Marky Ramone at the 14th Raindance Film Festival

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Photo by Alan Diment. Marky Ramone is too tough to smile at the 14th Raindance Film Festival in London on Oct. 4.

When a technical hitch temporarily halts the screening of Too Tough to Die at the Raindance Film Festival in London, there is at least one member of the audience who remains unperturbed. He nonchalantly suggests that the best thing everyone can do is “relax and get a cup of coffee.” Dressed in black, his slightly hangdog features are framed by a cowl of wavy black hair and his eyes are hidden behind a pair of shades. Wearing sunglasses in a darkened cinema would normally be seen as a sign of appalling vanity but not this time. The man is Marc Bell, AKA Marky Ramone, former drummer with the Ramones, the band that invented punk music and are now – more than ten years after their break-up – cooler than ever. For Marky, the sunglasses are not an indulgence, they are practically mandatory.

Too Tough To Die: A Tribute to Johnny Ramone is both a concert film and a eulogy. Primarily, it is a visual record of a show held on Sept. 12, 2004 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Ramones’ first live performance. Commercial success may have eluded the group during its lifetime, but the influence they had on music is reflected in the line-up of names assembled to play and give tribute. The guest list included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blondie, Henry Rollins and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. The event is especially poignant due to the fact that, as each act took its turn in recreating Ramones’ songs such as “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and “I Wanna Be Sedated”, Johnny Ramone, the man who had written many of them, lay dying from cancer.

With Johnny’s “onstage” appearance limited to a phone call, it was left up to Marky and the few surviving band members to represent the Ramones on stage. Now, sitting in front of the Raindance audience for a Q&A, Marky admits to mixed feelings when watching the show on a cinema screen. “There’s always a feeling of a friend lost,” he says in a New York accent, “but it’s great to see all the bands playing tribute to Johnny. Everybody having their own style and integrating with the Ramones’ sound really well.”

Marky was the second occupant of the drummer’s stool for the band, replacing Tommy Ramone in 1978 when he left to concentrate on production. At the time, Marky was playing with another outfit, The Voidoids, and can clearly recall the first time he saw the Ramones perform live. “I’d never heard anything like it,” he remembers. “It was like a power surge. There were no breaks between the songs; they were in rapid fire succession. I just couldn’t believe the energy of these guys.”

The band’s pared down, relentless playing style, powered by Johnny’s signature down-stroke guitar technique, allowed them to race through a hail of tracks on stage. In Too Tough to Die, Henry Rollins describes being at a Ramones gig as being akin to “running a gauntlet of fists.” According to Marky, adapting to the band’s innovative, seemingly shambolic style was just a matter of practice. “Previously, I was into technical drumming. When I played with the Ramones it was 4:4 time, straight ahead. I just kept practicing. It’s like going to a gym, the more repetitions the easier it gets.”

By making it seem deceptively easy, the Ramones inspired countless others to pick up instruments and form bands of their own. Marky is pleased at how the British punk scene took off in the wake of the band. “The ripped shirts and safety pins hanging off of us were because we had no money but here it became a fashion statement.” The Ramones did encounter one major difference when they came to play in London. “We were introduced to spitting,” says Marky, “I can only spit three or four times but here the spit just kept on coming. We were shocked.”

Marky is no stranger to the world of film. In 1979, he appeared with the rest of the band in the Roger Corman produced musical Rock-’n'-Roll High School. In 2004 he was executive producer of Ramones Raw, a documentary compiled from his own home videos. “I had all this footage, two hundred tapes from 1987 to 1996. At the time everyone was putting out DVDs, we didn’t really have one.” He is rather dismissive of the critically acclaimed 2003 Ramones documentary, End of the Century, which did not gloss over the infighting amongst the band members – especially Johnny and Joey. “Being a Ramone was fun compared to what that film conveys. It was very negative, one director’s point of view. The Ramones were a family, families fight and we were four different individuals with different political beliefs. Johnny and Joey argued but it didn’t affect the band on stage, they knew the band had to come first. Being a Ramone was 85 percent fun and 15 percent hassle.”

Marky drummed for the Ramones for fifteen years (with a three year hiatus), and by the time they split in 1994 he had played live with them more than 1,700 times. It was, he says, with considerable understatement, “time to take it easy.” He now performs with his own band Marky Ramone and Friends as well as the punk super group Osaka Popstar. Next year, he plans to publish a book, Faith in the Backbeat, which he says will reveal the truth behind a few longstanding Ramones’ myths. Included will be the notorious incident in which legendary producer Phil Spector pulled a gun on the band during the making of the album End of the Century in 1980. “He never pointed a gun at us. He just raised it and took it out of the holster. If he had killed one of us, how could he make an album? So it was all bravado. He was a genius and a pleasure to work with. He was manic but then a lot of people are.”

© 2006 Alan Diment. All rights reserved.

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