Remembering the Ramones in the documentary ‘End of the Century’

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By Steven Rosen
(From The Denver Post, 2004)

The Ramones documentary is called “End of the Century” – a tribute to a troubled record of the same name that the groundbreaking punk band made with the ultra-difficult producer Phil Spector.

But it could be called “End of the Ramones.” The film arrives in Denver like a celluloid epitaph.

Three members of the original quartet that started in 1974 and split up in 1997 are now dead – guitarist Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer last month. The lanky, rail-thin lead singer Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in 2001; colorful bassist Dee Dee Ramone died of a drug overdose a year later, shortly after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only drummer Tommy Ramone survives of the original quartet.

“He wasn’t the friendliest guy in the world,” said “End of the Century’s” co-director Jim Fields, in a recent E-mail following news of Johnny’s death. “But I didn’t care because he was straightforward and authentic, and you always knew what he said is what he meant. In the film and music biz, that is invaluable. I just feel honored to have been able to work with the Ramones and with Johnny.”

The Ramones, on stage and on albums, projected such an image of brotherly solidarity – often-funny three-chord songs kept short and played buzz-saw fast by guys who always looked alike in their “Wild One” gear – that it still comes as a surprise for many to learn they weren’t actually brothers. Joey’s real name was Jeffrey Hyman, Johnny was John Cummings, Dee Dee Douglas Colvin, and Tommy is Tom Erdelyi. (According to websites, the name is a tribute to the pseudonym Paul McCartney used – “Paul Ramone” – when appearing on albums by his brother Mike’s band, Scaffold.)

And the Ramones never seemed to get old. They were – are – rock in the way that Mount Rushmore is. They projected an image of family and a code of loyal solidarity. At first dismissed by many as cartoonish, the Ramones grew to be considered heroic in their unbending “true believer” stance.

As Rob Zombie observes in “End of the Century,” the compelling film by Fields and Michael Gramaglia, “No matter what weird trends came and went, you’d go see the Ramones and it’d be like, ‘What year is it, anyway?’”

And yet, the Ramones most decidedly were not family – or at least not one big happy one. This is the shock and wrenching poignancy of “End of the Century” – it reveals that the true story of the Ramones was a tragedy long before the early deaths.

Key to the band’s tension, and painstakingly documented in “Century,” was the estrangement of the band’s two leaders, the romantic Joey and the blunt Johnny, who together owned Ramones Productions. Johnny had married Joey’s beloved girlfriend, Linda, and Joey never forgave him.

“When he (Johnny) saw the film, he called up and said, “I come across as pretty bad,’’ Gramaglia said, in an earlier telephone interview from his New York editing studio. “He showed it to a lot of his friends and they said, “But that’s the way you are.’ And he said, “I guess that’s the way I am. Leave it the way it is.’’’

Gramaglia, who had long worked for Ramones Productions, and high-school friend Fields earlier had made a more celebratory, music-oriented documentary about the band, 1997’s fan-oriented “We’re Outta Here.” Like the Ramones, they are New Yorkers. Being privy to the closely guarded story about the rift between Joey and Johnny, they pushed for a more personal, revelatory film.

“I called up Joey and said I don’t even want to start if he’s not interested,” Gramaglia said. “They both were partners in the company and they made 50-50 decisions on everything. He said, ‘I’ll do it if John talks about Linda.’

“This is something they’ve never talked about – they’ve never talked to each other about it,” he continued. “They never aired it and cleared it up. Joey said, ‘I don’t want it to be a whitewash, I want the real story. Ask John if he’ll do that.’ I called up John and said, ‘Joey has presented this challenge – will you talk about Linda?’ John was silent for a while and then he said, ‘Yeah.’ That opened it up.”

But because of Joey’s illness, he delayed talking to the filmmakers – until it was too late. “He was sick and that prevented it,” Gramaglia said. “We had a lot of interviews scheduled that he’d cancel because he had a bad day. Then things dragged on, so we decided to interview everyone else and go back to him.”

