Johnny: Oh...it's nice. It's nice that they know you're something. Most people go through life and never get that, never get that feeling. Everyone's been very nice wherever I go. I've been very fortunate.
The first (and last) guitar you ever picked up was a Mosrite.
Johnny: Yeah, I went to Manny's on 48th in New York. I wanted a guitar that no one else was using, I wanted to be identified with a guitar. They made a mistake on the price of the guitar. They had quoted me seventy dollars or something. I asked them about ten others and when we got back to the Mosrite I asked them again how much it was and they said it was fifty dollars, so I took it thinking I was getting one over on them.
You played Mosrites exclusively. Was there something special about them?
Johnny: I'd just found something to be identified with. It was a good guitar for me. Lightweight, very thin neck, easy to barre chord. It just had a sound of its own. I was happy with it. Later on I met Mr. Moseley and he was very nice to me.
Getting back to the Ramones influence, you were quoted as saying: "[in the '70s] We knew what we had. We thought we could be the biggest band in the world." Recently, Entertainment Weekly voted your first show in '74 at CBGB's as one of the greatest moments in rock.
Johnny: Right, I saw that.
Johnny: The defining moment? Umm... probably around the summer of '75. The CBGB's Rock Festival. Rolling Stone covered it, did a full page on it and I believe we were three quarters of the article. I think we realized then that we were good and we could succeed. Before that we just thought we were fooling people. People would comment: "Oh, this is good! No, really. It is." Me and Dee Dee would make jokes about it, because it was all still just a joke to us. We started to take it serious then.
But that's one of the reasons I think you had longevity: you took it seriously, but in the right way.
Johnny: Yeah, I agree with you. We took it very serious to be as good as we could possibly be, but still we were trying to have fun. I never took myself serious with what I was doing other than being the best I could be each night. We're just entertainment...that's it. Nothing important. We're there to entertain the fans for the hour they're at the show. It's just rock 'n' roll. No one's doing anything of importance, you know... The world goes on, you don't exist any more, and the fans go listen to something else.
The Ramones wrote some of the best songs (pop, punk, otherwise) ever. Almost without exception, every song on each album had the potential to be a hit. And even though your sound and your importance was recognized, the band had a tough time making it big commercially and financially. Was this lack of material "success" frustrating?
Johnny: Of course. Yeah, it's frustrating. It still remains that way, but I have to remind myself that I got farther than I ever thought I would when I bought my first guitar. I'm retired and I don't have to work anymore. I have to remind myself of that because otherwise you can sit there and think that "I didn't 'make it.'" I don't know... And if I would have sold records but not have been an influence? I don't know if I would have "made it" then, either, so I don't know if I ever would have thought I would have "made it."
Unless you're critically acclaimed and have sold more records than anybody, then you've "made it." There's always going to be something where you feel like you didn't succeed.
But you did succeed in having an impact.
Johnny: Yeah, I know! I know! You have to remind yourself of these kinds of things. You know... You're an athlete, you win the championship. Okay, you know you won the championship and you've succeeded because there is that moment in time where you are at the top. And music is hard. I don't know. How do you know whether you've succeeded or not? Is it whether you've influenced people? Okay, great...but what if you didn't sell records? Because you sold records, does that mean you've succeeded, really, if you haven't influenced anybody and they all think you're a lousy band? I don't know. There's no real defined way of "succeeding."
You've definitely succeeded in having some of the most dedicated fans to be found.
Johnny: Oh yeah! In that way, yeah. The fans are great! People go: "Oh, don't you want to do something?" You know, I couldn't go out there and do something and not get that reaction. "Well, why don't we call some clubs and see if you can play." No. Unless I can get the reaction that I got from Ramones fans nothing is going to live up to that and it's just not worth doing it. It was just so great every night [because of] the fans. They made if all fun.
When Dee Dee left the band and C. Jay came into the fold, I remember reading how you spent hours drilling him on how to stand, how to wear hiss bass strung down low...
Johnny: Yeah, yeah.
How to walk forward when you walked forward, all these things that the fans expected from you. Did you ever come to the realization that maybe it was your fans, and not the band, calling the shots and directing the Ramones?
Johnny: Well, I guess that to me number one was always keeping our fans happy. Some people were bent on updating our focus, but the most important thing was to keep our fans happy. If we made any new fans, great! But our focus was to keep our fans happy, 'cause everything we had we owed to them. You know?
So were they the fifth Ramone then?
Johnny: Yeah. You know, you could sit there in your house and have your car and everything, but everything you have is because the fans came and they loved you and they were dedicated.
Can't beat that.
Johnny: No. I think a lot of bands take themselves too seriously.
I think it was Tommy Ramone who said: "Eliminate the unnecessary and focus on the substance."
Johnny: Ha ha ha! I don't know.
When you auditioned C. Jay, you said immediately after the tryout you knew he was the one, yet you and Marky Ramone went on to audition another 40 some odd drummers. Why?
Johnny: Right. Marky and our road manager kept saying: "Nah. He's not good. He's not good." Then they'd say: "Oh, he's young, he's inexperienced. He's got a mohawk. He plays with his fingers." I knew the moment he walked in the room. "Ah, this is going to be easy." And it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought.
For the wrong reasons.
Johnny: Soon as I saw C. Jay walk in I knew he was exactly what I was looking for. He hadn't played yet, and that didn't matter. All that mattered was the image and that's what no one could understand. That's why you don't have your road manager making these kinds of decisions.
Heh, heh. Especially if you're the one that has to interact with them.
Johnny: Right. Joey didn't even come down at all at the point. I said, "Joey, don't you have any interest in what I'm doing?" He said, "No, I'm sure you picked the right person." I thought, Great! I'd rather have less interference.
You and he never really seemed to get along.
Was it more personal our musical? Or both?
Johnny: Uh.. some personal, but I'd say it's seventy-five percent artistic differences with what the band should be doing. Uh... yeah, it really just came down to what the band should be doing and not worrying about success.
This tension became noticeable during the recording of End of the Century with Phil Spector producing.
Johnny: Yeah, that was the start of it. You're right on with that. [Joey] doing "Baby I Love You" with Phil and an orchestra after we left, thinking that... You know where it started? It was even before that. It probably started back when Tommy left the band. Tommy was our main spokesman. Joey had the least to say.
Tommy was the mediator?
Johnny: Yeah. Dee Dee and Joey would go along with me if I was going along with Tommy. Once Tommy left and by the time End of the Century came out, it was a power struggle at that point.
Yeah, it seemed to be a very strenuous period for the band. The time it took to record the album...
Johnny: Right. Me and Dee Dee had a strained relationship at that point for the next year because of the cover of End of the Century.
Right, you're not wearing jackets on that one..
Johnny: Yeah, no jackets. I got voted down two to one on that. They wouldn't count Mark's vote.
I take it that was really a big argument then?
Johnny: Yeah. They were trying to compromise our look and image, blaming the jackets for our lack of success.
You were quoted as saying: "Nobody was trying to change our sound [...] until we started to work with Phil, people like that. They'd come in, think they knew what you were doing and why you didn't have any success." But Spector himself was a bit of a crazed loon in his own right.
I've read stories about him brandishing a gun at one point during the sessions.
Johnny: Yeah, that was horrible. He was horrible. What I wanted to do was capture the Ramones sound. I thought there was enough variety within the songs that it wouldn't have to be done in the production.