Sunday, 10 March 2019

The MC5 And The Problem With Actually Kicking Out The Jams: A 1993 Interview With Guitarist Wayne Kramer

MC5 - publicity photo
Originally published in American Music Press (August 1993)

Interview by Devorah Ostrov

"Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" The introduction to the second track on the MC5's debut album — the song that was surely destined to be a hit single — was loud, mean and clearly enunciated. It was the battle cry for a teenage revolution; a real-life Wild in the Streets.

But the MC5 weren't stupid. They knew that version of the song wouldn't get radio airplay, and as much as the band wanted to lead a revolution, the guys also wanted to be rock stars. They had a plan: the less offensive "brothers and sisters" would replace the expletive on the single; if you wanted to hear lead singer Rob Tyner shout an obscenity, you'd have to buy the LP.

It was a good plan, but it didn't work. And the ensuing brouhaha ripped the band and its fan base apart.
* * *

MC5 on the cover of Circus magazine
September 1969
Detroit, Michigan, is an automobile factory town with all the charm that implies. The sky is eternally shrouded in grey smoke; the buildings are scarred and ugly (a friend who grew up there remembers broken windows in every building from countless kids throwing countless rocks for countless years through them); life is bleak and racial tensions run high.

All this somewhat explains why when the rest of the country was mellowing out with folk-inspired pop, America's "motor city" was producing high-energy, hard-driving rock 'n' roll groups like the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Grand Funk Railroad — and toughest of 'em all, the MC5.

Rock historian and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye expressed it best in an article for Cavalier magazine: "Where other cities have always had a collection of cultural currents to distract and push them in certain directions (both San Francisco and New York, for example, have had long intellectual and Bohemian traditions), Detroit had had practically nothing. Composed almost entirely of factory workers (and in Detroit, everybody works for the factories), there was little but television culture around to divert the minds of its inhabitants…

"Since Detroit was not an intellectually inclined city, Detroiters shied away from any ideas of technical excellence or elaborate joinings of musical forms. Their music was primitive, built more on vibrations than on actual arrangements of notes. There was no art-rock here, no baroque trumpet breaks in the midst of sedately chorded songs, no classical rock, no raga rock, no Blood, Sweat and Tears jazz rock. Nobody could write long Musicology 101 theses on the parallel themes of love and death in the lyrics of any of the Detroit bands...

Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for A Dance 
Concert at the Grande Ballroom with the MC5
& the Chosen Few - October 7/8, 1966
"Simply, what they were playing was loud, straight ahead, pile-driving music, preformed with one finger in the air at all times. It was hard, and it was brash, and it was naïve, and it was strangely futuristic."

In 1962 (or maybe '63) Wayne Kramer's parents moved the family from Detroit to the blue-collar suburb of Lincoln Park ("downriver" as the locals called it). According to the guitarist, who would have been a 14 or 15-year-old teenager at the time, the relocation was part of his parents "never-ending search for the American dream."

Over the phone, the now 45-year-old self-described "anarchist/ revolutionary/intellectual/rock 'n' roller" recalls how the move to Lincoln Park led to the formation of the MC5.

"I had already been playing music," he says, "so I started asking around if anybody knew anybody who played any instruments. And I discovered that there was a happening little rock 'n' roll scene, a lot of neighborhood bands, very competitive..."

In 1964 the seeds of the MC5 were sown. "I met this juvenile delinquent named Fred ["Sonic"] Smith," explains Kramer. "He had a band that he was in [the Vibratones], and I had this band called the Bounty Hunters. We decided to form a supergroup with the best members of both bands — that's when Fred and I started playing together."

MC5 - publicity photo
He continues, "I'd known Rob Tyner... I used to hang out with his younger brother. Rob was a beatnik; he was into jazz. I used to try to explain to him how exciting rock 'n' roll could be: 'You're up there on stage with the lights! And the amps! And the kids!' He'd say, 'No, man, jazz is where it's at. You gotta be cool. Jazz and poetry.' One day I ran into him in the White Castle parking lot at one in the morning. He was drunk as a skunk playing the harmonica. I said, 'What are you playing the harmonica for? I thought you were a jazz guy!' He said, 'I've discovered this band — the Rolling Stones! Man, this shit is happening!' I said, 'I'll come around and see ya tomorrow and we'll talk about it.'"

Rob Tyner on the cover of Rolling Stone
January 1969
"Rob was gonna play bass in the beginning," adds Kramer, "but that turned out to be a little too complicated. So, we got a bass player and Rob became the singer."

Tyner also came up with the band's moniker. "He said it sounded kind of like a serial number," observes Kramer, "the whole industrial thing. MC5 was like XL7 shock absorber!"

(While it's generally accepted that the initials MC stand for "Motor City," Kramer reveals there's other options. "We also filled in Morally Corrupt, Much Cock, Mustard and Catsup, Marijuana Cigarette, Mostly Cosmic... you could go on forever, y'know.")

An early lineup of the group included drummer Bob Gaspar and bassist Pat Burrows, but the two almost immediately disagreed with the group's musical divergence into Free Jazz. "We had started to discover feedback," states Kramer, "and this concept we called Avant Rock, where we found we could go beyond the beat and beyond the key of the song into pure sound. Bob didn't like that at all, he thought it was noise; Pat wanted to do Motown."

In 1965, Michael Davis, an art student and friend of Tyner's from Wayne State University, replaced Burrows. "He could play folk guitar and sing Bob Dylan songs," reflects Kramer. "I said, 'If he can do that, I'll teach him how to play the bass.'"

"I Can Only Give You Everything"
 b/w "One of the Guys"
AMG Records (1967)
Gaspar's replacement was high school sophomore and former Bounty Hunter drummer Dennis Thompson. "We awarded him the official token of our esteem," laughs the guitarist, "which was the bathroom plunger!"

(In a 1979 interview with Goldmine magazine, Thompson said that he and Davis joined the band just after they opened for the Dave Clark Five at Cobo Hall, which dates it to early December 1965.)

With a setlist that included Chuck Berry, Little Richard and John Lee Hooker covers, the teenagers "played any place that a band could play," says Kramer. This included teen-clubs and parties at friends' houses, as well as gigs at the Crystal Bar on Michigan Avenue and local Battles of Bands.

"We played in a few really exciting Battles of the Bands," recalls Kramer. "We had a great rivalry with another neighborhood band called the Satellites, and this culminated in a big playoff where we'd play a song, then they'd play a song, and then we'd play another song... They ended up declaring it a tie."

The MC5 & fellow Detroit bands Frijid Pink
& Up play a benefit for John Sinclair at the
Grande Ballroom. Thursday, July 29, 1971
But as they began writing original material and heading, as Kramer puts it, "towards outer space," finding an audience that appreciated them became a challenge.

"They hated us!" exclaims Kramer when asked about the group's early audiences. "We'd save up our Avant Rock thing for the last song of the night, and we knew when we'd cleared the room that we were on to something. If we could force 500 teenagers out of a room, we knew it was just a question of turning it around and we'd be forcing 'em into the room!"

The summer of '67 found the Five still looking for an audience and beginning to flounder a bit. But things picked up when they met John Sinclair. The charismatic 26-year-old had graduated from the University of Michigan - Flint College in 1964. He wrote for Downbeat magazine and was a self-styled poet-philosopher as well as a fervent admirer of saxophonist John Coltrane. "Sinclair was in charge of the beatnik community then," Thompson told Goldmine. "He was the head man."

