Photo Icons: The Ramones

How four outcasts from Queens visually defined punk

© Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com
Rock lensman Bob Gruen captured this moment as part of a 1975 photo series for Rock Scene magazine. "I spent the day with the Ramones, meeting them in Forest Hills where they lived and taking the subway with them to CBGB where they played that night," Gruen says. "This photo as they came out of the station at Bleeker and Lafayette looks like they are walking with a purpose, like they're going to do something—something important."© Bob Gruen

As four ragtag outcasts from Forest Hills High School in Queens, the Ramones seem unlikely subjects for a major art exhibition. Yet the Queens Museum, just a stone's throw from their alma mater, has filled three large galleries with a lavish collection of memorabilia—including several dozen photographs—that the punk pioneers and photo icons left in the wake of their 22-year career. Displayed in pristine white rooms and glass cases with scholarly detailed wall text, the rebel band's story and artifacts have achieved—dare we say—art-world respectability.

Hey! Ho! Let's Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk, runs through July at the Queens Museum and then travels to the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles this fall. It all coincides with the 40th anniversary of the group's 1976 debut album, "Ramones," now widely regarded as the salvo that launched punk rock—not their term, but one they came to represent.

Roberta Bayley
In an outtake from the cover shoot of debut album, Ramones, Roberta Bayley caught a rare moment with smiles from the group. "I don't want anyone to think the Ramones never smiled in life!" Bayley says. "They just rarely smiled in photos, and never used smiling photos of themselves on record covers, etc." It became a rule. "Tommy, who helped define their look, studiously remains unsmiling here," says curator Marc H. Miller. "What Roberta brought to it was the brick background, the buildings in collapse, graffiti on the wall: the Lower East Side in the '70s."© Roberta Bayley

The show includes a wall’s worth of Ramones-branded T-shirts, as well as posters and merchandise, amid an assortment of leather jackets, guitars and amps, large-scale paintings, album covers, historic videos, magazine spreads, and other artifacts. But especially striking is the photography, from casual snapshots by friends to performance pictures to portraiture by noted rock shooters.

"The Ramones were extremely photogenic—it's hard to explain why," says Marc H. Miller, guest curator of the exhibition. "They were not conventionally handsome. For some reason they just had this knack to pose and project an attitude."

Danny Fields
The Ramones pose for manager Danny Fields in the grungy alleyway behind CBGB. "Like all groups, the Ramones started out feeling awkward about being photographed," Fields writes in his new book My Ramones. "So they worked at it. They used their sessions with me, where they had some control and freedom, to learn how to be in front of a camera."© Danny Fields

Their roles as photo icons started with their look—an anti-fashion response to a musical genre the band sprung out of: glam rock. "Tommy knew glitter had an expiration date and decided that the way they dressed would be their look," writes Danny Fields, their first official manager, in his new photobook My Ramones. "They would wear leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans and sneakers—that was so simple and cool and they would never have to think about it again. They could just concentrate on rehearsing and writing songs. No 'fashion,' only style. It was a uniform, in a way, but more like a class marker or social indicator."

David Godlis
David Godlis captured this interplay between band and audience at the punk breeding ground CBGB. "The Ramones were easily my favorite band to photograph at CBGB," says Godlis, whose survey of the scene fills his forthcoming book History Is Made at Night. "I shot every minute of every set with my eyes and ears wide open, and a smile across my face."© GODLIS

After Fields took over managerial duties from drummer Tommy Ramone, he helped them sign on with Sire Records and became their de facto photographer. Fields had ties to Rock Scene magazine, which covered global rock acts and also the emerging underground milieu of New York's Lower East Side. The magazine ran extended photo essays—on display in the exhibit—by noted rock purveyors such as Bob Gruen and Fields, who shot sequences of candid scenes, both offstage and on.

Ian Dickson
On their UK tour in 1977, the Ramones were shot by Ian Dickson in Liverpool, home to their idols the Beatles. "When we got to the club the owners were telling us we were across the street from the Cavern," recalls Tommy Ramone in Dickson's 2004 book Flash Bang Wallop: Pictures from the Punk Explosion. "They sadly told us that it had been demolished. They, however, assured us that the club we were playing looked exactly like the Cavern, and it did."© Ian Dickson

For the latter, the hotspot was Bowery club CBGB, where the Ramones were building a following with their raucous, rapid-fire blend of garage-band noise and bubblegum bounce. The scene's resident documentarian was David Godlis, who brought a no-flash, shadowy aesthetic inspired by Brassaï to the seedy but energized venue. "The Ramones did not look or sound like anything I'd ever seen or heard before," says Godlis, whose photobook History Is Made at Night is due in early June. His images in the exhibit evoke the smoky, sweaty atmosphere as well as the visibly high decibel load of the Ramones' early stage sets.

