You know what makes Judge Dan Mancini sad? Hearing the Ramones used to sell cell phones.
Hey, Ho, Let's Go!
When we think of the origins of punk rock, Brits come to mind—pseudo-anarchists, most of them, posing as fist-shaking political revolutionaries while creating vinyl consumer goods to be peddled by the corporations to whom they were under contract. But punk began across the pond in Queens, New York, when four young men appropriated the bogus surname under which Paul McCartney used to check into hotels while touring with the Beatles and became Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy Ramone. Buddies became brothers, and so began a musical revolution that forever altered rock 'n' roll even if it didn't make the Ramones a household name in America. While other punks sneered at mainstream success even as they bought mansions and sports cars—the unavoidable hypocrisy that tainted punk at least a little once it blossomed out of the dilapidated clubs of New York and London—the Ramones never hid their desire to be as big as the Beatles. For over 20 years the band waged a Don Quixote-like war against rock's bloated excesses and marketing department banalities, perennial failures who took their lumps and kept on keeping on. And the more success eluded them, the more their credibility grew: Their lovable loser image was the furthest thing from manufactured pap.
Punk rock, as envisioned by the Ramones, wasn't a political revolution but a musical one. In the midst of the disco-isms, high-concept double albums, and synthesizer excesses of the 1970s, the Ramones dragged rock back to its close-to-the-bone roots. Their lightning-fast delivery of three-chord tunes, and lyrical menagerie of punks, runts, brats, loudmouths, pinheads, mental defectives, glue sniffers, lovelorn teens, and jungle queens create the illusion of dumb simplicity, an utter lack of sophistication. Listen closely, though, and you'll hear a history of American popular music, dressed down in ripped denim and wrinkled leather, and crooned in a thick Queens accent: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jan and Dean, and the Beach Boys are just a few of the Ramones' influences. Heck, every once in a while you can even hear Hank Williams lurking deep in the boys' frenetic musical assault. What the Ramones gave rock 'n' roll was a simple but evocative music and, with it, a reminder that the best of American popular music has always been just that, simple but evocative. Most American record buyers may have missed the point, but musicians got it. Hence the irony at the center the Ramones' legacy: They may never have equaled the Beatles' popularity, but they're damned near as influential.
Ramones: Raw's greatest strength is that it perfectly captures that irony. It's a mutt of a picture, neither documentary nor concert film, but entirely satisfying for fans of the band because, apropos of its title, it's as raw as the Ramones themselves. Much of the footage was culled from hours and hours of behind-the-scenes video shot over the years by Marky Ramone, who replaced Tommy as the band's drummer during the recording of their fourth record, 1978's Road to Ruin. His sloppy, silly footage comes primarily from Ramones' tours from the mid-'80s—before bassist Dee Dee's departure to pursue a godawful rap career—until they finally said adios amigos in the mid-'90s. What we get is a peek into the no-frills working life of one of the most important bands ever. And "no frills" is the operative phrase here. They're carted to gigs in Astrovans, not limos with tinted windows; the riders in their venue contracts apparently don't provide for bowls of color-specific M&Ms, vegan snack trays, quiet rooms where the boys can do their pre-show yoga, or restroom facilities with rose petals afloat in the basins—their backstage accommodations are usually dingy gray rooms with low ceilings and poor lighting; they sometimes stroll the streets of the cities they play, oddball but mostly unmolested. They amuse themselves, simply enough, with silly nicknames for one another that stretch across the decades: Johnny's "the Sloth," Marky's "the doofus of Erasmus," and Dee Dee's "the Goon." They casually sign autographs in shopping malls and hotel lobbies. It's all about as inglorious as the tragicomedy of This Is Spinal Tap.
