This piece originally appeared in Burning Ambulance issue 4; get it in print, as an ebook, or for Kindle.
Once upon a time, Jeffrey Ross Hyman, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, Marc Steven Bell, and Thomas Erdelyi (neé Erdélyi Tamás) were just five mooks from the outer boroughs, and so far as most of America was concerned, that period extended well past the point when, having dubbed themselves the Ramones, they took to the stage at CBGB and started putting out records. Today, the Ramones are safely enshrined as an American classic. Nor are they “classic” in the special sense that the Velvet Underground, say, became some years after their breakup. The line everyone uses about the Velvets is that only a few thousand people ever heard their albums when they were first released, but every one of those people was inspired to start a band. The Ramones were commercial pariahs in their great days, ignored by the mass audience and shunned by professional tastemakers. (Amazingly, this most New York of bands never performed on Saturday Night Live, although the It’s Alive 1974-1996 DVD collection does include appearances on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Sha Na Na‘s syndicated variety show.)
And though they were critically beloved, they were often misunderstood by the smartest rock writers. West Coast chauvinist Greil Marcus denounced them from their first onstage belch to their dying day for the same reason many East Coast chauvinists claimed to revere them—he took them for postmodern ironists. Douglas Wolk came closer to capturing the essence of the band’s greatness when he asserted that, unlike many of his imitators, Joey Ramone “never, ever sneered.” There was a tenderness at the heart of their noisy attack that came from the band members’ sincere commitment to what they were doing and to whatever audience wanted to hear them do it. For a while, the greatest creative tension in the band came from the split between those, like Joey, who wanted to expand their territory to reach as many listeners as possible, and Johnny’s belief that to flirt with greater commercial appeal was a betrayal of the audience who loved, and needed, them as they were. But neither choice, to chase the big audience or serve the more exclusive one, was made cynically. Both were, in their different ways, an expression of generosity.
But the Ramones‘ commitment to their own sound and vision paid off in the long run; by the end of the twentieth century, that sound had gone mainstream, used in commercials and action movies and at sports arenas to epitomize stoopid, good old American fun. Regarded as radio unfriendly in its day, the stuff retains its freshness and kick, while the music that was outselling it back in the day—Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, like that—has all the charm, appeal and forward momentum of a rusted-out pick-up truck on blocks on a hillbilly’s front lawn. By 2004, when Johnny became the third member of the original four-man lineup to die since the end of the century, such performers as Andrew W.K. had confirmed that the current template for savvy party rock was more than 90% Ramones DNA.
That said, there seems to be a general agreement that the Ramones‘ great work encompasses their first four albums, a tight sequence of loud fast rules that were originally released over a period of two and a half years, and that were later re-issued, near the dawn of the digital repacking era, crammed onto two CDs titled All the Stuff (And More!) Vols. 1 & 2. All subsequent attempts to sum the Ramones up in best-of collections, from 1988’s Ramones Mania to the ambitious Rhino/WEA set Weird Tales of the Ramones (featuring three CDs, a DVD, and a comic book tribute) compiled with Johnny’s input, have been met with the same complaints by purists: you don’t need the stuff from the first four albums if you have the first four albums, which you’d damn well better, and if the later stuff has any virtues at all, it’s hard to care when it has to suffer from close proximity to the stuff from the first four albums.
Maybe, for a band that made a fetish of its own purity, this fannish purity is just karma in action. Still, though: the band outlived its earliest acquaintance with the recording process by some fifteen years, and put out another 10 albums before giving up the ghost. Most of their ’80s output has been made available on lovingly assembled CDs from Rhino/WEA, with copious notes and more bonus tracks than many bands get to issue on purpose. There ought to be something there of interest.
END OF THE CENTURY (1980): The infamous collaboration with producer Phil Spector, now remembered as perhaps the most high-profile development in Spector’s life and career since 1970 that didn’t involve a gunshot victim bleeding out on the floor, though lonely guy Spector did encourage the band to hang out with him at home by pointing a gun at Johnny Ramone, the person in this story—the Ramones‘ story, Spector’s story, maybe the story of mankind—one might have thought most likely to take it away from him and shove it up his ass. This record marks a clear break with the focused energy of the records that had come before it, though it’s hard to say how much of this was due to the fact that the band was trying to extend its commercial reach and how much it can be blamed on the circumstances under which it was made and the key participation of a producing legend who also happened to be both a spent force and a homicidal lunatic.