Sinclair became the group's manager because "he was the only guy that any of us would listen to," says Kramer. "We were basically unmanageable, we were such maniacs. We'd had disc jockeys try to manage us; we had one woman who was an international archery champion; my mother tried to manage us! [Apparently, even Tyner gave it a go.] But none of it worked 'cause we weren't good little soldiers that lined up and did the right thing. We were a little more … volatile! John could break things down and make it all make sense for us: 'There's a good reason to do this.' John explained it, 'Bing bang boom it works like this.'"

Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for the MC5
show at the Straight Theatre in San Francisco.
March 14-16, 1969
Some years later, while he was in jail on a marijuana conviction, Sinclair detailed this period of the band's career in letters written to Zigzag magazine: "When I first started working with the MC5 as their official manager in the late summer of 1967, they had just had all their equipment repossessed (all except for Dennis's drums) due to their failure to make any payments on it for an eight month period … They rarely worked jobs, since few club owners would risk hiring them for dates; they had a reputation for not showing up, showing up late, playing too loud, not playing long enough, playing stuff the audience couldn't relate to, and so on. They had to borrow equipment and con somebody into driving them and their equipment to the gig, and when they got there they'd be wiped out, drunk, or otherwise incapacitated — although I must say that when they did get all this shaky shit together, they played the most exciting music in the history of rock 'n' roll..."

The band moved into Sinclair's communal house, dubbed Trans-Love Energies, which basically became a support system for the Five: the commune included publicists, graphic artists, the equipment crew, girlfriends and clothing designers. In addition to organizing the group's business and instilling his rhetoric of a cultural revolution, Sinclair also turned the guys onto the music of John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Archie Shepp — "The entire wonderful world of angry black music," enthuses Kramer.

MC5 - publicity photo
Over the following months, the band put out a couple of locally released singles which Kramer says, "never did anything." AMG (the initials of owner Arnold Mark Geller), a short-lived Detroit label whose entire catalog can be counted on one hand, issued the group's first 45 — a cover of "I Can Only Give You Everything" b/w "One of the Guys." (AMG later reissued the A-side b/w "I Just Don't Know.") Another single featuring early versions of "Looking at You" and "Borderline" was issued on Jeep Holland's A-Square Records in 1968.

Atlantic advert for Back in the USA
Of the "Looking at You" recording session, Kramer remembers: "John produced it. He had never produced a session before, but he kept the engineer from emasculating us! The way we played... In those days people didn't record at that volume. We'd set up our stuff and get engineers going, 'Ooooh nooo!!! You jive rock 'n' roll punks! Turn that shit down! You can't record at that volume!' We'd say, 'No, this is how we get the sound. This is where the sound is!'"

At the same time, Sinclair hooked the group up with Michigan disc jockey "Uncle" Russ Gibb, who was operating a Fillmore-styled concert hall in Detroit called the Grande Ballroom; the MC5 became the house band, opening for nationally known groups almost every weekend.

According to Thompson's Goldmine interview: "First time we played the Grande Ballroom there were twenty people out there, bowl haircuts, frats, greaseballs … But week by week, it steadily built and built."

In his letters to Zigzag, Sinclair wrote of the Grande: "It was a good situation, because to put famous recording bands on the same stage as the Detroit groups was enough to let the kids in the audience see that their own bands were as good, if not better, than well-known star bands — and the local bands were able to develop reputations and followings of their own, even though they had no records out on major labels."

"Kick out the Jams" b/w "Motor City is Burning"
Issued through Disques Vogue France (1969)
Of the MC5 performances, he added: "They blew other bands away completely … The biggest boost to the 5 and their fans was when the legendary Big Brother & the Holding Company rode into town on the biggest myth in the business and got wiped out by the 5 on the first night."

In Cavalier, Lenny Kaye excitedly described an MC5 show from this period: "Like a flash they're all onstage, guitars weaving, snatching at their amplifiers and letting out rumbles and howls of feedback, lots of hair and beautiful clothes. All in their places now, they stop for a moment, just standing there, holding the crest of energy until it breaks and when it does the electricity sort of cascades down like an avalanche, bass rumbling through the floor, the drums pounding pounding and the git-fiddles on each side of the stage wailing out, playing all notes at the same time. And that's not all, 'cause there's this vocal thing that comes over the roar, not really words but maybe sound patterns launched into some kind of cosmic space..."

The summer of '67 was particularly hot and turbulent in Detroit. For several days during July race riots raged downtown, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people and the destruction of many businesses in the area around 12th Street.

"Fuck Hudson's!"
Advert published in The Fifth Estate
While San Francisco was basking in the "Summer of Love," Kramer remembers watching tanks roll down his street. And whereas up to now things had been pretty loose and fun (Kramer: "We smoked a lot of reefer! And given our ages and a lot of hormones, there was great humor in everything we did"), it was now time to organize.

"We had a fan club that we called the MC5 Social and Athletic Club," says Kramer, "and one day somebody came up with the idea of calling it the White Panther Party — kind of as a tribute to the Black Panther Party."

The White Panther's early agenda called simply for rock 'n' roll, dope and fucking in the street. "And we went with that for a while," notes Kramer. "But those were very scary days. The city was at war for a week; John was being prosecuted for a reefer conviction and was being set up on another one; there were undercover agents all over the neighborhood; there was the war in Vietnam, a lot of our friends were coming back dead or crazy. So, what started out as kind of a joke became more serious as we became more militant."

How much control did Sinclair have over the Five's political activism?

Kramer: "He didn't have any control because we were uncontrollable much to his dismay. But he had great influence on us inasmuch as... What we knew about America being fucked up was from a gut level. We knew it was fucked up and we didn't like it, and we were ready to do something about it. John could put it in an intellectual perspective. He could explain why it is that things are the way they are."

Advert for the Detroit Pop Festival featuring the MC5,
the Amboy Dukes, Sweetwater, Bob Seger System, the Frost
and SRC, among others - Monday, April 7, 1969
The months leading up to the recording of the band's debut album in October 1968 were punctuated with violence.

The Fifth Estate reported that on July 23 Sinclair and Smith were "brutally assaulted, beaten, MACEd, and arrested by members of the National Security Police, the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, and the Michigan State Police while performing at a teen-club in Oakland County."

MC5 - publicity photo
And in August, the MC5 provided the soundtrack for the infamous Democratic National Convention riots, which saw thousands of young people swarm the streets of Chicago to protest the Vietnam War. Playing on a flatbed truck, the Five was the only band that showed up that day, and they had to cut their set short and flee for fear of being arrested.

 "We knew that while we were playing everything would be cool," states Kramer, "because the crowd had something to focus on, but the minute we stopped playing all that energy had to go somewhere."

Rock hustler Danny Fields had talked Elektra Records into signing the MC5 [as well as the Stooges]. "It was the classic thing," points out Kramer, "they offered us lots of money! We were in debt up to our asses. No matter how much we made, we still couldn't meet expenses. We had the five musicians, the wives and girlfriends, roadies and trucks, reefer, and everybody's gotta eat. They offered us $10,000 [other sources put the figure at $25,000]. We said, 'Yeah, that'll just about get us up to zero.' Plus, Elektra came off as being fairly hip [it was after all, the Doors' label]. They told us we'd have complete control over our music and complete control over advertising."

