DS Interview: Richie Ramone on his legendary time in the Ramones and waving the Ramones flag as a solo artist

 

If there’s one surname that can inexorably be linked to the punk music scene more than any other, it’s undoubtedly “Ramone.” In the band’s two-plus decade career, only seven people can lay claim to having donned the legendary moniker (technically eight if you count Clem “Elvis Ramone” Burke, who only played a few notoriously disastrous shows with the band before being replaced). While the founding four (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy) have all shuffled off this mortal coil, CJ, Marky and Richie Ramone continue to fly the presidential seal-emblazoned flag high, honorably carrying the name bestowed upon them during their respective stints in what can be referred to as arguably the most influential band in American rock music.

While his four-plus year span as drummer for the Ramones began more than three decades ago, Richie Ramone is the newest of the three surviving members at trying his hand as a touring, recording, solo Ramone. His debut LP, Entitled, was released in late 2003 via DC-Jam Records, and he played dozens of shows across the globe this year. Now, with a sophomore album in the works and a full slate of tour dates in the works to kick off 2016, Richie Ramone and his band are getting ready to appear at the Hi Fi Rock Fest at the Queen Mary Events Park in Long Beach, California, next month.

Dying Scene had the privilege of chatting with the legendary drummer, billed as the “fastest, most powerful drummer who ever played with the Ramones,” on the morning after his 58th birthday. Though he may have relocated from the East Coast to Los Angeles years ago, Richie’s trademark guttural baritone voice is as deeply, quintessentially New York/New Jersey as ever. We covered a lot of ground, from Richie’s first time seeing the Ramones, to what it was like to write songs for a duo as legendary as Joey and Johnny, to how the music landscape has changed in the post-Ramones years, to what it’s been like to step out as a part-time frontman after so many years behind the kit.

Despite a fairly lengthy absence from the music landscape, and in spite of past difficulties with other band members (Johnny in particular) over writing and publishing credits, Richie Ramone remains as brazenly true to the the punk rock ethos that his namesake band helped create as ever.

Check out our full Q&A below.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): The Hi Fi Rock Fest in Long Beach is the only thing on the docket for the rest of the year, correct?

Richie Ramone: Right, yeah. I’m back home now, and we’ve got to get the new record together. Then we go back out next year.

Oh, there is a new record? I was going to ask about that later,

Yeah, we’re working on a new one. That’s what I’m doing between now and the end of the year.

The (Hi Fi Rock) festival is alongside bands like Dead Kennedys and Street Dogs, bands like that. When you’re touring, particularly in the US, do you have a preference playing festival shows like that or do you prefer playing smaller club shows? I know you were just up here with The Queers and a few other bands. Do you prefer one over the other?

I like the intimate club shows first, and number two is the festivals. There’s a lot of bands you get to hang out with and it’s kinda fun, you know? Next summer I’ll probably do a lot more in Europe, like Rebellion. I’ve got a new agent booking me in Europe. The festivals are really good because there’s just something different about them. You’ve got band after band, they wheel the drums out, it’s kind of exciting. So I like both of them. There’s a lot of places we play, like we played The Observatory (in Santa Ana) where I’ve got to really stretch to touch somebody’s hand. I don’t like to be too far away.

For people that haven’t seen you before, when you play, you both play drums for part of the set and act as the frontman for part of the set and Ben plays drums?

Yeah, I generally start off playing drums and singing, then I come up front. I think it’s real important to really get in with the crowd, you know? They can’t really get involved until I get out front. It all kinda works. Ben, my rhythm guitar player jumps on drums.

That’s got to be an interesting thing for a guy like Ben to take over on drums for somebody like Richie Ramone. Do you let him do what he’s going to do…

No.

…or do you find yourself being critical and telling him to play the way you want him to play?

Exactly…I met him three years ago and…it’s very hard to play drums for me. I like perfect meter, and this guy worked hard over the years and he’s like my little protégé. He’s really come a long way. It’s really cool to see that, you know?

Do you like being a frontman like that?

Well, you know, I’m a drummer first. But I enjoy fronting. I think I’m a natural. That’s all I do, I don’t do anything phony out there. This is something where I can get out there and command the audience. I’ve been told that over and over again. We just did a show where I went up and did a couple of songs with The Queers at The Observatory and it was just amazing, and the fans went crazy. It was really cool. I enjoy both aspects.

Had you done any real frontman stuff before you started touring as Richie Ramone?

No, never. I’m just a guy who walks around and stalks the stage, you know what I’m saying? I’m not doing cartwheels or dancing.

Your live show, like the album Entitled, is a mix of both Ramones songs and stuff that you wrote for Entitled. What goes in to putting a setlist together, particularly into figuring out which Ramones songs you’re going to play?

