Chris Willman says the band's jackhammer rhythms were both revolutionary and pure pop perfection

By Chris Willman
Updated December 23, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Joey Ramone
Credit: Joey Ramone: UCAL/LFi

A salute to Joey Ramone, the father of punk rock

Hey! Ho! Let’s … moan.

The true father of punk rock, Joey Ramone, is dead, and if you’re like me, you wanna be sedated. It may well be that — to crudely paraphrase a famous quote — each celebrity’s death diminishes us. But somehow, we tend to take the ones we associate with youthful joie de vivre a little harder, even if the stars in question well outlived their own immature ethos. And so it is with Joey, who died of lymphatic cancer on April 15 at the age of 49, just a few weeks after the public became aware of his illness. Even in his last decade, the lead Ramone was fighting the good fight against middle aged dignity, singing the Peter Pan like ”I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” ”I don’t wanna die” never seemed like a question that needed raising amid the determined rush of three chord guitar pop.

And ”pop” is not a word to use mistakenly or lightly in the context of the Ramones, the band Joey fronted from 1974 through a 1996 farewell tour. The erstwhile Jeffrey Hyman was an unabashed fan of pop music, at least from the late ’50s and early ’60s. While other punk rockers arrived bearing the pretense of overthrowing some social order or another, Joey just wanted to make rock & roll as fresh and invigorating as it had been in his youth. One of his last professional gigs was producing an album for Ronnie Spector, the voice of some of his most fondly remembered 45s and the ex-wife of Phil Spector, who produced the Ramones’ 1979 ”End of the Century,” their most torturously conceived (but also highest charting) album. The Ramones’ anthems may never quite have been fully Spectorian, but Joey made sure they were always irresistibly catchy, which was hardly the top priority of most fellow rockers in the progressive rock dominated era when the band first came up.

Rarely has anyone in show business made affectlessness so charming. Johnny Rotten, who came along soon after, perfected the art of the sneer, but Joey couldn’t be bothered to work up anything resembling visible emotion, angry or otherwise. That apparent passionlessness shouldn’t have worked, but here, it was a rebirth of the cool, his staccato Noo Yawk delivery working against and in tandem with the furiousness of the band’s three (or so) chords. His lack of inflection, free of outright irony or outright sincerity, seemed perfectly sufficient whether he was singing a tender love song or outright novelty tune. As the listener, you could fill in the blanks, if you were still conscious after being knocked out in rapidly successive two minute rounds by the sledgehammer precision of ”brothers” Dee Dee, Johnny, and whichever drummer they had that year.

It’s not as if we feel like we’ve lost a brother ourselves, exactly — more like a mysterious beatnik uncle. Hidden behind sunglasses and bangs that managed to obscure both age and personality, Joey seemed a little bit retiring even as he was advancing some of the most aggressive music ever known to man or beast. One thing’s for certain: His brilliant juvenalia will live on, and never mature, for eons.

Read EW’s previously unpublished 1990 interview with Joey Ramone.