By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks
When legendary Ramones drummer Richie Ramone visited Japan for the first time, he sat down with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Shinjuku, Tokyo for a chat about his career.
It’s now been twenty years since punk rock pioneers the Ramones called it quits. Between 1974 and 1996 they created rock history with both their studio records and their live performances. They became one of those few larger than life rock bands whose image and celebrity by far outgrew their actual record sales. I was fortunate to see them live twice, at a festival in Sweden and at Brixton Academy in London.
Richie Ramone was the drummer in the Ramones in the 80s and he wrote some of the band’s best songs, including the phenomenal “Somebody Put Something In My Drink” and the speedcore-inspired punk tune “I’m Not Jesus”.
Ramones toured Japan twice but not during Richie’s time in the band. This is Richie Ramone’s first ever visit to Japan and he is warmly greeted by the Ramones Fan Club Japan, who even put together a special meet and greet event with Richie the day before his first Japan gig.
A few hours before he is due on stage with his backing band, I sit down with him at his hotel in Tokyo for a chat about his past, present and future.
Richie joined Ramones in 1983 when Marky Ramone was fired from the band due to his alcoholism.
“There was a band called The Shirts at the time that I used to know. They’re from Brooklyn, New York and I would go and hang out there. They had a big house, a three-storey house. 24 hours a day all your friends would be there,” explains Richie. While he was hanging out with his friends at the house he found out from Johnny Ramone’s guitar tech that Ramones were auditioning for a drummer.
“I said: ‘Well, put my name in the hat’, just like on a whim, because I didn’t know any of them. The next week I got a call from the tour manager to come down and audition. That’s how it went. It was just being in the right place at right time, really. I went a few times back to audition and I got the gig.”
Joining an already established band and immediately fitting in is perhaps not the easiest thing for a young drummer. But the young Richie didn’t find it hard. “No. Joey Ramone was a sweetheart and took me under his wing. We became close instantly. So there was no pressure or anything. Nothing like that. It wasn’t hard at all, really.”
Richie Ramone is not merely a drummer but also a great songwriter. During his time in the Ramones, he was also very much part of the creative process and wrote several Ramones classics.
“It was simple. Because Johnny I never saw. I only saw him at shows. I never saw him at any other time of the day. He was very reclusive. I tried writing with different people but a lot of times it doesn’t work for me. We all came with our little cassettes to the manager’s office and everybody played them and they picked the songs. That’s how it worked on every album, kind of simple democracy.”
Richie’s composition “Somebody Put Something In My Drink” is a Ramones classic he wrote about an early experience of moving to New York City in the 70s. “When I moved to New York when I was 18-19 we had no money,” says Richie and continues to describe how he and his friends were still able to party all night in the New York clubs. “When people got up to dance, we’d steal the drink off the table and that’s how we drank for free all night.” Then one night, Richie started to feel funny after having a drink. “I realised I had a Mickey in my drink, LSD or something. Then when I was in the band, I was telling Dee Dee that story and he said ‘You should write that song!:’ That’s how that song happened.”
Another Ramones classic Richie wrote is “I’m Not Jesus”, one of the band’s punkiest songs. “At that time, speedcore was around. ’84, you know. I don’t think I ever do anything deliberately. It’s just what’s around you at the time. I was listening to Cro-Mags and stuff like that and it just happened. I think Dee Dee wrote one or two that had that kind of feel also. ’Jesus’ is just about my Catholic upbringing really. When you sort of get this celebrity thing they start pulling on you sometimes That’s why I wrote that ‘I am not Jesus, I can’t heal you’. Get the fuck away!” laughs Richie.
Richie’s songs have also been played by many other bands. Children of Bodom, Behemoth and others have done cover versions of some of Richie Ramone’s songs. “That’s my favourite thing – to hear other people’s interpretation of your music. I think that’s the biggest reward, to hear how they hear it and how they redo it. And I love when they redo it differently.”
When Richie joined the Ramones, the band sort of took the sound back more to the original Ramones punk rock after a few years of experimentation under pressure from record label people and producers.
“I think the two albums before that they got a little sleepy. They had Graham Gouldman from 10cc producing them and I guess, you know, it was getting a little light. With ‘Too Tough To Die’ they said ‘Let’s get Tommy back, let’s get Ed Stasium back and make a rawer record.’ That’s what they did. That’s a real raw record. I cut the album in like a day. All those albums, my tracks are first take, maybe two times on some songs but I spent no more than ten hours drumming on those records.”
The Tommy he mentions is Tommy Ramone, the band’s original drummer, who was a key figure in the Ramones and played many roles, including drummer, solo guitarist on recording sessions, producer and band manager.