Well, I’m a darker, heavier writer. I really like playing what works well for me and my voice. I like the tougher Ramones songs. “Commando,” “Havana Affair,” you know? I don’t do “Rock And Roll High School,” you know? I can’t really pull the poppy stuff off. “Loudmouth” and that kind of thing the band and I can pull off. I give it my own growl with my voice and it works really well. It’s kinda seamless. The show’s made up of a bunch of stuff from the Entitled album, the songs I wrote for the Ramones back in the day, then Ramones classics. We break it up into a third of each at the show, and it really works well. The new music really works well with the Ramones stuff. They all mesh together well.

I think that’s one of the cool things about the album; even though it’s got your take on stuff that you wrote for the Ramones, it fits right in and unless you’re really paying attention, you almost lose yourself and forget that “oh yeah, this was a different song altogether.”

Right. Nobody ever heard a Ramones song they wouldn’t know, you know what I’m saying? It’s not all my songs, but I give that to (the fans) because they’re going to expect that. We’re tied at the hip with the Ramones, so I don’t blame the kids. They’re gonna ask you to do a few Ramones songs; the thing is you don’t want to sacrilege the band, you know? And when you play some of those songs, without Joey’s voice, it sounds too much like a cover act. But we always give them “Blitzkrieg Bop” in the encores and stuff, if they want more and more. I’ve done two and three encores before, so we just blast them with that stuff and they can’t get enough! (*laughs*)

It seems that not getting enough has pretty much been the reaction, when you scroll through the various social media sites and whatever, that people really dig your live shows and your album. People really dig the Richie Ramone experience. And I know that that’s not always the case with people when they branch out from a band that they were so attached to.

No, I’m really surprised. I get a lot of emails and texts…I did a three week tour of the States with The Queers and people that came out to that or even people that come out to my shows say “I was hesitant about coming and about what it was gonna be, but boy am I glad I came. I’ll never judge a band until I go hear them again.” Everybody that comes to the show has a good time, it’s getting people in the door…getting the 500 or 1000 people in the door takes time to build. It’s very hard. You think you just say “Ramone” and you can play these big rooms, but it’s just not true. But now I see when I go back to towns that the audience doubles, you know? And a lot of the people come back, which is nice.

That’s awesome, yeah.

Today, everything is based on your live show. You better have a good live show and sell merchandise, you know?

Right, because you’re not going to sell albums anymore, that’s for sure. Even the biggest names don’t sell albums.

Yeah, album sales is really hard unless you’re on the radio, and the radio is still full of payola; paying money to have stuff played. It’s really bizarre. That’s the bad thing. We get played on internet stations, but on regular, major radio, forget it. Not happening. Unless somebody loves it so much and gets it going and somebody else picks it up, but you know, that’s a dream really. That’s what happens in the States for me anyway. For me, I do much better overseas than in America. People will just come out, you don’t have to have a hit on the radio. Like, if I had one song that broke here, it would open up a whole new world to the Ramones. Because people would come to hear that one song and then get the tie in and learn about the Ramones. It would be like two different audiences clashing, and that’s kinda cool. It hasn’t happened yet.

That would be a really interesting thing to watch as an observer, if there were people who learned about the Ramones that way versus kids nowadays probably learning about Ramones from their parents…or even older people, I guess (*both laugh*).

Right. You’d think everybody in the world has heard of the Ramones, but it’s not true! (*laughs*)

Right! If you’re of a certain age and a certain generation, or even two generations really, you probably can’t wrap your head around that there are people who have never heard of the Ramones. Or at least heard the Ramones, or who can’t name five Ramones songs off the top of their heads even if they aren’t huge fans of the music.

Right!

Is there like a Ramones headquarters that governs what songs you’re allowed to play or that you’re allowed to record? Are you only allowed rights to the songs you wrote?

Anybody can play anybody’s songs. There’s no restrictions on that. It’s recording and selling that gets difficult, but you’re allowed to play anybody’s songs. They can’t stop you.

When you were putting Entitled together, are you only allowed to record certain songs?

Those are all my songs. I own the publishing on those songs. But if I wanted to record, say, “Rock And Roll High School,” it would never happen.

How does the name stuff work? I’ve wanted to pick the brain of a surviving Ramone about this for a long time…is there sort of a deal where once you’re a Ramone, you’re always a Ramone? In terms of putting out music or touring, whether it’s you or CJ or Marky who are all sort of doing it now, do you have to ask permission from anybody to use that name? I’ve always been curious about that

No, it’s my name now! We got that name being in the band, and once you’ve been in the band a few years, you can’t just take away someone’s name, you know? It doesn’t make sense to use my own name and go out on tour. They wouldn’t stop anyone from using the name, no. You can’t use “Ramones” as your band name, you know what I’m saying? But “Richie Ramone of the Ramones” is what you can get away with, you know?

