Joey Ramone was perhaps the greatest frontman the world has ever known. He wasn’t confident and capable like Bowie, nimble and untamed like Iggy, articulate like John Lydon or as pretty as Jim Morrison – he certainly wasn’t that - but he was real. He was believable. He was the underdog, the loser, the dysfunctional weirdo.
In a world of preening pretenders and privileged prima donnas, ‘Joey Ramone’ was the carapace from under which all six feet three spindly inches of Jeffrey Ross Hyman peaked out, a man cursed with a posture like a praying mantis, tombstone teeth, bad eyesight and even worse health. He was 70% legs, but not necessarily in a good way.
It’s hard to imagine any of the aforementioned frontmen doing anything else with their lives other than being brilliant with a microphone in their hands, yet with Joey Ramone you kind of could. It was easy to imagine him turning up to fix your TV or selling popcorn at a Yankees game. That was his appeal: the Ramones were the guys gatecrashing the pop party, the flies in the rock ointment who managed to get a major label deal and change the face of modern culture along the way.
None of this would matter if the Ramones weren’t responsible for some of the greatest music ever recorded. Academics and scholars would surely scoff but personally I put their best work on a par with Mozart, Dylan, Bacharach, Lennon or Brian Wilson.
Joey Ramone was one of life’s survivors: even his own band was a battleground in which he was pitted against a whip-cracking, despotic Republican despot leader and guitarist who stole his girlfriend and a bass-playing songwriter whose genius in melodic, minimalist simplicity was offset by an insatiable appetite for chaos and heroin.
But Joey wrote too – some of the Ramones’ most heartfelt works were penned by him. Each was a statement of intent or rejection delivered from an outsiders’ standpoint, usually in the same 4⁄4 signature - whether the cartoon violence of Beat On The Brat, the self-destructive nihilism of I Wanna Be Sedated or the staccato pop rush of The KKK Took My Baby Away. Clearly an incorrigible romantic, his love of 60s girl groups brought a sensitive edge to punk. His vocal on their Spector-produced cover of The Ronettes’ Baby I Love You – the band’s only Top 20 hit in the UK – avoids the sarcasm usually associated with cover versions in the punk milieu. And let’s not forget the Ramones were funny. Droll, dry and sardonic like only the kid who got sand kicked in his face can be, Joey came up with killer couplets like “Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em / That I got no cerebellum” (on Teenage Lobotomy).
His death in 2001 was not only a huge loss to music, but a terse reminder that rock‘ n’ roll offers refuge to life’s rejected and, in fact, without them it becomes in danger of being over-run by the popular, beautiful people. And we can’t have that.
Shane Meadows' adaptation of Ben Myers' 2017 novel The Gallows Pole is currently available on BBC iPlayer.