Friday, May 19, 2006


Today would have been Joey Ramone's 55th birthday, and in New York, that is not a milestone that goes unnoticed. There is a long sold-out Joey Ramone Birthday Bash 2006 at Irving Plaza. Proceeds will go to the new Joey Ramone Foundation for Lymphoma Research, raising awareness and money to help find a cure for the form of cancer that took the punk pioneer's life April 15, 2001.

The show and foundation, heralded by Joey's mother, Charlotte Lesher and brother, Mickey Leigh, features a number of the musical kin and spawn of the Ramones, including Richie Ramone; the Strokes, Glen Matlock, the Alarm and members of bands from the Ramones' original CBGB era: the Plasmatics, the Dead Boys and the Dictators.

The most fascinating artist on the show may be Tracy Thornton, who will open the concert with his authoritative versions of Ramones songs played on steel pans, the tinkly-sounding percussion instrument often found in Caribbean tourist joints that feature calypso. Thornton, a former punk rock drummer from High Point, N.C., who had his Ramones epiphany in 1988, has released "Pan for Punks: A Steelpan Tribute to the Ramones." It's a remarkable project. Thornton transposed a chunk of the Ramones repertory note by note, and plays it with great heart and skill. (The album also includes a video of "Blitzkrieg Bop.")

When we think of Ramones songs, we think of three chord/two minute blasts of rhythm. Pan for Punks brings out the rich, elemental melodies that buoyed songs like "Teenage Lobotomy" so that you'd remember it even if you had one. For days I've been humming "The KKK Took My Baby Away," "Rockaway Beach" and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend."

I was recently going through my back pages and found a cover story I wrote for Newsday—probably the first one I did at the start of a nearly 20-year-career there—from Jan. 25, 1976. It may have been the first major mainstream newspaper story to identify and try to understand the phenomenon. The article mentions numerous bands: Tuff Darts, Talking Heads, Television, the Shirts, the Planets...But for the cover of that Sunday entertainment section, along with the simple two-word title: "Punk Rock" was a photo of the most emblematic group, the Ramones.

It still sickens the heart to remember how stubbornly the industry—especially once all-powerful radio, and later MTV—insisted that the Ramones were not "musical" and that their image was all wrong for whatever their medium. A Columbia Records A&R man—a friend of mine at the time, who just didn't get it—says in the article, "In this situation, 'avant-garde' becomes a code word for 'awful' and 'crude' translates into 'basic rock and roll'...I mean, jeez." But another A&R rep, rock scholar Richard Robinson, saw major label cluelessness as almost a necessity for the development of these bands, many of which were 'crude,' but in a good way.

"It would be tragic if record companies started exploiting these bands," said Robinson, who had produced Lou Reed's first solo album for RCA. The labels hadn't yet figured out Patti Smith, whose "Horses" was already a weak-selling masterpiece: Robinson felt whatever was fresh and interesting about these bands would be mauled by the machinery of the industry. "It's the difference between music performed for 100-200 people and that made for 20,000," Robinson said. What we loved about the early CBGB days was being part of that 100 or 200, as each band began to grow up on that stage.

Ten years later, the Ramones could draw 20,000 people in South America, though they never got beyond the theater level in the U.S. "The Ramones" debut album in 1976 peaked at No. 111; "Rocket to Russia," widely and properly recognized as one of the great albums in rock history, made it all the way up to No. 49 in 1977.

History has proven the Ramones and their believers—their original manager, Danny Fields; CBGB owner Hilly Kristal; and Sire Records' founder Seymour Stein, who signed the band, among them—to be visionaries. And "Pan for Punks" reminds you why the Ramones' were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Behind the aggressive stance was a sound that was not just intense. It was beautiful.

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