Fields, sharing the phone with Gramaglia, continued: “There was also a problem (interviewing Joey) because the first person interviewed was Dee Dee and then we went to L.A. to interview Johnny, so he felt a little paranoid that we might be in league with (Joey) and we had a hard time getting his trust. After about a year, we put together a short idea of what the film would be like, and he really liked it. That was a short time before he died, and that’s when he got excited about it.

“He sent an E-mail that he was ready to schedule the interview and was feeling good,” Fields said. “We had seen him perform at a Christmas (2000) party and he was in great voice and looked good and he was feeling really good. And then he slipped and broke his hip going out, and that was it.”

Yet at the same time as “Century” reveals this tragic rift and more, the film consistently celebrates the power of the music. It offers extensive footage from the band’s earliest days at New York punk club CBGB’s to a later tour of Brazil where they were received like superstars. It also shows Dee Dee to be a hilarious down-and-out junkie raconteur; an over-the-top, self-destructive figure who knows his weaknesses yet always conveys a sensitive and romantic side.

During the making in 1980 of the album “End of the Century,” producer Spector pulled a gun on the band during recording sessions. Given Spector’s current legal problems, this episode is extremely timely now and is recalled at length in the film.

Last year, Spector initially was charged with murder after a 40-year-old actress was found shot to death at his L.A. mansion. He has pleaded not guilty and been free on bail during an extensive investigation of the circumstances surrounding the event.

Johnny’s comments in the film about Spector – himself a legend from the 1960s for his “Wall of Sound” productions for the Ronettes, the Crystals and Righteous Brothers – are typically unsentimental and caustically direct: “A little man with lifts on his shoes, a wig on his head, and four guns.”

That was Johnny Ramone. Like the band, itself, no-nonsense.

(This story is adapted and updated from an article that originally appeared in Harp magazine. Tommy Ramone died in 2014.)

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A Really Groovie Band Returns

Flamin’ Groovies are back to shake some more action

Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson bring influential Guitar Pop rockers back for new album and tour

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / OCTOBER 17, 2017

MUSIC11018Flamin'Groovies Alain CazenaveCyril Jordan and Chris Wilson of Flamin’ GrooviesPHOTO: ALAIN CAZENAVE

If you browse around online or at local shops selling vintage prints, you might come across a certain concert poster from Cincinnati’s Ludlow Garage, Jim Tarbell’s iconic, long-lamented Rock club. It’s going for $150 on eBay now.

Ludlow Garage MC5+Golden Earring Concert Poster

The ornately decorated blue-and-white flyer is for Jan. 9-10, 1970 shows featuring Holland’s Golden Earring (“Radar Love”) and two Detroit-area bands now considered among the greatest ever: Iggy and the Stooges and MC5. (There was also a third, lesser-known Michigan band, Sunday Funnies, advertised.)

The headliners? Flamin’ Groovies from San Francisco. If you’re wondering what they sounded like, take heed! This Friday, the band is returning to Greater Cincinnati, this time to play Newport, Ky.’s Southgate House Revival.

Though the Groovies have had long stretches of inactivity and break-ups since that 1970 Ludlow Garage show, the group’s key members have kept playing and staying true to its pioneering vision of lean, evocative, guitar-driven Power Pop, chiming Folk Rock, British Invasion Pop and bluesy, straight-ahead Rock & Roll. Even during the years when the Groovies didn’t tour or record, the band’s name has stayed alive as a kind of spiritual presence, a touchstone of how good unpretentious Rock & Roll can be. Flamin’ Groovies has also endured thanks to the wide-rippling influence the group has had on popular music, helping to shape everything from Power Pop, Garage Rock and Punk to Roots Rock and the ’80s “College Rock” that led to Alternative and Indie Rock.

The Flamin’ Groovies on the road today consists of the band’s two co-leaders — guitarists/vocalists/songwriters Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson — and a new rhythm section featuring Chris von Sneidern on bass and drummer Tony Sales, whose father, Tony Fox Sales, played with his brother Hunt Sales in Tin Machine with David Bowie. This edition of the Groovies is the result of Jordan — who co-founded the band in 1965 with Roy Loney — reuniting in 2013 with Wilson, whose initial stint with the group coincided with its golden era, during which the Groovies produced the seminal 1976 Guitar Pop classic “Shake Some Action.”