Spector’s influence is most evident on the opening track, “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?”, which is both awash in cuteness and an overt, vainglorious declaration that the Ramones were sent by God and Elvis to save the music. It adds up to the worst of both worlds. Cuteness is also evident in the remake of the theme from “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” which serves the double purpose of reminding people of the very cute movie which had previously been their single biggest career misstep. That said, Joey’s remake of Spector’s old Ronettes hit “Baby, I Love You” has a great deal of charm, and would only be more charming if it didn’t have to stand up under the spotlight as the best thing on what was then their most highly touted album. It has to be called Joey’s, though, because he’s the only Ramone who played on it. Spector seemed to see something in Joey that he couldn’t detect in the band as a whole, and he lavished his special attentions on him, while Joey, in kind, responded to Spector’s promise to turn them into a real pop band.
In the end, he took them to number 44 on the Billboard chart—their highest ranking ever, but a long way from the Beatles-landing-at-JFK-Airport transformation he was supposed to provide. End of the Century was the culmination of a moment that had begun maybe a couple of years before, that had dominated areas of the rock press and that had included the movie—a moment in which many people who accepted that the Ramones were the greatest rock band alive, but also accepted the idea that they couldn’t really lay claim to the title unless they sold a kajillion records and set the style for the youth of back then, were poised and waiting for it to happen, for the band to start moving units and gain name recognition, if not on a par with the Beatles, then at least with the Eagles and Electric Light Orchestra. And when it didn’t happen, it seemed to cast a pall over the rest of the band’s natural life.
PLEASANT DREAMS (1981): Johnny may have been the first person in the world to realize that their Spectorization wasn’t going to boost their sales much and that their attempts to go pop would convert fewer new fans than it would enrage older ones; he did, after all, figure it out about five minutes into the rehearsal process. Joey was the last person to figure it out, and Dee Dee may have been hot on his heels. For the follow-up, the band hooked up with another pop guy, Graham Gouldman of 10cc. As with its predecessor, the album immediately starts trying to have things both ways, with another anthem about how better sales for the Ramones is a life and death matter: “We Want the Airwaves,” whose lyrics advise that the title occurrence is necessary “if rock is gonna stay alive.” At the same time, the sound of the track, and the album as a whole, is harder than the sound of the Spector album but still smoother and more slicked-down than the band’s first records, so the overall impression is that of Aerosmith with delusions of grandeur.
This was the first Ramones album I myself ever bought and listened to, End of the Century having been the first one I heard about at the time of its release, a day that came before I started getting my hands on discretionary income. It actually put me off the band for a while; it wasn’t that it was terrible, because it isn’t, but it was so clearly not the work one might expect from a top contender for the title of world’s greatest band that I didn’t know what to make of it. It’s easier to make sense of in full context. It does hold together and is easier to listen to than Century, and feels as if it were made in happier, more stress-free surroundings. And so it was, but that’s kind of like saying that things were quieter and more orderly at Pearl Harbor the day Roosevelt declared war than they were the morning of December 7, 1941. Though Johnny, always the man to go to for a strong work ethic, stayed in place and did his job, he was out of sympathy with the spirit that Joey, Dee Dee, and their shiny new producer sought to embody, having made up his mind that, as far as he was concerned, the airwaves could go fuck themselves. The fact that he chose to dig in his heels and wait for his colleagues to come to their senses seems to me rather touching.
The hight point of the album remains Joey’s spirited “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” which appears to be about pretty much what it says it’s about. Amusingly, at the time, the implication that the band was ready to go on the record as being anti-Klan was actually taken to heart by many Boomer rock critics types who were unhappy with Joey’s and Johnny’s professions of support for Ronald Reagan and by the perceived “reactionary” slant of some of End of the Century‘s songs (“Let’s Go,” “This Ain’t Havana,” “High Risk Insurance”). Apparently the song itself dated back to the late ’70s, not a promising sign for the band’s future. This has not prevented some from speculating that it was a veiled denunciation of Johnny for marrying Joey’s favorite groupie.
SUBTERRANEAN JUNGLE (1983): It was while recording this album that Marky was dismissed from the band due to his being too firmly in the grip of the demon rum. Billy Rogers filled in for him on the one track recorded after his departure, a cover of the Chambers Brothers‘ “Time Has Come Today.” Richie Ramone, Marky’s ultimate replacement, would not record with the group until the next album, though he did appear in the accompanying music videos for “Time Has Come Today” and “Psycho Therapy.” The fact that there was now such a thing as a Ramones music video tells you a great deal about just how far we’ve come at this point from the days when our heroes were scarfing stray hamburgers in Hilly Kristal‘s kitchen between sets.
