Poison Heart – Surviving The Ramones

Y’know, rock biographies/autobiographies are a funny affair.  You have the benchmarks, the real classics written by articulate, often unhinged genii such as Julian Cope with his fantastic two parter, ‘Head On / Repossessed’.  When the writer is so gifted at storytelling, the concept of reading about a rock n roll life becomes compelling and you find it hard to put it down.  Then, you move down the scale and encounter the milquetoast-ish puff-pieces, an example of which, [quite a strange one you might think] is the biography of Paul Heaton, formerly of the Beautiful South.  Singularly failing to dig deep or challenge the egotistical, contradictory Heaton, the toadying writer just piles on the content, with no attempt made to dig beneath the obvious and let us know what makes the subject tick.  Finally, we arrive on the literary skid row, where you find the memoirs of those who, ironically, are probably the truest rock n rollers of the lot – the drug-soaked, addled lifers who didn’t pose, they just went out and did it.  And this basement level is where we find Poison Heart – an unembellished, full speed romp through the short and unhappy life of one Douglas Colvin, better known to you and me as the late great Dee Dee Ramone.

Now DeHud lent me this recently when I called in on our trip to watch NoMeansNo.  He has also just digested the other new-ish book from a late Ramone, Johnny’s ‘Commando’ – which I haven’t yet read and so won’t mention here.  So, what do we learn about Dee Dee?

Let’s let that question hang in the air for a moment.  Two years ago, I called in to the Ramones Museum in Berlin during a nice week long visit to the city.  My partner gamely accompanied me, even though she has rather different musical tastes.  But what became clear very quickly from the cuttings, articles and general Ramones detritus on display was that, contrary to my youthful image of the band as a bunch of pretty dumb, fun filled guys making speedy punk rock that was always the same yet always different, they were in fact a collection of misfits who shared almost no common ground, whose increasingly hostile relationships with one another hardly qualified them to be known as the ‘Brudders’, and who descended into drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and ultimately untimely deaths.  A happy bunch they were not.  This came as something of a shock to me, and Dee Dee’s short book confirms this view uncompromisingly.

So, back to the book.  Dee Dee was perhaps the most wayward member of the band, a qualification which is all the more remarkable when you consider what damaged personalities the other two [Johnny and Joey] were.  His early childhood in the vicinity of various US Airforce bases in Germany was defined by alcoholic, absentee parents, the classic bunking off school, no discernible interests or talents, and a drift into drug abuse that was initiated the day he found two phials of methadone in a park [as you do….].  I shan’t repeat the story here, but suffice to say we get a reasonable view of his childhood and youth, but then, once the Ramones come along and begin to attempt to play, things get very confusing.

Dee Dee, who had the help of Veronica Kofman [I am not sure of she was the ghostwriter or just tried to arrange Dee Dee’s random, rambling thoughts into a digestible whole], is disarmingly frank about his state of decline.  Outwardly a punk rock hero who hob-nobbed with Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, Jerry Nolan and other greats of the era, Dee Dee in fact portrays himself as a pathetic drifter who was unable to form any kind of lasting relationship and who attracted abuse, violence and the exploitative attentions of those more manipulative and intelligent than him wherever he went. To try and deal with this, he adopted an increasingly paranoid and self defensive attitude to everybody he dealt with. Sadly for him, no industry contains more of those manipulators and exploiters than the music industry.

Dee Dee describes in blunt, unadorned terms the effect of his constant struggles with opiates, relationships and alcohol, but the most difficult thing for the reader to deal with is the way in which he darts from subject to subject, peppering his story with random conversations and thoughts which just make no sense at all.  Here is a passage from the chapter dealing with his later life in London:

“Once, near the Canal Street brige, I noticed a group of skinheads.  They looked great, dressed in their Doc Marten boots and lightweight army trenches.  They were all amped up and ready to swarm in on a possible victim.  I am seeing all this and notice how gleeful they become when they spot a ‘vic’……….[there follows a description of the skinheads roughing up a drunk that they encounter]….As I am watching this, I thought that maybe I should shave my head too.  This is England, right? And this is a grim society which I live in.  I am going to have to live by a few rules here, just as I did when I was in the Ramones.”

