Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Punk pop perfection

For the last two nights the Electric Cinema has become something of a rock 'n' roll high school, the screening of the recent documentary film 'End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones' being an educating and informing experience for many of those (like myself) only barely acquainted with the band's turbulent 21 year existence.

There is no narrative voice-over, and so the band members are essentially free to tell their own story unmediated by the film-makers. It's unsurprising, then, that what comes across most clearly is the fact that each of the three core members have such distinctive and different personalities.

Joey: a left-wing liberal Jew, gangly and gawky, socially awkward, not blessed with the chiselled features or natural charisma and self-confidence that makes a conventional frontman. Joey's brother recalls his surprise when he "started attracting girls, girls that weren't on medication".

Johnny: the focus of the band, a hardline right-winger, strong-willed and unapologetically controlling and dictatorial but the originator of some glorious riffs and a much-copied guitar-playing stance, Peter Pan agelessness and bowl haircut that transcended time.

Dee Dee: the funny and fun-loving fuckhead bassist, always courting trouble, mixed up with drugs and unsavoury characters. His acceptance speech at the 2002 ceremony for the Ramones' induction into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame: "I'd like to congratulate myself, thank myself and give myself a big pat on the back. Well done Dee Dee".

Their differences could have threatened to tear the band apart, particularly the unvoiced and unresolved feud between Joey and Johnny after the latter stole the singer's girlfriend and eventually married her - but, as Johnny puts it, the band came first no matter how badly they were getting along on a personal level.

The film traces the band's beginnings in the Forest Hills area of New York, through their performances at legendary club CBGBs, being signed to Sire by Seymour Stein, the 1976 London gig when The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers were all in attendance (Johnny Rotten wanted to meet the band but was scared he'd get beaten up, fearing they were some kind of gang), the nightmarish recording of End Of The Century with Phil Spector, the 'Spinal Tap' esque revolving cast of drummers, Dee Dee's hilarious attempts at producing a rap album, and winds up with their retirement in 1995 and the deaths of Joey from cancer and Dee Dee from an overdose. (As well as Joey and Dee Dee, Joe Strummer also makes an appearance, and it feels strange to be spoken to so much and on such an intimate level from beyond the grave.)

The music isn't lost amidst the soap opera, either - at times the film is staggeringly loud, and has a Ramones-T-shirted punk in the row behind us moshing away vigorously. What strikes you is both the rawness and blistering pace of their songs, but also the strongly melodic qualities. Their place in the pop tradition is I think affirmed, as is the fact that they were great songwriters, unlike many of their gobby peers.

Though they have proved hugely influential in convincing people to start playing and form bands of their own, and they achieved longevity against all the odds, the lack of real commercial success despite the accessibility of the songs clearly rankled with them. Quite how this was the case is left hanging.

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