In our correspondence that led to me writing this, my editor basically double-dog-dared me to say anything nice about this album. I dunno, I kinda like it. Johnny has said that it represented the moment when the whole band joined him in resigning itself to the fact that they were never going to be arena superstars and so settled down to work as professional musicians being true to their aims and self-image. That actually makes it sound like it ought to be a bummer, but grim resignation to one’s reduced portion in life might be the closest Johnny can come to the spirit of Kool & the Gang. It’s a ragged album, but it’s ragged in a way that reminds you that not expecting much and having no blockbuster reputation to live up to can feel liberating. The covers of ’60s one-shots seem to be here because Joey thought it would be fun to sing them and there seemed to be no pressing reason not to do whatever Joey thought would be fun, and perhaps because of this, they are, well, fun. And the we-are-the-Ramones-motherfuckers songs, wallows in what ought to be overly familiar lyrical territory such as “Outsider” and “Psycho Therapy,” are enjoyable in their blatancy while somehow avoiding self-parody. Not a classic, but a step in the right direction.
TOO TOUGH TO DIE (1984): By general consent, the longest they ever loitered in the right direction after 1978. To mark their 10th year in the business, the lads guaranteed themselves at least a sympathetic audience by coaxing Tommy back to the producer’s chair, although to mollify the record company, they agreed to allow Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics, produce the designated single, “Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La).” (Awkwardly for Tommy, it’s the best thing on the album.)
If the past-their-defining-decade Ramones never made their Exile on Main Street. this can stand as their, I don’t know, Some Girls. It’s tough, it’s funny, it rocks, and it never draws to a complete stop, not even on the song that Richie is credited as having written all by himself. Is it as good as their ’70s albums? Don’t make me have to look at you funny.
ANIMAL BOY (1986): In 1985, the Ramones enjoyed their finest underground success since the ’70s with the single “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” written in a burst of incredulous disgust by Dee Dee and Joey in order to express Joey’s feelings about Ronald Reagan‘s presidential visit to lay a wreath at a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany that contained the graves of a number of Nazi soldiers. The record was an anomaly in Ramones history: they didn’t usually address specific political issues, let alone issue rapid-fire commentary on topical events, as if they were Neil Young writing about Kent State or somebody. Denied domestic release by chickenshit American record executives, the single sold briskly as an import and became quite the college radio hit. It came with a nifty picture sleeve making disrespectful use of a news photo of the president, almost as if these guys were punks. Even Greil Marcus was impressed.
The first official American release of the song came when it was included on the album Animal Boy, which didn’t come out until a year and a half after the single. Everything about the album seemed calculated to send the message that this was now a band that, if it tripped into a success that it might be able to milk a little, would go out of its way to pass that opportunity by. It’s not just that, in the two years since Too Tough to Die, Joey and an increasingly exhausted and distracted Dee Dee had failed to generate even half an album’s worth of material that could touch “Bonzo.” It wasn’t even that “Bonzo” was now retitled “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down,” as if to fool any provincials or late arrivers who might have heard of the song and want to hear or own it badly enough to invest in the album. But the album itself just looked unaccountably tacky, and not punk tacky but “1966 album consisting of surprise radio hit padded out with covers performed by identifiable vocalist and studio musicians” tacky. Even more bewilderingly, the recurring “animal/apeman” theme that showed up in the song titles and the cover art seemed best explainable as an attempt to exploit the “Bonzo” connection that the album seemed to have no wish to exploit, or even draw attention to.
Richie wrote the lead song this time: “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” which, like the Rolling Stones‘ “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and Jim Stafford‘s “Wildwood Weed”, is about how weird it can be to be under the influence of intoxicating substances. It was used in whichever of 1987-88’s many movies about fathers and sons magically switching bodies starred Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron.
HALFWAY TO SANITY (1987): If those who were hoping that the Ramones might still rise again to the level of their former glory can be compared to those who, a decade earlier, were still hoping for a Beatles reunion, this album is their Mark David Chapman. The most notable thing about it is that it is the only album whose cover offers a clear look at Richie, who was hidden in shadows on both Too Tough to Die and Animal Boy. Turns out he was a real nice-looking guy, which one hopes wasn’t seen by the others as something to keep under wraps. It appears that he favored Chuck Taylors. He was invited to depart after this album, so maybe giving him something he could carry around with him and use to prove to drunk women that he really had been in the band was their idea of a going-away present.
