It was 1995 and the world famous Ramones were in their Snow White Meets the Three Stooges phase of their career. Soon they would retire to die and get rich (in that order) but first they had some important business to take care of.
After the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century LP tanked in 1980, the Ramones resigned themselves to gigging at small to medium-sized establishments via Eisenhower's renowned series of interstate highways. This was ideal for Ramones fans but probably not so ideal for the Ramones. Cramped into a fetid van, they soldiered on, stealing each others girlfriends, eating crummy food and generally hating each other. This went on for sixteen years.
My first Ramones show was at a club called Toad's Place in New Haven, Connecticut in the fall of '83. I got there early to get tickets and caught the band as they drove up to the front door in their jail on wheels. I was immediately impressed with their Beatles-like efficiency. Johnny was the first to get out (he was riding shotgun) and the other Ramones followed suit. With matching leather jackets, black jeans and even matching socks they slunk into the club in single line formation. They looked miserable, like guys waking up for a 5am shift at the shellac factory.
That night was nothing less than the greatest goddamn punk rock show I had ever seen. Richie was the new drummer and he was fine even if Marky says that he had trouble hitting the 8th notes on the high hat. They had a very rocking groove at that point and the showmanship was on par with JB at the Apollo. The minimal coordinated stage moves were as genius-like as their songs. At designated times Johnny and Dee Dee stepped up on milk crate-sized risers (was it after the drum intro to Rock and Roll High School?) and then joylessly stepped down again at the exact same time a few songs later. Not once did any of the four Ramones look at each other or even glance back at the equipment--they elevated being miserable to an art form all while entertaining the hell out of the crowd.
They also had recently acquired a fan base of hard-core kids who worshipped them like Sammy worshipped Frank. They were tough looking freaks and the Ramones gamely accepted their slamdancing shenanigans. The front of the stage usually looked like a scene out of the Quincy punk rock episode--colored mohawks, bodies flying akimbo and everyone generally having a non-violent, violent-looking good time. I had a feeling that almost thirty years later I'd wistfully recount on some soon-to-be-invented computer-like worldwide forum how I got all banged up in the pit that September night and I'm here to say I that I did and it was fine. I even lost my glasses at one point and didn't care. (They were eventually located after the show when a skinhead walked by wearing them, laughing hysterically.)
I saw The Ramones maybe a dozen more times mostly at L'amour's (The Rock Capitol of Brooklyn) and at the Ritz. They put on tremendous shows and usually kept the crappy new material to a minimum which is all you can really ask for in an oldies band. I got better at working the pit without getting killed--keep your arms up and if you act nuts they'll stay away from you (but stay away from real nuts cause they really are nuts). I always figured out a way to maneuver to the left side of the stage just in time for Johnny's sole guitar lead of the evening on California Sun.
I had enough by the 1989 Irving Plaza New Year's Eve show--the performances were gradually starting to suck and the crowd was showing up with fireworks. It was a great ride but I was done with the whole dumb scene.
Seven years later when the Ramones were retiring for the 143rd time I was talked into seeing one of their last shows at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey by my pals John From Mental Decay and his wife Wendy (who some Music To Spazz By listeners might remember as hosting the Name That Dah game show segments of my show every Thursday evening at ten). Well, the Ramones were terrible. They played way too fast with no swing at all and with the ten sonic tons of reverb on Joey's ever-weakening vocals I couldn't tell one song from another. The crowd had stopped throwing fireworks but it was too late. The Ramones weren't even phoning it in--they were faxing it. They performed about fifty more shows that year and then broke up amongst dubious hoopla.
It's only recently that I discovered the late Ramones period Moment of Greatness. Following in the rich legacy of The Who's Great Shakes commercial and scores of rock 'n' roll Coca-Cola jingles, the Ramones were given one last chance to to knock not one, but three killer songs out of the park. This opportunity came in the form of beer jingles. The way Joey leans into these lyrics is incredible--he's selling this beer like it was the most important thing on earth and maybe it was.
With its 6.0-8.1% alcohol content, Steel Reserve High Gravity Lager is some deadly fluid. It tastes like cross between swill and horse piss but I guess somebody's gotta drink it. I'm glad the High Gravity Lager people stumbled upon the Ramones when they were sorting through affordable b-listers that could rise to the challenge of recording a classy commercial. Thank you Steel Reserve High Gravity Lager for giving my favorite band one last chance to shine.