Oh cool. I was always curious about how that worked and if they owned copyrights on the name “Ramone” or something like that, so I’m glad they don’t.

They could have maybe done that years ago, but they didn’t. They didn’t really plan on that, just like they always have a hard-on when somebody uses the Presidential seal, you know? But you can’t do anything with it. There are tons of bands and clothing companies that have used that thing, you know? You can’t copyright the seal. And basically, that’s what the logo is. It’s changed up a little, but it’s still the seal.

In terms of iconic logos it’s really been the Ramones seal and the Black Flag bars that everybody has incorporated into something else. Those are sort of ubiquitous now.

Right. Yeah, you see tons of things with those Black Flag bars, right.

I was actually just at a show not long ago where there were two sort of co-headliners, and they both independently were selling shirts that had their versions of the Ramones Presidential seal. I thought that was pretty interesting.

Right. They all do. There’s two logos, one is CBGBs, number two, I think, is the Ramones. They are the most identifiable for t-shirts and logos. I see a lot of the Misfits skull too. I see them all over. They come to my shows a lot, those kinds of fans! (*both laugh*)

Yeah, I’m sure there’s a big overlap between fans of the darker stuff like Misfits and your own music, because your influence was obviously a lot heavier and a lot…maybe not darker but certainly heavier than traditional Ramones stuff…

Yeah, it’s not really power pop, like The Ataris or even Weasel and The Queers do the poppier stuff, which I don’t really do. I kinda slide in to more rock and roll at times. I don’t know, to me, it’s all music. I don’t know what punk rock is. Punk rock is an attitude, really. Punk rock is just being yourself and not being a phony. It’s not about the Mohawk or any of that stuff. It’s just being true to yourself, speaking your mind, and not being a phony, really. That’s my version of it.

I think that’s probably the lasting version of it too. Once the Mohawks sort of went away for a long time and the leather jackets sort of go away, I think that’s the prevailing ethos of the whole thing. As long as you’re not a phony..

Yeah, just be real, man. That’s all we do. We just get up there and be real and play and engage the audience, you know? I never turn my back to them. It’s all about them and giving them a good time.

I’m sure you’ve told the story a thousand times at this point, but what was your level of Ramones fandom when you joined the band in the early 80s? How big a Ramones fan were you?

I saw them in high school when I was like a senior. This was like ’75, maybe, or ’76. This was very new. What was going on then was Yes and arena rock, you know? I was like…”wow, this is interesting.” But years later, in ’83, when I joined, I didn’t have all their records or anything like that. No way. I never had a poster in my room of anybody. I loved Buddy Rich’s drumming and I loved John Bonham’s drumming, but I never had posters on the wall or anything, you know? I was more of a song guy. If I like a song, I don’t care who it’s by.

You started writing with the Ramones pretty early on, correct? They didn’t necessarily make you wait around for a while before you contributed ideas, right?

Yeah, that was all Joey. The other guys in the band and I hit it off with and, how long was I in the band, four years plus, maybe? Whether it was touring or not even on tour, for four years and ten months or whatever, I swear, we were tied at the hip. He was the one who pushed me and pushed me and said write, write, write or “oh, you’ve gotta sing.” He was so secure in his own shoes, he didn’t feel threatened by me writing or singing or anything, he just wanted to use the talent. I remember I told Dee Dee my story about when somebody put something in my drink, he said “oh, you gotta go home and write that song.” So that’s what I did, and in the top ten of Ramones songs, it’s probably number ten. For them to keep a song in their setlist forever – because usually it’s the same setlist with maybe two or three new songs from the newer album. They kept that song in the set until the last show in ’96.

Was it sort of a nerve-wracking thing to write a song for somebody like Joey who, by the time you were writing for them were obviously established at that point? Is that nerve-wracking to write for somebody like that?

I didn’t think of that at all.  That never even crossed, my mind, you know? “Can’t Say Anything Nice,” he wanted me to sing it. That was interesting. But no, I never thought about it. We were such good friends that it didn’t matter, you know? Everybody would go off and write and then we’d all take cassette tapes to the manager and everybody would pick the songs for the record. They always wanted more of my stuff, but John wouldn’t allow that because I got all the writing (credits). So that was kinda weird.

Has it been nice to give those songs new life now that you’re out on the road.

Yeah, you know, it’s been a long time. People couldn’t understand what was wrong with me, you know, to do this again. That’s the thing about playing and being on the road. I love it, you know? The audience, eating different foods from around the world. I really enjoy it. We did 73 shows from the middle of March to the beginning of June, and we really worked a lot for three months. It got really tense, because people have to understand that you have to just pack up and go. We would play two weeks in a row without a day off. And you’ve got to travel to each place. So I’ve felt really worn out before shows, but there’s something about walking out there that gives you that boost, you know man? Gives you the energy. I feed off that like a shark! (*both laugh*)

How many of those shows were with The Queers?

