Before The Ramones became international icons, the band’s first press release in 1975 introduced the punk rockers to the world as working-class men from Queens.
Youngsters from the New York borough’s neighbourhood of Forest Hills “either become musicians, degenerates or dentists. The Ramones are a little of each,” it informed.
The Ramones of course went on to become musicians. But a first-ever museum exhibition on the band also shows other sides of the musicians surrounded by the debauchery of the rock world, but who managed to keep a surprising amount of the straight-laced work ethic they learned in Queens.
The tongue-in-cheek press release starts off the exhibition, which opened recently at the Queens Museum and heads in September to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
The Ramones, whose original members are all dead, pioneered punk rock with its rough, distorted and intensely direct energy that came in spite of – or because of – the absence of formal musical training.
The exhibition brings together memorabilia ranging from the Mosrite guitars that Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone would play low-slung to action photos of the band who kept the self-discipline to play 2,263 concerts over 22 years.
Also on display are the rockers’ clothes. The Ramones’ uniform of leather jackets and ripped jeans – along with T-shirts bearing the band’s logo designed by Arturo Vega – has emerged as an international punk fashion symbol.
Linda Ramone, the widow of guitarist Johnny who now works to preserve the band’s legacy, said that his attire had a more basic reason – he was initially a construction worker.
“You have that whole crowd going back and saying that The Ramones are really cool-looking,” she told AFP.
“It wasn’t a fashion statement; that’s just how they looked,” she said. “The ripped jeans started because their jeans would wear out and they would rip.”
One section of the exhibition explores a historic concert – The Ramones’ international debut at The Roundhouse in London on July 4, 1976.
The Ramones – playing, incidentally, on the bicentennial of the US Declaration of Independence – were the opening act but had a massive impact, with bands such as The Clash and Sex Pistols later citing the show as an inspiration as they witnessed the do-it-yourself vigour of punk.
Yet the punk scene that would soon shake Britain came with a political edge, with the Sex Pistols sneering at the royal family and The Clash taking the mantle of global liberation movements.
“They were up in rage against the queen. The president of the United States didn’t know who The Ramones were,” said Linda Ramone.
“I don’t think they were really worried that The Ramones were going to take over,” she said.
While US punk later turned political, The Ramones were best known for lines such as I Wanna Be Sedated – a response to boredom on the road – and Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! from Blitzkrieg Bop.
Linda Ramone said the band felt they would alienate listeners by discussing politics.
Johnny, who Linda said was a careful saver, surprised many fans when he later came out as a Republican. Singer Joey Ramone, who had an often tense relationship with Johnny, was a liberal Democrat.
The Ramones all took the surname, initially a reference to a pseudonym under which Paul McCartney would check into hotels, but they were not related.
The Ramones’ influence was felt not just in Britain. The exhibition shows pictures from CBGB – the legendary club on Manhattan’s then-seedy Bowery where the band made its name — as well as posters from shows around the world.
Linda Ramone recalled that The Ramones for some time enjoyed a wider audience in Europe and said that, more than 20 years after their final album, the band’s following may be strongest in Latin America.
Japan was also a major fan base. One highlight of the exhibition is a specially designed piece by punk-inspired Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara of Ramona, the wide-eyed girl who appears in much of his work, with the motto “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!”.
Marc Miller, who curated the exhibition, said that The Ramones were “a collection of contradictions.”
“On one hand, they are great complainers; on the other hand, they have these chants of uplifting phrases,” he said.
“On one hand, they are a bunch of out-of-control punks; on the other hand, it was really an art enterprise.”
Linda Ramone said that while the rockers had to leave Queens to make their name, they would be pleased by the exhibition.
“They’re not here, but they’re looking down and they’re saying it’s pretty cool to have something open in Queens,” she said. – AFP