Judge Bill Gibron likes chewin' out a rhythm on his bubblegum.
It's the end, the end of the '70s. It's the end, the end of the century!
Thank God for The Ramones. They literally saved rock and roll from itself. During the mid-1970s, while many bands were trying the patience of critics and fans alike with their musical masturbation techniques, a group of quasi-delinquents and misfits from Queens were determined to rescue the sound they loved so well from its self-indulgent delusions. The boys were immersed in the rising riot act known as The Stooges, and were possessed with an equally intense individualistic streak when it came to personal appreciation. By the time the New York Dolls shook up the metropolitan music scene, the four fiercely different personality types were looking to join into the exciting, anarchic fray.
Jeffrey Hyman, a tall lanky loner, was placed on drums. He was the dreamer of the group, a guy caught up in the pure pop poetry of the Beatles and the Beach Boys that came pouring out of AM radios all across the city. Douglas Colvin was the savvy street kid, a guy who equally knew his way around drugs and bubblegum music. He took up the bass as a means of channeling his madcap intensity. John Cummings was as anti-social and angry as a troubled youth could be, redefining delinquency as he strove to discover a way out of his nowhere existence. He would beat on his guitar with as much ferocity as a hoodlum rolling a drunk. And Tommy Erdelyi had full faith in his business sense, knowing that if he could just get his trio in front of an audience, something magical would happen.
Of course, things would change dramatically before The Ramones became the saviors of sound. Joey was moved up front, Tommy took the drum kit, and a concrete performance philosophy was adopted. The band would play loud and fast. There would be no solos or onstage loitering. Each song would blast into and against the next, creating a kind of cacophonous wall of noise obliterating the dinosaur droppings of the current cultural scene and laying the foundation for music's magical rebirth.
And for a while, it seemed like The Ramones would be the only rock group, punk or otherwise, that would ever matter again. But as we learn in the amazing masterpiece of a music documentary, End of the Century, fate was conspiring against the foursome from Forrest Hills. By the start of the year 2000, The Ramones were more or less rock relics, a nice nostalgic reminder of punk's prehistoric roots. As we hear throughout the course of this amazing film, they were so much more than that…and interpersonally, decidedly less.
Facts of the Case
Looking to celebrate a band that they loved and respected, New Yorkers Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia grabbed their cameras and set out to document the rock and roll titans known as The Ramones. This was 1998, two years after the group officially disbanded. Over the course of the next seven years, the filmmakers would face frustration, financial failure, and a growing friction from their subjects as they tried to get to the heart and soul of what made this seminal band tick. What they learned would be both shocking and self-evident. Far from "da bruddahs" they played in the media and on stage, The Ramones were a band rife with personality clashes and petty differences.
At one time or another, everyone wanted to control the group. Tommy thought that the entire enterprise, from the look to the sound was his invention. Joey, painfully shy at the beginning, realized rather quickly that stardom afforded a certain level of power, and he wielded it mercilessly. Dee Dee probably had the most leverage within the group. As kind of the wounded, Brian Wilson-esque musical visionary of the band, this heroin-addicted hero delivered many of The Ramones' most devastating songs—and never let anyone forget it. For Marky, Ritchie, and CJ, there was an also-ran aspect to their presence that left them almost completely out of the picture. Only Marky truly managed to make his personality gel successfully with the others.
But it was Johnny who finally found the right combination of authority and anger to rule over his fellow freaks. Like a sergeant shaping up a bunch of pathetic privates, Johnny understood inherently that The Ramones could not last within the anarchical spirit of its founding. Over the years he pounded home a message of professionalism mixed with emotional abuse, basically trying to save the group from itself. His hardnosed histrionics left more than one member pissed off, but Johnny couldn't have cared less. He was going to make The Ramones work no matter what.
Of course, this meant endless tours, frequent fisticuffs, and enough inner turmoil to cause most musical entities to simply disintegrate. But instead of dying off, The Ramones just drifted. They became equated with the punk of the '70s, and left to the label of nostalgia. By the time alternative came along and championed their cultural impact, the group was on its last legs. Johnny and Joey had not spoken in 15 years, and Dee Dee had left to flirt with hip-hop. In the end, the band had the brains to call it quits before someone died, or worse, killed someone else. It is this intense, disquieting process of implosion that Fields and Gramaglia chronicle in End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones. And all sensational songs aside, this may be the definitive legacy the band leaves behind.
"Hey! Ho! Let's go!"
