By Justin M. Norton
When a Brooklyn teenager named Marc Bell was hired as the replacement drummer for Tommy Ramone he had little idea what would follow in the ensuing years. The Ramones were helping define punk in the 1970s but weren’t in any way a household name or a recognizable brand. They were still broke. The Bee Gees and disco ruled the airwaves and platform shoes were more common than tattered jeans and leather.
Things certainly changed. During Marky’s long tenure as a Ramone the band recorded End of The Century with famous “Wall Of Sound” producer Phil Spector; appeared in the Roger Corman directed cult classic Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (the second choice after Devo); toured the world and became the de facto face of American punk. Marky conquered an alcohol addiction that kept him away from the band and ended his career as part of the longest running Ramones lineup (15 years) . Whenever you play classics like “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” and “I Just Want To Have Something To Do,” it’s Marky laying down the classic Ramones backbeat.
Marky is in some ways the proto-Dave Grohl, a musician with an almost boundless appetite for side projects and bands. As a teenager he played with the hard rock band Dust (he claims they were among the first heavy metal bands); jammed and recorded with legendary bluesman Johnny Shines and played with Richard Hell and The Voidoids. He drummed on his longtime bandmate Joey’s solo album and recorded with Canada’s Teenage Head. He briefly toured with the Jerry Only-fronted Misfits and now keeps the Ramones music alive with his band Marky Ramone’s Punk Rock Blitzkrieg.
He keeps busy when he’s not touring with radio work and business pursuits. For years he’s hosted a popular punk rock showcase on Sirius Satellite radio. He’s selling Marky Ramone pasta sauce and a patented leather jacket. He’s working on remastering the early Dust albums. And finally, he’s helping establish a music scholarship at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. He hopes it will be to help a young musician like him: plenty of drive, but few resources. The scholarship will kick-off with a tribute concert of Ramones songs in Los Angeles in October.
“Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee died too soon,” Marky says “These songs are too good not to be played, and this new generation wants me to play them.” The punk legend and Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame member spoke to Hellbound in late August.
Hellbound: You’ve been at punk rock for decades now. What is it that motivates you to keep going when you could probably retire at this point?
Marky Ramone: It’s the fun of doing it. I started playing drums because I enjoyed it. As a little boy I fantasized about going places, traveling. When I saw the Beatles and Ringo Starr I immediately wanted to be a drummer. Keeping the punk legacy alive and doing it right is very important. Now the fathers are bringing kids to shows. I want to bridge the generation gap. I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.
What do you think it is about the Ramones music that resonates with each new generation?
It’s the level of energy. It’s also the lyrical content. I also think it’s the way the band looked. It was a real look. I grew up in Brooklyn and I always wore a jacket and jeans. We appealed to youth. It doesn’t matter what era or generation…you can go back to Elvis Presley or The Beatles and see the same thing.
What’s your favorite Ramones album? Why?
From Tommy’s era I like Rocket to Russia. The albums I’m on it’s Road to Ruin and Pleasant Dreams. I like Rocket To Russia because the production and arrangements were really good. It was the pinnacle of the Ramones up to 1977. When I did Road To Ruin there were some lead guitars and some new tasteful things but it didn’t interfere with the punk ethos. It brought the band something more. There was a joke that it was The Ramones’ Sgt. Pepper. And Pleasant Dreams was our pop punk album.
What was the difference for you between playing for huge crowds as a member of the Ramones and then in the late 1990s opening to just a handful of people with your band Mark Ramone and The Intruders?
I wanted to go back to the clubs, the small places. We (The Ramones) were playing these huge clubs and Warped tours and Lollapalooza and in South America in front of 50,000 people. For some reason when the band retired I wanted to do club tours. It felt great. There was something about the closeness of it that I missed. You need to do everything. You need to do clubs and venues and big places.
There’s something so powerful about a Ramones song – there are many technical players out there that are amazing at their instruments, but nothing sticks in your head like “Cretin Hop” or “Psycho Therapy.” Did songs always come first with the Ramones?
We didn’t want to overindulge in anything other bands were doing. In the mid-70s people were just doing guitar solos and drum solos and albums only had five songs. Rock was being diluted by jazz rock and folk rock and blues rock. We wanted the two-and-a- half minute approach. It was the same when I was with Richard Hell and the Voidods. We all liked Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Those songs were only two minutes and twenty seconds long. We only cared about the song. We didn’t care about solos. We just wanted a chorus that could be remembered and a song structure that wasn’t 20 minutes long.
What’s the status of your lawsuit claiming that you were cheated out of royalties you are owed for the band’s back catalog?
I wasn’t cheated. They weren’t sent to me. I’m not supposed to be talking about it. It will all work out.
You are in good company at Sirius Satellite radio with other djs like Kim Fowley (Runaways manager) and Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones producer). What do you do to keep your show fresh and interesting? You don’t shy away from playing songs out of your own catalog.
I’m on so many songs, you can’t ignore them (laughs). You can’t ignore the Voidoids or Teenage Head or “I Want To Be Sedated” and “Rock And Roll High School.” Kids e-mail me and they want to hear these songs. But I also try to play middle school, new school and old school punk. When I grew up DJs were pushing disco and Saturday Night Fever was out. Now, I get to play what I want. I also know the punk scene since I was there when it started. I get a lot of kudos from people that we finally have a punk station and there is no one telling me how to play and when to play it. I always keep my ears open for bands that need help. If you have a CD send it in and if I like it I’ll play it. My theory of life is this – if I could help someone the way I would have wanted to be helped I’ll do it.
