The Ramones Vs. Phil Spector: The Story Of 'End Of The Century'
Portrait of the Ramones from the back cover of 'End Of The Century;' Phil Spector at a press conference at the Magic Castle circa 1978 in Los Angeles, California. Source: discogs.com; Brad Elterman/FilmMagic
Pop masterpieces of yesteryear were the specialty of Phil Spector. The Ramones played punk rock based on the same classic structures. It was the end of the '70s and the end of the century. Was it time for the raw rockers from Queens to mix it up? Could Phil Spector bend them to his will the way he'd done with girl groups like The Crystals and The Ronettes? You know what they say about the unstoppable force and the immovable object -- this team-up, for an album called End Of The Century (1980), would be like taking a buzz saw to the famed Wall Of Sound.
The Ramones may have not invented punk rock, but they gave it a style and a kind of sloppy finesse. As any tortured genius can tell you, it doesn’t pay to be ahead of your time, so The Ramones sought out a producer who could take their sound to the next level and get them on rock n roll radio. Enter: Phil Spector.
Throughout the ‘60s Phil Spector racked up a series of hits with artists like The Crystals, The Ronettes, and the Righteous Brothers. While The Ramones (Joey especially) were influenced by Spector’s pop hooks and Wall Of Sound recording technique, they quickly found that working with the eccentric producer wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
The stories behind The Ramones’ work with Spector constitute an unknown history, with some players long in the ground and the rest telling variations on a variation of the same story. The sessions for End of the Century produced a good album that’s not as fun as the group’s earlier material, but it showed that no matter what a producer did to The Ramones they were always going to be some weirdoes from Queens.
Phil Spector Was Too Much Of A Perfectionist For The Ramones
The Ramones weren’t used to the pop perfectionism of a producer like Phil Spector. He was a notorious taskmaster when it came to his artists, often requiring take after take of a song to make sure it was perfect. Prior to working with Spector, the band had only worked with their friend Ed Stasium, or their former band drummer and manager Tommy Ramone to knock out an album in a couple of weeks.
The Ramones didn’t keep their disdain for Spector a secret. In a 1982 video interview Johnny Ramones let loose on Spector’s drive for perfection:
Working with Phil was very difficult because I guess he’s a perfectionist so he likes to spend a lot of time redoing things and re-listening and it’s very time consuming. It’s very hard for us. Rock n roll’s got to be very spontaneous and a little faster.
Dee Dee agreed:
I like beauty to be instant. Not to be labored over, I don’t like music to be a hustle. I think we can just go into a studio and do it and not be frustrated. Phil seemed to be frustrated with us… He wasn’t the most friendly guy I’ve ever met. He tried to be friendly but then he had his guns on him and he wouldn’t let me out of his house for a couple of days.
Spector Made Johnny Ramone Play The Same Chord For Hours
Picture this: You’re the guitarist for The Ramones. You’ve spent the last three years playing the same three or four chords across four albums and countless shows. Now there’s a guy in a wig and a purple cape telling you to play how to play one chord at the beginning of a song that you’ve already recorded for a different album. That was the case while The Ramones re-recorded “Rock N Roll High School” for End of the Century. According to Johnny Ramone, Spector listened to the opening chord for 12 hours straight:
The opening chord to our song 'Rock N Roll High School,' he spent 12 hours sitting there and listening to the same chord over and over again I mean it’s just not worth it. I mean nobody else could hear the difference. The chord came out sounding okay, but 12 hours worth ain’t really worth it you know?
Spector Supposedly Pulled A Gun On The Band
No one, not even the members of the band who were there, seemed to agree about what happened when Phil Spector "pulled a gun" on the Ramones. Spector, a notorious NRA fanboy, definitely owned a lot of guns. No one’s disputing that, but it’s unclear exactly what he did to The Ramones to make them feel threatened. The most incredible version of the story sees Spector hold the band hostage for a day in his house while he kept Joey secluded from everyone else.
There are versions of the story where Spector simply placed a gun on the mixing board so he could bully the band into following his directions. Dee Dee later wrote in his autobiography that the producer kidnapped the band at gunpoint, and there are versions of the story where gunplay was a regular part of the End of the Century sessions.
Dee Dee says that one night Spector brought the band back to his house and secured Joey in a back room while he waved a pistol at the rest of the band. He wrote:
He leveled his gun at my heart and then motioned for me and the rest of the band to get back in the piano room…. He only holstered his pistol when he felt secure that his bodyguards could take over. Then he sat down at his black concert piano and made us listen to him play and sing “Baby, I Love You” until well after 4:30 in the morning.
There Were Two Phil Spectors
According to producer and engineer Ed Stasium, who engineered Leave Home and Rocket to Russia before producing Road to Ruin for the band, there was a “good Phil” and an “evil Phil,” and the band saw both of them every day. Stasium told Uncut:
Phil would make us do take after take and then listen back for an hour at excruciating volume while he stamped his feet and swore. It was so loud he couldn’t talk so had this sign language worked out with his engineer – like if he wanted reverb he’d slap his tongue. He’d listen to tapes on playback 300 times. He’d pick up the phone and yell at imaginary people. There was a Nice Phil and Evil Phil. Nice Phil would be casually dressed with glasses and a paperboy hat, like Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night. Then he’d disappear for 45 minutes and Evil Phil would come back, with sunglasses and a wig, Beatle boots, a purple jacket… and a cape.
Johnny Almost Left The Band During The Spector Sessions
By all accounts, Phil Spector loved Joey Ramone, probably because Joey loved Spector’s recordings from the ‘60s and held him on a pedestal. While Spector adored Joey, he was constantly nagging Johnny about his guitar sound, which in essence was the sound of The Ramones. It’s no secret that The Ramones were Johnny’s brainchild -- he decided what they wore and controlled their sound.
After a week of dealing with Spector in the studio, Johnny decided to go back to New York, effectively ending The Ramones, or at least the sessions for End of the Century. Rather than let the album sputter into nothing. Ed Stasium says that the band’s label owner, Seymour Stein, set up a meeting between Johnny, Stasium, and Spector so the two could set things straight:
We met in Joey’s room at the Tropicana. Phil took his bodyguard in case Johnny jumped him. I told Phil that Johnny couldn’t work like that and Phil gave in. After that, things went a lot quicker.
Wait, Joey Might Be The Only Ramone On The Album?
This is one of those rock n roll rumors that’s probably not true, but it’s so weird that it has to be acknowledged. According to Dee Dee Ramone, a longtime heroin addict, it’s possible that none of The Ramones other than Joey appear on End of the Century. In his autobiography, he writes that the band did a ton of pre-production on the album with Spector, but that they never recorded anything. He claims that Johnny flew back to New York after growing frustrated with Spector and that he and Marky Ramone quickly followed. Dee Dee writes:
We had been working for at least fourteen or fifteen hours a day for thirteen days straight and we still hadn't recorded one note of music… To this day, I still have no idea how they made the album End of the Century, or who actually played bass on it.
As interesting a punk rock conspiracy theory as that is, it’s likely that he’s either conflating the facts that only Joey appears on “Baby I Love You,” and that Johnny threatened to fly home, or he just made the whole thing up. Either way it makes for a good story.
Tags: A Brief History Of... | Phil Spector | Punk Rock | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Ramones
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