The punk pioneer shared his appraisal of rock history

By David Browne
Updated April 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Joey Ramone
Credit: Joey Ramone: Denis O'Regan/CORBIS

In September 1990, Joey Ramone — who died on April 15 of lymphatic cancer — spoke with Entertainment Weekly music critic David Browne about the past and future of rock & roll. In this interview, published here for the first time, Ramone, then 38, talked about what rock meant to him, his favorite albums, and the best live band he’d ever seen.

What is the state of rock today?
Well, rock & roll is very special to me. It’s my lifeblood. When I got into it, it was more or less the inception — the ’60s was my generation. There were so many different kinds of artists doing so many different kinds of things — a real creative, experimental period. But by ’69, rock & roll for the most part wasn’t rock & roll anymore. There were all kinds of different elements in it. You were lucky if you got more than six songs on an album. And the songs were a half hour long with all sorts of horrible solos. It was very pretentious and very contrived and it wasn’t exciting anymore. It wasn’t fresh. Rock & roll of the late ’50s and early ’60s excited you. It gave you new ways of looking at things and changed your life and the way you would continue and carry on with your life. It was a whole counterculture.

So you feel you served that purpose for the next generation?
Yeah, I think so. We stripped it back down to the bone and reassembled it, put the excitement and fun and energy and attitude and spirit and fun back into what was no longer there. And in doing so, turned the world around, totally revolutionized rock & roll, and went to England, and that’s when the whole British thing kicked off, and then the world changed completely. And everybody basically was inspired by us to some degree.

Was there one band that inspired you to want to make music?
When I was 16, I saw the Who. It was the first time they played America. It was a Murray the K show at the RKO theater on 59th street [in New York City] — like 30 bands and the Who and Cream for the first time in America. Cream were great, but the Who blew my mind. The character and the visuals, Townshend, Keith Moon. It was the best thing I’d ever seen. When I perform, I want to blow people’s minds like that.

How was punk rock different?
All punk is is attitude. That’s what makes it. The attitude. Otherwise, it’s Foreigner all over again. These days it could be worse. It could be Winger or Slaughter or whatever.

What albums would you pick to take on a desert island with you?
The soundtrack from ”Help.” I probably wouldn’t pick any of our albums because we’re always playing and if I was on an island, I’d rather hear something else. Know what I mean? The first Who album. [The Rolling Stones’] ”December’s Children.” The ”Maximum Overdrive” album by AC/DC. Motorhead’s ”No Remorse.” And I’d take the Sex Pistols’ first album.

Do you think rock music is in a healthy state right now?
Yeah. For the most part since ’76, it’s gotten healthier. Bands coming out now are totally influenced by us, like Faith No More and Guns ‘N Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers, people like that. It’s a total business, yeah, but on the other hand a lot of people have penetrated it; bands like Living Colour have made it possible and the Red Hots, everything is sort of a blend now. Blacks are into rock & roll and the whites are into funk; everything’s pretty cool. I think it’s great. It brings everybody together and relieves some of the racial tension and the bulls–t. In some ways, music really has saved the world. Think of the Russian and Eastern bloc thing. It is the ultimate international language. It’s sort of the savior of the planet.

For more, read Chris Willman’s tribute to Joey Ramone.