New Play Revisits The Ramones' Tumultuous Recording Sessions With Phil Spector
It's an exciting moment when all four of the Ramones burst into their backstage dressing room at the beginning of John Ross Bowie's new (non-musical) play, "Four Chords and a Gun," about the iconic punk band. The production's costume designer, Kerry Hennessey, and wig designer, Lauren Wilde, instantly bring the classic album covers to life with their just-about-perfect visual recreation of Joey, Johnny, Mark and Dee Dee, and the boys are all abuzz with the shared energy of having just banged out a live set of 28 songs in one hour.
After that high-impact introduction, though, the rest of the show is oddly joyless. Presenting the partially reimagined back story behind the creation of the Ramones' fifth album, End of the Century, in the late '70s, Bowie and director Jessica Hanna deny the band members any off-beat humor or charisma, portraying three of them as desultory dullards and one as a desultory asshole.
End of the Century was an especially notable project in Ramones (and rock 'n roll) history because it was produced by the brilliant, but infamously violent, hit maker Phil Spector. "Four Chords and a Gun" takes the Ramones from their New York base to Spector's extravagant Los Angeles mansion and recording studio, where his unconventional demands fray most of the band members' nerves. When their conflicts get heated, of course, Spector, as he was known to do with several of his artistic collaborators, pulls out the play's title gun. There's also a side plot concerning Linda, Joey's girlfriend back in New York, and her mounting frustration with the lead singer's social phobias.
The play's structure is more episodic than dramatic, with few consequences ensuing from the revelations in one scene to the next. Johnathan McClain as Johnny is by far the most interesting character on stage, the one Ramone in whom we see some of the aggressive drive that propelled the group to its unlikely success. Josh Brener is good, too, as Spector, the childish, foppish despot, who makes common cause with Joey, but alienates the rest of the musicians with his unaccountable production approach, at one point insisting on recording fifty-plus takes of a single guitar chord. Arguably the best speech in the play comes in a brief digression about halfway through, when one band member intriguingly reconsiders the value of Yoko Ono's influence on the Beatles' demise.
In a program note Bowie describes his play's "larger point" as an affirmation that "The Ramones were/are one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time, and their dysfunctional, often toxic chemistry created indelible sounds whose historic influence cannot be overstated." While it amply shows us the dysfunction and toxic chemistry, "Four Chords and a Gun" provides too little sense of that creative link between the group's behind-the-scenes moroseness and all the hyperexuberant tracks and live performances they produced back before the end of the century.