Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Ramones' Brain Drain: The Untold Story







An excerpt from the upcoming book, Albums that (Should've) Changed the World
By Joel Gausten

This is the point in the book where I break my own golden rule and start a chapter by speaking to you, dear reader, in the first person. I was originally tempted to start this whole thing off with a piece about how the Ramones were the greatest band on the face of the earth, how they launched an entire genre of music and how they inspired millions to pick up instruments and create their own noise. But if you’re reading this, then chances are you already know all of that. (If you don’t, please get a refund for this book and spend the money on one of their albums instead.) Besides, these days, it’s very difficult to write about the Ramones’ vast legacy without feeling a touch of deep sadness. The Ramones are gone forever, and it is impossible to put into words the deep void their departure has left in this world. Simply put, the Ramones meant everything to me, and it would be an injustice to them if I made any attempt to sum up their impact in the form of a tidy intro paragraph.

With that said, here’s a bit about Brain Drain.

By the time Brain Drain was released in May 1989, the Ramones had become the world’s longest-running punk rock band. Fifteen years after forming in Queens, the mop-topped quartet were still delivering endless power chords and storming stages throughout the world. Thanks to tireless work and an unstoppable catalog of immortal tunes, singer Jeff “Joey Ramone” Hyman, guitarist John “Johnny Ramone” Cummings, bassist Douglas “Dee Dee Ramone” Colvin and their revolving cast of drummers had survived it all: music industry indifference, spotty recordings, drug addictions and innumerable tours packed away in a van. But despite all they had endured, the band’s greatest challenges were still to come.

Although the Ramones had outlived all of their original CBGB contemporaries, the 1980s had taken an undeniable toll on the band. After establishing an international cult audience in the late ’70s, the Ramones spent the first half of the next decade struggling to reach the elusive brass ring of mainstream acceptance. Working with producers ranging from Phil Spector to Eurythmics main man Dave Stewart, the band released a series of uneven, decidedly commercial albums (particularly 1983’s messy Subterranean Jungle) that did very little to elevate them to the next level.

Fortunately, the band eventually returned to their roots. After hooking up with new drummer Richie Reinhardt, the band celebrated their tenth anniversary with 1984’s Too Tough to Die, arguably their strongest work in years. The band’s upswing continued on 1986’s Animal Boy, which, thanks to the production skills of one-time Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir, finally found the group performing well-crafted radio rock (“Something To Believe In,” the brilliant “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down”) without sacrificing an ounce of credibility. With renewed vigor, the band fully regained their former glories on 1987’s excellent Halfway To Sanity, a fierce record boasting everything from thrash (“I’m Not Jesus”) to an admirable stab at death rock (“Garden of Serenity”). The album also signified the beginning of the band’s longtime relationship with producer/co-songwriter Daniel Rey, a veteran New Jersey punk guitarist who aided the band in returning to the no-holds-barred sound that made them famous.

Despite Halfway To Sanity’s many strengths, things were far from well in the Ramones campFed up with his hired-gun status and other internal matters, Reinhardt abruptly left the Ramones in August 1987. Following a brief stint with Blondie/Dramarama drummer Clem Burke, the Ramones welcomed back an old friend.

The most experienced musician ever to walk onstage at a Ramones gig, Marc Bell had already survived the music business for nearly a decade by the time he replaced original timekeeper Tommy Erdelyi in 1978. At the time of his arrival, Bell had already earned a solid reputation in the New York punk scene as a member of Richard Hell’s Voidoids (appearing on the group’s seminal 1977 classic, Blank Generation) and drummer for legendary transvestite singer Wayne County. Renamed “Marky Ramone,” he joined forces with the Forest Hills heroes in time to appear on 1978’s Road To Ruin. Thanks in large part to his versatility and experience, the hard-hitting drummer fit his new bandmates like a glove.

“It was simple,” he remembers. “I played it harder than Tommy. The Voidoids had a jazz kind of influence, added to punk and pop. The Ramones were straight-ahead four-four.”

