The Huntingtons may not be The Ramones, but since that late great band has supposedly retired (and we'll see just how long that little stunt lasts), these four rockers from the state of Delaware are clearly the next best thing.
They've just released a live album (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), as well as a second all-Ramones cover disc (File Under Ramones) on Tooth & Nail.
But if these two back-to-back releases aren't enough new music for you (and they really oughta be), the group will also put out two brand new studio albums of original material -- also on Tooth & Nail -- before the year is out.
The first is called Get Lost, and the second one has no title, as of yet.
That's four albums in one year, for all of you math majors. But it really doesn't take an arithmetic genius to calculate what a huge task this is for a rock band. Especially when you realize that most overpaid secular rock artists usually expend an average of three years between each new release.
All four Huntingtons are hopelessly devoted to those original punk rockers from New York city, The Ramones. Mikey (vocals, bass), Cliffy (guitar, vocals), Mikee (drums), and C.J. (guitar) all have the same last name, Huntington. Same goes for The Ramones. If you want to be in that band, your last name must change to Ramone.
The Ramones -- with their melodic high speed rock -- were never known for the kind of hardcore antics now associated with modern day punk rock, but musical historians will tell you that this leather jacket wearing group of high school drop-outs deserve much of the credit for initializing an underground musical genre which has already lasted for around 20 years. Just call 'em punk pioneers.
Although the Huntingtons are largely associated with this one particular band, they are not merely a tribute band -- such as groups like Led Zeppagain, who make a living mindlessly aping their idols.
Instead, this musically loyal group borrows the template created by The Ramones, and builds upon that foundation with a unique Huntington spin.
For one thing, the Huntingtons write their own songs.
"Obviously, we have almost all original material," says guitarist and vocalist Cliffy Huntington. "In our live shows, almost every song is an original song. "Of course, we do more than the occasional Ramones cover song (laughter), since we're about to come out with (covers) album Number Two of Ramones songs." Nevertheless, they must flatter The Ramones with their imitative behavior. "We don't exactly look like 'em, but we do a lot of their stage stuff," says Cliffy. "We are pretty close to a tribute band," Cliffy admits, after a short pause.
"I guess you could say that a lot of people consider us a Ramones tribute type thing," says singer Mikey. "But there are a whole lot of bands out there that kind of do the same thing we do, where we're looking to The Ramones as like, 'OK, these guys did it, we're gonna redo it again, and add our own special thing into it, and just kind of use them as the whole backbone for what's going on, for the kind of music that we're playing.'"
Also, unlike a lot of today's classic rock tribute bands, the Huntingtons weren't around during the heyday of their rock favorites. In fact, these guys didn't immediately fall head over heals in love with the Ramones. And while the bonds formed with this influential quartet would not exactly constitute love at first site, The Ramones ultimately did leave a lasting impression. "The first time I ever saw them live in concert," recalls Cliffy "was in 1996, at Hammerjacks in Baltimore, which has since closed down (on February 25th)." Cliffy rattles off this date, like lovebirds fondly recall their first rendezvous. "My brother fell in love with them first, long ago," says Cliffy "in the very early '80's when both my brother and I were in very early high school. He thought they were really cool, and I thought they were OK. "When I absolutely fell in love with them -- where I thought they were just the best band that had ever existed -- was about 5 years ago," summarizes Cliffy. "When I first heard 'em," admits Mikee "I didn't really like 'em that much. I was a whole lot younger." Mikee had purchased a Ramones "best of" collection, and after two months of trying hard to like it, he eventually traded it in. "A couple years later, I came to it all over again and found out what I was missing by not giving it more of a chance." It's a given that one has to be passionate about The Ramones to be in this band. Nevertheless, there are levels of passion: Even in a group so utterly devoted to only one band. "Me, the drummer and the singer are all about the same," analyzes Cliffy. "I would say that I am the most fanatical, however, Mikey, the songwriter and main guy, is also awfully insane about it too. But I'm probably just a hair more, because I actually own everything The Ramones ever recorded." The odds of finding four Christians, who also just happen to be fanatical Ramones fans, would be slim indeed. So, instead of posting musician-wanted notes to this affect in the foyers of various churches throughout the Newark, Delaware area, the original members (Mikey, Cliffy and Mikee) started a band that didn't sound anything like The Ramones. But as the band matured, they evolved into a Ramones-like outfit.