It's the ultimate call to rock and roll arms, the anthemic cry of the first really disenfranchised youth movement. But instead of turning inward and focusing on the personal pain, punk asked kids to do it for themselves, to take back the music that made life more livable and revitalize it. It is safe to say that when the great volume to the history of rock and roll is finally written, The Ramones and their speed demon power pop punk will be one of the few entries actually credited with creating a specific genre. From the moment Jeffrey "Joey Ramone" Hyman, John "Johnny Ramone" Cummings, and Douglas "Dee Dee Ramone" Colvin got together to make music, something indefinable happened. Melding so many divergent influences together that the music turned into a form of incendiary concrete, and upon adding Tom "Tommy Ramone" Erdelyi to the lineup (he would later be replaced by Marc "Marky Ramone" Bee), the parameters were set for one of the greatest examples of rock and roll perfection ever created.
Taking up residence at New York's infamous CBGB's and donning the name a certain Sir McCartney took when he went on tour (Paul "Ramone" anyone?), the world's first punk band rewrote the rules of music and single-handedly jumpstarted the DIY mentality that transformed England into a hotbed of hardcore acts. Indeed, without this band from the Burroughs, there would be no Damned, Clash, Sex Pistols, Jam, U2, or Buzzcocks. Far more influential than famous in America, The Ramones spent twnety years of almost negligible domestic popularity. But what the USA discarded, the rest of the world embraced, and the band was still a sellout sensation in South America and the Far East.
Still, one of the biggest crimes in the cultural landscape of the United States is how a group as great as The Ramones could be abandoned by its native land, only to be propped up elsewhere. This is one of the many mysterious and maddening questions that first time filmmakers Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia attempt to address is End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones. As a documentary, it is nothing more than archival footage and talking head Q&As, but what a mesmerizing story they both tell. Longtime fans—this critic included—have long heard rumors about the infighting and backstabbing amongst the band, about how the Phil Spector sessions for the album End of the Century almost ended in a blaze of handgun fire and the fact that Joey and Johnny were more or less non-communicative throughout the '80s and '90s. But what Fields and Gramaglia manage is something more substantial than a VH-1 Behind the Music whitewash. No, this is that beloved warts-and-all look beneath the veneer of supposed success. And just like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, it manages to say more about the people who populate the story than the saga of their rise to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If anything, End of the Century is a movie about benchmarks. It lays out The Ramones' ragged history in stunning, sobering detail and never once flinches at the often pungent taste of some decidedly sour grapes. It lets everyone have their say, no matter how painful or prosaic it is, and recognizes the power in bitter and disconnected personalities using the confessional concept of the camera for their own explanatory gain. Indeed, you can literally see the years of weight lifting off of Dee Dee and Johnny's chests as they come clean over the abuses and the misuses of their talent and their temper in order to further a selfish and almost always one-sided goal. The movie plays like a steeplechase, a contest between a monumentally influential rock band and the barriers and obstacles that would conspire to keep them discredited and rejected. Interestingly, over the course of nearly two hours, we learn that fate did deal the band a bunch of bum cards—but they did themselves no great service by playing said hand as poorly and as purposelessly as they did.
Perhaps the first major epiphany for the band as a viable entity came when Johnny heard Joey and Dee Dee running through "Judy is a Punk." At the time, Tommy was leading the group in his measured, meticulous manner. As an entity, the band was disorganized and dimensionless. But when those rousing chord changes and the nonsensical lyrics hit his ears, Johnny realized that there was more to this group than just a half-baked idea simmered over long summers in the blazing New York City sun. There was something to this "Ramones," and it had the potential to be great.
The next major monumental step forward was playing at CBGB's, the dive bar/rock club that gave the group its first consistent exposure. Like any other novelty to the scene, The Ramones were castigated as crass and pointless, left for dead by all but the most adventurous critics. Over the course of a couple of years, they honed their chops and built up a potent reputation. By the time of their all important Fourth of July gig in London circa 1976, The Ramones were ready to win over the world. Sure, their homeland was ignoring them, but they knew that a good showing outside the States could generate a great deal of much needed publicity. This seminal show did more than that, however. It taught a troubled UK youth movement that there was a way out of their no-future fate. Joe Strummer of the Clash (in one of his last interviews) makes it very clear that if The Ramones had not come to Britain when they did, the UK version of the scene would have probably never happened. They spawned so many great groups that they surpass any other entity to become the true founding fathers of the movement.
