Sunday night is never the best day for any gig; I’d rather be sedated (forgive the pun!). But when a Ramone comes to town you make exceptions. I first saw CJ Ramone a month after he joined the band in 1989, the first tour after filling the leather jacket left by none other than Dee Dee Ramone. Plucked from obscurity to step on stage with a band that revolutionised music is no small task, so I guess that’s why they went for an ex-Marine to complete the mission that some might think was impossible. That unforgettable night in Glasgow’s Barrowlands confirmed he had what was needed to pick up the bass, not only living the dream himself but also rejuvenating an ageing punk band with a surge of youthful energy. His seven years as a Ramone reads as a book of Rock’n’Roll fantasy land, but he came out the other side older, wiser and no doubt more experienced in a lot of aspects of life.
Almost 28 years on, CJ Ramone is now calling the shots in his own band, having just released a third and I personally think his best solo album in American Beauty, as well as carving up a reputation for putting on a show wherever he has been in the world. On this night it was Edinburgh and The Opium Club where he released memories throughout the plethora of songs that changed music forever, and lyrics that are instantly remembered after each intro. Pockets of Ramones conversations were all over the room as we were all geeks together at this one, be it the inspirational songs being discussed or the four unusual individuals who found the fame and fortune they strived for, only after they were no longer around to enjoy it.
First up though tonight were the Isotopes playing fast melodic Canadian punk: a drummer, two guitarists and a bass player are joined periodically by a bat-wielding, jock strap-wearing enthusiastic individual, who didn’t actually need to get the crowd motivated (as the music was doing that part on its own)…but he did anyway.
Then an unassuming guy walks on stage, straps on his guitar and plays like his right arm had been possessed as he attacked the strings. You may think, as I did, that taking the Ramone name would be a way of getting some easy worldwide exposure for your band that would not be there if it were under the moniker of CJ Ward (real name), but it’s more complicated than that as I found out when I first heard this guy play. Yeah, things would be so much different if the original members were alive and playing, but that’s not the case with only Marky and Richie are left from the band. So keeping this music alive is important, but not if the quality is diminished to a caricature of what it should be originally.
As you would expect, it’s down to business quickly as soon as the stage is filled. The whole audience knew every word and sung them out loud, extremely loud, right from the opener Let’s Dance. There were three low-slung guitars getting a battering and a drummer on form: the New York articulation, tone and temperament were his own but shut your eyes and it wasn’t far off a CBGBs night. We found ourselves over-indulging in some musical history here before a breath is taken; Cretin Hop and the outstanding Rockaway Beach resurrecting strained vocal chords from around the hall. The Ramones’ unrivalled ability to mix punk with shades of motown, rock‘n’roll and 60s surf sounds were unveiled as if time travel was possible.
Tonight was not all about nostalgia, though, as CJ has three solo albums to call on, which also proved adequately he can write a tune himself. We had Let’s Go and Yeah Yeah Yeah, and next Girlfriend in a Graveyard, a tale of a young CJ’s desires for an actress in the early horror films he watched on TV. The night progressed with a mix of classics and his own tunes, all with the enthusiasm I encountered back in 1989, where his fingers attacked those strings like a pack of hungry animals at feeding time. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend and Glad to See You Go preceded 3 Angels, a song he wrote before Tommy Ramone died, when unfortunately Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee all died in a short space of time. This is an upbeat track despite the subject matter, which described the very different relationships he had with each of them and expectations of meeting them again when his time comes.
CJ’s own personal favourite Ramones track and a song not often played is Outsider, which was refreshing to listen to, with one of my own favourites not long after in The KKK Took My Baby Away which as expected had more than a few fists punching the air with excitement and absolutely no-one forgetting the words. The unmistakable chant of “Hey Ho Let’s Go” galvanised the hall in unison of chorus, before crying out every lyric of Blitzkrieg Bop, the song that started the band on a journey that’s still going long after they have all gone. There were some guitar difficulties that interrupted the set slightly, with CJ filling the gaps with conversation, before we were back on track at 53rd & 3rd, Bonzo, Califoria Sun and a few more before culminating in a sweaty finish.
CJ Ramone may not be an original member of the band, but this guy is next in line when it comes to credibility, passion and musical ability. His passion for the Ramones songs comes over not only from playing in the band for seven years but also because he’s a fan of the music. Never at any point did my cynical self feel he was going through the motions or doing enough to get by. His renditions are not as a cover band but as part of himself expressed in the band’s music; add to this his New York accent and it sounds like the closest thing I have heard to the Ramones live since seeing them all those years ago. Judging by the tracks from his new album American Beauty there is also no need to rely on Ramones songs to tour the world, as he has enough in his armoury to pull a crowd on his own merit with this album.