"When we started the band," recalls Cliffy "we weren't an exact Ramones copy at all. In fact, when we started the band, I was the singer then and we were pretty horrible."
"Mikee our drummer was like, 'Yeah, let's just start playing faster stuff. I just want to be better.' Then the three of us came to the realization that we all felt the same about this band (The Ramones). We thought they were just the best thing ever, and since you can't really improve upon perfection, we said 'Let's do this. Let's make it as much like that as we can.'"
The Huntingtons have yet to meet their heroes. Nevertheless, there is a chance that The Ramones have heard their music.
"Markee Ramone, their drummer, knows who we are. He just knows who we are, because a friend of mine took him our CD for some strange reason and said 'These guys really love you to death.'"
Strangely enough, many of the young Huntingtons fans probably don't know very much about The Ramones. In fact, they were probably born long after the era when these Bowery boys first began grinding out shows at CBGB's.
"That's why we do these Ramones cover songs," says Cliffy "because we're like, Hey, yeah we write our own original material, but we want you to discover the best band that ever existed.'"
The new Ramones tribute album is called File Under Ramones for good reason.
"Not only can you file this Ramones tribute album that we did under The Ramones, but heck, you can file every Huntingtons CD in with The Ramones."
This is the band's second official Ramones tribute album, but the group would probably prefer that fans think of it as the only one. This is because they're not all too proud of the preceding tribute disc.
"It was an independent album," explains Cliffy. "It was kind of not very good, in all honesty. We recorded it 2 months after we recorded our very first album in 1996, and it was called Rocket To Ramonia.
"We didn't (do the songs) very well. We obviously weren't as proficient at being The Ramones as we are now."
But like that first tribute album, File Under Ramones, picks and chooses songs from that band's catalogue, to make up its selections.
Other bands have paid homage to the Ramones, but they've usually done so by picking a favorite album, then recording it straight through, song by song, in the original album's order.
Rocket To Ramonia contained mainly the hits, whereas File Under Ramones is filled with all of the Huntingtons' favorite Ramones songs.
The new albums of original material from the Huntingtons shows a different side of the group. It's not as positive-sounding as its previous recording, according to the band, "The whole album is rather negative," says Cliffy. "Some of our past albums were real light and positive and everything. But our image lately -- with the leather jackets -- has made us want to be more tough.
"The songs on this have a lot of I don't wanna's,' and I can't' or whatever. They just have a lot of negative connotations to the songs."
This is not to say that the Huntingtons are negative people. It just expresses a wider range of emotions, which were not found on its previous albums.
After the first album is completed, the second of these two new studio releases will be formed by the process of elimination, and will consist of the songs that don't make it to the first CD.
"Stylistically, these are the most Ramones-oriented songs we've ever written," gloats Cliffy. "High School Rock (its most recent studio collection) kind of got there a little bit, but this is a whole lot more."
The Ramones didn't bring poetry to rock & roll, like Dylan did, nor did they politicize it the way, say, Lennon did. Nevertheless, there is something special and unique within The Ramones' approach to songwriting.
"There is a certain stupid genius to it all, I guess you could say," says Cliffy. "You certainly wouldn't think those guys are the smartest people in the world, whenever you hear them talk. However, when you look at their first several albums, there are songs which are unbelievably amazing, that no one has even been able to come close to duplicating."
The Ramones output also served as a latter day connection to the original sounds of rock & roll.
"You look at those early Ramones' songs, and some later Ramones' songs, and it's kind of like revved up 50's rock & roll. Wake Up Little Suzie' type stuff, except it's got loud guitars, or distorted guitars, and it's obviously a little faster," notes Cliffy.
