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RAMONES MILESTONES : The Ramones Just Played Their 2,000th Gig, but 'I'm Never Conscious of My Age,' Says Singer Joey, Now 41, 'Because I'm Timeless'

March 10, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Rock 'n' roll was settling into an adulthood of polished professionalism and seasoned expertise when the Ramones came along and started behaving like punks.

The band arrived in 1976 with "The Ramones," a burp gun of an album that fired away in loud, fast, catchy bursts ranging in duration from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes. The black and white cover showed the band members in front of a crumbling, graffiti-covered wall of brick and cement--four shaggy-haired, leather-jacketed New Yorkers who looked like hoods and geeks, not polished professionals.

On the 14 tracks inside, guitarist Johnny Ramone, drummer Tommy Ramone and bassist Dee Dee Ramone (everyone took the same adopted surname to underscore the band's stripped-down simplicity and singleness of purpose, not to mention its sense of the absurd) hammered out primitive slabs of sound and smashed them against the era's prevailing assumption that good music had to be carefully honed with mastery and skills that took years to cultivate. The unstated premise behind the Ramones was that rock should never be left in the hands of experts.

Joey Ramone, the singer, was a spindly stack of elongated bones and alarmingly pallid skin. His chesty-nasal bleat of a voice proved an apt conduit for the band's deadpan humor. The Ramones' songs were catchy platforms for the voice of put-down, put-upon, bored, shiftless and inarticulate youth, which stood up and declared its intentions:

Now I wanna sniff some glue.

Now I wanna have somethin' to do.

or

Beat on the brat, beat on the brat,

Beat on the brat with a baseball bat,

Oh yeah, oh yeah, uh-oh.

"The Ramones" was a spark that lit the fuse of '70s punk rock. The band toured England in 1976, Johnny Rotten and many other disaffected young Brits came, saw, heard what you could achieve by being loud, raw and technically unskilled, and took it from there.

Go to a Ramones show today and you're apt to find that not much has changed. Marky drums in place of Tommy, and C.J., not Dee Dee, sounds the rapid "1-2-3-4" count-off that typically marks the end of one frenetic number and starts the next. But if time stands still for the Ramones, milestones are passing.

They are celebrating their 20th year as a band. Young alternative-rock bands cite their influence, and some even write songs about them. Frank Black, the opening act on a tour that brings the Ramones to UC Irvine on Saturday, recently paid tribute to these punk mentors from Queens with a soaring ode called "I Heard Ramona Sing."

Speaking over the phone recently from his apartment in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, Joey Ramone said he doesn't dwell upon being an elder statesman of punk. "I'm never conscious of my age, because I'm timeless," said the singer, who is 41. "You've just gotta keep yourself healthy and in a positive, optimistic state." But he admitted that sometimes the passing milestones and the mounting tributes touch him unexpectedly.

"We just did our 2,000th performance on Feb. 9 in Tokyo. I usually just shrug it off, but it's a major achievement and I feel really good about it in a way I didn't think I'd feel. We're a unique band. We have definite values and ideals we've always maintained, and people respect that."

Huge sales have not followed from that respect: The Ramones have yet to score a Top 40 album or single in the United States, where they have always been a club- and theater-level attraction with a steady cult following (Ramone says they are a much bigger draw overseas). They recently released their 13th studio album, "Acid Eaters," an all-covers collection that pays tribute to their own influences from the '60s.

The punk movement that the Ramones helped ignite, meanwhile, has turned into the lucrative business of alternative rock. As "alternative" music becomes the new arena-rock, it is not unusual to hear successful bands proclaim their punk roots, hoping to be seen as standing apart from a mainstream that, like it or not, now is carrying them along.

Ramone doesn't appear to be jealous of younger rockers reaping the rewards of shifting tastes. He spoke enthusiastically of the Ramones' recent slot on a Lollapalooza-type festival in Australia called the Big Day Out, which found them billed with such younger, hotter-selling bands as Soundgarden, the Breeders, Primus, Bjork and Smashing Pumpkins.

"All the cool alternative bands," he said. "It felt real good. We were real friendly with everybody and it was a lot of fun."

He doesn't think there is much point in young bands striving to acquire punk-ness as a credential if the spirit isn't in them from the start.

"Nowadays it's very trendy to say, 'I want to be a punk band,' and it's very fashionable. To me, 'punk attitude' is a kind of (bogus) phrase. You have it or you don't. It's within you; it's natural. Most of the bands that (affect) that attitude are phony and it's a superficial thing.

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