Did the band actually get complete control?

Kramer: "No."

Advert for the MC5 & the
Stooges at The Pavilion in
Flushing Meadow Park, NY
September 3, 1969
Recorded live at the Grande Ballroom over two nights (October 30/31 — Devil's Night and Halloween or Zenta New Year, should you belong to Brother J.C. Crawford's Church of Zenta), Kick Out the Jams was a thunderous heavy metal rampage even by today's standards.

The rock music press was definitely interested — in its January 1969 issue (a month before the album hit the shops), Rolling Stone featured Rob Tyner on the cover with an article written by Eric Ehrman that warned: "If you hear of some notoriously freaky band coming to your town with a trail of policemen, narcs, freaks and guerrillas, it'll be the MC5" — but reviews were, to say the least, mixed.

CREEM editor Dave Marsh continued to praise the LP for several years after its release. In the October 1971 issue of the magazine, he wrote: "Those who were prepared for a total assault on the sensory culture to which they had been accustomed were delighted … Those who weren't ready were aghast, horrified in a way they'd never been before by a mere rock 'n' roll band..."

However, Lester Bangs was a prime example of someone who didn't get it. In his first published piece for Rolling Stone (April 5, 1969), the now-revered rock critic declared that Kick Out the Jams was a "... ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album." (Kramer still sounds a bit hurt when he paraphrases Bangs: "He said we were snot-nosed white boys that couldn't tune our guitars.")

The negative reviews may have stung the guys on a personal level, but that didn't stop the album's title track from reaching the very top of Detroit's local rock charts and the LP going Top 30 in the US. And believe it or not, therein laid the problem.

July 1970 issue of the counterculture newspaper
 it, announcing the MC5's first-ever European 
appearance at the Phun City Festival 
To ensure radio airplay and get their message of revolution to the people (and become rock stars), Tyner recorded two different versions of the song's introduction.

The 45/radio-friendly rendition opened with the nonincendiary "kick out the jams, brothers and sisters." Meanwhile, the LP (or "true") intro had the vocalist clearly enunciating "kick out the jams, motherfuckers!"

"Our plan," asserts Kramer, "was to make sure the single was firmly established in the charts; it was already #2 in Detroit, it was on in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. We told Elektra to wait until the single was a lock smash hit, then we'd put out the album. Of course, the shit would hit the fan, but nothing could be done about it because it would already be a hit."

But they hadn't counted on record company greed. Once Elektra saw the single making money, they couldn't wait to release the album.

Kramer: "And of course people started hearing the real version of "Kick Out the Jams." Parents started calling the radio stations saying, 'My kid came home with this MC5 record and there's swearing on it!' So, the radio stations had to back off playing the single because it would encourage sales of the album."

"Back in the USA" b/w "Tutti Frutti"
Atlantic Records (1970)
Some record distributors and store owners were arrested for selling the LP to minors (while many records were banned prior to Kick Out the Jams, to Kramer's knowledge this was the first time that arrests had been made). Hudson's, one of Detroit's largest department stores, refused to sell the album. In retaliation, Sinclair took out an ad in the underground press which stated: "Fuck Hudson's!"

"We put the Elektra logo on the ad and sent them the bill," muses Kramer. Elektra, for all its hipness, did not find it humorous. Before the label dropped the MC5 like a hot potato, Kramer tells me, "They came to us and said, 'All these records are getting returned. Can we put the clean version on the album?' We said, 'Absolutely not! We have to stand by our guns!' They said, 'Okay,' and went and did it anyway."

(In its frenzy to sanitize the LP, Elektra also wiped out Sinclair's politically-charged liner notes which read in part: "We are free men and we demand a free music, a free high energy source that will drive us wild into the streets of America yelling and screaming and tearing down everything that would keep people slaves. The MC5 is that force. The MC5 is the revolution in all its applications...")

Two Gary Grimshaw-designed posters for MC5 shows at the Grande
(Left) With Wicked Religion and the Maxx - April 4/5, 1969 
With PG&E and the James Gang - April 6, 1969
(Right) With Southbound Freeway and Bossmen - November 4/5, 1966
Naturally, all this fuss caused a schism the size of the Grand Canyon to develop between the band and its counterculture fan base. Rolling Stone handled the mess by sardonically captioning a photo of the group: "The MC5, kicking out the, uh, … "

But at least that magazine printed both sides of the story. (In the label's defence, President Jac Holzman was quoted as saying: "Elektra is not the tool of anyone's revolution.") Other articles — like the one headlined "Rock For Sale" — just assumed the band had wimped out.

MC5 - publicity photo
"In a way," laments Kramer, "it broke the back of the MC5 because it made us look like we were waffling. Like, 'Yeah, we're for the revolution, but we want the money too.' The thing is that [wanting the money] was never in question to begin with. But when Elektra went ahead and put out the clean album it made us look like we were copping out."

Thanks again to Danny Fields, the band wasn't label-less for long as full-page ads in the music press soon proclaimed: "Atlantic Records Welcomes MC5!"

Too bad Fields couldn't make all their other problems disappear as easily.

Before the group had even begun working on its Atlantic debut, Sinclair was arrested for giving (not even selling) two joints to an undercover officer. Rolling Stone threatened: "If John Sinclair gets sent up the river, Detroit will burn." But he was still sentenced to a ten-year prison term (of which he served two).

At the same time, the Five were growing up, developing attitudes and political ideas of their own, which often put them at odds with the Panther's increasingly more dangerous agenda. For instance, Kramer realized that killing everyone who didn't agree with him would mean killing half the world, and that, he claims, "wasn't the revolution we were talking about. We were talking about a revolution of ideas."

Advert for the MC5
 at Friars in Aylesbury, England
Friday, February 11, 1972
When the band finally insisted on having something to show for all their work and drove up in brand new Corvettes (financed by their parents!), the Panthers saw it as the ultimate Star Trip and purged them from the party.

It was an emotional period, with hurt feelings all around. Sinclair lashed out at the Five with his soundbite, "They wanted to be bigger than the Beatles, but I wanted them to be bigger than Chairman Mao." Meanwhile, Kramer struck back at Sinclair in the pages of Rolling Stone saying, "He was just getting his ideas over through us, and we were getting tired of that."

Through it all, with an undeterred sense of allegiance, the band continued to pay Sinclair a percentage of its earnings, contributed to his legal defense fund, and played benefits on his behalf.

Into the fray stepped Jon Landau, a recent graduate of Brandeis University and music editor at Rolling Stone — "Mr. Rationality," as Dave Marsh called him.

Landau recalled his first MC5 experience in an interview with Fusion magazine: "The kids were in an absolute frenzy. Rock 'n' roll hysteria for the first ten minutes … And then the power failed. This winds up being the highlight of the evening. Rob starts yelling at the club owner that the power's gone. And then he starts screaming 'Power! Power!' as a chant … And the whole place was screaming 'Power!' — all these kids. They're just shaking their fists and chanting, 'Power! Power!' It was scary, and then the power goes on. I personally did not interpret it as a mystical intervention of the Lord, but I think a lot of people there may have."