“Whenever you change your drummer, you change the sound of the band, it’s inevitable” says Richie. “My drumming kind of pops through. It’s a little more colourful, a little more solid than the other guys. My drumming is way more aggressive. It kind of changed that sound there.”
While Ramones disbanded a long time ago and the original band members are all dead, the surviving ex-members Richie Ramone, Marky Ramone, CJ Ramone and Elvis Ramone, all soldier on in the music business.
In 2013, Richie released his first solo album on the DC Jam label, “Entitled”. It combined new versions of some old Richie Ramone favourites as well as new songs. “I’m Richie Ramone, but I’m actually like a new artist now because I sing. I didn’t want to give them a whole album of all new songs, I wanted to re-record some of my songs so they understand my vision of those songs and my voice. That’s why I put four or five on that record besides new stuff.”
Following the solo album and plenty of touring around the world, Richie is now about to release his second solo album.
“It’s called ‘Cellophane’ and coming out August 5th. I think we are going to release a video and a single in a month. When I get home we are going to start with the video. This album rocks! This is everything I want it to be. I’m taking it to another level. Very single friendly. It’s not as metal-laden as that album, you know. I wanted to keep that first album really heavy. I’m kind of like coming to my own now. That was the first album I ever made. Now I am like where I want to be and what I want to sound like. I think I have grown as a singer too since that first record. I see the difference now of what I can do with my voice.”
“I co-wrote probably six of those songs with different people. I co-wrote with Adam Bones from the Two Tens and Tina DeGeorge from another band. It was kind of cool just to get some other inputs of like rhythm and guitar phrasing. Then, naturally, I write all the words and the melodies because I don’t trust anybody doing that. You know, when you have to sing you got to do it yourself. But just to have a little creative input of structure was kind of fun. I co-wrote more on this… I don’t think I co-wrote one song on the last record.”
Being an artist who is famous as a former member of the Ramones can be tricky and frustrating when it comes to finding a balance between playing old favourites and new music at gigs.
“There is only one Ramones and I’m Richie Ramone. When I play the Ramones stuff, you’re basically a cover band. It’s what you are. Just because I was the drummer, I don’t have Joey’s voice, I don’t have a guy who plays like Dee Dee or Johnny. You know, I was there, with the original sound, I know what it’s like. You’re basically a cover band, but you can’t get away from not doing some songs, some classic songs. Now that I have a second record, It’s gonna start to focus more on my material, because my dream is to have Ramones fans at my show with new fans who basically didn’t even realise who the Ramones were at the time and have them meet. I enjoy doing it but Marky Ramone is out there and he plays a whole set of Ramones songs. To me, that’s just… I have all the respect for Ramones fans but I don’t want to be a Ramones cover band. But I enjoy playing songs like ‘Havana Affair’ and shit like that when you get into the encore and stuff. Basically I am doing my stuff, new stuff and stuff I wrote for the Ramones, like ‘Drink’ and all that, and then Ramones classics. If I do like twenty songs, like six or seven of each is what I do now. A lot of people haven’t heard that ‘Entitled’ record, they don’t fucking know. You have to break it up to get them back interested if you lose them for a while. You can’t stray too far on too many songs. You have to pull them back in with ‘Blitzkrieg’.”
At recent gigs, Richie has started to play two songs from his forthcoming album: “I Fix This” (with lyrics inspired by his Swedish tour last year) and a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”. “I really made it my own with guitars and it’s really cool. I really believe that song is going to draw the attention of DJs.”
In 2016 so far Richie has been touring in Europe, Australia and Japan. “We were off six or seven months to write this record, so now, this year, we are kind of touring a lot,” says Richie. Now follows a US tour, then Mexico and a few South American dates, then back to Australia in November and the UK in December.
“So this year is pretty busy and next year I think will really take off. I just really want to see what happens with the new record. I really think I have a little gem here. I had Paul Roessler produce it – he used to play with Nina Hagen and a bunch of different bands like 45 Grave. The wait is killing me. This is being mastered now, but then they put you in this queue for like three months before it gets released. But we can maybe push a single out first. I gotta do something, I just can’t sit a few months biting my nails, waiting for the public to hear it, you know?”
“Music has changed. Rock’n’roll is not at the top. It’s really sad but it is what it is. It’s not what it used to be. Why are we on the road so much? We have to sell merchandise and play live. Plus I love it. Look where I am! I’m sitting here with you in Tokyo. Not many people get to see the world. We’re not getting rich, but we‘re able to come here, make a little money, see all these different cultures, eat rice and curry at eight in the morning for breakfast, with miso soup and put money in a machine to pay for it.”
“Cellophane” is out on DC Jam on 5th August.