Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) played drums for the glam band Sniper before joining the Ramones as their drummer, until it became clear that he was a much better frontman—so Tommy Ramone took over on the drum stool.
When Beatlemania shook the city in 1964, its reverberations could be felt deep in the downtown underground. “Even those of us on the Lower East Side without a television set had to notice that something called the Beatles had come to town,” Ed Sanders recalled. “It was the youth explosion,” Bibbe Hansen said. “So whatever vestiges of the old, we were gonna just blow right away because there were just too many of us, and we were all fairly enlightened. With the Beatles and all these things, these cultural explosions absolutely captivated the world and put my generation at the forefront.” The Beatles even inspired her to form a short-lived girl group, the Whippets—with Janet Kerouac (Jack Kerouac’s daughter) and another friend, Charlotte Rosenthal—which released one single. As with many boys their age, future Ramones frontman Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and his little brother Mickey Leigh (Mitchel Lee Hyman) wanted to join a band when Beatlemania erupted in the mid-1960s. “By the time I was twelve,” Leigh said, “I had a little guitar and a little amp and a microphone that I’d take around to like kids’ birthday parties—playing Beatles songs and Dave Clark Five with friends.” He continued to play in bands around Forest Hills, Queens, where he met two older teens who, with his older brother, later cofounded the Ramones. Before John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi played guitar and drums as Johnny Ramone and Tommy Ramone, they performed in a 1960s garage band called the Tangerine Puppets. “Tommy was really nice, really intelligent. We were friends ever since that time,” Leigh said. “John never really changed. Even back then, people said, ‘Watch out for that guy. He gets a little nasty sometimes.’ He was just kind of grouchy and barking to the rest of the other guys. But he was cool.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s longtime musical collaborator, was also bitten by the rock ’n’ roll bug at an early age. Born in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, he moved around with his parents to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn before settling in North Brunswick, New Jersey, as a teen. “Growing up in New York,” Kaye said, “most of the music that came to me was seeing the older kids sing doo-wop on the corner, but of course you’re also very close to the cultural centers of Greenwich Village. Even though I was too young to go there, you felt part of the cultural crosstalk in the city.” Most doo-wop groups around New York during the Brill Building era were basically street bands—young men who sang on corners and in school talent shows and recreation centers. “I hoped that I would be a high tenor in a doo-wop group, and that’s what singing on the corner is about,” Kaye said. “But it was mostly for fun and we weren’t very serious about it.” This was also true of future Ramones frontman Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and his little brother Mickey Leigh (Mitchel Lee Hyman), who as kids heard the sounds of doo-wop street singers creeping into their bedroom. Their window faced another building across the alley, which created an echo, so kids would congregate there to sing songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens. Pointing out the affinities between doo-wop and 1970s punk groups, Leigh said, “Those teenagers who were singing doo-wop in the street, you could say that was the first manifestation of DIY groups. They didn’t really need anything. They just needed a bunch of guys, and they figured out who was going to sing which parts.” Kaye also believes that the appeal of early doo-wop had to do with its accessibility. “If you weren’t trained to be a classical musician, you could sing on the corner emulating the records that you heard on the radio,” he said. “It was a sense that I think punk would also access—that you didn’t have go through a conservatory to make the music.”
St. Mark’s Place was a street that functioned as a major pedestrian thoroughfare to the West Village (it turns into Eighth Street after crossing Third Avenue). The print shop that published the Realist was near Sheridan Square, and Paul Krassner regularly walked there from his loft on Avenue A. “It was just a great feeling to walk along St. Mark’s Place,” he said, “and then Eighth Street to Sheridan Square to deliver stuff to the printer—going back and forth. There was a lot of smoking of marijuana on the streets. It was just a very friendly atmosphere and people would walk along and smile.” Krassner also used to watch the Fugs perform free concerts at the shell stage in Tompkins Square Park, where St. Mark’s Place terminated to the east. Future punk singer Joey Ramone and his younger brother Mickey Leigh (then known as Jeffrey and Mitchel Lee Hyman) occasionally came from Queens to hang out. Off-Off-Broadway performer Agosto Machado would take acid trips with people in that park, where he sometimes slept. “Suburban kids—or ‘weekend hippies,’ that was the new term—populated the area after Bill Graham opened Fillmore East,” Machado said. “That’s when the media and suburban people came and overwhelmed the East Village and Tompkins Square Park. They would say, ‘You are so free. You can live your life the way you want but we can’t.’ They were already branded and enslaved by the ideals of their family, and yet they could admire us, the homeless, who didn’t have anything, because we could do what we want. They thought our struggles were glamorous.”
