The lone living member of the Ramones’ classic lineup is not only a survivor, he’s thriving, hosting a radio show on SiriusXM, touring the world with his band, marketing his own pasta sauce…. He can even be found fighting zombies in a popular comic book. Truth be told, it’s only the latest chapter in the life of a musician making the most of what’s right in front of him.
It’s a cool and sunny afternoon on St. Marks Place in New York City’s East Village. The neighborhood—once a menacing mecca of ’70s punk rock—has softened significantly in recent years. Pricey sushi lounges and expensively dressed tourists draw ire from those who remember the “good old days.” At least one rock ’n’ roll landmark remains, though: Trash and Vaudeville, the edgy clothing and accessory store where bands like the Ramones and Blondie cultivated the famous visual styles that were inseparable from the shockingly fresh music they were unleashing on the world. It’s here that Modern Drummer has come to meet Marky Ramone, a product of the city’s most notorious rock scene, and one of its most revered icons.
It was on these very streets where a long-haired teenager from Brooklyn, then known as Marc Bell, cut his teeth on the local music scene as the drummer for the heavy metal band Dust. Although some may consider the era of Marky’s coming of age a dark chapter in the history of the Big Apple—the crime, poverty, and violence depicted in films like Taxi Driver and The French Connection didn’t need to be overdramatized— there’s no denying that it was also a fertile and groundbreaking time for music. Out of the smoke and danger were born some of the grittiest, most influential rock ’n’ roll bands ever— Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, the Ramones, and before them the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. On any given night in the mid-’70s you could catch one of these acts at a proto-punk nerve center like Max’s Kansas City or CBGB.
Bell was already a seasoned drummer with four albums under his belt when bassist Dee Dee Ramone asked him to join (and adopt the official surname of) the Ramones in 1978, as original drummer Tom Erdelyi returned to his previous role as band manager and producer. Road to Ruin, Marky’s debut with the group, features one of the Ramones’ biggest smashes, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” as well as a popular cover of “Needles and Pins,” a song that had been a hit for the Searchers. Aside from several years in the mid-’80s, Marky was the Ramones’ drummer until the group disbanded in 1996, driving through fan-favorite albums like End of the Century, Subterranean Jungle, and Mondo Bizarro and thousands of unforgettable performances.
Back at Trash and Vaudeville, Marky pulls up a cheap folding step stool—definitely no rock-star egos here—and chats at length about his unique career. Customers who recognize him covertly snap pictures from behind clothes racks, and by the time we’ve finished the interview a crowd has gathered outside. Afterward, as Marky leaves the shop, fans ask for autographs and beg to take pictures with him, and the drummer humbly abides. New York City might be very different from the way it was forty years ago, when the Ramones first got together, but the presence of their drummer at one of punk rock’s historical landmarks makes it clear that the special spirit of those times is still very much with us.
MD: The MTV Video Music Award you received in 2001 is in the glass case by the entrance of this store. The following year, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Most people would agree that you’ve achieved the rock dream. Marky: They’re just awards. I’m grateful that I’ve got them, but we worked very hard. I did 1,700 shows with the Ramones and was with them for fifteen years. But before that I just really wanted to play. When I was a teenager I barely went to high school, because I was playing with my band Dust. We were one of the first heavy metal bands in America.
MD: You were only sixteen at the time.
Marky: We couldn’t play live in a lot of areas, because most of the venues served alcohol, so you had to bring your parents or somebody who was over twenty-one. The problem was, no twenty-one-year-old wants to hang out with a bunch of sixteen-year-olds. So a lot of times it was tough. We only did two albums, then let it go. Then I started hanging out at Max’s and CBGB’s. Max’s was the better place; that’s where it all started.
MD: Let’s back up a bit. You grew up in Brooklyn and would hang out at the park to meet up with other musicians, right?
Marky: Yes, Prospect Park. That’s where all the local players hung out. And that’s where I got to meet one of the members of Dust and the producer. That’s how we put the band together. Then we started playing in the Brooklyn area, funny places like churches, bar mitzvahs, high school events—what you do when you’re that age. But it made us better because we kept playing, which was important.
