Though they convinced their adoring fans and other bands in the underground rock scene of the 1970s that they were phenomenal -- a thrashing rejection of the bland, macrame culture of the time, says rock historian Legs McNeil -- the industry never got them. The Ramones' corpse ethos of gnarled teeth, chalky skin and unstudied freakishness gave them their integrity, their "realness," but it also kept them from breaking through.
Every decade brought a new assertion that no one, despite all the mad love, would ever get the Ramones. There was guilt by association with punk-rock excess a la the Sex Pistols. The Ramones' low production values and no-frills integrity kept them off MTV. They were somehow bypassed by the '90s alternative scene, even as the era's emergent mega-bands ironically credited them with birthing their own combos.
Blondie's Chris Stein and Deborah Harry, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, members of Rancid, Metallica, manager Danny Fields and Sire Records' Seymour Stein all line up in Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields' darkly mesmerizing documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones to pay tribute to the band. The Clash's Joe Strummer credits the Ramones with no less than the advent of punk.
The band itself eats razor blades in this confessional doc, masticating the bloody shards of in-house feuds and the long-term doldrums of a great band never making it to the big time. Every tale of rock excess seemed topped by the wound-picking angst of the Ramones, from Dee Dee Ramone's chicken-hawk hustling and amour fou with a hooker named Connie, to Joey Ramone's painfully dark isolation and OCD. Everything about the band, in Dee Dee's own words, seemed "sour," from the increasing tension between right-wing Nixon-loving Johnny to the left-wing bottomless sadness of Joey, who became convinced bandmate Johnny had stolen his one chance at romantic love.
Though they epitomized every bitter, bad thing that makes music a necessary escape from high school misery, the Ramones never experienced the sweet smell of success that made all that grief burn away. Like the current profile of the Brian Jonestown Massacre's self-destructive frontman Anton Newcombe in Dig!, End of the Century suggests that for every story of catharsis through rock, there is the doppelganger narrative of a music industry perpetuating alienation.
Growing up in the dismal anti-cool town of Forest Hills, Queens, the baby Ramones bonded over a mutual, unpopular love of the Stooges and the lowbrow America release of glue-sniffing, firecrackers, broken homes, delinquency and Charles Manson. The mechanics of how that group of Dead End Kids went on to make a noise so tight and awe-inspiring are glossed over. The Ramones' talent, it seems, just was.
In this year's other music doc, Some Kind of Monster, Metallica's metalheads can afford a $40,000-a-year head shrinker. But the boys from Queens lacked not only the cash but the will to heal thyselves and seemed defined by their willful lack of introspection. Johnny Ramone's evaluation of the group's problems is to shrug with working-stiff pragmatism. Being from Queens, being an outsider, being in a band is hard. That's just how it is.
End of the Century is a rightfully grim, fan's-eye view of the Ramones. The film's first half suffers, kinetically speaking, from a lack of footage of early gigs and instead substitutes stilted panoramas of Queens and still shots of the band. By the second half, the band has gained enough notoriety to merit film footage. Finally, the distinctive full-throttle aural assault and outlaw image materializes, and End of the Century builds some needed momentum.
As much a corrective to rock star idolatry, in its own way, as Some Kind of Monster, the engrossing, suitably depressing End of the Century suggests there are worse things than too much success. Like too little.