On the other hand, the Ramones weren't a band that suffered in complete obscurity, and their fans, particularly outside the States, were rabid. One of the most inspired segments of Ramones: Raw is set in South America and shows the band's minivan attacked by overwrought fans. Presented in black-and-white, set to the music from Romero's The Night of the Living Dead, and augmented by real-time commentary by the band members and crew in the van, the sequence is both funny and scary—the boys keep their wits about them, but one can hear in their voices a genuine sense of fear that the van will be capsized and life-threatening mayhem will ensue. They may not have been the world's biggest band, but they weren't exactly struggling to make ends meet, either—another segment of Raw finds Marky following Dee Dee on an obsessive hunt for a Rolex watch in Valencia, Spain. The Ramones did succeed as a working rock band, after all. The level of success just wasn't commensurate with their impact on rock 'n' roll from the 1970s onward.
Lest you think Ramones: Raw is nothing more than a collection of home movies, the feature intercuts Marky's footage with live performances of 15 songs, most in their entirety and mainly taken from a 1980 gig in Rome, shot professionally for television broadcast. A handful of songs are culled from a 1988 show in Provinssirock, Finland and sport superior audio and video. Also on tap are miscellanea like a 1979 segment from the New Jersey variety show, The Uncle Floyd Show, in which the band lip-syncs "I Wanna Be Sedated"; an appearance on kiddie show, Steampipe Alley, starring comedian Mario Cantone; a fan-made claymation music video for "Touring"; bumpers for the cable show USA Up All Night, with host Gilbert Gottfried (Aladdin) acting the fool as the fifth Ramone; and chance encounters with celebrities Drew Barrymore, Carly Simon, "Grandpa" Al Lewis, and Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead.
If that's not enough for you, the DVD offers a feature-length audio commentary by Raw's director, John Cafiero, and Marky and Johnny Ramone (one of the last things Johnny did as a Ramone before his death from prostate cancer last year). The track is mostly valuable for sorting out the whos, wheres, and whens of scenes in the feature since Cafiero edited segments thematically rather than chronologically, dumping the viewer into the Ramones' world with little context. The track does get bogged down, however, by Johnny and Marky's reticence. Despite Cafiero's interview-style prompting, they show no interest in analyzing their career, revealing the band's interpersonal dynamics, or discussing the origins of ideas.
I Ramones, the film of their 1980 concert in Rome, shot for broadcast on Italian television, is presented in its entirety. The program catches the band at the height of their power, and they blaze through a 27-minute set. Audio is a slightly muffled stereo, but this rarely seen gem is a worthy addition to the disc, almost worth the price in and of itself.
An oddball collection of the Ramones' various television appearances that didn't make the cut into the main feature are also archived on the disc, including segments from Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, The Howard Stern Summer Show, and an MTV 120 Minutes interview segment with Joey Ramone around the time of the release of the band's final album, Adios Amigos. There are a boatload of deleted scenes, consisting mostly of amusing material from Marky's video library, though there are other gems like a performance of "Chinese Rock" from the 1988 Provinssirock show, and Eddie Vedder's speech inducting the Ramones into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Despite Ramones: Raw's non-chronological organization, there is a sense of entropy that threads its way through the show, and gives it a sense of unity and purpose. We see Dee Dee leave the band and, though it's not mentioned, our knowledge of his subsequent death adds poignancy. We watch the television reports of Joey's death, and see a New York street named in his honor. We watch far more popular rock stars fawn over the Ramones once they've arrived at the end of the road. Behind the boys' silly antics, meant to entertain each other during the dull between-shows times of touring, there's a gentle sadness because Ramones: Raw, like The Last Waltz or Let It Be, is about a band on its last legs. That the Ramones approached their art with a tenacious, blue-collar work ethic, yet never managed to receive their due, only adds to the melancholy. That said, their music is a heck of a lot of fun, and there's enough of it here to keep Ramones: Raw from being a downer.
Audio- and videophiles may be disappointed with Raw's camcorder quality images and flat stereo sound, but the band's fans will love it. Besides, a glossy, 5.1 surround presentation of the Ramones would almost feel like sacrilege. The band was raw, and that's how you'll experience them here.
Gabba Gabba Hey!
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