These grandiose, yet totally illogical pronouncements occur regularly throughout the story.  You are left with the impression that maybe Dee Dee was operating on a slightly different level to most people; I mean, if I saw a group of skinheads beating up a drunk, I’m not sure my first reaction would be to think that perhaps I should shave my head….

I took two evenings to get through this book.  I’ve read a few drug books, and a lot of New York books.  ‘Junky’ by William Burroughs is perhaps the most articulate and stark, whereas some of Nick Kent’s writings about characters like Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders are similarly bleak.  The same old themes shine through in Dee Dee’s story – the hopeless drug addict’s basic lack of morality and any semblance of concern for others caused by the constant need for dope, the paranoid, ‘me against the world’ philosophy, the total absence of self esteem, the sense of humiliation he feels on a daily basis as things go wrong for him time and time again.  Yet at the same time he also experiences awful self awareness which he shows during his moments of lucidity: he realises the inevitability of his fate at the hands of the dreaded heroin, yet like all addicts is unable to take the decisive action necessary to change his destiny.

You get the feeling that this guy was a none too bright, but basically nice person, but his dysfunctional upbringing and the constant sense of failure that it brought him meant that he never really stood a chance, especially after he was brought together with three other equally disturbed and inept people in the Ramones.  But then, compared to the absolute nihilism and self-absorption that took down lesser contemporaries like Sid Vicious, Thunders, Stiv Bators, Nolan and the likes, Dee Dee displays remarkable integrity.

‘Poison Heart’ is a sad story, and it confirms my sad discovery that, despite their legendary status and major league popularity, the Ramones were a collection of sad, empty, unhappy people – victims in every sense in an industry of wolves, which is all the more sad given that they created music that was so influential and ground breaking.  Dee Dee’s death from an overdose just over a decade ago in Los Angeles was predictable given the story.  In fact, sadly, you wonder how he lasted as long as he did. RIP.

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The Piniellas

There has always been something irresistible in the idea of a band playing the same three-chord, poppy sound that The Ramones made famous.  Bands like the UK’s Perfect Daze, and international bands such as The Queers, The Manges, The Leftovers and many others have adopted the same template to varying degrees of success.  And whilst in no way can the music be described as groundbreaking in any way, [part of its attraction is its adherence to the same standard], it always brings a smile to my face when done well. That’s why I thought I’d feature Seattle’s The Piniellas today.  After all this rain, we need something summery.

The Piniellas are made up of three members – Scott Matthews on vocals and guitar, Rob Femur on drums and Leif Pacemaker on bass and backing vocals.  They get their heads down and play a basic, three-chord pop thrash that is tuneful and hook-laden.  With harmonies aplenty and all the two minute songs you can shake a stick at, they manage to play the fast and the slow songs with all the authenticity of Da Brudders themselves.  They even play Ramones covers, so there is absolutely no pretentiousness here.  You get what you see.

The band released a six track ep ‘Without a Fight’ in March this year, which contains six tracks of their trademark sound.  It’s a fun listen, and I guess my only reservation with music that is so explicitly derivative is that the band concerned could be accused of concentrating too much on one source of inspiration.  You could of course hurl the same accusation at the likes of Ben Weasel and Joe King – some of The Queers, The Riverdales and indeed Weasel’s output is very Beach Boys – influenced, Ramones-y styled stuff.  However I would counter that by saying that they both injected their own style into the music, so that you always know it’s theirs, despite the obvious influences.  I guess it’s a thin line which bands tread carefully, and the Piniellas have enough original songs and style to pull it off.

Anyway, I guess this kind of music doesn’t demand too much in the way of intellectual discussion – this isn’t the New Musical Express in 1981 for goodness sake.  Just crank it up, fire up the barbecue, and enjoy some great tunes.