I did an East Coast swing with them.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I think it was a total of twenty-two. We started in Atlanta and went on up the coast and over to Chicago and the Midwest and ended in Texas.

Oh yeah, right. I don’t think that made it here to Boston.

No, I was supposed to play Boston but I didn’t. I don’t know what happened, something got messed up with the booking. So we didn’t make it up there, no.

And those guys (The Queers), and Joe in particular, those guys have gotta play 200 nights a year still, I think. I’m not really sure how.

Yeah, they play a lot. I don’t know if it’s 200 but they play a lot.

It seems like they are always on tour with somebody, whether it’s Screeching Weasel or Kepi Ghoulie or somebody else.

Yeah, that’s how they make money. Those bands have been around a long time and they have a bunch of records. Me, I have one album out, you know? They have their loyal fans.

Why the wait so long to put Entitled out? It’s a fun album and I’m sure you had it in you for a long time.

It’s just the way it happened. I don’t know. After the long break, in 2006 I came out and played the Joey Ramone (Birthday) Bash, and I started writing, and things got more intense. Somebody said I should do a record, and I thought “well, I don’t know, I’ve never done my own record, blah blah blah.” That’s really just how it came. It wasn’t really planned. I’m just kinda going with the flow now. Going by feel, you know? Maybe I shouldn’t have taken all that time off, but maybe that record wouldn’t have been like that, you know? Who knows. But you can’t look back at that stuff, you know? This is your life…today it’s kinda weird. There’s a lot of bands out there doing well. You don’t have to be twenty-two to be in a band. I can’t wait…I think the Rolling Stones will be the first rock and roll band to hit 80. I’d love to see that, that’s my dream.

That would be amazing.

Charlie Watts is almost seventy-five. I think he’s seventy-four. You’ve got to understand, though, that’s blues-based rock. It’s easy to do. Except for Jagger, he still runs around and he puts out. But as far as playing, there are bands that played in the 80s, and when they try to do it now, they lose a step and it’s just not the same. For me, I haven’t lost a step, and when that does happen, I’ll stop. We put a lot, a lot, of energy into that show, so as long as that’s there, you can keep going.

Does that energy inspire new music too? You mentioned maybe talk of another album to work on; does the energy from the live album kick-start the creative process?

Yeah. I get a lot of creative thoughts when I’m on the road. I don’t write on the road, but I gather information. I mainly write about what I see or what I’ve experienced. I find that it relates to other people too, but I like singing about something that is more real. It’s more from the heart if you did it rather than just making up a story, you know? I have some fun things. I have a song that I really love called “In The Neighborhood,” and maybe I’ll call the album In The Neighborhood, I don’t know. But this should be a good one. It’s going to be a little different than the last one. It won’t be Tommy shredding all over the place, it’s going to be a little different. I realize that last record was more of a transitional record. I kept it really hard, I didn’t want to turn off the fanbase, but now I think I can expand a little more on the next one.

Yeah, because people sorta get it now, people get what you’re doing.

Yeah, you know? And screw it, I’m going to put on there what I think are the best songs and are what I want to do. This one’s gonna be really good, I’ve got a lot of good stuff on here.

When do you go back to record, the end of this year or the beginning of next year?

This year, hopefully. I’m going to record it here at my studio at the house. I’m sure we’ll start laying tracks next month. I want to have it all done by December 1st and get it out. It always takes two or three months to get it out, but I want to have it out when I go out on tour next year.

Will it be the same lineup that you’re touring with? Is that a solidified lineup now?

Yeah, the band’s around. I’m not sure if they’re going to play on everything, I have some other people that may want to play on stuff, just to get a variance. But I haven’t decided on that yet.

I can’t wait to hear it. I kinda fell in love with Entitled over a while, so I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

Oh good. I just now mastering a single, A and B sides, that I did. We actually did six songs but we’re only putting two out to see if anybody wants to give us a deal. It’s me and Tony Valentino from the Standells, I play drums and sing, he plays guitar. We’re going to premier it on Rodney Bingenheimer’s show (Rodney on the ROQ) on Sunday night. That’s a little side project I’ve been doing for a while. That came to me a month after I released my record, that’s how long that’s been travelling. It’s really interesting. The Standells were so big, they used to tour with the Stones. Having another legend over there is kind of a cool thing. He liked my voice…with my voice, you either hate it or you love it. He loved it. So things are going well. Hopefully there’ll be more tour dates. You can’t be home off the road for five months. I’m really looking forward to the next year.


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