BRAIN DRAIN (1989): The first new release after the first attempt at a grand summing-up of the band’s output, the two-record best-of/tombstone Ramones Mania, does qualify as a half-assed stab at redefining them for a new consumer population that in 1976 was preoccupied with video games and trading cards, if not their bottles and learning to hit the inside of the commode. The slate of producers who worked on it include Bill Laswell, then on an ongoing mission to sign his name to an album by every carbon-based life form in the English-speaking world that had a record contract, and Jean Beauvoir, who produced Animal Boy and worked on the score for the film Pet Sematary, which gave the boys their second shot at a slightly embarrassing movie theme, not that you’ve really lived until you’ve heard the way Joey throws away the line, “I curse this day.” The Stephen King connection may or may not help account for the scary, cyberpunky album cover art, which might also be explainable as a depiction of what it was like inside Dee Dee’s head at the time of recording: in bad shape and having embarrassed Johnny with his side career as a rapper, he was gone from the band when the album was finished. In turn, the album’s release and subsequent failure to outsell Wilson Phillips marked the end of the Ramones’ contract with Sire/Warner Bros. The album itself isn’t ghastly or anything, and may in fact qualify as a return to form. But it’s pure form, without content or spark. Johnny was more firmly in the driver’s seat than at any time since the band’s inception, and by now, he seems to have viewed recording dates as opportunities to reaffirm the band’s professional standing, as reminders aimed at the necessary people on the touring circuit, which was where they made their money.
Three years later, the Ramones released their first post-Sire album, Mondo Bizarro, on Radioactive, a small, now defunct label set up by their manager. (It cannot in truth be called their first post-Dee Dee album, because, although he doesn’t play on it, he did contribute three new songs, reportedly in exchange for his old friends bailing him out of jail.) Shockingly, it’s not bad at all. It’s even kind of good, though not strictly one of life’s essential experiences. One suspects that the long vacation from having to deal with sound engineers and studio coffee was good for the guys, and that once Johnny got himself together he viewed the dismissal from the big record company as a challenge to be squarely met. The next year, they released Acid Eaters, an album consisting entirely of covers of ’60s tunes by artists ranging from the Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Seeds, the Amboy Dukes, and Max Frost and the Troopers, a creative choice that may have been dictated by Dee Dee’s failure to need more bail money. Although even less essential than Mondo Bizarro, it is not without the freak charm of offering a glimpse into a very alternate universe classic rock station. For their last trick, the band served up 1995’s ¡Adios Amigos!, which offered more covers—Tom Waits, Johnny Thunders, the theme song from the TV cartoon Spider-man—and more songs by Dee Dee, many of which are also covers, since they first appeared on his solo recordings, where they were fated to remain unheard by the world at large. One of the songs Dee Dee bequeathed to his old band was called “Making Monsters For My Friends”; Dee Dee himself contributed a lead vocal, on the song “Born to Die in Berlin,” which he literally phoned in. It would hard to say for sure which of these facts serves as a better metaphor for the album as a whole.
Around the same time that Amigos was released, Sire finally gave an American release to It’s Alive!, a record of a live New Year’s Eve show from London in 1977 that was first made available to lucky overseas consumers in 1979. No move could have done more to put the band’s legacy in full perspective, unless it’s the one I made after listening to all this stuff: I listened to the first four albums again and got a better handle on why some people take comfort in writing off everything that came afterwards as irrelevant. It’s not just that those first four records were great, but that the band managed to squeeze a whole career’s worth of development into a couple of years: they started out basic and stripped down and, by the time of Road to Ruin, showed just how far they could extend and play variations on their sound without sacrificing their identity. On the best of their later work, they regrouped, sounding like their earliest records but sleeker and more professional. There’s plenty of enjoyment to had from that later work, which abounds in excellence; what’s lacking is inspiration, the spark of music made by someone with something to prove besides their continued employability. The price of seeming so inspired in your mad youth may be that it devalues your later excellence.
Stream a playlist of tracks from Pleasant Dreams, Subterranean Jungle, Too Tough to Die, Animal Boy, Halfway to Sanity and Brain Drain:
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