Sasha Selavie reviews My Ramones by Danny Fields, a photo memoir of Punk Rock’s rawest Royal Family.
Shocking Pink – Punk Perfection.
Why do modern boybands suck so bad? Is their blatant, musical mediocrity a mirror image of our plunging expectations as LGBT pop fans? It wasn’t always the case. Once – in common with the marginal, semi-legal and barely-tolerated status of homosexuality in the UK itself – our idols were OTT and singular, role-model keys to experiences undreamt of by Joe and Jill Average. But ironically, maybe because of full, civil rights for our LGBT communities – our current idols have lost any extreme, lifestyle edge and signifiers, and become interchangeable, mainstream pop pap. It’s not surprising – in a 21st century inaugurated by 9/11, how could any performers hope to shock or surprise?
Ah, but like sex, isn’t it the intensity of an experience that matters, and not that it’s served up in some arbitrary, on-trend, drag de jour? So, peel back your panties and preconceptions, and prepare to feast on possibly the hottest, unintentional pop erotica released the year – writer and author Danny Fields’ My Ramones.
Never heard of Da Brudders Ramone, as they’re known colloquially in the rough-as-guts, NYC borough of Queens they hail from? Oh, then reader, don’t delay – Netflix and Google the boys today! And, no, they’re not remotely related, the name ‘Ramone’ being simply a cheeky tribute to Paul McCartney’s secret identity way back in the day. But please, screw the super-scrubbed, fluffy idiocy of Zayn Malik and his ilk – the Ramones’ aesthetic, especially contrasted with their contemporary, mainstream rivals, the Osmonds and Jackson Five- was pure badass motherf*ckers from no-hope avenue! Frankly, the boys spelled troubled from the get-go, and though gay punters have always adored pretty boys, there’s also another, undeniable aphrodisiac that seriously ignites panting, penile lust- rough trade!
Still, I’m mindful that the Ramones – and the punk scene they so electrifyingly crystallised -are ancient history for most readers, so here comes instant context. Musically, 1974 was dead in the water, the pop charts choked with stodgy, overblown ballads, and toothsome pop stars barely more substantial than cream puffs. But, over in NYC, a certain Debbie Harry was forming a nascent Blondie, while four conflicted, working-class guys obsessed with pure, chemical kicks translated that rush into fierce, two-minutes tops, socially disadvantaged anthems, like nothing ever heard on purely pedestrian Planet Earth! Think a jackhammer doubling as lead guitar and maybe, just maybe, you’d be halfway there, but overnight, the Ramones kicked pop in the balls and dragged it screaming to their unique, fantastically abandoned level!
Still, even that majestic, stone-killer sound would have meant absolutely nothing without the simmering, homoerotic beauty of the boys themselves. Like a fanatical leather queen’s horniest wet-dream made sullen, pouting reality, here were four guys uniformly dressed in perfect, 42nd Street, male hustler drag – white T-shirts, tight jeans, motorcycle jackets and sneakers, all irresistibly spiced by lashings of anti-social attitude.
Were the boys knowingly channelling a specific, gay iconography that referenced stars as game-changing as James Dean and the casually bisexual Marlon Brando? Whatever the answer, they looked and behaved with the quasi-criminal swagger of Jean Genet’s hugely idealised prison inmate lovers, and, not surprisingly, lit admiring sparks in the intuitive gaydar of besotted fans. And those fans were, in one sense, completely on the money – Dee Dee Ramone, the band’s chief lyricist and composer, had unabashedly served time as a male prostitute and semi-fictionalised his escapades in his vividly noir novel, Chelsea Horror Hotel.
I mean, come on, who hasn’t been thrilled by the thuggish, sexual aplomb of low-life, so much more, shockingly visceral than flirting with some clueless, clean-cut yuppie? Watching the Ramones, you’d be deliriously transported picturing rock-hard pricks straining against filthy denim, not airy, David Cassidy kisses. And visually, fronted by the freakishly tall, pipe-cleaner thin, 6’ 7’ Joey, the Ramones came across like a crack squadron of bullet-headed, sexual storm-troopers, the quintessence of Tennessee Williams’ Stanley Kowalski, shagging first and talking after!
It’s that raw, blue-collar, erotic charisma that’s so beautifully, and blatantly, captured by My Ramones, an exceptional photo-memoir documenting the band at their peak, created by the band’s joint manager and head photographer at the time, Danny Fields. Such is the fierce, libidinous energy of even the most innocuous shots, that you’d be entirely forgiven for regarding My Ramones as an inadvertent stroke-book; the barely contained boy-flesh on view screams ‘touch me!’ to even the most constrained penis lurking in a reader’s pants.
So, please, immediately dismiss thoughts of fellow photographers David La Chappelle’s baroque showboating, or Rankin’s achingly-ersatz authenticity. Rather, Fields deploys a stark, forensic honesty of photographic purpose, one that excludes anything but an ultra-candid, emotional honesty in any given shot. It’s an approach that recalls the deadpan clarity of an Andy Warhol, and – scrupulously removing any hint of intruding egotism – Fields lets his subjects powerfully speak for themselves. This, mercifully, is portraiture predating the utterly corporate, cynically-staged ‘controversies’ dominating current pop-star imagery, and these are shots that virtually sweat, breathe and spit with shockingly refreshing intimacy.
Technically, too, we’re in the presence of a rare talent, one understanding negative space and black-and-white composition with the panache of a Helmut Newton or David Bailey. Jee-zuss, in 2018, living as we do with a hair-trigger fear of terrorism, it’s simply unthinkable pop-stars could even contemplate impromptu, unstaged shoots against national monument backdrops, but Fields’ images – like the Ramones’ music itself – are fierce, tasty, and totally focused!
Still, there’s far more to Fields than his hugely impressive lenscraft – like the similarly shrewd Malcolm McLaren with the Sex Pistols, Fields’ fingers were firmly pressed on the cultural pulse. Who else could take shocking pink – a garish, almost puke-making shade invented by the surrealistic couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, and normally used to sedate female toddlers – and redeploy it as a violently aggressive design element for the Ramones’ Rocket To Russia album?
In one simply extraordinary, cross-cultural flourish, Fields breathtakingly fused the US, slang overtones of ‘punk’ – a passive male partner in prison – with raw, rock ‘n’ roll raunchiness and socially disenfranchised sex-appeal. Forget Jackie Onassis or Bianca Jagger- briefly, in 1974, NYC’s straight and gay worlds bowed down to kiss the butts of faux brain-dead brilliance. And if that thrilling sexual democracy has a name, it’s My Ramones, the still jaw-dropping, cultural legacy of Danny Fields! Do yourselves a favour and feast on the man’s work ASAP!