Gabba gabba sniffle

After 20 years of buzzsaw therapy, the Ramones are to quit. For the time being at least. Barney Hoskyns attended the last rites in London
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"Punk's not dead!" quipped a passing punter as I queued to see the farewell London show by beloved punk grandads the Ramones. In an attempt to determine the degree of irony in the remark, I turned to see who'd made it. Was it that cider-chugging, Mohican-quiffed 22-year-old? Or was it the melancholy-looking thirty-something who'd pulled on a leather jacket for one last pogo? I couldn't tell. There were a lot of very different people here, and for very different reasons.

Punk may not be dead, but the Ramones, it would seem, have finally bitten the dust - like the spaghetti western mercenaries to whom they pay tribute on their farewell album Adios Amigos. Twenty years and 2,203 performances after their debut album shocked us out of the stoned, cheesecloth stupor of the mid-Seventies, the "brudders" from Forest Hills, New York, are pulling off the rock 'n' roll highway, and some vestigial attachment has dragged us out into the icy Brixton night to wave goodbye.

While the band's Marshall stacks are being set up, we're regaled with the sounds of punk's heyday: "Blank Generation", of course, and "Looking Through Gary Gilmore's Eyes". And then, as the lights dim, Ennio Morricone's theme tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ushers Joey, Johnny, CJ and Marky on to the stage. Joey looks exactly the same as he did when I last saw him a decade ago, except that he wears a looser-fitting T-shirt in a vain attempt to conceal a small pot belly. He is still one of the more bizarre spectacles rock 'n' roll has to offer, as well as one of its more unique singers. With skintight jeans clamped around his awkwardly splayed legs, he burbles the words to "Lobotomy" through that inimitable bush of hair, forever the gangling geek who miraculously woke up to find himself a bona fide star.

To Joey's right is the similarly time-stands-still figure of Johnny, his right hand a nonstop mechanical blur. (Do the Ramones get repetitive strain injury, I wonder?) I miss Dee Dee, the true punk spirit of the band for so many years, but CJ makes a plausible double with his low-slung Precision bass. Drummer Marky still sports a fetching syrup. As it always did, everything goes by in a mad thrashing blur: "Psycho Therapy", "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?", "I Wanna Be Sedated". The difference is that the deadpan, garage economy of yesteryear has been superseded by a streamlined metallic attack, a reflection of the degree to which the Ramones have gradually become a kind of punk-rock machine. It's hard to believe in 1996 that Joey and Johnny ever shared a CBGB's stage with Television or Talking Heads.

The tragedy is that the Ramones didn't quit when they should have, after the brilliant Phil Spector-produced End of the Century (1980). To have gone from the nerdy suburban wit of The Ramones to the leathery bluster of Too Tough To Die (1984) is what music critic Jon Savage would call a crime against pop. Certainly tonight the songs that sound best are the classics from those first five studio albums - songs like "Commando", "Rockaway Beach", "Cretin Hop" and the still-chilling "Chinese Rocks". When the band attempts more recent material ("Pet Cemetery", "The KKK Took My Baby Away"), the results invariably disappoint. Worst of all are CJ's brief excursions into Eighties-style "hardcore". I feel like an impostor surrounded by people yelling along to these numbers, but few of the songs suggest I've missed much.

The band make a succession of rapid exits and reappearances: no one is going home till they've heard "Beat On the Brat". As they finally blast through that song and "53rd and 3rd", it's hard not to feel nostalgic for the long hot summer of '76, when the Ramones almost blew The Rolling Stones and their kind from the water. Amid the depressing rumours of a Sex Pistols reunion - could anything be more culturally redundant? - let us bid da brudders adios. I suspect that, like so many other retiring rockers, they'll find it hard to stay off that well-travelled road.