"What The Ramones did," says Mikey "was take the best of what rock & roll had done up to that point, and transferred it into something that was a little faster and a little louder. It had a little bit more energy, and it basically took 50's and 60's rock & roll, and brought it into the 70's and 80's."
Unlike a lot of so-called live albums, the Huntingtons' new live recording is not a release that stitches together highlights from various performances, assimilating the best possible live offering. Instead, it presents -- from beginning to end -- one particular Huntingtons' show.
"That's the live set," explains Mikee, "pretty much as we've been playing it for the last year."
For Huntington fans who have yet to witness the group's live show, this album might just hold them over until the group itself -- in living leather -- actually comes to their town.
"We don't really have a chance to tour as much as we would like to," says Mikee. "In fact, we didn't even start touring until after we put out our first record; which is kind of uncommon for a band that's in the Christian market.
"Touring has a lot to do with how you get known, and a lot to do with how kids get to hear your stuff. This (live album) is just kind of something that lets the kids hear what the band sounds like live. They actually have a live set they can listen to over and over."
Live albums also serve to document when a band is in top form. No studio session can ever capture the thrill a band gets from jelling together on the road.
"Everything was real tight," adds Mikee, "and we were playing really well together."
There is more that separates the Huntingtons from the rest of the Christian music scene than just The Ramones references alone, though.
The Huntingtons are just not your typical Christian band: They don't paraphrase Scripture in their songs; they don't play in many churches; and they certainly don't give altar calls from the stage.
"We're flat out not a Christian band," says Cliffy. "Yeah, we've always been on a Christian label, and everybody in the band is a Christian -- you cannot be in this band unless you are a Christian.
"But the reason I say it's not a Christian band, is simply because none of the four of us were called to be in a music ministry. With this band, we all feel really committed in our prayer lives, in church or in hanging out together, that this is not supposed to be a ministry."
The members realize that they could probably even be making more money if only they ever changed the Huntingtons into a ministry band. But that would just not be the right thing for them to do.
"There's a lot of money to be made in ministry," admits Cliffy. "We could make a lot more money, and make a whole lot more sales, if we would have decided in the first place to have our songs be a lot more spiritual than they are. But we really don't feel like we're supposed to do that.
"We go, and we hang out with kids, and they talk to us about God sometimes, and sometimes kids just want to hang out. And we're fine either way. But we never shy away from talking to kids about God. But it's just something we never do from the stage.
"I just know in my heart, that if we were to suddenly say that, 'OK, we're going to be a ministry band,' then it would be something that we weren't supposed to do, and it would fail -- as you have seen with plenty of bands who have tried to do that."
Oddly enough, the definition of a sell-out usually includes a group that switches from doing overtly Christian music, to one which performs less overtly Christian material. For the Huntingtons, this definition of a sell-out would be exactly the opposite.
"That cheesy term of selling out would apply to us if we -- overnight -- became a Christian-y type band. Because we really feel there is a lot of money to be made in ministry, and that's what we're not about.
"We're not about making money under the guise of ministry. There are plenty of bands that are really sincere about it, but there are also a whole lot of bands that are doing it for money. And it's just something we don't want to be caught up in at all."
Cliffy has many strong opinions about the state of Christian music, and he sometimes edges close to biting the very hand that feeds him.
"I have to say that ministry-oriented music doesn't even belong in stores," he says. "At least not in Christian bookstores. Because, if you even know about the Christian scene -- as far as music is concerned -- you've either heard the Gospel a million times; or you're already a Christian, period. And I think there is either no place, or almost zero place for ministry-oriented music to be in Bible bookstores.
"It ought to either be Christian entertainment, or songs about issues and problems, or whatever. Ministry-oriented music doesn't belong anywhere, except for door-to-door sales."
Much like their beloved Ramones, the Huntingtons are originals and non-conformists. Whether it be with musical styles or ministry objectives, this is one group with strong convictions. But the great ones always stick to their guns, and just like characters out of an old western movie, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Huntingtons have their hands on their holsters, and are steadfastly staking out their ground at the OK Corral.