Danny Fields
The Ramones with rockers in London in 1976 (from left): Chrissie Hynde (later of Pretenders) and Damned members Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible, and Brian James. “The Ramones show was a very big deal for London’s young musical community,” says Danny Fields. “Their first album was way hot; it was known that there was a budding important music scene in New York. The teenage word of mouth was raging in England.”© Danny Fields

Working the door at CBGB was Roberta Bayley, a fan and friend of several local acts. “She was close to the bands and they needed publicity photos so she would shoot them,” Miller says.

Bayley contributed many shots to the fanzine Punk, titled after the term rock writers had tagged to the emerging scene. "Her photo on the Ramones' first album was done for Punk magazine," Miller says. "Sire Records had hired a 'slicker' photographer and they weren't happy with the results—so that shot was brought to their attention." When Ramones was released in early 1976, the photo blasted their ragged-gang image out to the world.

Danny Fields
Danny Fields shot Dee Dee Ramone at L.A.'s Sunset Marquis pool in 1977. "In every issue of 16, there was a pin-up page called 'Hunk of the Month,'" Fields recalls in My Ramones. "This photo of Dee Dee in his amazing 'bathing suit' has appeared everywhere: on T-shirts and posters, in Tumblr … wherever pictures of cute and/or famous guys and their packages are posted." As the Ramones' bassist and cutest face, Dee Dee identified with Paul McCartney; he took his stage name—which became the band name—from Paul Ramon, a pseudonym Macca had used.© Danny Fields

By the time Fields lined up a European tour for the group—launched in England on the bicentennial date of July 4, 1976—their debut album had sparked a fire in Britain. "Two things stand out regarding the impact they had," Fields says. "Virtuoso musicianship is not a factor in a band's ability to excite a crowd; and these guys sold out the Roundhouse, with lines around the block—an answer to those who said 'this kind of music' had no potential audience." Among the young Brits inspired by the band's London gigs were the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash. In the words of Clash leader Joe Strummer: "I think the Ramones gave the youth of the world a lot of self-respect."

Mick Rock
In a bid to change with the times and sell more records (and with new drummer Marky) the Ramones released 1980's pop-oriented End of the Century, produced by Phil Spector and featuring a day-glow cover photo by Mick Rock. "Mick is a great color photographer," says Spencer Drate, who designed the cover. "There was a controversy—there's no leather jackets and the guys are in color T-shirts—but Mick was thinking outside the box." The album got mixed reviews, and the band soon reverted to their punk sound and look.© Mick Rock

Photographically, the exhibit traces the Ramones’ subsequent global tours through the eyes of shooters including Ian Dickson, Jenny Lens, Keith Green, and George DuBose, who became something of an official lensman in later years. While studio experiments led to DuBose’s psychedelic imagery and Mick Rock’s color-saturated portraits, the photo icons stuck with their grungy look and trademark sound onstage.

The Ramones toured for an unlikely 20 years—outlasting virtually all of the punk and post-punk bands they inspired—and performed 2,263 shows, according to tour manager Monte Melnick, who provided much of the exhibit's archival material.

George-DuBose.com
In a publicity shot for the Ramones' 1993 album Acid Eaters, which found them covering psychedelic songs from the '60s, photographer George DuBose created a fiberglass and plaster-of-Paris set. "This is styled after the caterpillar scene in Alice in Wonderland," DuBose says. "It was my first big Photoshop endeavor and the fiberglass mushroom was replaced with a scan of a real psilocybin mushroom. The Mandlebrot fractal was added to the collage."© George-DuBose.com

There were personnel changes and personal feuds. Drummer Tommy disliked touring and dropped out in 1978, ceding the band’s leadership to guitarist Johnny. Bassist Dee Dee left in 1989 for an ill-fated rap career. The two hardcore members—Johnny and singer Joey—developed a deep mutual dislike, but the show went on. They finally called it quits in 1996.

The exhibit traces the Ramones’ whole glorious and twisted tale and its aftermath, through visionary Tommy’s death in 2014. Now all the original members are gone—but these photo icons are not forgotten.

Hey! Ho! Let's Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk runs at the Queens Museum through July 31. The venue hosts a punk flea market June 25, with book signings by Danny Fields and David Godlis and a screening of the 2003 Ramones documentary End of the Century.

Curt Hoppe
Arturo Vega, the Ramones’ longtime art director, merchandiser, roadie, and mega fan, displays in 2010 his tattoo of the famed logo he created for the band (with “Arty” replacing Tommy’s name) combining the U.S. presidential seal with a baseball bat, in reference to Johnny’s love of baseball and the band’s song “Beat on the Brat.” Vega, whose artwork is throughout the exhibit, died in 2013.© Curt Hoppe
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