My autographed copy of Wayne Kramer's solo CD
The Hard Stuff (Epitaph)
On the basis of a 30-page "memo" he wrote analysing the group's music with no mention of its politics, and with no prior production experience, Landau was hired to produce Back in the USA, the MC5's first Atlantic release. And with his help, the band made a tight, cohesive, very listenable, almost pop record with songs about "High School" and "Teenage Lust" bookended with Chuck Berry and Little Richard covers.

Albeit a strong undercurrent of militant politics ran throughout the LP. To quote Dave Marsh: "... tunes like "American Ruse," "Human Being Lawnmower" and "Call Me Animal" are probably the finest examples of politics in our music since Dylan's The Times They are A-Changin' album."

In the more than two decades since its 1970 release, Back in the USA has proved to be one of the most influential hard-rock albums of all time, but in '71 Marsh logged the LP's initial lukewarm reception: "Back in the USA bewildered most Five fans. Some reacted bitterly, some hostilely, others were just confused."

Advertisement for the High Time LP
(illustrated by Rob Tyner)
In Goldmine, Dennis Thompson summed up what everyone was complaining about: "He [Landau] took too long, and as a result the album came out more studio-sounding than it should have, and we alienated many of our original fans because it wasn't as … wild and crazy as the first."

Thompson also grumbled that Landau (who would go on to produce Bruce Springsteen) was a "greenhorn [when] what we needed was a pro."

Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for Big
Brother & the Holding Co. and the MC5
 at the Grande Ballroom - March 1968
Kramer agrees that Landau "didn't know what he was doing," and admits that, "in hindsight you could say that maybe he did clamp down on our craziness."

But he stresses that the producer "didn't hold a pistol to our heads. This was what we wanted to do." (One oft-cited gripe is the album's lack of bass, which could have a parallel in Landau's wanting to replace Mike Davis with a Nashville studio musician; an idea vetoed by the band.)

Despite poor sales (at one point Landau stated that Back in the USA might have sold 60,000 copies, while the band guessed 100,000), the MC5 recorded a second album for Atlantic. Released in 1971, High Time left the Five to their own devices — "Cut loose from all the gurus," as Marsh cleverly states in the liner notes to the CD reissue.

"We made the best record of our career," affirms Kramer regarding High Time. "At that point we were no longer intimidated by the process of recording. We were producing it ourselves. It was our decision making, and we understood what we were supposed to sound like, who we were supposed to be."

And the rock press gave the LP a big thumbs up. In his CREEM review, Marsh raved: "Listen to 'Sister Anne,' which Greil Marcus says is the first song in seven years to remind him of Them's 'Mystic Eyes,' to Fred Smith's 'Baby Won't Ya,' which is the third generation tradition of Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry's songwriting … to Wayne Kramer's beautiful Beatles' parody 'Miss X,' which is what every band who ever tried to sound like the Beatles ever desired to accomplish."

Flyer designed by Edward Barker for the July 1970
Phun City festival in Sussex, England.
Lenny Kaye was equally enthusiastic in his review for Rolling Stone: "It's all there — the precise breaks, the madly screaming dual guitars, the fanatic drive and energy … For this we can only praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."

But this album, too, failed to take off (which probably had nothing to do with the nearly non-existent advertising campaign) and Atlantic dropped the band, citing a $128,000 debt that could not be repaid. According to Kramer, the label is still trying to recoup the debt with sales of the CD reissue.

How disappointed was the band when High Time didn't sell?

Kramer: "We were crushed. My heart was broken. From the time I was ten or eleven-years-old, all I'd worked for my entire life was in this band, and it all collapsed."

But Kramer maintains that the MC5 didn't collapse by itself. "It was helped in great measure by the [government] authorities and the music industry. Every time we did something that had political significance it incurred a larger, stronger political reaction. There was a prevailing attitude of, 'When is somebody gonna do something about the MC5?' And of course, they did. We had constant problems with the police. We were beaten, fined, jailed, concerts were cancelled..." (When he was arrested in the mid-seventies for dealing cocaine, Kramer was not surprised to find that the FBI had a file on him going back to 1966.)

MC5 - publicity photo
After the failure of High Time, the band was unable to secure a new American deal. "At that point," says Kramer, "the music industry wanted absolutely nothing to do with the MC5. It was too volatile a situation to get involved with."

The group made some forays to Europe where they found a ready audience (they'd made their European debut in 1970, playing for free at England's Phun City festival), however "between the lack of response in the record industry and the band's own burgeoning substance abuse problems, we just couldn't quite make it through," explains Kramer.

When the end came, it wasn't pretty.

Kramer: "We had a tour [of England] booked, and two days before we were supposed to leave, Rob said he wasn't gonna go. He had been unhappy for some time, he wanted to stay home and write, and be with his children. Dennis said he wasn't gonna go either because it would interrupt his [drug] treatment. So, me and Fred did the tour without them — and of course it was hideous. We didn't even know some of the lyrics. The songs were all in the wrong keys. We met the drummer in the dressing room on the first night of the first gig."

The final show featuring all the original members of the MC5 took place (fittingly) at the Grande Ballroom on New Year's Eve 1972. "It was terrible," says Kramer.

Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for a 
1967 MC5 show at The See in Detroit
Because they didn't like other?

Kramer: "I don't know if it was that we didn't like each other... We didn't like ourselves. We didn't like the band. We had been beaten down to where we had no pride left."

"The worst part of the break-up," he adds, "was that we lost each other. I lost my brothers. These were the guys that I had gone through the fire with and all of a sudden we weren't there with each other anymore."

It would be twenty years later when Wayne Kramer, Fred Smith, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson would once again join forces, and it would be in tribute to Rob Tyner, who died last year of a heart attack.

The group's three-song set of "Kick Out the Jams," "Ramblin' Rose" and "Black to Comm" (a wild show-stopper which they never recorded) drew 8,000 fans to the Michigan Theatre, and raised over $30,000 to be used as a scholarship fund for Tyner's children.

"I used that show as an opportunity to reclaim my brothers," reflects Kramer. "Sadly, it took the death of Rob Tyner to bring us all together."

* * *

* Many thanks to Metal Mike Saunders who supplied me with copious magazine clippings when I originally researched this article.

* Thanks also to Loren Dobson who recently fact-checked the article for this blog.

Monday, 4 March 2019

D Generation: We Put Howie On The Cover Of "Teenage Kicks" #1 And I Interviewed Jesse & Richard About "No Lunch"!

D Generation - Columbia Records publicity photo
L-R: Howie Pyro, Danny Sage, Jesse Malin, 
Richard Bacchus and Michael Wildwood
Photo: John Falls
Originally published in Teenage Kicks #1 (Summer 1997)

By Devorah Ostrov

A deluge of complimentary press (which variously compared them to the Stooges, the Dolls, Hanoi Rocks, and the Dead Boys) greeted the release of their eponymous debut album, but before D Generation could prove themselves sales wise, the group was dropped from EMI.

Columbia won the ensuing bidding war, and last year released D Gen's second effort, No Lunch. Produced by former Cars frontman, Ric Ocasek, the album combines several tracks from the debut with new fast 'n' furious numbers like "She Stands There," "Capital Offender" and "1981."

Teenage Kicks spoke to lead singer Jesse Malin and guitarist Richard Bacchus during one of the group's cross-country treks in promotion of the new album...

