Icons / August 2017

Joey Ramone: Punk Magus

There is only one man who could sing ‘I met her in a Burger King/fell in love by the soda machine’ – and make it sound cool. We give you Jeffrey Ross Hymen, otherwise known as Joey Ramone.

Joey Ramone seen wearing his favoured combination of a black leather biker jacket and sunglasses, circa 1976.

A few years ago, a new character made his debut on Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, a surreal British sketch show from the former star of The Mighty Boosh. ‘Joey Ramone’, a stop-motion plasticine version of the punk icon with freakishly long legs, blue hair and no arms, stars in a series of skits parodying the cosily patrician children’s television shows of the 1960s and seventies: his legs are sliced off and redeployed as golf clubs, and he mistakenly dons his mother’s frilly swimming costume at the beach, yet he maintains a perverse, plasticised dignity throughout. “It wasn’t that great a leap of faith to make,” Fielding has said of the sketches. “To me, Joey Ramone was always a cartoon character.”

If so, he occupied the anarchic Looney Tunes end of the spectrum, the antithesis of any sanitised Disney vision. The Sex Pistols may have brought anarchy to the U.K., but the Ramones, formed in New York in 1974, were the true harbingers of punk. Their music and image amounted to a scorched-earth insurrection visited on an American musical landscape sunk in soporific A.O.R. and F.M.-radio complacency. Their first album, released in 1976, is the starkest statement of intent: the quartet, in beat-up biker jackets and jeans, slouch against a graffiti’d brick wall; the songs gallop along with primal 160bpm urgency before hitting a self-same wall of buzzsaw feedback, many well shy of the two-minute mark. At the centre of it all is Joey Ramone’s signature tenor bleat, accessorised with hiccups, snarls and croons, articulating a punk manifesto in aural assaults like Beat on the Brat (“with a baseball bat”), Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, and the opening Blitzkrieg Bop: Hey, ho, let’s go/Shoot ’em in the back now/What they want, I don’t know/They’re all revved up and ready to go…

And while the Ramones were a gang — Joey and band mates Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy had all adopted the surname, inspired by a stage name, Ramon, that Paul McCartney used in the early days of The Beatles — it was Joey’s singular presence, nearly six-and-a-half-feet tall, with a mop of unruly dark hair and omnipresent shades framing a pale, angular face, that got audiences revved up and ready to go. “In Dublin, in 1977, when I saw Joey singing, I knew nothing else mattered to him,” says Bono of U2, whose latest album, Songs of Innocence, opens with a track called The Miracle (of Joey Ramone). “Pretty soon, nothing else mattered to me. The Ramones stopped the world long enough for U2 and other garage bands to get on. They invented something — punk rock — but they offered even more than that. It was the idea that your limitations were what made you. Your street, your neighbourhood and your record collection were the size of your universe.”

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Stuart Husband