MD: Your drumming in Dust was advanced for a sixteen-year-old. In the past you’ve told a story about practicing a lot as a kid, to the point where someone threw a bottle through your bedroom window while you were playing. How did you get to that level? Were you taking lessons?
Marky: No lessons, but I was very impressionable at a young age. Ringo on The Ed Sullivan Show was the first influence. Then I liked the Dave Clark Five and his sound, then later on, when Jimi Hendrix came out, I started listening to Mitch Mitchell. Later my father turned me on to a lot of the jazz greats—Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Joe Morello. Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew drummer, Hal Blaine, was a big influence on me as well. Put that all together, and that’s what I wanted when I was that age. I applied a lot of that stuff to Dust—a lot of triplets, doublestroke rolls, flams….
MD: You had a powerful bass drum foot in Dust. A listener might think you were playing double bass on tracks like “Chasin’ Ladies” and “Ivory.”
Marky: No double bass—there was no time for that. I learned to play doubles on a single bass drum. When you hear Buddy Rich’s drum solos, that’s what he would be doing, and I applied that to Dust. And all these songs were written before Black Sabbath or Zeppelin came out. [Dust was formed in 1968.] Once we got a deal, we were able to record them. So when you’re looking at the landscape of America concerning that genre of music, there were maybe three or four bands that were playing metal of that quality.
MD: Like Blue Cheer?
Marky: They had a great song—it was a cover [Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”]. But the production! You couldn’t hear the drums. The problem was that a lot of people who were recording metal in America didn’t know how to do it. England had a jump on us in terms of production know-how, like Jimmy Page producing Zeppelin albums. They were steeped in rhythm and blues, but they took it in a heavier direction.
MD: A lot of the music in Dust has very involved parts—unison hits, rhythmic changes. You were figuring it all out by ear, because you don’t read music, correct?
Marky: All by ear. I tried to take lessons a few times, but the teacher wanted me to learn by the book—and I can understand that, but I didn’t care about reading music. I just wanted to basically keep time properly and have some kind of knowledge of holding the sticks both ways—not just matched grip, but traditional as well.
MD: In the very little existing footage of Dust, you’re playing traditional grip.
Marky: In high school I was in the marching band; every time there’d be a football game we’d dress up in the outfits and go out there and play with the horns. I memorized the songs from rehearsals. There was sheet music, but I wasn’t paying attention to it. That was the only class that I did well in, though!
MD: Coming up as a drummer in Brooklyn at that time, did you know other guys on the scene, like Carmine Appice?
Marky: Carmine played with Vanilla Fudge and Cactus. We knew of each other and later got to know each other better. Carmine had a lot to do with the development of heavy drumming. I wouldn’t call Vanilla Fudge heavy metal, though; they were more Motown/soul-influenced and slowed down with their own style. But yeah, Carmine was a heavy drummer at the time.
MD: How about Peter Criss?
Marky: I know Peter. When Dust’s guitar player, Richie Wise, produced the first Kiss albums, I’d see the band at the Diplomat Hotel and at Max’s Kansas City in the back room. Peter had and still has a great style—a style of his own. You could be the greatest technician in the world, but if you insert that person in a band, it won’t sound the same. You’re going to lose a lot of the spontaneity and feel. You’ll get a technical drumming style, but you’re not going to get the feel as much as you would with a guy who has the right style for that particular group.
MD: Having your own sound is the ultimate goal.
Marky: I try to play the opposite of other drummers. It seems it’s always the same fills, the same tuning, and the same cymbal and drum sizes these days. I was sponsored by so many drum companies that I don’t want to be sponsored anymore. I mean, the new stuff is great, but I want to pick what I play. If I see an old Pearl set—which I love—I’ll play it. If I see an old Ludwig set, I’ll play it. Slingerland, Rogers. To me, the newest drum company out there that’s quality is Pork Pie.
MD: Did you play with multiple kits with different bands?
Marky: Yeah, in the Ramones I played Rogers first, but the set got worn down from the road. But on every recording up until now, I’ve always used my Rogers Dynasonic snare. I went through a Rogers set, then I went through a Tama set that they gave me from Japan, then I went through a Pearl set—they sponsored me. From there it was Pork Pie, then it was DW, and then I said, “Enough of this stuff already— I’ll just play what I feel like!”