But it was another archetypal act from that time which supposedly doomed the group. To hear Joey and Johnny tell it, when The Sex Pistols came to America, they brought an unpleasant and disgusting mannerism that instantly sullied the US on punk and its music. Danny Fields, the band's initial manager, argues that the Sid and Johnny show, filled with vomiting, spitting, and coarse, foul language doomed his boys to a zero-airplay radio blacklist, an unwarranted guilt by association. They had just recorded one of the greatest pop songs in the history of the genre—"Sheena is a Punk Rocker"—and they just knew it would be a hit. Once Malcolm's malcontents hit these shores, however, The Ramones' career would never be the same. Indeed, one of the overriding themes of End of the Century is how this acclaimed and influential band more or less stayed a cult-like entity for most of its career, setting the standard for hundreds of acts to follow, and yet never once following in their famous footsteps.
If you're looking for a single catalytic event, the main reason why the band went from good natured noisemakers to introverted, angry divas, then the Phil Spector sessions are your ticket to The Ramones' regression. The material hinted at in this section of the film's story is so dense, so rich and telling in its importance to the band's derailing that it could have been its own movie. Indeed, here's hoping that, one day, this section of the group's myth gets the shaking out it so desperately deserves. Spector is seen as a savant and a savage, a has-been and an unquestionable artist. But equally amazing, we hear the band confess to their own ugliness, an unquenchable desire to get out of this recording hell before Spector could sap away all their spirit. Apparently only Joey enjoyed the sessions (sadly, the lanky lead singer died before extensive interviews could be conducted) and the great, goofy producer's dedication to perfection and pop soured Johnny on the whole artistic growth of the band's future.
Along with the whole Johnny/Joey/girlfriend-stealing storyline (far too sad to go into here), it was the aesthetic chasm created by Spector that doomed The Ramones. Joey wanted to expand to the sweeter sound. Johnny wanted a return to the days of "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Teenage Lobotomy." This dichotomy would plague the group until their demise. Every subsequent album found the band balancing sing-alongs with a return to sonic stomping. For every "Too Tough To Die," there was a "Something to Believe In," every song like "Psycho Therapy" had to be met with something sensationally melodic like "Daytime Dilemma (The Dangers of Love)." Add in animosity, alcohol abuse, a lack of audience attention, as well as a schedule that would slay kids half their age, and The Ramones proved resilient, but not pliable. Under Johnny's tightfisted fury, there were lots of interpersonal pinnacles, for both good and bad. The most important is perhaps the aforementioned love triangle tragedy between Joey, Johnny, and Joey's then-girlfriend Linda. Interestingly, End of the Century more or less skirts this issue, letting Linda speak for herself (off camera, and at the behest of Johnny) as some manner of air clearing conceit. But what we really want to hear is the pain and the anguish for both of the men involved. According to the film, Joey never got over the heartache.
Unfortunately, when it comes to many of the band's more pressing problems, we are left to outside sources for clarity and context. Joey's brother, Mickey Leigh, does a lot of the shilling for his side of the family. He ends up doing more confirming than confronting. Critics like Legs McNeil are occasionally tossed in to give the scene some perspective and analytic importance, and famous fans like Strummer, Rick Rubin, and Kirk Hammett all give their soundbite support for what The Ramones meant to rock. While ancillary confirmations are always welcome, keeping a documentary and its subject from becoming too insular and self-contained, End of the Century really doesn't need its sideline cheerleaders. They do help highlight some of the more sobering facts, but the boys from Queens do such a fine job of digging their own graves and burying their heritage that you can't help but want to hear more of them. And that's what End of the Century has in spectacular spades.
In reality, one should consider this a companion piece to the road rockumentary released last year entitled Ramones: Raw. In that amazing behind the scenes scrapbook, Marky Ramone let us in on the day-to-day details of touring with the dire, disconnected group. End of the Century is the explanation for all the inside jokes, off hand comments, and simmering ire we feel from everyone involved. But it is also one of the greatest, grave character studies ever committed to film. Dee Dee comes across as the most lost of the members, drugs and his desire for affirmation twisting his temperament into something short of sanity. Yet he is the most incisive here, cutting through the crap to dispel the rumors and bark at the truth. Johnny, like Marky, carried The Ramones' reputation on their backs for decades, and they aren't about to let their guard down now. Joey's presence is reminiscent of the recent Beatles Anthology, where John Lennon's portions had to be pieced together from decades of discussions. Not surprisingly, he also seems the saddest. As the front and the face of the group, he was the polar opposite of the typical lead singer. He wasn't sexy and didn't swagger with untamed animal magnetism. His voice with reedy and mannered, disguising almost all of his borough's accent. He appears desperately lonely, lost in the shuffle of a situation that was supposed to guarantee happiness. But what he, and the rest of The Ramones learned, is that rock and roll is the most brazen bitch goddesses on the planet. Not only can she give and take away, but she can tease like a high school slut in the back seat on prom night.