Howie Pyro caught mid-chew at an 
"in-store" appearance in Berkeley (1997)
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Q: You guys recently opened several shows for KISS, including Madison Square Garden. That must have been awesome!

Jesse: Oh, yeah! It was cool.

Richard: Yeah, it was fun! But it was kind of weird. The crowd was there to see KISS with their make-up. So, it wasn't a very musical crowd. There were people there to see stuff get blown up.

Jesse: A circus...

Q: You didn't get booed off, did you?

Jesse: Only once. Not off... we just got laughed at. But we actually did pretty good, considering they didn't know who we were. They didn't know there was an opening act. And like he said, they were there to see the fucking fire and tricks. But KISS were nice to us. They were funny. Funny guys!

Q: Were you prepared for playing arenas?

Richard: Yeah, our crew fell right into it. We used basically the same gear.

Promo poster for No Lunch
Jesse: Some of our jokes didn't go over as good. Y'know, it's a different dynamic when you go out to arenas. You gotta work more and send it out further.

Q: You gotta think: Bon Jovi!

Jesse: We always think: Bon Jovi!

Q: Since the last time we talked, you were dropped by EMI and picked up by Columbia. What happened there?

Jesse: It's kind of like a sour grape's thing.

Richard: The EMI thing was kind of like a black cloud. We're happy to get out from under it.

Jesse: If you find that record (D Generation), you find it. Otherwise, they stopped making it and we bought it back. It was actually like a blessing, one of those things that's meant to happen. At the time it seemed weird but looking back it was a good thing.

Q: How did you wind up on Columbia?

Jesse: There was a bidding war with five labels, and we picked Sony/Columbia. We dined and swined and flew all over the place to play for different people and check everything out. We wanted to get going. It was actually harder picking a producer than picking a label.

D Generation headline Connections in Clifton, NJ - February 1, 1997
Q: How did you come to choose Ric Ocasek?

Jesse: We met with so many people, y'know, for a long time. And with him it really clicked. He's a musician, and he'd worked with some bands that we really like a lot: Suicide, Weezer, Bad Brains... He's just a really cool guy, and he understands music, and could be creative. He wanted to do a raw record. And we wanted to do a real live kind of raw record. We met him in a coffee shop!

Jesse Malin 
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Q: You carried over four songs from the first album onto No Lunch. Was that your idea or Ric's idea?

Richard: We pooled everything we had, and we included some of the stuff from the first record because... Only about 6,000 copies of that record were sold, and we thought some of those songs deserved a better shake. So, we pooled all this stuff together and let Ric pick what he wanted us to do. We were actually shocked that he picked more of the newer stuff!

Jesse: We had like 30 songs for this record! We wrote a ton of songs. We still have 'em, and we'll do 'em... whenever.

Q: "No Way Out" was chosen for the video...

Jesse: Yeah... We did "She Stands There" as a single for radio to kind of get things going, then "No Way Out." We did the video with Nigel Dick. He's a real character, he did Oasis and Green Day. It was a lot of fun!

Richard: It was a really big production. There were like 200 extras.

Q: Where was it filmed?

Jesse: At the Port Authority, up at the top of Washington Heights by the George Washington Bridge. You can see the bridge if you really look. It was like four in the morning, a very weird day.

"No Way Out" promo CD single
Q: And some it looks like it was filmed in a cheap hotel room.

Richard: That was a set we built. Nigel's great! He had these story boards. He had every single shot mapped out. He knew exactly what he was going to do.

Jesse: We're not really big fans of video. We'd done some videos before and were never that happy with them. We usually don't like looking at ourselves. But this one we actually liked!

Richard: Before MTV, the bands that made videos had a cinematic outlook — people like Bowie. And now, you have to make a video whether you're that way or not. So, everything gets very cliché looking. You can't tell whether it's a video or a jeans commercial or a coke commercial. Really, the lines are all blurred. That's why I'm excited about the Nigel Dick video, 'cause I really think it stands out a bit more.

Q: You were paired with L7 for several shows on this tour. That seems like a great combination!

CMJ heralds the return of New York rock
with this August 1996 cover pic of D Gen
Richard: It was a really good combination 'cause they have exactly the same sense of humor as us. We get along with them really well. The crowds were pretty cool too. It seemed like a younger crowd than we've played to in the past. The shows were all ages, that was pretty neat. We played some pretty weird places, though.

Jesse: A farmhouse in San Luis Obispo!

Richard: Yeah, we walked into a field with like a little shack in the middle. Like something out of a Clint Eastwood movie.

Q: And what about the shows you're doing with Social Distortion?

Richard: Well, we just started this tour. It's bigger than the last one we did with them, which was really amazing. So, we're really excited. It's a great combination too. It's a good show!

Q: I want to mention the various formats and sleeve designs for No Lunch. There's the double-10" vinyl version with a gatefold cover, and the CD has a gatefold cover... Columbia must really be behind you to let you do stuff like that.

Richard: That's one of the reasons we went with them. When we were meeting with the record companies we wanted to know: Are we gonna be able to do vinyl? Are we gonna be able to do these kinds of artistic things that you don't see anymore? Columbia was the only label that said, "Yeah, okay."

D Generation at Irving Plaza
July 26, 1996
Jesse: It's fun to have 10" vinyl with a gatefold, and it fit with the concept of the thing. Actually, the CD booklet, what they call the digipak, doesn't come with the vinyl. But the vinyl sounds different. It gets a different warmth. A lot of people that come see us still have record players — Victrolas!

Q: You got some criticism for what was perceived as a "toned-down" sound on the first album. You must be happier this time around!

Danny Sage shows off his record store finds
while Howie Pyro looks over his shoulder.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Jesse: Completely!

Richard: The first one we were trying to get every single idea we'd ever had... The producer [David Bianco] was a really great guy, but we found out that wasn't the way to go. You need to have confrontation. You need to have that passion going on in the studio. You can't have someone always saying, "Okay, yeah, we can do that." You need to hit walls and be told, "No, that's not going to work."

Q: And you got that with Ric?

Richard: Yeah! He definitely put limitations on us. He said, "You can do this, but you're gonna have to throw all this other business out." The first record, we were calling up string sections at two in the morning!

Q: What kind of reaction are you getting in New York these days? You're not "local boys" anymore...

Jesse: We're not there enough to get a reaction!

Richard: We're playing Roseland. That will be interesting, because when we played the Garden we weren't really playing to our own people.

D Generation at Coney Island High
June 27, 1997
Jesse: Our audience has changed a lot in New York over the years. There's a lot of people from out of the local side, as well as the core people we grew with. We just wanna reach people and get in people's faces. You can only play to your friends so much; be the big fish in the small pond. It gets kind of tired. We've gotta put ourselves in more challenging situations and see if we survive it. Like doing the KISS thing. Or this tour. This is our biggest tour, we're going around the country like twice!

Q: I know Jesse was a major KISS fan as a kid. How about you, Richard?

Richard: I wasn't at all. I grew up in England. I was into all the glitter bands: Gary Glitter, Sweet...

Q: Mud?

Richard: I was a big Mud fan! But I was never really into KISS.

Q: Jesse, what was it like for you, seeing KISS again with all the effects and the make-up?

