I recently had a post up about The Ronettes, with a link to a killer You Tube video of the girls in all their glory. I mentioned in that post that my favorite records back as a teenager were The Ramones’ Rocket to Russia and The Ramones Leave Home — and The Best of the Ronettes.
In an off-blog conversation we talked about Phil Spector as a link between the Ramones and the Ronettes, and he asked me if I had loved the Ramones album Phil Spector produced. Michael suggested I post my response which, amounts to a hymn of praise to the greatness of Johnny Ramone — one of my heroes — which, in revised and expanded form, follows:
No, Michael, I was terribly, bitterly disappointed by that record. I was eagerly waiting for it to come out at the time and I remember being very downcast by it. End of the Century, it was called. Phil Spector did not understand what was great about the Ramones. He had no feel for rock as ensemble playing, as music played by a band that has a collective identity. He wanted a face, a voice, a star, then to surround that person with lush instrumentation. He tried to do that with Joey Ramone, trying to make Joey into some kind of supremely ugly male diva. But the distinctive greatness of the Ramones lay in their unique and original instrumentation, especially Johnny’s distinctive style of barre chords, 8th notes played only on the downstroke, with massive distortion.
There is one point in the (excellent) Ramones documentary End of the Century, where Marky Ramone says, as if he were reciting a cookie recipe “it’s downstrokes on the guitar, eight notes on the downstroke, that’s how you make the wall of sound.” It requires stamina, but it is not complicated. In fact, I explained it to my 9 year old and she understood it fine. If you play an acoustic guitar, you hit a string and it goes “ching”. If you hit an electric guitar with the distortion pedal down, and you hit a string it goes “braaang”, it is “fatter”. If you hit the strings fast enough, the previous note has not faded before the next note starts. The distortion elongates each note, but the notes are coming so fast that the individual strokes are lost and a single blare is generated. This creates the impression of a continuous wall.
This way of playing electric guitar had, of course, been used here and there previously. But Johnny invented an approach which relied on this effect as the basis for a band’s sound. He took it where no one else had taken it, and he created a sound that no else had previously generated. He is one of a half dozen true originals in the history or rock.
Using this method, Johnny created a true “wall of sound” with one guitar. Johnny’s sound was “Spectorian” because, oddly enough, there are all kinds of harmonic effects which happen, which make that single guitar blare have a lot of detail in it. This is what made his sound so engrossing despite its apparent, surface simplicity. It was a symphonic guitar tsunami on the cheap. This was incredibly effective live, as I recall well. Johnny Ramone was a musical genius, who invented a sound that gave him something like what Phil Spector needed an army of musicians in a studio with multiple tracks to accomplish, but he did it on a shoe string. It takes a genius to see through all the incidental details all the way bottom, to cut out the superfluous, to get the max for the minimum. Johnny saw it.
Johnny was a smart guy in a professional field where many people are stupid. He went to hundreds of rock shows as a teenager in the 60s. He got his ideas from watching Blue Cheer and the Who and Mountain and all those guys in the 60s. In the movie Johnny talks about seeing the best bands of the 60s coming through New York, saying that he paid attention to everything, like how they walked on and off stage, how they stood on stage, and then incorporated everything he learned into the Ramones. He then says, “kids in the 90s have never even seen anybody good.”
More importantly, he hung out with the roadies and sound guys at these shows and asked questions. He didn’t just incorporate the look. He learned how to create the sound he wanted, too. The idea that the Ramones were musical dolts who blundered into renown is absolute balderdash Johnny Ramone wanted a sound, and he created it, intentionally and knowingly. There was an article in New York Rocker, I think, circa 1981 about all this which explained all these technical details, and which was written by someone who knew the Ramones and had been to many, many shows. I wish I still had it. It proved beyond any rational doubt that Johnny Ramone knew exactly what he was doing.
Phil Spector came up through the Brill Building, and that kind of approach to pop. He was the master, in his day, of hyper-overproduced pop. Joey Ramone approached him in the late 70s, and Phil was reaching out into rock with the Ramones. Johnny Ramone came at if from the 60s rock side, having been a teenage fan who watched hundreds of loud rock shows in New York, knew all the little tricks, and who learned by observation and osmosis exactly how to get the guitar sound he wanted. He came at pop from the rock side. There was not much likelihood of that being a good fit. The Ramones had the pop hooks embedded in all that up-tempo rock power and a tidal wave of guitar. They already had a big sound. If Phil had figured that out and worked with it, if he had realized that the Ramones had invented the Wall of Sound 2.0, something great might have happened. Alas, no.
There are other connections between the Ramones and the Ronettes. Joey Ramone loved girl group music. He made a record with Ronnie Spector. He sought her out and convinced her to do it, and made friends with her, someone who had been a musical hero to him. He was a sweet guy.
Everybody loved Joey.
Johnny played his shows, which he called “jobs” and went to his hotel room early. He had few friends. People did not warm up to him. He was the guy who said “no”, the guy who said “it’s time to go”, the guy who knew the show must go on, and keeps up the pressure to make it happen.
No one likes that guy.
The world grinds to a halt without him.
Johnny Ramone was the brains of the Ramones, Joey was the heart.
You have to have both.