According to Dee Dee, the song was "about Jerry
Dee Dee wanted to record the song with the Ramones, but bandmate Johnny Ramone vetoed it, claiming that the song was too obviously drug-related. Dee Dee then took it to Richard Hell, also with The Heartbreakers at the time. "Dee Dee called me one day and said, 'I wrote a song that the Ramones won't do,'" Hell recalled. "He said, 'It's not finished. How about I come over and show it to you and we can finish it if you like it?'
According to Hell, "What happened is really clear, and the songwriting credits can all be checked at BMI. The song is by me and Dee Dee, but Dee Dee did 75 percent of it. I mean, all I did was write two verses out of three. Dee Dee wrote the music, the concept was his. He's basically responsible for it. But he brought me the song; he didn't even know Johnny and Jerry, but we were friends and he thought the band was great. And when the Ramones didn't want to do the song he said, 'Look, I've written one verse of this song with the chorus and it's about heroin, how about you write the rest of it and it's yours?' And that's what he did." Dee Dee similarly recalled, "Richard Hell put that line in, so I gave him some credit.
There were differing recollections about how the song became part of The Heartbreakers' repertoire. Richard Hell said, "I brought it to the next rehearsal, exactly as it was done by the Heartbreakers for all those years. I would sing it because it was a song I brought in. Dee Dee, on the other hand, wrote in his memoir, "When Jerry was over at my place one day, we did some dope and then I played him my song, and he took it with him to a Heartbreakers' rehearsal.
In either case, the song became one of the band's most popular songs. As Hell states, "After I left the Heartbreakers, they kept playing 'Chinese Rocks' and then ended up recording it" for the band's 1977 debut album, L.A.M.F.. "And they put all of their names on it, though nothing had changed about the song--they just added their names to it. Johnny Thunders...had nothing to do with 'Chinese Rocks' at all.
All vinyl pressings L.A.M.F. including the 1984 L.A.M.F. Revisted album continued to credit the song to Thunders, Heartbreakers' drummer Jerry Nolan as well as Ramone and Hell. It was only after the deaths of Thunders and Nolan that the credit was changed. However, both the 1994 and 2002 CD reissues of L.A.M.F. now name the three Ramones as the writers Joey, Johnny Ramone and Dee Dee -- but not Hell.
"The credits are false," Dee Dee wrote in 1997. "Johnny Thunders ranked on me for fourteen years, trying to make out like he wrote the song. What a low-life maneuver by those guys! The online databases for both ASCAP and BMI, however, credit the song to just Dee Dee Ramone and Hell.
In the Heartbreakers' live performances of the song, Thunders would often change some of the lyrics to more sexually explicit ones (sample revision: "I'm just fucking a Chinese bitch" instead of "I'm just digging a Chinese ditch" and also "Hey Dee Dee, do you want to go suck some Chinese cock?" instead of "Hey, do you want to go get some Chinese Rocks?").
In his song 'There She Goes My Beautiful World' from the 2004 Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus LP, Nick Cave credits the song to Thunders in the line And Johnny Thunders was only half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks
On the Ramones' original recording of the song on the 1979 vinyl album of End of the Century, the song is credited to "D.D.Ramone/R.Hell". However, it later appeared on the Ramones' CD rerelease of End of the Century credited to the Ramones as a whole, with no mention of Richard Hell.
The Ramones' version is called "Chinese Rock", with no s on the end. There is another slight lyrical difference between the versions: The Heartbreakers' lyrics begin, "Somebody calls me on the phone / They say hey hey is Dee Dee home", while the Ramones change "Dee Dee" to "Arty", an apparent reference to Arturo Vega, in whose loft the song is set. Vega was a long-time friend of the band and the designer of the Ramones' "presidential seal" logo. However, in live performances after Dee Dee left the band, Joey Ramone sometimes did sing "Dee Dee" instead of "Arty" (as on the Ramones' 1993 live CD Loco Live).
The band Hanoi Rocks' name is influenced by the song. When brainstorming band name ideas "Chinese Rocks" was one name that popped up, as the band were influenced by The Heartbreakers and Ramones. They decided it was too close to the song, and instead settled on the name Hanoi Rocks.
The song was covered by the band Prima Donna at live shows throughout 2006.