MD: What comes to mind when you think of the band Estus, which you played with after Dust, in 1973?
Marky: Oh, the times of the ’70s in New York!
MD: There’s some great drumming to be heard on that self-titled album.
Marky: Yeah, if you can find a copy. Let me tell you the story of Estus. After I was in Dust, the manager of that band—Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ producer—wanted me to do an album with them for Columbia Records. He’d heard me with Dust. Andrew produced “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Paint It, Black”…. I had nothing to do at the time, so I said, “Yeah, of course I’d like to work with a producer like that.” It was that simple.
We rehearsed, did the album in three weeks. But the problem was they wanted me to move upstate. They were from Missouri, and they happened to be in New York when their drummer left, so they asked me to move up there, because they weren’t used to city life. So we did the album, but I had more fun hanging out with Andrew than with the band. I really had nothing in common with them; they were country boys and I was from the city. But the album came out okay, and it kept me going for a while. It was an experience working with Andrew.
MD: Did you tour with Estus?
Marky: We did a few shows with Alice Cooper, John Mayall, Uriah Heap…. But it wasn’t where I wanted to go. After I left them I started coming back to the city and hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, then I played with Wayne [aka Jayne] County and the Backstreet Boys for two years. We met at Max’s. Wayne’s theatrical outlook on life was a little different from ours, and I respected him for that.
MD: His performances were pretty extreme, especially for the mid-’70s.
Marky: Very extreme—he’d wear prophylactics in his hair. We played a few places, but a lot of clubs didn’t want to book him, because they would hear of his reputation. We did this one show in New Jersey. We’d taken two photos of the band—one where he was wearing his costume, and then one with him in a jean jacket, normal looking, which we sent to the club. And, you know, the place was mob-owned. So we get there and he comes on stage and does his thing, and the place just flips out—they’re like, “No way, this isn’t happening,” and they throw us out! Wayne was definitely ahead of his time—her time. He was an outrageous entertainer and songwriter. He was from Georgia and didn’t take shit from anybody. He was one of the originals.
MD: After Wayne County, in 1977 you joined Richard Hell and the Voidoids and recorded the legendary Blank Generation album. In past interviews you’ve said that you weren’t really making any money until you joined the Ramones. At this point you would have been playing professionally for almost ten years. How did you get by financially?
Marky: Columbia Records gave me a good advance for playing drums with Estus. But you gotta scrimp and can’t go spending money on everything.
MD: You never took any day jobs to survive?
Marky: No. We would survive on what we had. If we did a show at CB’s or Max’s, we’d pool the money together and share it. I was living with a friend in a basement apartment next to the garbage cans. Sometimes he had the money to pay the rent, sometimes I did. We had that camaraderie; it was understood. Sometimes we would steal food that would be left outside grocery stores before they opened—bread, bagels, milk.
MD: What was your relationship with Richard Hell like?
Marky: He’s from Kentucky, and I’m from Brooklyn—two different personalities, but we liked playing with each other. Richard had a dope problem, though, and was always worried about where he’d get his next fix. We did a tour with the Clash for four weeks, and he was dope sick. When we came off that tour I was ready to play with somebody else.
MD: And you weren’t making any money with Richard Hell?
Marky: We played and got an advance from Sire, but we barely had enough to live on. So when we got back to America he really wasn’t into playing live anymore; he hardly even rehearsed.
MD: And that music has a lot of parts. “Blank Generation,” for instance, isn’t an easy thing to fake your way through, especially for a drummer.
Marky: It’s a punk anthem. [Lead guitarist] Bob Quine was great. [Rhythm guitarist] Ivan Julian was really good. Richard as a bass player was okay, but as a frontman he could have gone a lot of places if he’d realized his dream more, if you know what I mean. I had to stop drinking when I was in the Ramones.
MD: Is it true that right after Dust you auditioned for the New York Dolls?
