Joey Ramone passed away 15 years ago, yet he and the Ramones loom as large in popular culture as ever. The band is currently the subject of an exhibit at the Queens Museum, and its first album, which turns 40 this year, will be given the deluxe reissue treatment.
This week, friends and fans of the Ramones will gather to pay tribute to Joey on what would have been his 65th birthday. This year, the annual Birthday Bash, which raises money for the Joey Ramone Foundation for Lymphoma Research, will feature a variety of musicians performing the Ramones’ debut from start to finish, along with an introduction from producer Craig Leon. amNewYork spoke with Leon about the album and his role in discovering the band.
How did you first learn about the Ramones?
I worked for what was then a small record company called Sire. ... Lenny Kaye worked with us. He had started playing guitar with Patti Smith. He and several others told me about the New York scene that had developed. I went to CBGB looking for Patti Smith and some of the other new artists I was hearing about. I saw some posters for Ramones, as well as little mentions in local papers. I loved the name and thought I’d better check them out. Anyone who’d name themselves after an alias for Paul McCartney [he called himself “Paul Ramon”] sounds like somebody I should check out.
What did you think when you first heard them?
I thought they were coming from that New York performing arts scene, but coming at it in such a bizarre way that it was brilliant. They were doing early rock ’n’ and roll, but everything was the exact inverse of what a pop band from that time was supposed to be. It was like Bizarro world from the Superman comic, where everything is backward. They were the Beatles of Bizarro world.
People think of them as savants. Do you see that as a misperception?
It certainly is. ... They were kidding and they weren’t kidding at the same time. They took their savant nature seriously but also made fun of everything including themselves. But they knew what they were doing and what they were going after. It was not accidental that they’d stumble upon such great lyrics and concepts.
What do you hope people remember about them?
I hope they all decide to go out and join bands and play music in the way they want to do it and demand they become commercially accessible ... even if they write lyrics like “beat on the brat with a baseball bat.”