RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All right, Joey Ramone has a new solo album out this week. Yes, that Joey Ramone, the punk rocker who died more than a decade ago.
NPR's Joel Rose explains.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Ramones were there at the birth of punk rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUDY IS A PUNK")
JOEY RAMONE: Jackie is a punk. Judy is a runt. They both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades. And oh, I don't know why. Oh, I don't know why. Perhaps they'll die. Oh yeah.
ROSE: None of the Ramones were actually related, but they all changed their last names to Ramone. They wore matching skinny jeans and leather jackets. The Ramones' songs were short and to the point, with hooks that are still impossibly catchy. Their first album stunned listeners and critics. Here's how Joey Ramone described its influence in a 1991 interview in Finland that's posted on YouTube.
RAMONE: That's when we realized we really had something totally unique, and there was completely different about us that was not like anything else before us. You know, we revolutionized rock and roll and changed the world musically, and changed people's attitudes and everybody starting playing like us.
ROSE: Joey Ramone is best known as the band's lead singer. But he also wrote some of the Ramones' most famous songs, including "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" and "Beat on the Brat." And he released one solo album after the band broke up in 1996.
When Ramone died of lymphoma at age 49, he left behind a number of demo recordings and song fragments, often recorded at home on cheap cassette machines. Joey's brother Mickey Leigh recorded two of them.
MICKEY LEIGH: The ones I had were recorded on a $38 microphone that I had gotten from Lester Bangs. I had never thought these were going to be used for this purpose.
ROSE: Leigh is the executive producer of his brother's new album, which he named "You Know," after one of Joey's favorite expressions. At one time, Leigh also played in a band with the influential rock critic Lester Bangs. Leigh says the idea for this album started with the two demos he recorded in Joey's East Village apartment in 2001.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY XMAS")
RAMONE: (Singing) I don't want to fight tonight, Merry Christmas. I don't want to fight tonight, Merry Christmas.
ROSE: Leigh also negotiated for the rights to other unreleased recordings, some of them dating back to the 1980s. Then he and producer Ed Stasium went through a time-consuming process of stripping those demo recordings down and then building them back up around Joey's vocals.
ED STASIUM: We basically just had vocals. Sometimes there was just drums on one track, a guitar on one track. It was very minimal.
LEIGH: All we wanted was the bare bones. You know...
STASIUM: And that's all we kept.
LEIGH: ...the elements of the song.
STASIUM: All we kept from the original recordings were Joey's vocals.
LEIGH: Some of them are very scratchy, a little distorted, and it was a lot of work. You'd never know it if I didn't tell you, so you didn't hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY XMAS")
RAMONE: (Singing) Why have we been torn apart? Christmas ain't the time for breaking each other's hearts. Merry Christmas. I don't want to fight tonight with you...
ROSE: Producer Ed Stasium worked and played on more than 10 albums with The Ramones. Stasium and Leigh say they tried hard to be faithful to what Joey would've wanted.
STASIUM: Joey was a perfectionist with his performance. With his lyrical content. Even if he hadn't written the lyrics, he wanted to make sure all the diction was there.
LEIGH: He cared.
STASIUM: He did.
LEIGH: A lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULDN'T SLEEP AT ALL")
RAMONE: (Singing) Well I was slipping I was slopping, I was reeling and a-rocking. I couldn't sleep at all last night. Well I was tossing I was turning, I was rocking and a-bopping. I couldn't sleep at all last night. Put on my MTV, the chirping birds and me. Oh, oh, I couldn't sleep.
ROSE: Joey Ramone was born Jeffry Ross Hyman in Forest Hills, Queens. He and Mickey Leigh, born Mitchell Lee Hyman, grew up together. They shared a single record collection and started playing in bands as teenagers.
LEIGH: He wanted to be a producer. And he took us into the studio, this band I had called Purple Majesty, and produced a record for us. He was 15 years old. I don't know if that's when I knew he was going to be Joey Ramone. But I knew he had this intense love of music, and making music and making things happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AND ROLL IS THE ANSWER")
RAMONE: (Singing) We're gonna have it, we're gonna have it all! Rock and roll is the answer. Rock and roll is the answer...
ROSE: Now it's Leigh's turn to be the producer. He says he felt some pressure to bring in high-profile guest artists to play on his brother's posthumous record.
LEIGH: You know, we'd get the biggest names we could get 'cause that was going to bring attention to it. And I was totally opposed to that from the get-go. That's not what I want. I really wanted to keep it pure and organic, and to his friends. And I didn't want - I wanted to keep the focus on Joey, not on Bono, or whoever. You know?
ROSE: In the end, Leigh only invited Joey's friends and collaborators to play on the record, including Steven Van Zandt, Richie Ramone and Joan Jett. And that's probably how Joey Ramone would have wanted it. In interviews, he talked a lot about how proud he was that the Ramones never strayed from their original vision just for the sake of having a hit.
RAMONE: You know, we were always there for our fans and there for ourselves. We never, you know, sold ourselves out or we never wanted to play dance music or crap like that. You know what I mean? We always stayed true to what The Ramones are. You know?
ROSE: You could say the same thing about Joey Ramone's brief solo career too. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.