Marky: Yes, along with Jerry Nolan. I knew the Dolls from hanging out at Max’s. But Jerry got the job; he played a lot steadier than me. I was there playing all these triplets—you know, drum fills that didn’t belong. I was showing off, and that was the wrong thing to do. The only thing to have done, looking back, was to play the song and what it needed. I was just throwing everything I knew into the song.
MD: That’s not uncommon for a young drummer.
Marky: It wasn’t just that. I thought that if I showed off and played all these crazy rudiments they’d say, “Oh, this guy is great,” but that’s not how it works. You’ve got to play to the song. The Dolls weren’t going to do 5/4 or 6/4 time changes—they were straight ahead rock ’n’ roll, a 4/4 band.
MD: In a musical situation like that, less is more.
Marky: Jerry was tight. Jerry, me, and Peter Criss were kind of the guys on the New York scene then, and then Clem Burke from Blondie, Tommy [Ramone]. That was basically it.
MD: Dee Dee Ramone originally asked you to join the group. Is it true that you didn’t believe it until Johnny Ramone asked you the following week?
Marky: Sometimes it was hard to believe Dee Dee. He exaggerated a lot. But Johnny confirmed it. They always used to come see me play in Dust, though I didn’t know them then. That was five years before the Ramones. But they would tell me that they really liked the band. So I was very impressed. John met me at Max’s and we talked about it. And Dee Dee met me at the bar at CBGB’s, and the thing I found out was they weren’t getting along with Tommy. In ’74, ’75, early ’76 he was basically in a managerial position. They didn’t want any more authority, and they were waiting for Tommy to leave the group, because it would have been bad if they had told him to get out.
MD: Why is that?
Marky: To throw out Tommy would have looked bad. The Ramones come off as a bunch of brothers, so they waited for him to leave, which was the better thing to do. Even Tommy suggested I should play with them. It was that simple.
MD: When I watch the early videos of you, from Dust to Richard Hell, you had a very fluid drumming style. Your body language changed completely when you joined the Ramones in ’78. Was that intentional to fit into their style?
Marky: It’s a fit. What I did was go back to what Ringo was doing with the Beatles. I didn’t necessarily follow Tommy’s style, but I knew what was needed for the Ramones—8th notes on the hi-hat, floor tom, ride cymbal—so that’s what I applied. There were four songs that we first played together—“Sheena,” “I Don’t Care,” “Rockaway Beach,” and “Lobotomy.”
MD: You changed your posture when you played with them.
Marky: I had to. The Ramones played very loud and I needed to hear the counts. A lot of times it was very hard to hear Dee Dee on the count-off.
MD: Dee Dee’s notorious count-offs never seemed to be the actual tempo of the song he was counting off.
Marky: No, I set the time. He would count it off depending on the speed and how excited he was. It wasn’t necessarily the speed of the song—it was how he was.
MD: How did everyone know to come in with you, then?
Marky: They knew. [Demonstrates count-off.] Eventually everyone got used to each other and always came in properly.
MD: It must’ve been challenging getting used to something like that.
Marky: The first show with anyone can be a little anxious, but it went very well. We discussed it, and it was the right combination of drummer and band.
MD: And by that point you’d had about a decade to learn how to tone down the drumming and play for the song, unlike when you were auditioning for the New York Dolls.
Marky: I did four albums before my first Ramones album came out. I had all this studio experience. When I did Road to Ruin, the first song I recorded was “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and there was hardly anything in it. I threw in a little fill at the end of the guitar break, and that’s all it needed. I felt there should be something there to separate the guitar break from the next section.
MD: The drumming on “Sedated” is completely musical, down to the cymbal crashes on the first beat of the third and seventh measures during the verses. You don’t play the crashes on the downbeat of the first measure and the fifth measure, like most drummers would do. That’s something Tommy Ramone would do too, like on “Blitzkrieg Bop.” It’s a signature Ramones drumming style.
Marky: It wasn’t easy playing Ramones-style, because it’s constant 8th notes on the hi-hat at fast tempos. A lot of drummers come up to me and ask how I do it. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I always used to do my rudiments on a pad—that’s why I had finger technique.