Wilson and Jordan reunited at the request of illustrious Australian band the Hoodoo Gurus, which curates a festival series called Dig It Up! After the Groovies played Australia, the two musicians stayed together and, just last month, released a rousingly fine new album, Fantastic Plastic. (Bassist George Alexander, another founding Groovie, was part of the Australian shows and plays on the new album.)

Speaking from his home near Portland, Ore., Wilson sounds confident about this new phase in the band’s career.

“We accepted this offer to do this tour in Australia and I’d already been approached by some acquaintances in Japan who wanted us to do a few dates there,” he says. “We had a good time and thought we’d keep going from there. Things are going very well indeed.”

Fantastic Plastic includes 10 originals co-written and -performed by Wilson and Jordan, plus covers of The Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad.” Album opener “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” features Wilson’s urgent, agitated vocals and loud, crunching guitar riffs akin to classic Rolling Stones tunes like “Brown Sugar” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” (“That’s intentional,” Wilson says), but the very next track, “End of the World,” showcases a softer, haunting quality, with Jordan handling the lead vocals for a particularly lovely melodic passage. When the group members combine their voices for harmony and unison singing, as they do on the gorgeous “She Loves Me” and “Lonely Hearts,” it sounds like it’s 1965 again.

In the 1960s, Wilson heard many of the acts of the era that were defining the changing music of the time.

“I worked at the Club 47 coffeehouse in Cambridge, Mass., a wonderful venue for that kind of music,” he says. “Anything with 12-string guitars I was enamored of then, and still am. I made a career in the ’90s (while living in England) just going around playing Irish and Scottish Folk music on my 12-string.”

Folk is a style of music that holds more appeal for Wilson than Punk. In 1976, a young Ramones opened for the Groovies in London, just as Punk was breaking. It was a pivotal moment for Punk, whose fans showed appreciation by hurtling spit at musicians they felt epitomized the new sound.

“Their music wasn’t my cup of tea, but bless them — they knew how to play it,” Wilson says of The Ramones. “They played with all their might and they got covered in people’s spit. I never saw such a thing in my life. I was horrified. Johnny Ramone came off the stage at The Roundhouse in London and said, ‘I couldn’t even hold on to my guitar pick.’ ” (Mercifully, the Groovies, for the most part, have escaped that unsanitary sign of affection.)

Among the Groovies’ other accomplishments was to release — way back in 1968 — one of the first Rock & Roll EPs. Nowadays, the longer-than-a-single/shorter-than-an-album format is a common occurrence.

CityBeat spoke to Jordan for a story about the EP trend in 2013. “We put out the first independent EP, Sneakers, on our own label, Snazz Records,” Jordan said. “It was a 10-inch record with seven songs (because) that’s how much money we had. We were lucky — Tower Records had just started (in San Francisco) and we knew the cashier, who put Sneakers right next to cashbox.” 

The EP started selling, going through three pressings of 1,500 copies and helping the young band get signed to Epic Records for its first full album, 1969’s Supersnazz. 

Resuming their career in the 21st century, the Flamin’ Groovies’ legacy flashes before the musicians’ eyes.

“You can’t help looking back on it all and drawing parallels,” Wilson says. “When we’re on the road now, it’s like we’re 28 again, crammed in a vehicle and making ourselves laugh because we’re so freakin’ miserable from driving six hours straight again. It has a lot of the old days in it — the good old, bad old days.”

But it’s worth it, Wilson says, when the band plays “Shake Some Action” and sees the response.

“We have to play it live every show because everybody will be singing along with gusto,” he says. “That is very heartening, I think. If it does people some good, what a wonderful thing that is.”


FLAMIN’ GROOVIES play Newport, Ky.’s Southgate House Revival Friday with Tiger Sex and NP Presley & the Ghost of Jesse Garon. Tickets/more show info: southgatehouse.com.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com