The New Rochelles in the studio

If you’ve been digging our recent foray into bands such as The Accelerators, The Manges and such like, you might like to give The New Rochelles a listen.  A three-piece based in the New York area, they wear their love of Ramones – style bubblegum pop punk on their sleeves, writing short, fast, catchy songs with energy. 

Bassist Rookie, [most surely not the name his mother originally bestowed upon him] has been in touch to tell us about their album, released last year, which showers you with twelve tracks of their trademark style.  Released on DIY – style label Bright & Barrow Records, the album trades on early Weasel style tuneage – the style which made DeHud and I seek out Boogadaboogadaboogada back in 1988.

Photo credit – Sean Colgan

The New Rochelles aren’t breaking any boundaries in terms of new and unusual sounds – they are up front about their love for Da Brudders and they play their chosen style with energy and commitment.  Original it may not be but they do the three chord punk thing with some great harmonies and tunes – it brings a smile to your face, makes you tap your Converse-clad foot, and hey – what more can you ask for?

The debut release may be some months old, but Rookie tells me that they are currently in the process of putting the finishing touches to six brand new tracks, which will be finding their way to release via various split eps with some other bands soon.  They’re worth watching out for, and we’ll keep you up to date on their progress, but for now, check out the stream below of their debut, complete with ‘1234’ introductions!

Review: Cyanide Pills

One of the support bands at last week’s show was Leeds’ Cyanide Pills.  They grabbed both my and Hud’s attention due to their retro-image and their catchy sound, and after a week of getting rid of my tinnitus, I’ve been giving their eponymous album on Damaged Goods Records a listen. 

This is a massive – value 19 track collection of songs by the band, kicking off with the uber-catchy ‘Conquer The World‘.  Now these guys wear their hearts firmly on their sleeves.  They describe themselves shamelessly in terms of their influences – and I quote:

Buzzcocks Ramones Sex Pistols X ray spex Clash Vapors Damned Radio Stars Dictators Johnny Thunders Nosebleeds Crime Adam and the Ants Dickies Briefs

These influences do a bit more than  show through in the songs! The Cyanide Pills’ approach to their sound seems a little bit like the way the Japanese manage to observe, assimilate, refine and eventually outdo any new technology that they discover.  These guys have clearly spent their [mis]-spent youth poring over every scratched 7″ copy of ‘Marquee Moon’ and ‘Promises’ that they could find down the local secondhand record shop – they have produced an album so full of riffs [Buzzcocks], ‘OoohOoohs’ [Ramones], and catchy hooks [Dickies] that it almost hurts!

Overall impressions have to be taken at face value when you are faced with something like this.  Whilst I cannot and would not claim to have been at the Pistols show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, I did in the late 70s and early 80s acquire a stock of the singles that have clearly caused these songs to come into existence.  And because of that, I am now disturbed to find that I belong to the generation of boring, jaundiced old farts who mumble It weren’t like that in my day, lad!  when I hear music so self-consciously revivalist as this.  Whereas, of course, this music may have a completely different effect on a listener who is perhaps half my age and who didn’t go through the whole thing back in the day.  But let’s put all that aside for a moment.  How did this make me feel?

Well, it brings to mind Perfect Daze and their unselfconscious, bubblegum pop-punk.  It’s unashamedly good time music and does not demand to be thought about too deeply.  The tunes are good, the sound is authentic, and it bears more than one listen, which I admit I thought would be a problem when I first heard it.

Cyanide Pills have caught me out really, and the joke is clearly on me – as soon as they hit the stage at the Brudenell last week, the cartoon image – flourescent ties, wrap around shades, baseball boots, the ephemera of 77 punk as you might collectively term it, I was ready to judge them as a novelty, a modern day Toy Dolls or a Damned tribute band. But I have to admit that this is a good old kick up the ass for anybody who claims to be open minded but actually just likes over analysing such things.

Live: Hanson Brothers, The Invasives, Cyanide Pills, The Magnificent, Beard

Billed as the ‘Sudden Debt Tour 2012’, this show was the conclusion of the tour of Europe that has seen the Hanson Brothers and The Invasives play an impressive schedule of live shows through Europe.  My first visit to the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds was marked by a line up so extensive it almost qualified as a mini festival. 

