The Ramones were the archetypal punk band. The first in a long line of groups who stepped into ripped jeans, pulled on their leather jackets and played harder and faster than anyone else around. Though their music has withstood the test of time, they contributed more to the music scene than just 2-minute snatches of blistering rock. They shaped the look, ethos and attitude of a generation of musicians, birthing one of music’s most aggressively antisocial genres in the process.
At the heart of the band stood Dee Dee Ramone. As the 19th anniversary of his death approaches, we take a look back at Dee Dee’s prolific career, challenging personal life and untimely death. This is the Dee Dee Ramone story.
An outcast from the start
Born Douglas Glenn Colvin, on September the 18th, 1951, Dee Dee Ramone was a serial loner throughout much of his childhood. Not out of choice or because of any compromising character flaws, but because his father’s military career forced the family to relocate several times. Having spent his early years in Virginia, the Colvins moved to West Berlin while Dee Dee was still young.
During this period, Dee Dee retreated into a fantasy world, skipping school and becoming fascinated with the World War II weapons and paraphernalia he happened across as he explored the countryside around Berlin. At age 12, he tried morphine for the first time, quickly developing a dependency on the substance and exchanging military antiques with soldiers to acquire it.
Despite his parents divorcing and the alcohol-fuelled aggressions of his father, Dee Dee stayed in Berlin until he was 15, at which stage he moved with his mother and sister to New York. It was there that he met two young men, John and Thomas, with whom he’d later launch the Ramones. Bonding over their mutual love of the Stooges and MC5, as well as shared status as outfits and misfits, the three future punks quickly became friends.
As Dee Dee entered his 20s, he took on a job as a printer’s apprentice in downtown Manhattan. Even though he considered himself something of a social pariah, the job at the Bureau of Advertising allowed Dee Dee to find a small, creative community that recognised his talent and were willing to embrace him as one of their own.
At the same time, Colvin, John and Thomas (Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy) were becoming increasingly interested in making their own music. In 1974, Dee Dee and Joey bought the instruments they needed to start a band - a Danelectro bass and Mosrite guitar, respectively. The two of them combined with drummer Jeffrey Hyman, who had already played in several proto-punk glam bands and would later become Joey Ramone.
Though Dee Dee originally handled vocals, it soon became apparent that his voice couldn’t withstand the strain of regular performances. For a brief moment, Joey assumed responsibility but struggled to play drums and sing at the same time. Eventually, the band settled on their final lineup - Joey on vocals, Tommy on drums, Johnny on guitar and Dee Dee on bass.
Dee Dee was also responsible for coming up with the band’s famous moniker. An avid Beatles fan, he adapted one of Paul McCartney’s many hotel aliases (Paul Ramon) and proposed all of the group adopt it as a way of demonstrating their bond. The Ramones were born.
The Ramones’ first taste of CBGB’s
The band’s first performance in front of a live audience took place in March, 1974. Though they had relatively little experience, the Ramones had a clear idea of what they wanted to sound like. Even at that first gig, the vast majority of the songs were shorter than two minutes and speed and aggression were valued musical qualities. They would play their first show at punk’s defining venue, Manhattan's CBGB’s, in August of the same year. It would go down in history. Sporting their trademark leather jackets and flat-fringe haircuts, they blasted the venue with a new and terrifying sound.
For many, one of the Ramones’ most enticing and intriguing qualities was their revolutionary sound. In some ways a reaction against the pomposity and self-indulgence of ‘60s rock and psychedelia, the Ramones’ music was brief, relatively simple and overwhelmingly primal. It was a barrage of noise, with each song counted in by Dee Dee’s famous, barked “1,2,3,4…” It was new, it was thrilling and it went against everything that had come before. The kids of New York City, sick and tired of flower power and an increasingly commercialised counter-culture, now had their own rebels to follow.
Punk’s biggest influencers
The Ramones quickly became regulars at CBGB’s, attracting a diverse crowd that included many future stars. Their influence also extended overseas. When the band played in the UK in 1976, they met Marc Bolan and members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, all of whom had been somewhat inspired by the emerging New York Punk scene. In the meantime, the band recorded and released their first album, Ramones. Dee Dee contributed most to the songwriting process, penning many of the record’s singles, including a joint credit on Blitzkrieg Bop.
In the late ‘70s, the Ramones would release two less successful albums but, by this time, their reputation as pioneers had been firmly cemented. Punk had exploded in both the USA and the UK and the Ramones were regularly credited as musical inspiration by many of the genre’s biggest acts.
The ‘80s saw the band shift away from the raw, punk sound to embrace a poppier sound. While none of their albums achieved the success of their debut, they contained within them a slew of career-defining singles, including I Wanna Be Sedated. Throughout this period, Dee Dee’s personal experience was mined for material and his history of drugs, prostitution and dejection was laid bare for all to see.
Intra-band tensions and eventual decline
The ‘80s was also a period in which tensions within the band came to the fore and the lineup began to shift and change.
The band raced through drummers and many of the members struggled with substance abuse issues. By the end of the decade, Dee Dee felt that he’d had enough. After a brief and not-so-successful stint as a solo hip hop artist, Dee Dee quit the Ramones in 1989.
Throughout the ‘90s Dee Dee would play in several bands, touring the world and playing to adoring crowds. He also reunited with the Ramones original lineup on several occasions, though relationships were never mended enough for the band to get back together permanently.
Though Dee Dee had used heroin for the vast majority of his life, there were suggestions that he was clean by the end of the ‘90s. This was tragically proven false when he was found dead from a heroin overdose in June, 2002. One of music’s great talents, his reputation has grown in the years since his passing and a greater appreciation for his songwriting has emerged. What were once dismissed as short blasts of talentless anger are now rightly regarded as perfectly-formed expressions of the punk ethos and style. However, Dee Dee’s greatest legacy is his place in a band that welcomed outsiders, outcasts and “losers” as kindred spirits and gave them something to call their own.
If you’re a big Ramones fan, we’d love for you to get in touch and let us know how you feel about the band. Is it the music, the image or both that excites you? What are your favourite Ramones moments? How much do you think the Ramones influenced modern music? Drop us a comment and help us remember one of punk’s all-time greats!