Johnny Ramone could take a power chord and smash you with it.
Unique for its fierceness, Ramone’s playing was a relentless attack of bar chords that defined the sound of America’s most recognizable punk band.
Long after their demise and the death of all but one of their founding members, The Ramones — and Johnny Ramone’s signature sound — remain the stuff of legend.
The musical seed that would become The Ramones took root in 1974, when two like-minded New York City music fans, John Cummings and Doug Colvin, struck up a chance friendship. Both shared a love for pioneering punk bands like MC5 and The Stooges.
Before long the two picked up guitars and started making music — Cummings on guitar and Colvin picking up mostly rhythm guitar duties. A few others came and went, but when they hooked up with singer Jeff Hyman and drummer Thomas Erdelyi, the members of the band were in place, with Colvin eventually picking up bass duties.
It was Colvin who came on the idea of changing their last names, calling himself Dee Dee Ramone. Hyman adopted Joey Ramone and Erdelyi became Tommy Ramone.
Cummings, of course, would now be known as Johnny Ramone.
The band, noted for it’s patented blue jean/black leather jacket look and loud, explosive power chords, wouldn’t just make noise on stage. They made noise in the New York City music scene as well, playing legendary clubs like CBGB’s.
They released their first album in 1976, the first of 14 albums that would be released both during their heyday and posthumously.
While Dee Dee and Joey Ramone would do most of the songwriting, Johnny Ramone’s guitar became sort of the point of the band’s music. His power chords, delivered with blinding speed, threw the band into the international musical spotlight. The Ramone’s one significant lineup change came in 1978, when Erdelyi left the group and was replaced by Marc Bell, a young drummer who had recorded with Richie Bell and Dust, as well as Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He became Marky Ramone.
Ultimately the band’s sound became more pop, disappointing some hard core fans but winning The Ramones a wider audience. But by 1989, tension in the band and diminishing record sales were taking a toll. Marky Ramone was fired and replaced, reportedly due to a persistent and problematic drinking problem.
Still, the band recorded until 1995, and hosted a reunion of all it’s members in 1999. Today, only Tommy and Marky Ramone, the band’s drummers, survive from their successful ride in the music business. Joey Ramone died in 2001, and Dee Dee followed the same year. In 2004, Johnny Ramone died after a five-year battle with prostate cancer.
Far from forgotten, The Ramones remain one of the most celebrated bands to come out of the Big Apple, and one of most successful bands to emerge from the punk era. In 2003, the album We’re A Happy Family paid tribute to The Ramones, featuring covers by artists that included Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and Eddie Veder.
Hard to imagine any of it happening without Johnny Ramone slamming away on the power chords, standing at the front of the stage like he owned the place.
He sort of did.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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