is. I mean, it's like short and simple and exciting and spontaneous. That's what rock 'n' roll is - spontaneity.
GROSS: when the word punk was coined to describe the kind of music you and other bands were playing, what did you think of the word of punk rock?
RAMONE: Well, we got tagged punk rock. We always considered ourselves rock 'n' roll, you know. And to me, like, my feelings about the term punk, punk is like an attitude. And, like, some people are punks and some people aren't, you know. And it's really a state of being, the term punk. I mean, Elvis Presley was a punk. Jim Morrison was a punk. Iggy Pop is a punk, you know, Mick Jagger. So if you're going to call us punk, I mean, no, I'm not going to mind. I mean, I think John F. Kennedy was a punk, you know.
GROSS: When you first started singing songs like "Teenage Lobotomy," I think you were no longer a teenager, probably in your early 20s when that came out. And I guess I was curious about singing and writing so many songs with teenage-type lyrics yet not really being in your teens any longer.
RAMONE: Well, soul state of mind, isn't it? I don't get old. I decided I wasn't going to get old and I'm still the same (laughter).
GROSS: I'm sure you were a great fan of Phil Spector's music. He produced an album for you. What did you think of what he did with your music?
RAMONE: Well, I really enjoyed working with Phil. I mean, Phil's a genius. And Phil's got his idios, which I think all talented people have to some degree. Phil probably has a few more than most, but it was very exciting. I mean, it was sort of an honor in a lot of ways. He came out of retirement to work with us. He felt it was important to him. And I really liked the album. And I wrote most of the album. And I just - it was enjoyable working with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU REMEMBER ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO?")
RAMONES: (Singing) Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio. Let's go. Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio. Let's go. Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio, let's go. Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio, let's go. Do you remember "Hullabaloo," upbeat "Shindig" and Ed Sullivan too? Do you remember rock 'n' roll radio? Do you remember rock 'n' roll radio?
GROSS: When a new member joins the band now, do they still take the Ramone name?
RAMONE: No, we're not going to have any more members. I mean, we're finished with members. See, Mark used to be in the band. He was - he's our second and fourth drummer. He was in the band. He came in in '78 after Tommy cracked up. Then, Mark, he had a problem with alcohol, so we had to let him go. And when we had gotten Richie, but Richie's wife wouldn't let him be in the band anymore. She wears the pants.
So then Clem Burke stepped in as a temporary. And then Mark pulled himself together. He's been straight for four years. So, you know, it's only been drummers. I mean, the core of the band is the three of us and that's the Ramones. I mean, without the three of us, there'd be no band.
GROSS: As you pointed out, when the Ramones started to play, the music sounded really radical. Well, how does it sound now? Do you think it still sounds alien? Does it sound different? Does it sound more pop than it used to?
RAMONE: No, it's more radical now than it ever was before. But now, there's other forms of music now that didn't exist then like speed metal and thrash metal. See, like, the Ramones, we like songs. We're song orientated. And bands like Anthrax or Metallica and Megadeth and, you know, whoever...
GROSS: Do you like their music?
RAMONE: Yeah. I think they're great. I mean, I really like them because I like their attitude.
GROSS: Joey Ramone of the Ramones, recorded in 1988. All four of the original members of the band are gone now. Joey Ramone died in 2001. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.