End of the Century proves that, as a career, The Ramones really did suffer from a bad case of business blue balls. While many can point to their particular brand of bombast as the reason for all the Blink 182s and Good Charlottes in the world, their legacy is far more potent. Strangely, End of the Century doesn't diminish this conceit—it merely amplifies it. It proves that even the band itself was angry that they were constantly overlooked by the record buying public, and proud of the fact that they never really sold out, even though it meant not getting the respect and the royalties they so richly deserved. From Tommy's tenacious attitude, convinced he was creating something spectacular, to Marky's resolve that, while they couldn't get along, they could create nuclear music onstage, this documentary becomes an instant classic, a loving tribute to the memory of the band as it deconstructs their decidedly unpopular persona. Some could argue that the sound was too basic. Others could claim that, as a group, The Ramones were all silliness and style over actual substance. But the truth is, there are few bands that can claim they started a revolution. This fab Forest Hills four put punk on the map. They also saved the soul of the pop song. Too bad no one thought of celebrating such an achievement until now…when it's almost too little, too late.
Rhino should be lauded for giving this film a proper and pleasing DVD presentation. The movie was made out of blood, sweat, and many fanboys' frustrated tears, but the low budget leanings never once disturb the decent transfer and professional image here. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print does have numerous video defects (flaring, poor color contrasts) and some decidedly dopey framing issues (Johnny in particular looks caught in a constant, fuzzy close-up). Still, for what it took to get this film made, and the amazing amount of crystal clear concert and performance footage, the overall visual elements are nothing short of sensational. Others can claim that it looks bargain basement, but considering the age of some of the material used, it's astounding that the picture looks this good.
Thankfully, the sonics save the day. Rhino gives us both a Dolby Digital Stereo and 5.1 presentation and both are superb. In the concert footage, you experience a great deal of separation—thanks to the 5.1—and the instruments are mixed to perfection. The conversations with the cast sway between pristine to passable. Occasionally hindered by microphone hiss, and often relying on an internal mic to capture what's being said, we still have a nice balance between aural bliss and amateur antics here. Thankfully, none of it affects the power of what is being said, or played, on screen.
As for added content, Rhino has dug up about 30 minutes of additional interview footage, all of it mandatory viewing, which helps to expand our understanding of the group and its internal dynamic. While Chris Stein and Debbie Harry get to dish a little more Ramones vs. Blondie dirt, and Joe Stummer proves his poet's soul in praising the band, the best bits here are extended takes from Tommy and Joey. The founding drummer does an interesting thing here as well. He walks us through every track from the band's first three albums—Ramones, Road to Ruin, and Rocket to Russia—and tells us who was responsible for each song. While fans already have such information memorized, or at least inferred from style and songwriting approach, it's nice to have confirmation from a source. Along with a trailer and a foldout mini-poster for the film, this is a great, if decidedly incomplete, package. End of the Century is a movie that demands a commentary track. The making-of sounds as interesting as the subject being discussed. Sadly, we get no such insight, either from directors Fields and Gramaglia or any surviving members of the band. That is really too bad. An alternate narrative track would have turned this DVD release into a historical artifact. As it stands, it's just an amazing film with some fun bonus features.
The Ramones didn't conclude on typical rock and roll terms. They didn't flame out in a blaze of glory, or wander into the annals of music history as conquering heroes, their coffers lined with cash and compliments. No, they were a sometime critic's darling that also felt betrayed by the country that they loved so much, and fought like journeymen to keep themselves viable and visible in an ever-changing cultural landscape. In the end, original members gone and relationships permanently torn, they had no choice but to call it quits. After more than two decades of trying, how much more could they do? They invented a genre, defined the indie music spirit, wrote and recorded some of the most timeless tunes ever to blare across three chords, and set up a foundation from which rock and roll would never retreat. While End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones isn't always pleasant to look at, and some of the sentiments are difficult to hear, leave it to one of the best music documentaries ever made to uncover the unpleasant reality. Sadly, with Dee Dee and Johnny now joining Joey in the great beyond, the band's myth is left forever sealed in this sour state—murky, angry, and troublesome. It really is too bad that The Ramones couldn't have been superstars. But, then again, maybe they wouldn't have been The Ramones.
End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones joins the short list of classic rock and roll documentaries and is hereby acquitted of all charges. While the technical aspects of the DVD are acceptable, Rhino is censured for failing to deliver a devastating one-two punch by providing a commentary track. Otherwise, they too are found not guilty and are free to go.
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