Jesse: It was like looking at an old girlfriend, y'know, and you can't figure out what you saw in them. Now I understand why I got beat up by the other kids for liking them! What was I thinking? But the show was the show! It was what I saw when I was a kid; it's blatantly a circus.

Columbia Records publicity photo
L-R: Howie Pyro, Michael Wildwood, Jesse Malin,
Richard Bacchus and Danny Sage
Photo: John Falls
Q: When the first album came out, we went over the inspiration behind each of the songs, which proved interesting. Since you two are the main songwriters on No Lunch, can we do that again with the new songs?

Jesse: Sure! 

Promo poster for No Lunch
Q: Richard, you wrote "Scorch"...

Richard: "Scorch" was written from a place where I was very angry, and very upset, and very disturbed by a lot of different things. But there's also an inside joke in there that no one except me and a really good friend of mine will ever get. I started writing that song on the phone talking about movies, and I finished up the whole thing in about five minutes.

Q: "Scorch" was also included on the Flipside compilation CD...

Jesse: Yeah, that was the first time we ever played it!

Q: Jesse, what's the story behind "She Stands There"?

Jesse: It's about being really scared and isolated. You're looking at a person, you want to communicate, but there's this wall... People have these walls around them. You want to meet somebody, but you might not have the energy or bravery to talk to them. And you only have like a minute to change your whole life; to break that wall, make contact, have the courage to say "Hello." But the mental anxiety that goes on, just thinking about doing that... And they could just be an asshole! So, you're looking at them, trying to figure out...
     I was in a restaurant in New York, looking at some girl who had a record in her hand; it was a real cool record — one of my favorite albums! I wanted to talk to her 'cause she was good-looking and had this great record. But I thought maybe she'd be an asshole. Or maybe it wasn't her record. You talk yourself out of things that could maybe change your life.

Looks like the Exotica LP is going
home with Michael Wildwood.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Q: You still stress out about meeting girls!

Jesse: Sometimes...

Richard: Aw, he's a real sweetie.

Q: What about "Capital Offender"?

Richard: It's about how, if you think about it, getting a record contract is pretty much a death sentence. It's usually people from a low-income background; they get jacked-up and all this attention is placed on them overnight... And it goes all the way back to the '60s — people like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And look at it now — like Tupac Shakur. You take a kid out of the gutter, focus all this attention on him... And I don't think the industry really does anything to prevent it. They almost do the opposite and encourage this like gangster lifestyle.

Q: And "Major"?

Jesse: It's pretty much a parallel between people getting burnt out on love and desensitizing themselves... You've been hurt, so you kind of put up these walls. I think, in some ways, when you want to end a connection with somebody who you love a lot, you kind of disconnect. And paralleling that to someone who's been able to kill people, murder people — and detach themselves. I've always been fascinated with how someone can live with killing other people.

Q: How about "Disclaimer"?

My autographed copy of No Lunch
Jesse: People are always trying to figure us out. What are you guys? What is your hairdo? Your clothes? What does this mean? And they hang these different labels... the kind of music that you play... You're put in a slot from day one. Everything is put in its little box, in its little pigeonhole. And I don't think you can do that to people. Y'know, I'm Jesse, and that's Rick. And that's a real important message about us: you've got to be your own thing. Whether it's doing your own band, or your own painting, or driving your own car. What you think I am, I'm not. And I might be something else tomorrow. There's so much uniformity. You have to disassociate yourself from your family, your neighborhood, your school, sometimes even from a type of musical genre.

Publicity poster for No Lunch
Q: Like the "glam-punk" tag?

Jesse: That works!

Q: How about "Not Dreaming"?

Jesse: That's just like, trying to create your own life; making the reality you want come true. It's kind of about us growing up, having dreams to do something that's not accepted. And being able to live out your dreams. Going for something, instead of just doing what you think you should do.

Q: What about "Too Loose"?

Jesse: "Too Loose" is inspired a little bit by a movie. In this business you meet a lot of girls — and guys — but more girls, that work in the adult entertainment business. Most of them are titty dancers, or strippers, or prostitutes — and all kinds of drug addicts. And I think when you deal with sex and money, you lose a certain bit of your passion; you pay a price in some way. And I think anytime... whenever you prostitute yourself, do something that's really against your spirit... I don't think you get away that easy.
     There's a moved called Paris, Texas with Nastassja Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton. He's looking for his wife and he finds her in this peepshow, talking through the glass. He can see her, but she can't see him. This is the person that raised his kid; they had this whole thing together and their lives changed so much.
     It's really scary when you see someone lose a piece of themselves through surviving or going for a lot of money. Everybody thinks sex is a lot of fun and a crazy thing. But there's a coldness to it. And when I meet these people, I get scared.

D Generation & Murphy's Law
at Coney Island High - Halloween 1997
Q: And lastly, "1981"...

Jesse: We grew up in the early '80s. The first band I had was a hardcore band — Heart Attack. We grew up playing with Bad Brains, Reagan Youth, the Beastie Boys...
     And it's kind of a nod to the early years of the East Coast, or just the hardcore scene in general before it got cliché. And it's kind of a tribute to our friend Jimmy from Murphy's Law, who kind of carries on that flag to this day. It's a bit of a story about him and just a nod to that time.

Q: Do you miss that era?

Jesse: Sometimes. I think about great nights and stuff, but I'm really into being in the present. I like what I'm doing now. It was fun then, but you've gotta look back and laugh at yourself too. I was serious; I was gonna change everything!
     But, y'know, there was a certain dedication. Things were brand new then. Everything was happening. And that music, that movement, affected grunge; it affected hard rock and punk rock, and the last 15 years so heavily. All the rules were put down in those days. It was a brand-new thing — like how I imagine it was in the '50s, when rock 'n' roll was new. It was hugely exciting! There were only 75 kids hanging out, and every night you were making history. And it only lasted for such a short time.

Q: And it was a lot more real than the punk/hardcore scene these days.

Howie Pyro on the cover of Teenage Kicks #1
Jesse: Yeah, the anger and frustration were really there, and really legit. It was harder, more dangerous, and more of a real release of expression than it is now. It's very easy and safe to be a radical punk now. We used to get beat up a lot worse! Shave your head, get your ass kicked!
     When we were growing up in the suburbs, to come into the City, or get away from that neighborhood, was to find a place where we were accepted. Or to create a place where you could be okay. And we still try to do that, because kids need somewhere to go where they don't feel like assholes or outcasts, and it's okay.

* To read my first interview with D Generation, go here:

Friday, 15 February 2019

The Ramones Turn 20 & Release An All-Covers CD: A Conversation With Joey About "Acid Eaters" & Rock 'N' Roll

Promotion for the Acid Eaters tour
Denmark - June 25, 1994
Originally published in American Music Press (March 1994)

Interview by Devorah Ostrov

When the Ramones first got together in 1974 rock 'n' roll was, if not dead, at least comatose. The great one-hit wonder garage bands of the mid-sixties were a fading memory, the late-sixties heavy metal attack of the Stooges and MC5 had never caught on in America, and the early-seventies promise of a glam future with the Dolls, T. Rex and Slade had waned.

In '74 turning on the radio was something to think twice about. On the phone from New York, Joey Ramone runs down the list (within a year or two) of what you might have heard...

Radioactive Records publicity pic
"Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, Peter Frampton, Foreigner, Journey, Toto, REO Speedwagon… all those wonderful bands. That was our competition. There was us and there was them. We stood alone. There was nobody like us. And there's still nobody like us!"

