It's clearer now than it was in the 1970s that the Ramones played exhilarating, hooky bubble-gum pop that just happened to get spit out with the force of machine-gun fire. Okay, it didn't just come out that way; the velocity was central to their barbed kamikaze joy. Yet as you watch End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, a documentary that digs deep inside this most revolutionary and tortured of punk quartets, it's hard not to feel that the Ramones, who never had a hit record, were the greatest band in 50 years to be stonewalled out of success. They couldn't get to first base with the radio establishment, but really -- ''Sheena Is a Punk Rocker''? That should have been as big as anything by AC/DC or Nirvana.
The tragic, and also comic, theme of ''End of the Century'' is that the Ramones, who were kings of the black leather demimonde but couldn't cross over, played out their frustration by hating each other. Joey, the weak-chinned string-bean geek who found vengeance on stage (and nowhere else), never forgave Johnny, the disciplined rock martinet, for stealing his girlfriend. The film is studded with sensational anecdotes, from journalist Legs McNeil's account of how when the Ramones took the stage at CBGB, ''It looked like the SS had just walked in,'' to the fascinating and twisted tale of how producer Phil Spector, armed with guns and a recording console, tried and failed to turn them into pop idols. The world wasn't quite ready for the Ramones. Even Johnny Rotten, we learn, was terrified to meet them. Maybe he should have been: No gutter gods ever reached higher.