Although it took the Ramones 20 years to decide they’d had enough — the band retired after doing Lollapalooza as a farewell tour in 1996 — the group will eternally have the legacy of the first three albums of a prolific and frequently great career. The undisputed punk-pop classics that form the group’s must-own triptych are the collective blueprint for a distinct and sublimely original rock’n’roll sound and vision that have been copied endlessly (sometimes literally) since the albums were released in the 1970s.
But perfection, even moronic cartoon perfection, is unsustainable. Coincident to its first lineup change (the departure of drummer/co-producer Tommy “Ramone” Erdelyi), Road to Ruin led the New York quartet off the tracks it had so brilliantly laid. Through two determined but uneven subsequent decades, singer Joey Ramone (Jeff Hyman), guitarist Johnny Ramone (John Cummings), bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin, later replaced by Christopher “C.J.” Ward) and either Marky Ramone (Marc Bell) or Richie Ramone (Reinhardt) on drums attempted to reclaim, revitalize, revise or reinvent the spirited joy of those primary masterstrokes.
With just four chords and one manic tempo, New York’s Ramones blasted open the clogged arteries of mid-’70s rock, reanimating the music. Their genius was to recapture the short/simple aesthetic from which pop had strayed, adding a caustic sense of trash-culture humor and minimalist rhythm guitar sound. The result not only spearheaded the original new wave/punk movement, but also drew the blueprint for subsequent hardcore punk bands, most of whom unfortunately neglected the essential pop element.
Ramones almost defies critical comment. The fourteen songs, averaging barely over two minutes each, start and stop like a lurching assembly line. Joey Ramone’s monotone is the perfect complement to Johnny and Dee Dee’s precise guitar/bass pulse. Since the no-frills production sacrifices clarity for impact, printed lyrics on the inner sleeve help even as they mock another pretentious convention — although the four-or-five-line texts of “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You” and “Loudmouth” are an anti-art of their own. Like all cultural watersheds, Ramones was embraced by a discerning few and slagged off as a bad joke by the uncomprehending majority. It is now inarguably a classic.
The slightly glossier Leave Home is cut from the same cloth: another Ramones’ dozen (fourteen hits) and under a half-hour in length. The band’s warped Top 40 aspirations emerge on “I Remember You” and “Swallow My Pride,” sandwiched between such anthems as “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” and “Pinhead.” Like “Let’s Dance” on Ramones, “California Sun” relates the band to the pandemic moronity that has always informed the best rock’n’roll.
Rocket to Russia is the culmination of the Ramones’ primal approach. Virtually all fourteen tracks (including ideally chosen golden oldies “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Surfin’ Bird”) are well-honed in execution, arrangement and songwriting wit. Clean production streamlines toe-tappers like “Cretin Hop,” “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Rockaway Beach,” and emphasizes Joey’s increasingly expressive singing on two ballads, “I Don’t Care” and “I Wanna Be Well.” The LP also contains the Ramones’ naïve first attempt at a hit single, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.”
“Sheena” only scraped the charts, and Tommy left, to be replaced by ex-Voidoid (and ex-Dust) drummer Marc Bell. The Ramones had spewed out well over 40 tracks (including a couple of B-sides) inside of two years. They next emerged with Road to Ruin, an understandably downbeat collection. Desperate to join the mainstream, the band lengthened its material, even breaking the three-minute barrier on “I Wanted Everything” and “Questioningly,” a touching love song. Despite the perky “I Wanna Be Sedated,” pretty “Don’t Come Close” and oldie “Needles and Pins,” Road to Ruin is a bit lackluster; earlier raveups, unlike “I’m Against It” and “Go Mental,” never sounded forced. A rethink seemed in order.
The Ramones spent the ’80s making up-and-down albums with an amazing array of producers in a number of divergent (but related) styles. End of the Century, with the intimidating presence of the legendary Phil Spector, is good; the polish and (relative) wordiness of the songs show the band outgrowing punk’s limits. Dubious bonus: Joey warbling “Baby, I Love You.”
Graham Gouldman (ex-10cc) produced Pleasant Dreams, edging the Ramones from minimalism toward heavy metal while allowing them to admit careerist frustration in “We Want the Airwaves.”
The underrated Subterranean Jungle (produced by Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin) eases off the breakneck tempos but otherwise puts the Ramones back to where they once belonged: crummy ’60s pop brought into alignment with modern rock taste. That means not only a couple of acid-age oldies (“Time Has Come Today,” “Little Bit o’ Soul”) but originals with mental problems (“Psycho Therapy”) and boys hung up on girls and themselves.
On Too Tough to Die — with Richie taking over from Marky and Erdelyi returning to co-produce with Ed Stasium (the same tag-team as on Road to Ruin) — the Ramones get serious about stealing back some thunder from the scene they’d inspired. The sound is more ferocious than ever, and the quick-hit lengths of some songs fly the old-school flag. Ironically, the album’s best track is “Howling at the Moon,” a slick pop number produced by David A. Stewart.