What did you think about Phil Spector’s murder conviction? There were already stories from the End Of The Century recordings that he was pointing a gun at band members.
(The story was) that he carried it and pointed it at Dee Dee. But that might have been exaggeration. Only The Ramones, (musical director) Ed Stasium, Phil and (engineer) Larry Levine were in the studio. Phil was used to working slow and we were used to working fast. There was a clash between Johnny and Phil about the work ethic. Phil didn’t like John’s work ethic and vice versa. Phil was the producer so he won out.
We remained friends and I was at his court case. He claims his innocence. That’s the way it went. It was sad when they took it away. But he never pointed a gun at us. He had them there, but he never waved them around. There were on the console. They were too heavy for him. He left them in a holster on the board.
You are going to help fund a drum scholarship for the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. When I hear the Ramones I don’t exactly think of school or music school.
Either do I (laughs). I had to go to night school to graduate from high school. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college and I remember that. If I can help a kid with great talent but without the means I’d do anything. I wish it was around when I was a kid. Things now are so competitive and it’s hard to compete because of downloading and the influx of so many touring bands. Being part of the education thing, this scholarship, I could help a kid who financially couldn’t afford college.
Is the idea to help someone who might be like a budding Ramone, who doesn’t have the means but an amazing desire to play music?
I don’t know if they want to be a budding Ramone. It doesn’t take technical skill, it’s more physical. Maybe they want to use the scholarship to join an orchestra and have a career. To learn Ramones songs you don’t need to go to Juilliard. Who knows how they will develop.
I noticed on your YouTube page you have a video with your thoughts on heavy metal songs and bands…do you listen to much metal?
I was in a metal band as a teenager. I think Dust was one the first metal bands in America. I don’t think the term was even invented yet. It was just called hard rock. Our album was out in 1971. We were listening to The Kinks and The Who and Jimi Hendrix but we were too young to tour. We couldn’t play places that served alcohol without a parent.
I love the first Black Sabbath album. It was the start of metal. There were other heavy bands at the time. They’d take old blues standards and put a Marshall behind them and that was it. Sabbath was the first.
In 2003 Canada’s Teenage Head recorded an album that finally came out five years later as Teenage Head With Marky Ramone. It was the last official recordings done with TH vocalist Frankie Venom, who died in 2008 of throat cancer. What do you remember about that session and album?
I was in Canada doing a spoken word tour. The band’s guitar player asked if I’d help redo the whole Teenage Head album. The Ramones were big in Canada and I loved the people there. The first album wasn’t produced well and that’s why they wanted to redo it. When they asked me to do it I had to hear the songs first. I had to see if I could play it and if I liked it. I loved Frankie’s voice. It took me one day to do the album. Frankie’s voice is just great on it. When I was around he wasn’t in the best of health but he was able to rally.
You also did an album with legendary bluesman Johnny Shines when you were just a teenager.
I was just out of Dust and I was working with (Andrew Loog) Oldham who had produced the Stones. I got a call to do a blues album. I loved B.B King and Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker. It was really an honor to play with him. The album came out great. I was happy I was asked to do it and it gave me a little more street cred. His stories were great. What Johnny experienced in life was rough until the English invasion came along. Until then, people overlooked the blues.
You were on the road with the Jerry Only fronted version of The Misfits for a while. Why did you decide to stop touring with them?
That wasn’t The Misfits. That was one guy (Only) milking the name. He’s a great guy. But I had to leave because the kids kept yelling out Ramones songs, and they couldn’t play Ramones songs the way we had done it. I’d like to see Danzig and Doyle come back and have it be original Misfits.
You’ve also branched out. You designed a leather jacket with Tommy Hilfiger and are selling your own brand of pasta sauce (called Brooklyn’s Own). Do you think these pursuits clash at all with what some people consider punk ethos?
A lot of people have bought it (the sauce). My grandfather was a head chef. He worked at the Copacabana and the 21 Club in New York City. We went over there on holidays and I would be in the kitchen watch him cook. I saw what he did and I copied it. It started with some plum tomatoes. When I left my parents when I was 18 it was easy to make pasta. At the time, that’s all I could afford.
Tommy is a friend and asked me to be involved. I looked at the back of the first Dust album cover and based it (the jacket) on those jackets. Tommy is great. He’ s a punk guy and loves the Ramones. He helped finance a Rolling Stones tour. He’s a dedicated punk guy and a friend. I have nothing against capitalism. We live in America. If you can do it properly why not? I don’t think people will say Green Day sold out for doing Broadway, if their music gets to more people.
What is it like to play The Ramones music without your old bandmates? Is it ever bittersweet or is it a celebration of what you did together?
They didn’t get to enjoy their fruits of their labor because of cancer and a ridiculous overdose. The songs are too good not to be played. If we had two to three years off after 22 years of playing we could have reformed and played again. I feel that I’m keeping the legacy alive and they’d be happy I was doing it. It brings the music back around and it also sells the back catalog and merchandise. That’s part of being in a band. It’s not a cop out. Kids want merchandise.
If someone ever had to put together a time capsule a Ramones album would probably be included as the “punk rock” item.
The first one would, along with The Sex Pistols and L.A.M.F. by Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers.