Last week it was announced that a posthumous autobiography by the late, great Johnny Ramone would be published. Tommy Ramone, the last surviving member of The Ramones, has written the foreword and Lisa Marie Presley, the epilogue.
The all-American punk band arrived on the scene in 1974, their punchy rhythm and aggressive vocals blowing away any residual cobwebs from the hippie movement of the previous decade, as they became the new sound of rebellion. Their debut show took place at New York’s iconic punk club CBGB (incidentally, now home to a John Varvatos store, the designer’s collections fittingly heavily influenced by American rock history).
"The Perfecto leather jacket and beat-up jeans worn by guitarist Johnny Ramone and, under his instruction, the rest of the band, gave a youth movement a leader and a uniform"
For the people who were in the crowd that night, the band left an impression not only with their raucous performance and blunt punk attitude but also with their unique look. The Perfecto leather jacket and beat-up jeans worn by guitarist Johnny Ramone and, under his instruction, the rest of the band, gave a youth movement a leader and a uniform. Countless fans would subsequently reference the leather jackets when recalling Ramones shows, as if it were somehow integral to the performance.
Prolific US street artist Shepherd Fairy recalls his most memorable Ramones show: “I was near the stage and the crowd surged forward compressing everyone so tightly that I thought my ribs would be crushed. I could actually pick my feet off the ground simultaneously without using my hands. The Ramones played non-stop, no breaks between songs for about two hours. The band was super-tight. Johnny leaned into the crowd and didn’t even take his leather jacket off for an hour even though it was sweaty as hell in there.”
For many, black leather jackets and torn jeans were the defining punk look, while for others the prescribed nature of the conceit made it the antithesis. In a 1990 interview with Spin Magazine, Dee Dee Ramone gave an astonishing insight into how the band’s sartorial stance was reflective of their sense of self-worth.
“We were more glamorous when we started, almost like a glitter group. A lot of times, Joey would wear rubber clothes and John would wear vinyl clothes, or silver pants. We used to look great, but then we fell into the leather-jacket-and-ripped-up-jeans thing. I felt like a slob. I didn’t like it… what made me feel like a phoney was standing there in a leather jacket and torn jeans – like I used to dress when I thought I was a worthless piece of shit. Then it was a reflection of my hostility and self-hate. Then, all of a sudden, I started feeling elegant and worthwhile. I wanted to reflect that, but there was no way to do it in The Ramones because those guys were a bunch of bums.”
Ultimately, the band’s look, for one member at least, became something they could no longer propagate with authenticity, realness being the currency in which punk deals. However, in their book Punk, Stephen Colegrave and Chris Sullivan argue that, for a time at least, the band’s look, sound, and ethos were in tune with and representative of the zeitgeist.
“The Ramone’s art and visual imagery complemented the themes of their music and performance. The band members adopted a uniform look of long hair, leather jackets, T-shirts, torn jeans, and sneakers. This fashion emphasizes minimalism, which was a powerful influence on the New York punk scene of the 1970s and reflected the band’s short, simple songs.”
Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone is published by Abrams Image on April 2.
Text by Laura Havlin