Marky remained with the Ramones for the next four years, performing on the 1979 soundtrack to the film Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, 1980’s End of the Century and 1981’s Pleasant Dreams. But by the time the band began putting down tracks for what became Subterranean Jungle, Marky’s performance and mental state were suffering from the effects of intense alcoholism. The situation escalated to the point where the band drafted one-time Heartbreakers drummer Billy Rogers to complete the album, while Marky was asked to leave the band at the close of 1982.

With his Ramones status revoked, Marky spent the next five years getting his habits under control. In addition to sobering up, he enjoyed a stint with Richie Stotts’ post-Plasmatics metal act, King Flux, and briefly fronted his own group, M-80. Finally back in the family in the fall of ’87, he instantly recaptured his place as the definitive keeper of the Blitzkrieg Beat, injecting the band with a power not felt in several years. Rey recalls how the erstwhile Ramone’s comeback was a welcome breath of fresh air for all involved.

“[Richie and Marky] were both pretty similar style-wise – very hard hitters, really solid,” he says. “But Marc did kinda bring back the old spark, and he was on great behavior because he was just allowed back in. He was really focused and worked hard. Richie was starting to get on everybody’s nerves, so new blood – even if it’s old blood – is always good for a band.”

With Bell back on board, the Ramones immediately went back to doing what they did best – touring the planet. In 1988, Sire Records (the band’s home from the very beginning) celebrated the band’s 10-album, 14-year career with RamonesMania, a 30-track collection highlighted by the inclusion of rarely heard B-sides and alternate mixes. A new video clip for the classic 1978 single “I Wanna Be Sedated,” which still sounded incredible nearly a decade later, promoted the release. Unfortunately, RamonesMania also provided 30 examples of what should be known as The Ramones Curse: Although the band had created some of the most exciting music in rock ‘n’ roll history, they still hadn’t scored a major hit.

Shortly after RamonesMania’s release, the Ramones accepted an offer to write the theme song for longtime fan Stephen King’s upcoming film, Pet Sematary. Wasting no time, the band (with Rey and Beauvoir serving as producers) quickly recorded the Dee Dee/Rey-penned number, along with Joey’s “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight),” at New York’s Quad Recordings. Both songs were classic Ramones in the truest sense: Marky’s drumming was true to form, while Joey’s soulful performance proved that the Ramones were not about to enter the next decade on a weak note. Yet, despite the success of the sessions, morale within the band was at an all-time low.

“It was a band on the mend,” Rey says. “They were just coming though, I think, their dark ages, emotionally and musically. Joey was still partying, I believe, and Dee Dee was kind of out of it. So it was a tricky time. They weren’t really focused, and they were concerned because their Warners deal was up. They had some good things going on with the movie, but even then heavy metal was really big, and it was before the resurgence (of punk). So they weren’t on top of the world.”

The situation was further complicated by ongoing personality clashes between the band’s founding members. The relationship between Joey and Johnny had soured nearly a decade earlier, when Johnny began dating Joey’s then-girlfriend, Linda. Though Johnny and Linda eventually married, the internal ramifications caused by the love triangle were never truly resolved, leaving the two bandmates to operate in completely different worlds. When Rey joined up with the Ramones at New York’s S.I.R Studios in the summer of 1988 to begin pre-production for their next album, the ongoing strife had grown to the point where Joey and Johnny could barely stand to be in the same room together. Unsurprisingly, the situation presented Rey with more than a few challenges.

“I definitely had to work around it,” he remembers. “Basically, I’d work with Joey at my house with demo tapes, so he could learn the songs. Then in the afternoon, I’d sit in with the band and rehearse the songs without Joey, so everyone would be prepared and know the parts. We did one or two rehearsals with everybody. But then in the studio, the band would track in the daytime, and Joey would come in the evening and do his vocals.”

Marky felt the tension as well. In addition to seeing his singer and guitarist retreat to their own all-too-familiar corners, he saw Dee Dee – overwhelmed by drug and emotional problems – slowly withdraw from his role as a Ramone. With a new album in the works, it was hard for the drummer to ignore the fact that something was different with his buddy.

