While pundits sometimes argue the fact, the rest of us accept it: The Ramones were the first punk band. No muss, no fuss, just four chords, two minutes, and the "Blitzkrieg Bop" that caught everyone's attention. In 1977, when the Sex Pistols were releasing their first
the Ramones were touring on their third with a single, "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," that was sittin' snotty on the U.K. Top 40. In your neighborhood and across the pond, the self-titled album The Ramones
had already stirred it up. "It can't be stressed how great the Ramones' first record was for the scene in London," reminds Joe Strummer in his band's own documentary, The Clash: Westward to the World
. Sadly, the Ramones' greatness did not last as long as their career. After Rocket to Russia
drummer/band manager Tommy Ramone left the group, and without him, the alchemy began to fade -- a reality postponed by his work as producer of 1978's Road to Ruin
and made all the more obvious by his invigorating influence on 1985's Too Tough to Die
. And yet the Ramones persevered, battling drug addiction, disease, disillusionment, and the constant malady of the ever-dissolving drummer. The consequent albums, over a dozen comprised of redundant chaff, did not suffer from a lack of chops or integrity on the part of the remaining or replacement Ramones; rather, they were the result of a lack of chemistry, that volatile substance that binds some band members for life despite strong aversions. Joey Ramone had such an aversion; by the time he succumbed to lymphoma in 2001, he and Tommy were no longer on speaking terms, a state of affairs precipitated perhaps by Tommy's marriage to Joey's girlfriend. But such is the stuff of rock 'n' roll legends and music television specials. If you wonder why you haven't seen such gossip in one, it's because the Ramones wanted to keep that in the family, too. To that end, they turned down offers from VH1 and MTV in favor of two old friends, Michael Gramaglia
and Jim Fields, who began compiling interviews over four years ago. The result is
exhaustive and sometimes exhilarating The Ramones: End of the Century
. It begins at the beginning, with rare concert footage of the Ramones' first gig at CBGB's and chronicles every up, down, and sidelong movement of the group until Joey's death. Through separate and extremely candid interviews, the various Ramones strive to eviscerate 20 years of bad feelings, affection, stupidity, elation, and regret. (Sadly, Joey did not want to appear sickly on camera so his comments are relegated to phone conversations, but Dee Dee, who is also now deceased, appears in all his drug-addled glory.) Meanwhile, Gramaglia
and Fields place the band's music in a larger context, exploring its ripple effect by way of early punk rock footage and peer interviews with former members of Blondie, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols. The result is a grainy trip through the Lower East Side of punk that is as unique and delightfully tasteless as an old-school zine.
In a similar vein, The Clash: Westway to the World follows the somewhat revolutionary rise and decidedly more banal collapse of the Clash, from the act's pseudo-Stalinist beginnings at art school to Topper Headen's junkie meltdown in Thailand (good drummers are so hard to find). Given the band's comparatively short career (eight years and six albums if you can count Cut the Crap, which didn't feature Headen or Mick Jones), there's less grist and guts for the bloodthirsty; and, irony aside, seeing the Clash perform "Career Opportunities" at Shea Stadium cannot compete with the Ramones at CBGB's nearly coming to blows over which song to play next and just playing all four songs at once. That said, Clash has a better soundtrack, so you should see both.
The Ramones: End of the Century will be presented by KUSF's Dennis "The Menace" Scheyer, who begged and pleaded so it might screen in San Francisco on Thursday, July 17, at the Roxie (3117 16th St. at Valencia) at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. The Clash: Westway to the World will be shown Friday through Thursday, July 18-24, at 6, 8, and 10 p.m. with weekend and Wednesday matinees at 2 and 4 p.m. Tickets are $8; call 863-1087 or visit www.roxie.com.