MD: You use your fingers to play up-tempo 8th notes on the hi-hat. A lot of jazz drummers use their fingers on the ride cymbal for faster tempos. How do you cut through the loud volume of the band playing with fingers?
Marky: We audiotaped a lot of rehearsals, so I made sure it came through. Anyway, the sound guy can raise the volume of the hi-hat.
MD: Tommy Ramone wasn’t using fingers when he was playing fast. He didn’t have the technique like you.
Marky: No, he did what he could do on the first three albums. It’s Alive [a show taped before Marky joined the band but released afterward] was recorded in London, but they only used the drum track. They redid guitar and bass in a studio in New York. But let’s face it, Tommy, not knowing the drums, did some good stuff—“Sheena,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
MD: Tommy was awesome, but you came in with more pocket.
Marky: More power.
MD: You knew how to insert the rough edges into your playing, even though you had good technique. A lot of guys had the precision and the power but wouldn’t have gotten the street dirtiness. You still have the “earth” in your playing.
Marky: You’ve got to leave that in. I noticed in some punk bands—I’m not going to name who they are—but their sound is very sterile. You can Pro Tool things out till you die. If you’re a punk band and you have a choice to record to analog or digital, I’d suggest to stick with the analog. It’s bullshit when they say, “Digital is what’s happening in the now.” Nothing’s in the “now”—nothing’s in the past, nothing’s in the future. It’s whatever makes you sound better.
MD: You were asked to leave the Ramones in 1983 because of your drinking. Richie Ramone [Richard Reinhardt] took your place for four years, and after he left in the middle of a tour in ’87, they asked you to come back.
Marky: They had sixteen shows booked and had to cancel them, but they had to make them up. So they called Clem Burke—Elvis Ramone—who I like a lot. He’s a great guy. And his style of drumming was great for Blondie, but he wasn’t a Ramones drummer. He didn’t have the style down. Next thing you know, I get the call, because Clem only played two shows. I think if Clem had more time he would have worked out, but they were being hassled by the booking agents to make up these shows that were lost. So they called me up. I was already four years sober at that point.
MD: What were you doing during the years you weren’t with the Ramones?
Marky: I had a little thing going with Richie Stotts from the Plasmatics, which was good; it got me back in the scene. But then I got the callback from Johnny and Joey. They agreed to my terms, everything worked out for another nine years, and that was it. The song I recorded when I came back after I joined them the second time was “Pet Sematary.”
MD: The drum part on that is busier than on the typical Ramones song, and it’s very aggressive.
Marky: The producer faced the drums against the brick wall, and he didn’t want anything on the heads. So I played facing the brick wall, listening to them through my headphones.
MD: Who was your favorite bass player to play with?
Marky: Dee Dee was the ultimate. He was brilliant, and we were always in the pocket.
MD: What about CJ, who replaced Dee Dee?
Marky: Dee Dee was much better. CJ was too clicky on the bass. He didn’t have the strength Dee Dee had in the downstrokes. So you’d hear just clicks, not the whole tone of the bass body.
MD: Tell us about your newest project, Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg.
Marky: I’m keeping the music of the Ramones alive. I had a singer with me for three years, Michale Graves, who was the frontman of the Misfits, but I wanted a change.
MD: Andrew W.K. has been singing with the group lately.
Marky: Andrew is a great entertainer. He engages the audience differently than Michale does, though they’re both great at what they do. There’s a guy from New York named Johnny Angel who just played Russia, Germany, Spain, and Italy with me, and they loved him. I gave a guy who’s new a chance, and they loved him. I just might use him again too.
MD: What can the world expect from Marky Ramone in another ten years?
Marky: I have no idea. Chuck Berry is eighty-five. I saw Little Richard in Las Vegas about three months ago—he was still rockin’. They had to wheel him up in a wheelchair, but he was still rockin’. B.B. King’s still great. The minute these guys sit down and pick up their instruments, they become who they are. Who knows what the future brings—you just have to stay in good health and exercise.
MD: You seem pretty fit for a guy who has a reputation for having quite an appetite.
Marky: [laughs] I have to. It’s my only vice these days.
Thanks to Trash and Vaudeville manager Jimmy Webb for hosting our interview with Marky Ramone.