“Dee Dee was my best friend in the band,” he says. “He was sick and tired of the fact that Johnny and Joey weren’t talking to each other. Plus, he wanted a pursue a rap career.”

Dee Dee unveiled his new “rap career” in the form of Standing in the Spotlight, a full-length album released in early 1989 under the name “Dee Dee King.” The album’s cover featured the former Mr. Colvin in full homeboy mode, complete with slicked-back hair, gold chains and a boombox by his side. According to Rey, Dee Dee’s new persona was largely inspired by the bassist’s recent stint in rehab.

“He went in for a little ‘tune-up’ and a little rest, and all the guys at the place were calling him ‘Dougie Fresh,’” he remembers. “He came out and he was kinda all into rap. Being a writing partner, I helped him on these demos for this rap project, thinking that it would be a phase and then it would quietly go away. But then Sire agreed to put it out as a record, so this little crazy phase that Dee Dee went through became a product for public consumption.”

Although Standing In The Spotlight failed to induct Dee Dee into the hip-hop elite, the often-underrated album nonetheless contained its fair share of enjoyable sounds. “Emergency,” “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “The Crusher” were solid rockers, while the tender ballad “Baby Doll” showcased Dee Dee’s undeniable sensitive side. Fortunately, these strong spots also overshadowed Dee Dee’s embarrassing posturing on the downright painful “2 Much 2 Drink” or the wince-inducing “German Kid.”

“It’s kinda like it’s so bad, it’s good,” Rey says of the record. “It’s sort of a novelty record. In hindsight, Dee Dee was pretty much ahead of his time, with Kid Rock and Eminem and everything.”

Despite exploring outside options, Dee Dee was still needed at home. With Rey staying on in a support role, the job of producing Brain Drain was awarded to noted experimentalist Bill Laswell. A New York scene mainstay since the late ’70s, Laswell first made a name for himself as the leader of Material, a revolving-door recording project that featured everyone from former Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine to pop diva Whitney Houston. As a producer, he earned considerable notice for his work on PiL’s Album and Motorhead’s Orgasmatron, while his personal discography (both as a solo artist and a collaborator/sideman) boasted literally hundreds of titles. Before long, Laswell’s growing reputation in the industry caught the attention of Joey Ramone.

As Rey says, “Joey was still trying to get a hit record (and) a hit song, (while) Johnny was more reserved to, ‘Let’s just do what we do. We have our fan base. We’re gonna sell the same amount of records no matter what we do.’ When it came time to pick a producer for that record, I think Joey kinda said, ‘Who’s hot right now?’ Laswell had just come off an Iggy record and a Motorhead record, and labels are always into bigger-name producers, so Laswell got the gig.”

The combination of the stunningly-prolific Laswell and the veteran punk workhorses was a match made in high-speed heaven. A man with an obvious knack for getting things done, Laswell was immediately impressed by the band’s militant professionalism.

“There was a lot of pre-production on the part of the band,” he says. “That work was done before I even got there. I just came in and figured, ‘Well, you have enough material, and it seems to sound like Ramones songs. Let’s do it.’ They had pretty much done their homework.”

Apparently, some of this “homework” included figuring out who was actually going to play on the record. Despite his heavy songwriting presence, Dee Dee barely played a note during the Brain Drain sessions, opting instead to have Rey and the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff handle the majority of the bass.

“Dee Dee considered his role as the songwriter,” explains Rey. “With the actual playing of the instruments, his idea would be, ‘Well, anybody could do it. Why don’t you do it? You could do it faster than me.’ And Johnny was always concerned with wasting time in the studio. It’s nothing, really, that a trained monkey can’t play, you know? Dee Dee was kinda zonked during the record because I think it took a lot out of him to write it and do the rehearsals. Maybe he played on one or two (songs).”

As with a number of past Ramones albums, Brain Drain also benefited from some help in the guitar department. Never much of a lead player, Johnny would often welcome input from additional six-stringers for solos and layering. After using former Heartbreakers guitarist Walter Lure on their past few releases, the band drafted Rey, along with session guitarists Artie Smith and Robert Musso, to add color to Brain Drain’s basic tracks.