Joey continues: "We wanted to save rock 'n' roll. We stripped it down to the bone and put the excitement back into it — the attitude, the guts, the fun, the spirit, the raw energy and emotion!"

This year the Ramones — Joey, Johnny, Marky, and newest recruit C.J. — celebrate the group's 20th anniversary with the release of Acid Eaters, an all-covers CD showcasing their love of rock 'n' roll. And with a successful world tour underway, they find themselves in the enviable position of being more popular than ever.

* * *

Not only is Joey Ramone the coolest person on the planet, he's also a huge rock 'n' roll fan and he gets super excited when we talk about his favorite bands. I ask him what it was like the first time he saw the Who...

"It just blew me away!" he exclaims. "I saw them when they first played America in 1966. They were so charismatic and exciting and wild, all this aggression and excitement and great songs!"

Poster for Australia's Big Day Out - January 21, 1994 
And he tells me about a recent meeting with Bob Dylan in Tokyo (where the Hard Rock Café threw a blow-out party for the Ramones' 2000th show)…

"After the party, me and [noted rock photographer] Bob Gruen went to see Dylan at Budokan. We went backstage and Dylan said 'Hello' to me. I freaked out! He said, 'Hey, Joey, how ya doin'?' I gave him a copy of Acid Eaters and said, 'This is for you. We covered one of your songs.'"

Acid Eaters CD
Radioactive Records (1993)
The Ramones' latest CD is a tribute to the music of the 1960s (with one exception: CCR's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" was released in early '71). A bit strange, you might think. But you'd be wrong, because the group's passion for rock 'n' roll is what makes the concept so appealing.

After two decades of inspiring — by Joey's calculation — millions of bands themselves, the guys get to pay homage to some of their own rock 'n' roll heroes.

And maybe it'll give the MTV generation a rock history lesson to boot. (Although that could be a chore since the liner notes only list who wrote the songs, not who performed them — and how many kids are gonna know what band Reg Presley fronted?)

The Ramones have always been known for choosing the perfect songs to cover — "California Sun" from Leave Home, "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Surfin' Bird" from Rocket to Russia, "Indian Giver" on the B-side of the "Real Cool Time" single — but the idea for Acid Eaters came about when the band recorded "Take It as It Comes" (a lesser-known Doors' tune) for 1992's Mondo Bizarro.

Acid Eaters - All Access pass
"The Doors' song was really well-received," explains Joey, "and our manager, who is also the head of our label [Radioactive Records], said: 'Why don't you guys record five of your favorite songs from that period and we'll make it into an EP. Kind of a treat for the fans.'"

Understandably, with so much material to choose from, the journey from five-song treat to full-length CD didn't take long.

As well as Dylan's 1964 ode to discontentment, many garage-punk nuggets are featured amongst the 12 tracks: the Amboy Dukes' "Journey to the Center of the Mind," Love's "7 and 7 Is," the Seeds' "Can't Seem to Make You Mine," the Troggs' "I Can't Control Myself," and the Animals' "When I Was Young."

And almost everything makes perfect sense within the framework of what one imagines the Ramones listened to as teenagers.

However, the freakish inclusion of an over-played classic-rock standard like the Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" begs for speculation. Since it's hard to believe that anyone in the band was ever a big Airplane fan, I have to wonder if some nervous record company executive asked, "Don't you guys like anything people might have heard of?"

Promotion for the Acid Eaters tour & the Ramones' 2000th show
Tokyo, Japan - February 9, 1994
"The Jefferson Airplane song was our manager's idea," admits Joey. He diplomatically adds, "But after taking it on, it actually became kind of challenging."

While we're on the subject, "Somebody to Love" also features one of three special guests who pop up on the album. In this case, it's a former porn star who isn't normally associated with the Ramones (or rock 'n' roll).

"7 and 7 Is" promo CD single
"Somebody called from the office and said, 'How about a guest vocalist?' recalls Joey. 'We have this woman and she's great!' I was like, 'Who? Tina Turner?' And they said, 'No... Traci Lords!' I said, 'Oh...'"

He laughs and says, "I'll leave it at that."

Luckily, the two other guests are saner choices: Skid Row's Sebastian Bach does something I haven't yet figured out on "Out of Time" and Pete Townshend joins in on his own "Substitute." Let's talk about Pete first...

Q: So, Joey... recording "Substitute" while Pete Townshend looked on — you must have just died!

Joey: I was in total awe! I mean, Pete Townshend is my HERO! He'll never know just how significantly he's influenced me, how he's enhanced my life. The Who were such a big influence on me as far as song writing. You can't really tell someone that stuff. The best thing was just watching him sing the backing vocals. And I think the song sounds great! It's really exciting!

Japanese advert for Acid Eaters
Q: And Sebastian Bach... Did he get lost on the way to the Guns N' Roses recording session for The Spaghetti Incident?

Joey: Haha! I was talking to him on the phone and I told him what we were doing. He said, "Wow! I'd like to do something." I mentioned it to John, and we tried to find something for him to do. Y'know, some people might think, "Skid Row, yech!" I even thought that myself at one time. But they're cool rock 'n' roll kids.

Q: I have to mention your cover of "7 and 7 Is." Somehow your version is played even faster than the speed-of-sound original! But I wish you'd put in the trippy ending.

Joey: We're not gonna do that shit! It was too psychedelic for us. But I do think our version is exciting and powerful. As a matter of fact, it's gonna be the next single off the album.

Q: I've heard that [Love vocalist] Arthur Lee has written a song especially for the Ramones...

Joey: He wrote a song and he gave me a cassette of it. It was good... it was called... I dunno what it was called. I dunno where I put it. I'm sure it's around here somewhere. Uhmm...

Lux Interior has a starring role in the video for "Substitute"
Q: Okay... There's probably no danger of it turning up on a Ramones' CD anytime soon. So, were there other songs that you wanted to include on Acid Eaters that didn't make it?

Joey: Yeah, I would've liked to have done a Kinks' song, and we listened to "I Had too Much to Dream Last Night" [by the Electric Prunes], but a lot of people have done that song. We also mentioned doing "It's Cold Outside" [by the Choir]. Stiv Bators turned me on to the original and I used to love it. But it didn't sound that great when I went back and listened to it.

Chrysalis advert for Acid Eaters
Q: Did any of the songs on the CD pose a problem for you vocally?

Joey: Y'know, you might think it's easy to just cover someone else's song, but it really isn't — especially the way I went about it. I wasn't just trying to cover the songs. I wanted to bring my own style to them. Some of them I stuck a little closer to, like "Can't Seem to Make You Mine." I love Sky's voice and his mannerisms, the way he utilizes his voice. But then a song like "Out of Time"... I wanted to give that one more of an R&B feel.

Q: Do you hope that kids will be inspired to check out the originals after hearing your versions of these songs?

Joey: Hopefully... I mean, there's so much great music out there. Especially if you're a musician yourself, it's totally inspiring to delve into the past. You have to go backwards in order to go forwards. Y'know what I mean?

Q: It's sad that kids don't know anything about rock 'n' roll history.

Joey: It's really pretty pathetic, people's knowledge of music. They haven't got the slightest idea — especially kids in America for some ridiculous reason.

