“It was of the utmost importance to me that these remaining songs of Joey’s be finished properly, and made available for the world to hear,” Mickey Leigh says of …ya know?, the new 15-song album comprised primarily of never-before-heard songs written and sung by his brother, the late Joey Ramone. “Not merely because I felt it was my responsibility to do that, but because I love his songs, his voice, and his style – and I wanted to hear more of him! He had entrusted me with his legacy, and I was determined to do everything possible to honor his faith and trust in me. I had to make it happen. It was a labor of love.”
As frontman, songwriter and most prominent visual presence of punk pioneers the Ramones, Joey was a prime mover in a musical and cultural revolution whose repercussions are still being felt. After the band hung up its spurs in 1996, he launched a solo career, brimming with new ideas and adventurous new songs, before his progress was cruelly cut short by his death from lymphoma on April 15, 2001. Today, Joey’s influence and popularity loom larger than ever, with his voice, image and songs having entered the mainstream of popular culture—something that would have been unimaginable in the Ramones’ early years as struggling outsiders fighting for recognition.
…ya know? – whose title refers to the phrase that was a ubiquitous staple of Joey’s conversation – adds a significant new chapter to the seminal punk icon’s hugely influential body of work. The tracks were drawn from a cache of demos and unreleased recordings that Joey had cut at various times during the last decade and a half of his life. But this is no half-baked grab-bag of odds and ends. Rather, it’s a riveting collection of first-rate songs that embody Joey’s trademark intensity, wit and infectious hooksmanship, and that can stand proudly alongside his most beloved Ramones compositions. It’s also a fitting, if belated, follow-up to Joey’s first solo album Don’t Worry About Me, which was recorded just prior to his death and released the following year.
The swaggering album-opener “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is the Answer” (co-written with Plasmatics guitarist Richie Stotts) and the hometown shout-out “New York City” demonstrate Joey’s knack for channeling his personal passions into bracing anthems. The playfully breezy “Make Me Tremble” (which Joey wrote and recorded with Dictators founder Andy Shernoff) and the bittersweet acoustic ballad “Waiting for That Railroad” find him exploring some of the more introspective territory that he’d been unable to visit within the format of his former band.
Elsewhere on …ya know?, “I Couldn’t Sleep” is a collaboration between brothers Joey and Mickey, who also teamed up to record a romantic alternate version of the Ramones’ holiday classic “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” in Joey’s apartment. Meanwhile, a previously unreleased reprise of Joey’s late-period Ramones tune “Life’s A Gas” ends the album on an appropriately uplifting note.
“The diversity of this album might surprise a lot of people,” says Leigh, who served as executive producer of …ya know? “I really think it will expand the perception many people currently have of Joey’s scope as an artist. It’s the same Joey that everyone knows and loves, but there are some things on here that are completely different from anything people have heard from him before.”
Leigh, along with Joey’s manager Dave Frey, reached out to an assortment of Joey’s talented friends, collaborators and contemporaries in order to bring …ya know? to fruition. One key participant was veteran producer Ed Stasium, who was behind the board for many of the Ramones’ greatest albums, including their early classics Leave Home, Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin. Stasium’s valiant efforts proved to be invaluable in helping Joey’s family finally reacquire, from producer Daniel Rey, the bulk of the demos that were revamped for …ya know? This exasperating drama played out over an eight-year span – a period that also saw the passing of Joey’s mom, Charlotte Lesher, who was a major force in the struggle to get the album released.
One of those tracks was produced by Jean Beauvoir, who produced the Ramones’ 1986 album Animal Boy. Another was produced by veteran producer/engineer Joe Blaney, who mixed the Ramones’ Halfway To Sanity album and worked on Don’t Worry About Me. Mickey Leigh produced two of the album’s 15 tracks, co-produced one with Ed Stasium and, at the producer’s request, contributed performances on several others.
Also contributing to …ya know? is an assortment of musicians whose prior relationships with Joey help to give the album an organic vibe that enhances its power and character. The cast of players includes Joan Jett, who lends her distinctive voice and guitar to “21st Century Girl,” and Little Steven Van Zandt, who plays guitar on “Party Line” and wrote the album’s poignant liner notes, along with such notables as former Ramones drummer Richie Ramone, Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick, Dennis Diken of the Smithereens, Richie Stotts, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, punk survivor Holly Beth Vincent, seasoned New York punk axeman Al Maddy, veteran pop producer/musician Kenny Laguna, saxophonist Arno Hecht of the Uptown Horns, and members of the Ramones’ punk-era contemporaries The Dictators.
“It was originally suggested that we try to get a different famous band to play on each track,” Leigh reports. “But that scenario was not at all appealing to me. I wanted to keep the focus on Joey, and I wanted the album to be done in a friendly, familiar and comfortable atmosphere. I wanted to bring Joey back to the producers who, in my opinion, had done the best work on his songs, like Ed and Jean, and to incorporate his friends and the people he collaborated with, and who had the right spirit.”
The resulting album is a brilliant encapsulation of the qualities that made Joey Ramone one of rock’s unlikeliest, yet most beloved, heroes.
“He never left us, really,” Leigh says of his brother. “His songs are still played all over the world, and the Ramones’ music is more widely known and loved now than ever before. Over the past eight years I’ve been getting barrages of emails and Facebook messages from Joey’s fans, wanting to know when this album would be coming out. So having it finally become a reality gives me a feeling of triumph – not for me, but for my brother, and for his fans. And there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that people are gonna be blown away by it.”