Before Queens native John Cummings played guitar as Johnny Ramone, he performed in a 1960s garage band called the Tangerine Puppets with drummer Tommy Erdelyi (aka Tommy Ramone) at school dances and around the neighborhood.
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.”