“John would play on everything, or 99 percent of it,” Rey says. “We’d just double it up, and it was like a security blanket for John. It helped fatten up the sound. He only played the downstroke rhythm. Any kind of picky stuff, or leads, was usually done by somebody else, but very quickly and with John right there.”

Under Laswell’s guidance, the Ramones soon created their heaviest work to date. Easily the best album Motorhead never recorded, Brain Drain expanded on Halfway To Sanity’s grittiest moments while delivering a overall feel much closer to New York hardcore than the Beach Boys-on-78-speed vibe of the band’s early years. At a time when big drum sounds dominated hard rock recordings, Laswell achieved the album’s blazing foundation by placing Marky’s drums one foot away from a brick wall. This approach was a far cry from the overproduced gloss the drummer endured while recording his previous Ramones effort six years earlier.

“I thought Subterranean Jungle sucked,” he admits. “Good songs, though. But I could’ve done a better job at the production, which was disgusting. Brain Drain’s production was better and the songs, such as ‘Pet Sematary,’ were good, too. Brain Drain had a heavier sound.”

“Johnny was always adamant about ‘We need more fast songs. We need more hard songs,’” adds Rey. “Joey was always more of the pop guy. I think Joey was partying during that period, so I think Johnny had a little more power to get the record heavier. He was always encouraging Dee Dee to write hard songs. I think it’s where the Ramones were at that point. And also musically, heavy metal was getting popular, so they wanted to show how heavy they could be.”

Rey also recalls the vast differences between the band's two main writers.

"Dee Dee would write five songs in two days, and two of them would be terrible – just throw them right away," he says. "Out of the three, one would be a classic. Joey, on the other hand, would have an idea in his head for weeks, months. Then, he’d slowly write one line. So it took a long time. Dee Dee was a lot more spontaneous. Joey would know exactly how he wanted it, but Dee Dee could also churn them out faster.”

“[The environment] was very professional, surprisingly,” offers Laswell. “Everybody did their job. There were no politics and no weird things. Everybody just did their job, and it was a very easy record to do. With bands, there’s always a lot of politics. But with this particular band and this particular record, it was very smooth compared to most.”

“The whole period was great,” adds Rey. “I just remember their kooky sense of humor. You couldn’t stop smiling when you were around them. Even if things got tense or crazy, there was always an element of comedy to it.”

With their most powerful album in a decade under their belts, considerable attention from MTV and a major motion picture carrying one of their songs, the Ramones finally seemed to be at the right place at the right time. But, once again, the band somehow missed the boat. Brain Drain stalled at #122 on the Billboard charts, while the band’s contract with Sire Records was not renewed. Then, two month’s after the album’s release, the inevitable finally happened: Dee Dee Ramone, the greatest punk rocker of all time, said goodbye.

Recruiting new bassist Chris “CJ Ramone” Ward, the band released three more studio albums, but things just weren’t the same without Dee Dee. And, despite the “alternative” music explosion of the early ’90s, they never truly earned the recognition and chart success they deserved. In August 1996, the Ramones closed the book on their 22-year adventure, leaving their legions of fans throughout the world with one burning question: Why didn’t it happen for them?

“I think there was a prejudice early on because they threatened a lot of the music business, and they also threatened musicians,” offers Rey. “If you were a hot-shot guitar player, the Ramones scared the hell out of you. So I think that stuck around for awhile, and then it was a case of people taking something great for granted. People said, ‘Oh, yeah, I love the Ramones,’ but it doesn’t mean they’d play them on the radio. They were sort of underdogs, but I think that’s what made the Ramones special. If they would have had a hit early on, it might have been the kiss of death. I always thought that if 'Sedated' was a Top Ten million seller, they might not have lasted so long.”


In the years following their demise, each member of the Ramones (except Johnny, who retired to Los Angeles) remained active in the music business. Joey managed the popular ska/punk act The Independents, while CJ found his own spotlight as the leader of the band Los Gusanos. Leaving his “Dee Dee King” persona behind once and for all, Dee Dee briefly worked with feces-throwing punk outlaw G.G. Allin and later released a handful of solo records.

