The Ramones, despite their posthumous ubiquity, were a cult band- their only gold record in the States was career retrospective/greatest hits album Ramones Mania. Part of the band's failure to attain greater commercial success was, no doubt, due to the fact that many of the band's songs were transgressive. In his memoir (co-authored with Legs McNeil) I Slept with Joey Ramone, Joey's Brother Mickey Leigh recounts some of the appalling, often hilarious, subject matter of the band's songs. Regarding Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World, in which a nice Jewish boy (as the cliche goes) from Forest Hills sings about being a Nazi:
(Sire Records executive) Seymour Stein came up to the studio in the afternoon and complained, "You can't say, 'I'm a Nazi baby, I'm a Nazi, yes I am,'" referring to the opening lines of the song "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World," which had become the Ramones' signature closer at live shows. It was kind of ridiculous, but not to Seymour. The words are:
I'm a Nazi, baby; I'm a Nazi yes I am
I'm a Nazi shatzi, y'know I fight for the Fatherland.
Little German boy, being pushed around
Little German boy, in a German town
It didn't offend me, and I'm a Jew.
It didn't offend my brother.
Tommy, whose parents had narrowly escaped the death camps during the Holocaust, was more sensitive to this issue but acquiesced so as not to impede the band's artistic freedom and black humor. To me, the song conjured up the image of a weak, skinny German kid, who after being bullied in his own little burg, found a way to become one of the bullies. It was like a glimpse into the mind-set of a typical Hitler Youth member, brilliantly summed up in two lines.
Seymour was insistent that the band change the lyrics. The Ramones were sticking to their guns. A heated and emotional argument ensued; it looked as if this could be a deal-breaker.
Then they started talking about alternatives and came up with the line, "I'm a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am."
Even that was too much for Seymour; to him, it was equally offensive.
But after a big struggle he finally gave in and allowed them to go with "shock trooper."
"I don't know if I should admit it," Seymour later confessed, "because I got over it pretty quickly, but I wasn't pleased with the Nazi references in the songs. You can't throw away twenty years of Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn."
Regarding 53rd and 3rd, Mickey Leigh recounted this:
"We got away with a lotta stuff then that we wouldn't have if we'd been big," said Johnny. "Dee Dee came up with '53rd and 3rd' on the first album. I thought it was funny: I didn't know it was anything from real experience. I thought we were just singing about warped subjects that no one else sang about. It doesn't mean that we had to be doing it."
Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan was the notorious spot where young male hustlers made themselves available.
"To Johnny's dying day," Danny Fields (the band's manager) laughed, "Johnny would never admit to knowing that '53rd and 3rd' was about Dee Dee turning tricks!"
My favorite anecdote concerns the choice of first single from the second album, Leave Home:
In January 1977," Legs McNeil recalled, "about a month before the Ramones' second album, Leave Home, came out, Danny Fields held a private listening party for me and John Holmstrom at his loft on Twentieth Street. After we listened through it twice, Danny reappeared and asked us what our favorite song was and what should be the single. I blurted out, 'Carbona Not Glue,' which to me was clearly the best song on the record. The song was written as a follow-up to 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.' It was meant to clarify that while glue might not be good for you, the cleaning fluid Carbona was definitely a better high.
"Danny said, 'I was afraid you were going to say that. Carbona is a registered trademark and we might have to take it off the album.'
"I was shocked," Legs recalled. "It was such a great song, so radio-friendly- like a song the Beatles or the Rolling Stones would have written if they were just starting out in 1976 with great harmonies and catchy lyrics."
"Carbona Not Glue" a "radio-friendly" song?
Though Legs's (sic) enthusiasm was totally sincere, his logic had betrayed him.
As much as I loved Leave Home, I didn't expect to see radio programmers adding a song about getting high by inhaling toxic cleaning products to their playlists anytime soon.
Carbona Not Glue was removed from the album, and Sheena is a Punk Rocker was substituted for it. The song wasn't re-released for years:
Seeing that I've excerpted heavily from his book, I'm going to make a plug. I Slept with Joey Ramone is not a RAWK GAWD hagiography- it's a no-punches-pulled look at living with a fascinating, sometimes-difficult individual. If you're a Ramones fan, or are interested in the history of punk, it is an indispensible read. If you love or have loved someone who is sometimes infuriating, it is a good read. It's funny, it's melancholy... Mickey Leigh gives us an unvarnished view of his family, his friends, and himself- he spares no one but there's an underlying affection for the often-dysfunctional persons with whom he's shared his life.
As a coda, here's a video for I Won't Be Your Victim, a Screamer of the Week (Joey called into the radio station to cast his vote) by Mickey Leigh's band "The Rattlers", which has been made into a video for the It Gets Better Campaign:
Mickey's voice bears a resemblance to his older brother's unforgettable croon. Unable to hold notes for long, Joey tapped his brother to sing backup (Blitzkrieg Bop and I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You) and additional vocals (the "ooh's" on Judy is a Punk and I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend) on the first Ramones album.