Hey! Ho! Let’s Shop!
T-shirts, sure, but Ramones flip-flops? Though the band barely sold records in their heyday, the punk icons have become a mighty retail presence in their afterlife. What's behind their transformation from glue-sniffing rebels to tchotchke-hawking moguls?
Another day, another delivery of Ramones wear to the East Village home of Arturo Vega, the band’s former lighting director and art coordinator. (He designed their eagle insignia.) “More merchandise,” Vega says with a resigned smile, ripping open a box containing new T-shirts featuring the faces of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy. In his apartment, Vega, who still consults on the group’s products, shows off his work: officially licensed shower curtains, pillows, and bar stools. On his laptop? Photos from surf-and-skate apparel company Hurley’s recent launch party for its new line of Joey Ramone clothing — T-shirts and board shorts featuring the late singer’s praying-mantis frame and black-waterfall hair.
Board shorts? Furniture? Bathroom supplies? The Ramones may have disbanded in 1996, but the retail presence of the most iconic of American punk bands is far from sedated. At Impact Merchandising, which markets Ramones-themed gear in the U.S., co-owner Andrea Howard ranks the band among its top three sellers — behind the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. “If they gave out awards for merch,” says Robert Arce, who handled Ramones goods from ’98 through ’05, “the Ramones would have a platinum T-shirt on their wall.” And the most recent addition to this cottage industry — the Hurley clothing — highlights the squabbles that belie the band’s longtime brotherly image.
The fact that the Ramones never had a gold, much less platinum, record during the band’s lifetime only makes the merch situation more unusual. The old wisecrack that the Ramones used to sell more garb than music remains pointedly true. According to Nielsen SoundScan, the band’s best-selling CD of 2007, Greatest Hits, moved fewer than 40,000 copies. In contrast, Arce estimates that 1.5 million Ramones T-shirts have been purchased since their breakup. Basic black tees are only a starting point; the band’s handlers have pushed the branding to the limit, signing off on Ramones-endorsed skateboards, action figures, flags, and artificially distressed Converse sneakers. “It’s not like anyone set out to turn this into a brand,” says Dave Frey, a manager who handles Joey’s estate. “A lot of it is people saying, ‘I think we can sell shower curtains.’ Or lunch boxes. Is that okay or not? I don’t know. We just try to do what makes sense.”
From their earliest days, the Ramones hawked homemade shirts at their shows. When they broke up, it as only natural for Joey and Johnny, the two sole original members by then (and co-owners of the band name), to launch a more formalized company to compensate for the absence of touring revenue. Sales slowly picked up, and then exploded after Joey’s death from lymphatic cancer in 2001. The day after his passing, according to Arce, one prominent teen-clothing retail chain, previously lukewarm to the group’s goods, placed an order for 10,000 Ramones tees. The subsequent demise of Dee Dee (from a drug overdose, in 2002) and Johnny (from prostate cancer, in 2004) grew the brand even more. “It’s sad but true; their deaths brought more interest to the Ramones and made the band bigger,” says Linda Ramone (née Cummings), Johnny’s widow and co-owner of Ramones Productions. Or, as Legs McNeil, co-author New York punk oral history Please Kill Me, puts it: “As soon as they died, they became the new Doors.”
Mickey Leigh, Joey’s brother and the other co-owner of Ramones Productions, says that earnings since 2003 have multiplied “manifold”; the $2-per-T-shirt profits (among other licenses) are split between Leigh, Linda, and the other former members (Tommy, Dee Dee’s estate, and successors CJ, Marky, and Richie).
Despite so many seemingly incongruous goods attached to such a no-frills band — did we mention the air freshener? — both Leigh and Linda insist that their late loved ones would have reveled in the merchandise. “When my brother and I were growing up and the Beatles were coming out,” says Leigh, “we would buy everything we could possibly get our hands on: Beatle wigs, pins, dolls, lunch boxes. To us, it was really no big deal. The Ramones were not exactly a band with a big political stance about being anticapitalist.” Adds Linda, “I love when I see anyone in Ramones T-shirts. Johnny did want to be the biggest band in the world.”
Not surprisingly, the Ramones’ postmortem marketing has been fraught with friction. Because Linda dated Joey before taking up with Johnny, for much of the band’s career, the bandmates rarely spoke, and the same chilly atmosphere has extended to their next of kin. According to Leigh, they disagreed over which former band members should get a cut of the group’s earnings after Johnny’s death. The reason the Hurley clothing only features Joey stems from Linda’s objection that it “had nothing to do with the Ramones,” For his part, Leigh put the kibosh on a line of canine apparel that Linda backed.
Currently, the two only communicate through lawyers and managers. Leigh admits things are “pretty messy”; Linda would only comment, “The legacy is the important thing. So what if you don’t see eye to eye with your business partner? That’s life.” Adding to the overall tension, last year Richard Reinhardt — a.k.a. Richie Ramone, the band’s drummer between ’83 and ’87 — filed suit against Ramones Productions, claiming $900,000 in unpaid digital music royalties. “Stop arguing and fighting with each other!” Vega says, with evident exasperation. “Because we all loved merchandise!”
Despite the jousting among the inner circle, the Ramones continue to pick up steam as a marketing and licensing juggernaut. But does every owner of lime-green Ramones flip-flops know exactly who they are? “At sporting events, they play ‘Hey, ho! Let’s go!’ and no one has any idea who the band is — ever,” says Dave Frey.
In Joey’s hometown of Forest Hills, New York, Leigh recently spotted a teen wearing an eagle T-shirt and asked if he was a fan. Leigh was met with a blank stare. Leigh then asked if the kid had a favorite Ramones song. Again, no response. “I don’t think he knew ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ from ‘Free Bird,'” Leigh says with a sigh. It’s enough to make you wanna sniff some glue.