The Ramones are one of the most influential and endearing bands of all time. Creating the framework from which every other punk band would take their cues, the four non-brothers with the same surname left a mark on popular culture that can only accurately be described as seismic. However, the major albatross in the band’s career was that they never achieved the commercial success that they believed they could, or should, have been entitled to.
It didn’t make all that much sense: the band were basically a bubblegum pop act with buzzsaw guitars, creating more indelible melodies and iconic hooks than just about any other punk band. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, punk bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash, plus the band’s C.B.G.B. contemporaries like Talking Heads and Blondie, were able to translate their rough-edged sounds into monetary success. But the Ramones never could. Instead, they had to tour relentlessly just to make a halfway decent living, and even then, there was never any luxury or large scale windfall. The band always stayed in medium-sized hotels, drove in vans, and took on around 150-200 concerts every single year. Famously, the band’s biggest source of income was T-shirt sales.
Thirty years of struggle eventually took its toll. By 1995, the only original members left were Johnny and Joey, and the relationship between the two had been strained for decades. Longtime drummer Marky Ramone was back behind the drum stool, but he had conflicts with the other members as well. C.J. Ramone, who by this point had logged half a decade as Dee Dee’s replacement, was eternally resigned to junior status in both pay and band decisions. The group had toured nonstop for three decades, and all agreed that it was time to put the Ramones to bed.
Part of that decision came out of the fact that punk rock was experiencing a renaissance in the mid-90s. Bands like Green Day, Rancid, Blink-182, Social Distortion, and The Offspring, who worshipped at the Ramones altar, achieved platinum album sales and global success. But the Ramones never got to take part: they were still consistently failing to sell records, they were still playing dingy clubs, and they couldn’t manage to ride the wave that they almost single-handedly created thirty years earlier. If it wasn’t going to happen now, it was never going to happen, so why not just say adios amigos.
So that’s what they did: the Ramones put out one final album, Adios Amigos, and toured like crazy behind it. They hopped on the 1996 Lollapalooza summer tour and announced their last gig at the Palace in Hollywood for August 6, 25 years ago today. If the band were going to go out, they were going to go out with a bang.
What is clear from the footage of their last show is that the Ramones had lost none of their ferocious power over the course of 30 years. In fact, the band were playing classic tracks like ‘Cretin Hop’ and ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’ at even faster tempos than they were recorded at. Joey’s baritone bark is as impactful as ever, Johnny plays with the laser-focus that he brought to his leadership of the band, while Marky and C.J. are as tight as a rhythm section can be. It’s enough to make you believe how unfathomable it was that this band was never truly a major success.
To celebrate their exit, the band also brought on some of the musicians that they had inspired along the way. Motorhead’s Lemmy took the stage to play his tribute to the band, ‘R.A.M.O.N.E.S.’, showing that the band’s influence went beyond punk rock. Eddie Vedder guested on a cover of Dave Clark Five’s ‘Any Way You Want It’, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Ben Shephard played on ‘Chinese Rocks’, and Rancid’s Tim Frederiksen and Tim Armstrong gave their take on ’53rd & 3rd’.
It was a celebratory night, but a bittersweet one as well. The Ramones brought on guests that had all eclipsed them commercially, and the band continued to bring a workman-like attitude to their performances that didn’t allow for additional emotion or nostalgia. As the final notes of ‘Any Way You Want It’ fade away, the band simply walk off stage and into the unknown.
Less than ten years later, Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee would all be gone. Original drummer Tommy Ramone followed in 2014, leaving the Ramones as one of the few bands whose most influential and legendary lineup is now wholly passed away. There are lots of unfair notes and sad turns in the Ramones story, and the band was truly cheated out of the success that they worked hard to get, but as every new year passes, their place on top of the punk rock mountain becomes more and more indisputable.
The band managed to hold it together for as long as possible, and when the fire finally burned out, what remains is a legacy that can’t be usurped or taken away. Strangely, the band’s lack of success left a pure and unsullied image: they never changed, they never slowed down, and they never let up. The Ramones went full speed, all the way to the very end.