Behind the Blitzkrieg Bop

A long-awaited film documentary on The Ramones is finally out. Pierre Perrone meets Ed Stasium, their regular producer
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The Independent Culture

"The world was not ready for The Ramones. Look what happened after them. Green Day come along, and boom! Blink-182, Sum 41, Good Charlotte. Where would they be without The Ramones? And they don't even touch them. They are not even close," says Ed Stasium, the producer, who recorded The Ramones.

He worked consistently with the New York group who distilled rock'n'roll back to its very essence and created the minimalist blueprint for the punk explosion of the Seventies. He is also one of many contributors to End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones, a documentary film by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, which has been so long in the making that the three principal members of the group - Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone - have died since work began on it in 2001. Still, it gives us a chance to catch up with one of the most influential bands of all time, who split up in 1996 after playing 2,263 shows.

The irony is that, as the documentary constantly demonstrates, despite presenting a united front and frown and all adopting the "Ramone" moniker, the group were anything but a happy family. The bassist, Dee Dee (born Douglas Colvin), who could never quite kick his drugs habit, left the band in 1989 and overdosed in June 2002; and the beanpole vocalist, Joey (born Jeffrey Hyman), never forgave the drill sergeant and guitarist, Johnny (real name John Cummings), for stealing his girlfriend Linda in 1981.

The liberal singer and the staunch Republican guitarist (who always thought that "punk should be right-wing" and refused to play 'Bonzo Goes to Bitburg' live because it lampooned Ronald Reagan) spent the last 15 years of the group's existence not only at opposite ends of the political spectrum but also sitting at opposite ends of the tour bus, not talking to each other.

"The film is a nice time capsule," says Stasium, who doesn't like to draw attention to the fact he nearly became Eddie Ramone. "I remember travelling with them from Los Angeles to San Diego and it was pure hate. I've never seen anything like it.

"I did nine records with them," he recalls. "I walked in the studio to work on their second album, turned up the faders and thought: what is this? I was asked to join the band around 1978. I had been playing guitar parts on the albums but I didn't want to do it. I'd been on tour with the band and we recorded a shitload of shows in England. We chose the Rainbow show from New Year's Eve 1977 for It's Alive because it was a great gig all around. The English loved them."

The Ramones were never prophets in their own country and their seminal live album, which made the British charts in 1979, only gained a US release in the mid-Nineties. In fact, although The New York Times included their eponymous debut album (recorded for $6,400 in 1976, clocking under 29 minutes and featuring such defining tracks as "Blitzkrieg Bop", "Beat On The Brat", "Judy Is A Punk" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue") in the 25 most influential records of the 20th century, the Ramones only got a gold record in the US when sales of the Ramonesmania compilation, issued in 1988, eventually reached the 500,000 mark in the Nineties.

This most American of groups loved the Stooges, and started out at CBGB's in New York in 1974. They triumphed in Europe on a Sire package tour (with support act Talking Heads) in 1977, and had UK Top 40 singles with "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker", "Swallow My Pride" and "Don't Come Close", but only scored a minor hit at home with "Rockaway Beach" in 1978.

Not even working with the exploitation movie supremo Roger Corman on Allan Arkush's Rock'n'Roll High School in 1979 helped them cross over to the mainstream. It was time to call the maverick sixties producer Phil Spector, who had expressed an interest in working with the group after seeing them at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles. The man behind the "wall of sound" came up with the title End Of The Century for the group's pivotal fifth studio album, and an accompanying documentary shows its troubled gestation.

Both in the film and in conversation, Ed Stasium stresses that "Phil talked about how this was going to be the biggest record of everybody's career. He loved Joey's voice. He was convinced they were gonna be the biggest thing since the Beatles."

But Spector (currently indicted for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson) waved a gun at Dee Dee and generally put the group through the mangle with his dictatorial approach to recording.

"The sessions were gruelling, especially for Johnny, who hated Phil. We were there for hours and Johnny got fed up doing take after take after take," remembers Stasium. "He played 'This Ain't Havana' back, like, 353 times. Over and over at absurd volumes." The final blow was the infamous "Rock'n'Roll High School" intro. Johnny always exaggerated and made it sound like it was eight hours that we were there but it was probably more like two hours. But it was a helluva long time to be playing one chord. He said: 'I'm leaving. I'm outta here. Fuck this shit'."

Ed intervened and Johnny ended up staying, but the guitarist never stopped criticising End Of The Century, which only dented the US Top 50 though it provided the Ramones with a British Top 10 single in 1980, a cover of "Baby I Love You", the Ronettes single Spector had originally produced and co-written in 1963. This was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory since Joey was the only Ramone to feature prominently on the track. But the reverb-heavy opener "Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Radio' showed what Spector could offer the Ramones.

When sales didn't live up to expectations, the Ramones tried again, using Graham Gouldman, of 10CC, on Pleasant Dreams in 1981, Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin - who produced Joan Jett's smash "I Love Rock'n'Roll" - on Subterranean Jungle in 1983 and even Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics, on "Howling At The Moon" in 1984 - but to no avail.

From then on, they concentrated on touring, and the subsequent six studio albums barely deviated from the established formula. "Johnny ran things like the military," admits Stasium, who produced Mondo Bizarro in 1992.

By then, groups the Ramones had influenced could offer support slots and they toured with U2, White Zombie and Pearl Jam, appeared on The Simpsons and took part in the Lollapalooza festival in 1996. At their last concert in Los Angeles, they were joined on stage by Dee Dee, Soundgarden, Eddie Vedder, and Lemmy, who wrote a song called "R.A.M.O.N.E.S." for it.

Marky is still out there, touring with The Speed Kings, while Tommy has been overseeing an Australian musical called Gabba Gabba Hey! And Ed Stasium? "I've just finished mastering a two-CD set with 58 Ramones songs covered by groups from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Spain, Belgium, Japan. It's called Todos Somos Ramones: 'We Are All Ramones'!"

'End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones' is released in cinemas today