Q: MTV...

Saint Joey painting by Vicki Berndt
Joey: Maybe. But even before there was MTV it was like this. I don't know what it is. I remember the first time we went to England in 1976, there were all these young kids who knew all about Little Richard, all the '50s artists, everything! I was blown away! They were totally on top of it. But that's why music sucks in America. Well... it doesn't completely.

Q: C.J. is such a young kid, did he know any of these songs beforehand?

Joey: He knew some of them. His father listened to a lot of that stuff.

Q: Great, my dad likes these songs!

Joey: Haha! I know! Things are so different from when I was a kid. My dad listened to Frank Sinatra records.

Q: I noticed that C.J. is making some sneaky inroads into your territory. He sang lead on two songs from Mondo Bizarro and three more on Acid Eaters ["The Shape of Things to Come," "My Back Pages" and "Journey to the Center of the Mind"]. His vocals are great and fit right in, but what gives?

Joey: He's pushing me out. I'm gonna let him be the singer!

Radioactive Records publicity photo
Q: What are you going to do? Play tambourine?

Joey: Nah... I'll get a job at Wendy's, or something. No, actually I think it's great. Initially, I was supposed to sing "My Back Pages," but C.J. was doing it at the rehearsals and it was so perfect. He gave the song so much attitude. I just told him, "You should sing it."

Q: Is it true that Dylan was rehearsing next door while you guys were learning "My Back Pages"?

Joey: I wasn't there, but I called the rehearsal studio and Monty [longtime Ramones' tour manager] told me that Dylan's tour manager was on the phone next to him. Later on, I found out that they were back-to-back rehearsing! Apparently, when John heard that Dylan was right next door he said, "Uh... let's move on to something else."

Q: I know you've only been back home for a few days...

Joey: Yeah, we just got back from a big tour of Australia and Japan. We were co-headlining [with Soundgarden] this major festival that goes all over Australia called Big Day Out. It's something like Lollapalooza, but much larger — a 12-hour day with 50 bands and five stages! There were some really great bands on the show: the Breeders, Smashing Pumpkins, Teenage Fanclub, Urge Overkill... all the new alternative bands.

Promotion for the Acid Eaters tour - Uruguay 1994
Q: Were you aware of how well Acid Eaters was doing while you were away?

Joey: Not really... I came home to find that the album's been #1 for 3 weeks straight on CMJ [a "what's hot" industry report] and it's #1 on all the major college charts. The single ["Substitute"] was #1 the first week too! And this week it went to AOR radio. We've always had a problem with AOR radio, but everybody's playing it. It's really exciting! It feels like something's happening here.

"Substitute" CD promo single
Photo: George DuBose
Joey is telling me how the video for "Substitute" being shown on MTV is the edited version ("There's a real wild scene at the end. I mean, maybe it is a little over-the-top but...") when his doorbell buzzes. It's an Argentinean journalist who's come to do his interview. But Joey "likes the flow of our conversation" and asks me to call him back later! When we talk again, it's about a range of different topics...

Q: How did the Ramones' sound come about?

Joey: Our sound came about... it came from scratch! At least as far as John and Dee Dee [original bassist] and Tommy [original drummer]. Tommy wasn't even a drummer. He was an advisor and a producer; he was just helping us out. When we were auditioning drummers Tommy would show them what to play, and he'd never played drums in his life! In those days everybody was very, let's say, self-indulgent. Everybody was trying to impress us with their flashiness. But what we wanted was a basic drummer, like a Charlie Watts. So, Tommy just wound up sitting down and playing the drums.

Q: Could you tell me a little about the Resistance, your politically-oriented sideband?

Car 54, Where Are You? starring David 
Johansen & John C. McGinley
Joey: Oh, okay! Initially, I was asked to do three songs for a Rock the Vote benefit at CBGB's. I wanted to create a unique and exciting situation, so I pulled together a bunch of different musicians and artists: Ivan Julian [ex-Voidoid] and Fred Smith [ex-Television], C.J. and Marc, some people from the Living Theater... and each song was played by a different grouping of people.
     Then I was asked to play a benefit for Jerry Brown's campaign. I had just seen a debate between Brown and Clinton, and I was really impressed by Brown; he seemed to be on top of it. So, I said I would do it. It felt really good to do something constructive in support of someone I believed in.
     I got together with Andy Shernoff [ex-Dictators] and Daniel Rey [ex-Shrapnel and writer of cool songs] and did one show in Washington Square Park. Then we played uptown on one of those flatbed trucks for about 50/75,000 people! The last thing we played was a benefit for Rock for Choice on the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
     The Resistance was a stimulating project and it was a lot of fun! I liked getting behind some causes that were important to get behind, like the cause of censorship. The song "Censorshit" [from Mondo Bizarro] was inspired by the Resistance. And I wrote a song for the Rock for Choice benefit called "Fascists Don't Fuck They Just Screw."

Promotion for the Acid Eaters tour
Santiago, Chile - May 16, 1994
Q: Haha! Will the Ramones be recording that song?

Joey: No... John's a Republican! Musically the Ramones are united, politically we're not. We share some views, like John's for a woman's right to an abortion. But we're not in sync with everything.

Q: I understand you've cleaned up your lifestyle lately. Is it true you're a vegetarian these days?

Joey: Yeah, and I stopped drinking and using drugs about four years ago. It was time for a change. I saw the light when I hit...

Q: Forty?

Joey: Ground zero! It wasn't hitting 40. I just got disgusted with my lifestyle, it was becoming a big bore.

The Ramones eat cake and promote Acid Eaters on 
Space Ghost Coast to Coast
Q: Did you do any shopping while you were in Japan?

Joey: Y'know, Japan has the best record stores! They've got everything! Most places you're lucky to find one or two records, but over there I had to choose from like five or six! I got the Best of T. Rex — it has everything on it, all the early stuff. I also found this rock 'n' roll video store. The whole store was just tapes, rare collectable stuff from shows all over the world. I was flippin'! They had a tape of the Who from '66. Pete Townshend's about 18, he's like a rail with a big nose! It's so great!

Promotion for the 1994 Acid Chaos tour
featuring Sepultura and the Ramones.
Q: So, tell me about the film Car 54, Where Are You? starring David Johansen. The Ramones appear in it...

Joey: Did you see it?

Q: Er… no. Entertainment Weekly gave it an "F."

Joey: Haha! I never saw it either. I'll wait for it to come to cable. I just heard that "Rockaway Beach" is going to be used in the new Martin Scorsese film, Naked in New York, and there's a film coming out in March or April called Airheads — we have the title track in that. It's about a band that takes over a radio station. It sounds like it has the makings of a good movie; it's something I've thought about a few times myself!

Q: Did you guys go to, or play at, CBGB's 20th Anniversary party?

Joey: No, we were on tour. We were in Germany at the time. I was kind of pissed off because there were a lot of shows I wanted to see, and we were talking about playing but it didn't come together. Now that it's our own 20th anniversary, we might do something like an off-the-cuff show at CBGB's. It would be an event!

Promo poster for Acid Eaters
Q: Twenty years... Who would've thought?

Joey: When you care about something... What other people think doesn't really matter to us. Y'know what I mean? We work hard. We've always worked our asses off and stuck to our vision!

* You can read my other interviews with Joey here: