Joey Ramone was six-feet-five, skinny and awkward. He wore rose-coloured sunglasses and viewed the world from behind a mop of black hair. He was the godfather of punk, whose distinctive vocal style – part-sneer, part-croon – shaped the sound of the Ramones’ fourteen studio albums. Here are his best moments…
I WANNA BE YOUR BOYFRIEND (Ramones, 1976)
As the frontman for one of the most seminal bands of the ‘70s – and certainly the most vital – Joey Ramone became an unlikely poster-boy for the blank generation. He was lanky, skinny, and damn right weird looking. But whereas women who came of the age in the ‘60s were swooning over Rod Stewart, their daughters were far more enticed by the leather clad geek-turned-anti-hero. And nowhere was his romantic croon more charming than on this blissfully romantic track from the band’s eponymous debut. Quite simply, pop-punk perfection.
PINHEAD (Leave Home, 1977)
Part of Joey Ramones’ appeal is that you can’t understand a word he’s singing half the time. The Ramones had their own slang, which was unashamedly New York-centric, but it tapped into the zeitgeist of the punk movement and caught the imagination of teenagers all over the world. And it took someone special like him to sing the Ramones’ trademark rallying cry, “Gabba! Gabba! Hey!” – as first heard on Pinhead – and not sound utterly ridiculous. Quite the contrary, he made them sound cool. The words are lifted from Tod Browning’s cult 1932 movie Freaks, thus proving Joey Ramone truly was the champion of the beaten down and disaffected: “We accept you, one of us.”
SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER (Rocket To Russia, 1977)
This essential contribution to the Ramones’ canon came from their frontman Joey Ramone. It’s been covered by Rancid, Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü, to name but a few, and referenced in countless other songs. It was also one of the first songs to reference ‘punk rock’, and the title has become so inextricably engrained in popular culture you could sing it almost anywhere in the world and people around you would join in. It’s all thanks to that infectious chorus, inspired by Joey’s deep love for ‘60s surf rock and bubblegum pop. With Sheena Is A Punk Rocker, he took their ‘less is more’ lyrical approach (verse, chorus, repeat) and gave alternative culture an anthem for the ages.
DON’T COME CLOSE (Road To Ruin, 1978)
To say the Ramones had an ear for a memorable hook would be an understatement. Having perfected catchy punk rock with buzzsaw guitars on their first three albums, they decided to slow things down with album number four. They did this without losing any of their impact or appeal. The band was evolving, and no-one more so than Joey Ramone. The sarcasm and affectation in his voice was replaced by a sincerity and beauty best exemplified on the tender, single-worthy Don’t Come Close. You might not be able to pogo to it, but we challenge even the hardcore punks to not sing along.
DANNY SAYS (End Of The Century, 1980)
The stories from the Ramones’ fifth album recording sessions have become the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend. Gun-waving knob-twiddler Phil Spector allegedly pulled a weapon on the band at one point, when arguments over their musical direction reached boiling point. But whilst working with his hero might not have been the enjoyable experience he was hoping for, the producer certainly got the best out of the Ramones frontman, if not the rest of the band. As the first notable ballad in their back catalogue, Danny Says ranks as one of the Ramones’ finest compositions and Joey’s personal favourite. The overdubbed, intricate and detailed arrangement perfectly serves his terrific vocals, making this song the choice cut on the band’s first album of the ‘80s.
THE KKK TOOK MY BABY AWAY (Pleasant Dreams, 1981)
They may have sang about being a happy family in the early days, but the Ramones had a notoriously fractious relationship. This song is allegedly about Linda Ramone, who originally dated Joey Ramone before leaving him to date – and eventually marry – Johnny Ramone. This, of course, caused considerable strain on their working and personal relationship. The bandmates would have very little interaction with each outside of the recording studio until the band broke up, after which they would barely speak to each other again. One story suggests that the ‘KKK’ in the title is an allusion to the politically-conservative Johnny Ramone, who would tease Joey over his Jewish heritage; this perhaps makes the song the most overt ‘fuck you’ from one band member to another in the history of recorded music.
PSYCHO THERAPY (Subterranean Jungle, 1983)
With album number seven, the Ramones went back to their classic sound. Music had changed considerably since the band formed, and despite arguably kickstarting the punk movement, they were struggling to find their place in the modern world. The band were falling apart too, which is why Marky Ramone (Tommy’s replacement) can barely be seen on the record sleeve. But the old dogs still had a few tricks up their sleeve and Psycho Therapy is a glorious return to their ‘60s-obsessed garage rock heyday. Joey sounds as jubilant and powerful as ever when singing the line, “I’m gonna burglarise your home.”
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MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN (BONZO GOES TO BITBURG) (Animal Boy, 1986)
Anyone who says the Ramones weren’t a punk band because they weren’t politically-charged is wrong. This song was inspired by US President Ronald Reagan’s controversial 1985 visit to a German army cemetery, and later remarked that the soldiers “were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps”. Joey Ramone, a Jew, said later: “We were disgusted. We’re all good Americans, but Reagan’s thing was like, forgive and forget. How can you forget six million people being gassed?” Lyrically, the song might not match the sophistication of other political bands of this era, but sonically and emotionally, it stands tall as a power-pop hit to the face of right-wing nationalists.
POISON HEART (Mondo Bizarro, 1992)
As a singer, Joey had many notable characteristics. He could be sweet. He could be satirical. He could be funny. And he could also be ferocious, when he wanted to be. Dee Dee Ramone had left the band by the start of the ‘90s, and his replacement CJ injected some much-needed energy into the group. They sounded revitalised and ready to start taking names again. And Joey sounded more pissed off than he had in a very long time. This four-minute rocker (a sprawling prog epic by Ramones’ standards) gave him the full scope to vent his frustrations at the world he just wanted to “walk right out of”. Thankfully, he decided to stick around just a little bit longer.
I DON’T WANT TO GROW UP (¡Adios Amigos!, 1995)
As the title suggests, the fourteenth record by the Ramones was to be their last, and it opens with one of the greatest celebrations of eternal youth ever recorded. Ironically, it wasn’t actually written by any of the Ramones, but by Tom Waits. But you’d never know that after listening to their version. It has R.A.M.O.N.E.S. written all over it (mid-tempo power chords, bubblegum lyrics, and a chorus that’s catchier than the common cold) and Joey made it his own. You have to wonder if Tom Waits actually wrote this song with the Ramones in mind. In any case, this is how we’ll always remember Joey Ramone. Forever young. Forever loved. Gone too soon, but never forgotten.