From Chapter 19 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When CBGB shifted the downtown’s center of gravity to the Bowery, the longtime hipster venue Max’s Kansas City had to play catchup. “CBGB was definitely in the forefront,” Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye said. “When Max’s started booking the local bands, they did it in emulation of CBGB. They borrowed all the bands and the concepts because they knew that’s what was happening.” Enumerating Max’s various cliques in the early 1970s, Tony Zanetta recalled, “I was part of the underground theater freak tribe, and there was also the Warhol people. And there was another group at Max’s, which was Danny Fields, Lisa and Richard Robinson—the rock writers, which then led to more of the rock and rollers going there because they were the most influential rock writers in the United States.” Patti Smith recalled that the scene at Max’s began shifting by the start of the 1970s. “One could still count on Holly Woodlawn sweeping in, Andrea Feldman dancing on the tabletops, and Jackie [Curtis] and Wayne [County] spewing cavalier brilliance, but increasingly their days of being the focal point of Max’s were numbered.” Kaye also began hanging out at Max’s during this time. “I started going there when the Velvet Underground played upstairs in the summer of ’70,” he said, “and that’s when I was able to establish my ‘regular’ credentials—so I could just walk in there.” Back when the Warhol crowd dominated Max’s back room, future CBGB regulars Joey Ramone and his brother Mickey Leigh didn’t really feel welcome there. “It was also not exactly a ‘We accept you, you’re one of us’ kind of thing with my brother and our friends,” Leigh said. “They were the beautiful people and we were us, from Forest Hills, Queens.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“The people that were at Club 82,” Clem Burke said, “Lenny Kaye, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, myself, Gary Valentine, Debbie and Chris, Johnny Thunders—essentially, everybody took their platforms off, cut their hair, walked around the corner, and wound up at CBGB. That’s basically what happened, because everyone was living in the neighborhood. It literally was around the corner from CBGB.” Hilly Kristal didn’t change his Bowery bar’s name until late 1973, but it’s not as if he did any significant renovations when it became CBGB. “It was pretty much the same when it was called Hilly’s,” Suicide’s Alan Vega recalled. “The bathrooms were already horrific, even before it was renamed CBGB.” After Marion Cowings’s band Dance broke up following the Mercer Arts Center collapse, he was in a band named Squeeze that occasionally played at CBGB. He recalled that Hilly’s dogs used to run loose and defecate on the floor, so people had to watch where they stepped. “He was like a wild Bowery guy,” Cowings said, “just wild and dirty. At that time the Bowery was the Bowery. There were lots of bombed-out buildings and fleabag hotels, and lots of people sleeping on the street.”
By the early 1970s, the future Joey Ramone began playing drums (using the name Jeffrey Starship) for the glam band Sniper, which performed at Mercer’s and Max’s Kansas City. Meanwhile, Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh joined a short-lived band with two future Ramones—John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi—which practiced in the basement of his mother’s gallery, Art Garden. “We put the PA down there, so it had already been turned into a rehearsal place,” he said. “And when my brother got into the Ramones, of course they were all allowed to rehearse there as well.” Erdelyi encouraged Cummings to start a band, and was more of a manager figure during the Ramones’ early days. “Tommy’s role became increasingly more important and pivotal in an organizational and artistic way,” Leigh said. “Tommy really helped the whole thing gel and kind of helped it define itself.” For Craig Leon, who produced the band’s first album, the Ramones were like a performance art piece. “Tommy knew how to create this image of what they became,” Leon said. “He originally studied to be a film guy, and he saw things in that visual sense. Even though the Ramones were definitely rock ’n’ roll, they reminded me a lot of Warhol. The four of them had that deadpan Andy Warhol persona. They were, like, straight out of the New York art scene.” Joey Ramone started out as the band’s drummer until it became clear that he was a much better frontman, so Tommy took over on the drum stool. Joey, Johnny, and Tommy expanded to a quartet when another neighbor, Douglas Colvin (later Dee Dee Ramone), joined on bass, and by 1975 they were regularly playing at CBGB.
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“At first the Ramones just had one long twenty-minute song, with different riffs running through,” said Craig Leon, who was tasked with transforming the group’s live sets into an album that was recorded at Plaza Sound, above Radio City Music Hall. “They were all written as individual songs, but they never thought about it from a recording point of view—you know, ‘How is this song gonna end?’ They’d just play and then ‘One-two-three-four,’ they’d start the new one.” Most punk histories maintain that Sire Records paid a paltry $6,400 to record Ramones, but Leon said, “We never paid the full studio rate. It was actually cheaper than $6,000.” The album cover had similarly modest origins. Sire hired a music biz pro to photograph the band, but they hated the results and instead chose an outtake from a more informal photo shoot with Punk magazine contributor Roberta Bayley. “We just went over to Arturo [Vega]’s loft and everybody was there,” Bayley recalled. “We went outside, and first we found this playground, and then did a few different setups there against that brick wall.” The Ramones likely sold more T‑shirts than records—especially in the 1970s, when mainstream listeners couldn’t decode the catchy pop songs that lurked just below the surface guitar noise. When they opened for blues-boogie arena rocker Edgar Winter, the Ramones were met with a hail of bottles and boos. “There were people who wanted to burn the Ramones records and stuff like that because they were horrible, in their opinion,” Leon said. “Ramones songs are now played at sports arenas and on commercials, so it’s hard to understand how extreme they sounded at the time.”
Punk’s bad boy image was codified by corporate and indie media outlets soon after the rise of the Sex Pistols. The loud-hard-fast music of the Ramones, for example, further solidified the perception of punk as music made by and for angry young men who rejected “girly” prefab pop. The punk explosion supposedly reset the cultural clock to Year Zero, but far from rejecting the musical past, many early New York punks who hung out at CBGB embraced the guilty pleasures of their youth during the Brill Building era. “Our number one main influence was the sixties,” Paul Zone said. “The Ramones, you listen to their songs and they’re complete bubblegum pop, without a doubt.” Lead singer Joey Ramone readily admitted, “We really liked bubblegum music, and we really liked the Bay City Rollers. Their song ‘Saturday Night’ had a great chant in it, so we wanted a song with a chant in it: ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go!’ on ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was our ‘Saturday Night.’ ” The Ramones wore leather biker jackets and ripped jeans and had tough scowls on their faces, but that pose was also underpinned by a Warholian irony and poppy fizz. Craig Leon noted that they embraced bubblegum and 1960s pop as “a return to the rock ’n’ roll roots. Even the manufactured stuff like the Shangri-Las was young people speaking to other young people.”
From Chapter 33 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore