“We are a happy family“, they sing out as they point directly at you, or so they believed at some point of time during the CBBG’s heyday as the action gets going on the mean streets of New York City and Los Angeles in the late 1970s. This band of late 20 year old oddballs called The Ramones have Zoomed in to deliver forth a wild ride of a true story. “This is a memory play. But they’re not all my memories, and some of it is total bullshit, but a lot of it is really, really true. And fucking crazy.” No lie there. This is the lead-in that fully ropes us in to the madness, spoken by the pseudo-narrator of this musical folklore, the drummer Marky, played solidly by Brendan Hunt (“Ted Lasso“). His performance easily takes us back to that infamous year and to that famously pounding edginess of this legendary band. It’s quite the fascinating piece of rock and roll history; a slice that I didn’t know very much about, centered around the iconic musicians that made up the punk rock band, The Ramones.
More importantly, it’s also about the complex musical coupling that occurred in 1979 with the band and that legendary eccentric and erratic music producer, Phil Spector, played precisely by the marvelous Ben Feldman (“Superstore”). I could barely contain my curiosity around what happened between these wildly different personas, as I knew Spector was the weirdest of wild rides, and the band was no stickler to form or perfectionism like that well known producer. I just had to google their historic connection (check it out here) before I entered into the streaming of John Ross Bowie’s Four Chords and a Gun. It’s quite the story, and this finely rendered revival, filled to the brim with carefully constructed performances all around, is a truly eye opening and captivating experience, worthy of the great cast compiled and the legends that they bring forward.
Written with a good ear for the difficult, obsessive, and rageful by John Ross Bowie (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Speechless”), Four Chords and a Gun stomps its way forward with a good hook and beat, constructed from hours of exhaustive research by Bowie about the making of The Ramones 1979 album, End of the Century. Rolling Stonestated, most emphatically, that “End of the Century is the most commercially credible album the Ramones have ever made. And they did it without compromising their very real artistic premises. This LP is also Phil Spector’s finest and most mature effort in years, undoubtedly his most restrained production since his work with John Lennon in the early Seventies.” Not bad praise for something that seems so painful and back breaking in its creation. Just ask Johnny.
The band, played with a strong connection to place, time, and speed by Michael Cassady (“Adam Ruins Everything”) as Dee Dee Ramone, Hunt as drummer Marky Ramone, and the always engaging Justin Kirk (HBO’s “Angels in America”) as the controlling Johnny Ramone, find the right flavor and level of engagement, especially when dealing with the perfectionist oddity that is Spector. Bobby Conte Thornton (Broadway’s A Bronx Tale) as the very tall and ever-the-optimist Joey Ramone, shines the brightest, breathing a light and energy into the lone star compulsive. Even as he dimly loses his way around his boots and his girl, the performance draws us in by the heart. His girl, the strong willed Linda Daniele, played magnificently by the captivating Lena Hall (Hedwig and The Angry Inch) is The Ramones’ somewhat questionable version of The Beatles’ Yoko, who messes things up on a drive to LAX by loving one Ramone and than another. The crash, thanks to the cool calculated punk Republican, Johnny, counting the cash and wondering “would you pull this shit with ACDC“, fills out the convoluted story by adding a level of drama to an already impossible to believe scenario, as the band mates struggle and bicker their way through their studio sessions with a gun-toting volatile Spector throwing more and more fuel on the internally boozy fire.
This definitely was a complex showdown between two band mates and a forceful manic presence. It wasn’t a recording studio match made in musical heaven, to say the least, as the Ramones were a band that was drenched in spontaneous fast-paced energy, packed tight with chaos and drive. Spector, on the other hand, meticulously portrayed here by Feldman, is the opposite; compulsively aggressive and diabolically determined to the highest order to achieve his structured perfectionism. Known as a notoriously volatile taskmaster, especially when it came to the artists he worked with, he often requiring (or coerced) his musicians to deliver their performances take after take until he finally felt it was pitch perfect for his pop sensibilities. Even if it meant their emotional collapse. Before Spector, this punk rock band had only worked within the very comfortable setting of their old friend Ed Stasium, knocking out vibrating and heart pumping rock albums filled with erratic energy in the short recording studio span of a couple of weeks. This oil and water mixture, pushed forward by Joey’s love of Spector’s work, was bound to cause internal band eruptions, and as presented here, the grueling schedule fractured and split the band into numerous dysfunctional pieces, that seemed destined to crack them apart, leaving the two extremes, Joey and Johnny, battling it out over more than just the girl. In a 1982 video interview Johnny Ramone doesn’t hold back on this explosive musical union and Spector’s insane, almost violent drive for ultimate control: “Working with Phil was very difficult because I guess he’s a perfectionist so he likes to spend a lot of time redoing things and re-listening and it’s very time consuming. It’s very hard for us. Rock n roll’s got to be very spontaneous and a little faster.“
The power dynamics raged on, inside and out of the studio, driving this memory tale forward with that same spontaneous edge that the band was famous for. Directed with a somewhat stuttered pacing by Jessica Hanna (Bootleg Theater’s The Willows), the Zoomed play splinters down the Zoom drive. “Gotta stick it out, even when stabbed in the ass,” Dee Dee tells us, and he ain’t kidding. There is some “important [musical history] bullshit but pay attention“, ya hear, as this intense black comedy tries to reclaim and unpack the violence and power struggles that played out within those infamous recording studio walls. That album made The Ramones more than just a bunch of musical weirdos from Queens, but its making also creeped in and destroyed their once tight familial bond. Captivating and clever, Four Chords and a Gun finds humor in the dismantling of trust and union, pulling back the madman Spector curtain on that real-life interpersonal drama that surrounded the making of the world’s greatest punk album. Even when it lags here and there, from pacing, problematic structuring, and a repetitive verbal form (I think it might be way better on the stage), the infamy of that historic mad coupling is clearly enough to hold us sublimely hostage. “Now come downstairs and watch a movie about a ventriloquist,” or Spector might shoot you. So play that chord, once again, even if it is for the hundredth time.
Four Chords and a Gun is the powerful and funny story of creative madness that shines a ring light on all that went down between the iconic Ramones; Linda Daniele, the woman who loved two of them; and the fascinatingly flamboyant and destructive Phil Spector. The streaming will be available until June 30th. Virtual tickets starting at just $5.00 can be found here: www.Play-PerView.com. Proceeds benefit Food on Foot.
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