Joey Ramone, lead singer of legendary punk band the Ramones, passed away at 2:40 p.m. Sunday at the age of 49. The towering front man, born Jeffrey Hyman, did not respond to treatment for lymphatic cancer, a disease that attacks the body’s ability to fight infection.
Along with his cohorts Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee – all of whom adopted Ramone as a surname – Joey was credited with helping found the modern punk movement. In mixing the griminess of the New York streets with a love of bubblegum pop, ’60s girl groups and the Stooges, the Ramones inspired everyone from the Sex Pistols and the Clash to Green Day and Blink-182 to stake their turf on four dirty chords and an (often) inane hook.
With his trademark rose-colored shades, black leather jacket, shoulder-length hair, ripped jeans and alternately snarling and crooning, hiccoughing vocals, Joey was the iconic godfather of punk. He gave voice to some of the most revered songs in the punk canon: “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.”
His profile was indelible.
The image of Joey’s body, left foot forward, right foot back, left hand strangling the microphone, fist pumping in the air as he shouted one of the band’s unofficial mantras, “Gabba Gabba Hey!,” is forever imprinted in the minds of any fan who attended one of the band’s 2,263 shows.
Born in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York, on May 19, 1951, Joey founded the Ramones in 1974 with Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy. Originally the drummer, Joey switched to vocals two months after the band played it first show in March 1974 at New York’s Performance Studio.
The group soon became a staple at the dingy New York punk club CBGB, home to fellow downtown bands Talking Heads, Patti Smith and Blondie. In 1975 the Ramones became the first punk band to sign a record contract. Their self-titled debut, recorded for $6,000, was released in 1976 and featured such rock landmarks as “Judy Is a Punk,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “Beat on the Brat.”
Destroying the ’70s prog-rock idea that rock had to be played by learned musicians in full command of their instruments, the Ramones pioneered the do-it-yourself ideal that inspired thousands of punk bands with lots of energy but dicey chops to pick up instruments and rock.
Their 1977 album Ramones Leave Home featured a quintessential mix of gutter-punk anthems and homages to classic pop songs (“I Remember You,” “Oh Oh I Love Her So”). It also featured the unofficial Ramones anthem “Pinhead,” in which Joey sang, “I don’t want to be a Pinhead no more/ I just found a nurse that I could go for.”
The Ramones not only prodded bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash and X-Ray Spex to take up their instruments and take on the world, but they also laid the path for the next generation of new wave and punk bands to rock maximally with minimal flourish.
Inspired by the Ramones’ wide-open subject matter – which ranged from sniffing glue to male prostitution to lobotomies – as well as by the music, ’80s bands such as Husker Du, the Replacements and Devo further exploded the notion of how rock could sound.
The Ramones released what is arguably their best album, Rocket to Russia, in 1977. Featuring such concert staples as “Cretin Hop,” “Rockaway Beach” and “We’re a Happy Family,” the album not only summed up the glum outlook of the punk generation, it was a shrill counterpoint to the disco music that was sweeping the nation in the wake of “Saturday Night Fever.” After trying their hands at the movies, starring in 1979’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” the group entered the studio with one of their idols, ’60s’ “wall of sound” producer Phil Spector. The resulting 1980 album, End of the Century, included a cover of “Baby I Love You” by the Ronettes, who were fronted by one of Joey’s favorite singers, Ronnie Spector (Phil’s ex-wife).
The group followed with 10 more studio albums of speedy, anti-social punk and a relentless touring schedule, and enjoyed Beatlemania-style fame in Argentina and Japan.
Although the band rarely cracked the album charts and achieved marginal album sales during a 22-year career, its influence continues to this day. With most of his contemporaries faded, dead or inactive, Joey became the embodiment of first-wave punk, with a shy, soft-spoken manner that belied his band’s twisted songs about social misfits too bored, disconnected or disaffected to play by the rules.
Joey may have shared a last name with his bandmates, but familial love couldn’t keep them from their constant bickering, leading to the Ramones’ dissolution in 1996. After the group played its final show on August 9, 1996 – such fans as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell jammed with the Ramones that night – Joey continued to carry the torch for the music he loved.
In addition to producing an EP and an album by horror-ska rockers the Independents – whom he tirelessly championed and managed for much of the late ’90s – Joey co-produced a 1999 EP by his idol Ronnie Spector.
The EP featured one of Joey’s most poignant tunes, “She Talks to Rainbows,” a ballad he wrote for the Ramones’ 1995 studio swan song, Adios Amigos!. It was about a girl Joey would often see in his neighborhood, who he said looked like she was in her own world.
“She’s a little lost girl in her own little world/ She looks so happy, but seems so sad/ Oh yeah/ I’d like to help her/ I’d like to try/ Oh yeah,” Spector sang in her trademark yearning voice on the EP.
In addition to trying to help resurrect the career of his hero Spector, Joey was working on his debut solo album over the past three years.
Collaborating with long-time Ramones producer Daniel Rey, Ramone had written nearly 20 new tunes that he planned to record with a band that included Andy Shernoff of the punk group the Dictators, Cracker drummer Frank Funaro and Rey on guitar.
Joey kept a low profile over the past few years, jumping onstage to belt out occasional Ramones songs at birthday parties in his honor thrown by his punk-rocker friends in New York. In February 2000, he buried the hatchet with former Ramones drummer Marky Ramone, recruiting Marky to play on a handful of his solo songs.