Marky, meanwhile, kept the busiest schedule of them all. In addition to fronting his own musical projects (including the Intruders and the Speed Kings), he produced an album for NYC punk legends the Bullys and enjoyed a four-year stint with the Misfits. Most importantly, Marky also contributed his distinct punch to the sessions for Joey’s long-awaited solo album.

Tragically, any hopes of a full Ramones reunion died forever on April 15, 2001, when 49-year-old Joey lost his long-fought battle against lymphoma. In a case of twisted irony, the singer’s passing immediately inspired the mainstream music media to finally acknowledge the Ramones’ substantial influence on modern music. Like the blues greats before him, Joey achieved his greatest acclaim when he wasn’t around to experience it.

With posthumous praise coming at a rapid pace, the first half of 2002 found the Ramones at the absolute peak of their international popularity. February saw the release of Joey’s Don’t Worry About Me album, while the group was inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame the following month. Appropriately, Dee Dee – the band’s main songwriter and spiritual father for young punks around the world – received the loudest audience applause of all Ramones members attending the induction ceremony.

Less than two months later, he was dead of a heroin overdose at the age of 51.

Despite the devastating loss of two founding members, the Ramones legacy refused to die. In February 2003, Columbia Records issued We’re A Happy Family, a Ramones tribute album featuring contributions from such heavyweights as U2, KISS, Tom Waits and Marilyn Manson. Brain Drain was represented on the album by Eddie Vedder’s commendable rendition of “I Believe In Miracles.” Eight months later, Joey Ramone became a permanent part of the New York landscape when the corner of East Second Street and Bowery was officially named “Joey Ramone Place” by the city.

Although the Ramones had received several honors in the years following their demise, nothing compared with the events that transpired in September 2004. The 10th of the month brought the theatrical release of End of The Century, an in-depth (and often heartbreaking) feature-length documentary of the band’s long and turbulent career. Nearly seven years in the making, the movie earned rare reviews and shed a penetrating spotlight on the band’s various victories and defeats. Two days after the film’s premiere, the Avalon in Los Angeles hosted a sold-out Ramones 30thAnniversary tribute concert featuring live appearances by Marky, CJ, Rey, Henry Rollins, X, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eddie Vedder. The event received global coverage and provided a fitting celebration of three decades of extraordinary rock ‘n’ roll. For one weekend, Ramones Mania had truly swept the world.

But on September 15, the brief party came to an end. Surrounded by family and friends, 55-year-old Johnny Ramone passed away in his sleep after a lengthy bout with prostate cancer. In January 2005, a bronze statue of the fallen legend was erected at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, just a few yards away from Dee Dee’s final resting place.

Since leaving the Misfits in early 2005, Marky has kept the spirit alive by touring with (among others) Marky Ramone and Friends, a Ramones cover act that offers a respectable reenactment of the original band’s live show. Additionally, he served as the executive producer for Ramones Raw, an extensive, five-hour-plus DVD of rare behind-the-scenes footage and live performances from 1979 to 1996.
Considering the vast interest in Ramones-related items in recent years, it came as no surprise when U.K. label Captain Oi! issued a deluxe edition of Brain Drain in 2004. Highlights of the revamped collection included lengthy liner notes (courtesy of LA Weekly writer Frank Meyer and former Ramones tour manager Monte Melnick) and the rarely-heard Bill Laswell-produced version of “Pet Sematary.” The perpetual reissue blitz also produced 2005’s Weird Tales Of The Ramones, a three-CD box set that included the Brain Drain tracks “Punishment Fits The Crime,” “I Believe in Miracles” and “Pet Semetary.”

Summarizing the heart of the Ramones in an effort to give this chapter a tidy ending is a task too great for this writer to achieve. Instead, I will leave that job to a person whose thoughts truly matter.

“They were my friends first and bandmates second," Marky says. " I will always miss them.”

Copyright 2005-2011 Joel Gausten. Reproduction of this material in any form is not permitted. 


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