After meeting up at the station with my fellow Rip It Up staffer Mark, we took ourselves through the teeming streets and up to the excellent North Bar, a small and unassuming institution serving a fine selection of beers.  Later, after a show of solidarity against the government’s unjust ‘Pasty Tax’ by patronising Greggs and a remarkable halal chicken joint, we weaved our way unsteadily towards Hyde Park and studentland via a series of pubs, sampling imported beers and making conversation of the merriest and lightest kind, and only after following a circuitous route through the hinterland did we eventually arrive, just as the first band took to the stage. 

The first band up was Beards, I think.  They played an energetic set,with all the hardcore touches present and correct.  Unfortunately the set was rather too short to make the required impression on me, as the bill was so full.

Next up was a band we were quite excited to see, having posted one of their songs recently in the Music section.  The Magnificent are a band from Huddersfield, and they started in 2007. The current line-up is Matt (guitar, vocals), Jimmy (bass, vocals) and Charlie (drums).  They played a tight set, with a sound that contained energy, tunes and rather more originality that many bands you see nowadays.  It’s refreshing to see up and coming bands who don’t feel that they have to simply re – hash all the old Minor Threat standards, instead having their own sound and using others’ material as influences as opposed to simply creating a carbon copy.

Then The Cyanide Pills took to the stage.  They are quite simply the most punk thing I have seen in years, right down to the fact that not one but two of their number were wearing white leather jackets! They played a tight set, betraying their self-confessed influences: The Buzzcocks, a bit of Ramones sing along, in fact you name a 1977 British punk band and they have the sound nailed!  Mark was so impressed that he bought their CD.

With excitement increasing and the venue filling up rapidly [it’s a nice sized hall for bands], it was the turn of The Invasives from Canada to take the stage.  They are touring with their hockey obsessed countrymen, The Hanson Brothers.  Invasives are a trio from Vancouver BC formed in 2001 and consisting of 2 brothers Byron and Adam Slack (Vocals/Guitar/Bass) and 1 Hans Anus (Drums).  They play a kind of similar sounding music to NoMeansNo – very much the stripped to the bone, angular type of hardcore sound, with unexpected time changes and an interesting vocal style.  I really rate them, and hope to get hold of their last LP, ‘Desk Job at castle Dracula’.

Then, after a bit of a break, it was time for the Hansons to get up and play hockey.  Rob and John Wright, Tom Holliston and Hanson-only Mike Branum make up the band members, and they perform complete with two striped shirted referees who deal with any foul play by both the musicians and any crowd members.  As expected, they played a blindingly tight, fast and generally get up and fucking go punk rock set, pausing only to catch their breath before launching headlong into another Ramones-esque thrash.  Truly marvellous, and with more hooks than your local angling club!

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this jokey side project for the Wright brothers and Tom Hollister.  I mean, NoMeansNo are one of the longer serving, more ‘cerebral’ of the bands I have followed over the years, and I’d only ever heard the Ramones cliches when the Hansons were mentioned.  But they are actually a band with their own style and songs, and they go much further than just cranking out dumb ass sub Ramones stuff.  As expected their musical accomplishment was unquestionable but the whole band concept it seems like a kind of pressure valve for when NmN gets too serious for them perhaps.  In an interview with Chart Attack which I read some time ago, John Wright, who normally resides behind the drum kit in NmN, says:

The Hanson Brothers is a great release for us,” Wright continues. “Robbie’s the lead in Nomeansno, being up front singing.

He gets to put on a mask and do nothing but play bass and rock out. I get out from behind the drums and get to be a goof, up close to the audience. I can assault them.

Tom loves the Ramones, so he’s just pounding out bar chords. You play in the same band for so many years, it gets stale. You need to reinvigorate.”

They have actually created the Hanson characters with remarkable observation of the stereotyped Canadian male – who is all about beer drinking, patriotism and HOCKEY!  It’s amusing on more than one level really, and that is their triumph.