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Back at the dawn of punk

A documentary looks at rock revolutionaries the Ramones.

September 09, 2004|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

Thirty years have passed since the Ramones busted out their bowl cuts and black leather jackets to thrash the stage at New York's CBGB's, but you can't tell from listening to the band's music. "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Judy Is a Punk," "Beat on the Brat" -- all of it sounds as fresh today as it did when the group went against the Neil Diamond status quo to pioneer a sound that's been imitated but never equaled.

"I don't think any other band compares to them," said Jim Fields, co-director of "End of the Century," a new documentary charting the group's path from unschooled upstarts to Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. "They were one of the most influential bands of all time."

Few groups have been as musically or conceptually significant as the Ramones -- a quartet of working-class schmoes from rough-and-tumble Queens who came out of nowhere to change music forever.

They were the first band to slam street-smart rhymes against a wall of speeding guitars in songs that clocked an average of 90 seconds. First to turn an ignorance of musical instrument basics into a plus. First to upend the neat-and-tidy, color-coordinated mod styling of the '60s with complementary black motorcycle jackets, ripped jeans and shaggy black hair. Then there's the communal name and, of course, the unmistakable coat of arms insignia.

"End of the Century" is a nuts-and-bolts look at how that all came to pass, through rare concert footage (including their second-ever show at CBGB's in 1974) and candid interviews with each of the original and replacement band members. (Lead singer Joey, who died shortly after agreeing to an interview with the filmmakers, talks about the band in archival footage.)

Directors Michael Gramaglia and Fields began work on the documentary nine years ago in conjunction with the group's final concert, shooting their first bit of footage in 1995 at the New Jersey radio station where Joey announced the band's breakup. But the project quickly stalled when the Ramones' management denied the filmmakers access to the group and took the idea for themselves, turning it into the 1997 film "We're Outta Here."

Disappointed but not deterred, Gramaglia and Fields resumed work on their film in 1999. After the Ramones broke up, management was no longer an issue, and Gramaglia approached the band directly.

"They really liked the raw energy that we were talking about trying to capture," said Gramaglia, 40, a longtime fan who had worked in the band's financial management office. "They also loved the fact that it would be honest, straightforward. That's the way they are. They didn't want any spin or glorification, which is the way they always were."

Fields added, "That's where the music came from -- out of the dysfunction of their personalities. You have to know them and understand their dynamic to understand the music."

Where "We're Outta Here" is little more than a glorified music video, "End of the Century" digs into the psychology of the band, exploring the personality of each member and the chemical reaction that ensued. According to Joey, it was more of "a chemical imbalance" between Johnny, the pragmatic guitarist who served as the band's internal manager; Joey, the gentle-giant front man with a doctor-diagnosed case of OCD; Dee Dee, a goofball bass player with substance abuse problems; and drummers Tommy, Marky and Richie, who tried as much as possible to stay out of the fray.

From their early bond as fans of the Stooges to their critical success, commercial failures, on-the-road infighting and ultimate breakup, the film explores the group dynamics that simultaneously formed the foundations of punk but emotionally ripped apart the band.

It does, however, have its shortcomings. Although there's footage of Joey explaining the rationale for the band's name -- the adoption of the Ramones as a communal moniker was a way of forging a familial bond between unrelated members -- it doesn't explain where the name Ramone came from.

"Dee Dee was calling himself Dee Dee Ramone on the side," Johnny explained recently in an interview from his Sherman Oaks home. "He got it from Paul McCartney, who used it as a stage name to check in to hotels."

Nor does the film examine how the band arrived at the sound that would influence countless bands in the future. There's a clip from Johnny explaining that he bought his guitar after hearing the no-experience-required sounds of glam rockers the New York Dolls, but no explanation of the band's musical formula.

"I didn't know how to play," Johnny said in the interview. "I looked in the mirror. I put the guitar on and adjusted it to the height I thought was coolest. I started strumming down because I wanted to play fast. That's how it started."

The film also could have dug deeper into the rift between Johnny and Joey over Linda -- a woman Joey had been dating for two years who left him to date, and eventually marry, Johnny.

Its few flaws do not significantly mar the overall achievement of "End of the Century," however.

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