The Ramones’ big release in, what was for them, an otherwise quiet 1985 was “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a topical UK 45 assailing Ronald Reagan for the itinerary of his German vacation. That song, retitled “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down,” turned up on Animal Boy. Produced by ex-Plasmatic Jean Beauvoir, the Ramones resemble a straight rock band as never before (mostly in the drum sound and articulated rhythm guitar). The animal-theme record has typically entertaining entries (Richie’s “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” a wistful ballad called “She Belongs to Me,” the hopefully anthemic “Something to Believe In”); Dee Dee (the LP’s main songwriter) affects a quasi-British accent to sing “Love Kills,” a Pistols-styled tribute to Sid’n’Nancy that wasn’t used in Alex Cox’s film. Meanwhile, the nostalgically terse “Eat That Rat” is the Ramones’ closest brush with punk in eons.
The years of stylistic foundering ended on Halfway to Sanity, a confident-sounding dose of Ramones fundamentalism. The dozen cuts mix basic guitar riffs (“I Know Better Now,” “Bop ‘Til You Drop”) and effervescent pop (“Go Lil’ Camaro Go,” with guest vocals by Debbie Harry, “A Real Cool Time”), adding some of the most intriguingly thoughtful lyrics (“I Wanna Live,” “Garden of Serenity”) in the band’s career. This encouraging return to near-top form also benefits from gutsy rock production by the band and guitarist Daniel Rey. (The UK CD adds the bubblegum classic “Indian Giver” and “Life Goes On.”) Upon the album’s release, Richie quit over a salary dispute and Marc Bell reclaimed the drummer’s seat.
The Ramones Mania compilation packs in 30 digitally remastered cuts (some of the tracks sound ace; others don’t fare so well), adding detailed annotation and Billy Altman’s voluminous liner notes. Although the song selection is straightforward, the running order is entirely non-chronological; a British B-side (“Indian Giver”), a previously unvinylized movie mix of “Rock’n’Roll High School” and a couple of 45 versions make it mildly attractive to collectors. Despite such dubious inclusions as “Commando,” “Wart Hog” and “Mama’s Boy,” Ramones Mania isn’t a bad textbook for Ramones 101. (Fun fact: the Ramones were not the first to rhyme “commies” and “salamis.” Tom Lehrer did it in 1965, in the song “So Long, Mom,” only his were singular and did not specify that it be kosher.)
The uneven quality of Brain Drain — produced with no special character by Bill Laswell — is most easily understood in light of Dee Dee’s subsequent departure from the band. Clinging together in an uneasy alliance, the Ramones here sound aimless and diffuse on all but a few tracks. So while the album sinks to the grumbly “Don’t Bust My Chops,” it also rises to deliver the anthemic inspirational message of “I Believe in Miracles,” the clumsy but convincing “Pet Sematary” (indulging Stephen King’s rock music fandom for a horror film theme), and the poignant if unseasonal “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight).” Like a shopworn ghost, the band’s negligible cover of “Palisades Park” punkifies a pop classic (well, a familiar pop oldie) with little of the bratty hubris that once invigorated such endeavors.
With that equivocal gesture, the Ramones ceased to record for Sire, which unloaded Loco Live, a flat 32-song Barcelona concert (1991) document. Debbie Harry’s liner notes are a nice touch, and it is the recorded debut by new bassist/singer C.J. Ramone (Ward), but otherwise it’s not a Ramones artifact to be treasured. C.J. also sings and plays guitar in Los Gusanos, a rock quartet from Long Island which debuted in ’93 with a 7-inch of “Quick to Cut” b/w “Ride” on Vital Music and re-emerged in 1998 with an album of no particular merit.
The three years that elapsed between Brain Drain and Mondo Bizarro signaled major changes in the rock environment as well as the band’s internal alignment. Although gone from the lineup, Dee Dee, always a crucial contributor to the Ramones aesthetic, co-wrote three songs; in a harbinger of his expanding role, C.J. got to sing two numbers. But whatever might have been taking place in Seattle or Chicago — an indirect result of what the Ramones did more than a decade earlier — producer Ed Stasium protects against any evidence of it sneaking in here. An ordinary-sounding big-punk album that gets most of its character from Joey’s vocals (newly bolstered and deepened; at one point, he resembles Iggy Pop) and most of its inner strength from outside songwriters (Daniel Rey, Dee Dee and Andy Shernoff), Mondo Bizarro reaches for old-fashioned values like silly lyrics (“Heidi Is a Headcase”), topical protest (“Censorshit”) and urban reality (“Cabbies on Crack”), but succeeds best in the sensitive genericism of “Poison Heart,” “Strength to Endure” and “I Won’t Let It Happen,” a folk-rocker whose chorus was unceremoniously lifted from Slade’s “I Won’t Let It ‘Appen Agen.”
Other people’s pop tunes have always been fodder for the Ramones; going back to the first album’s 1:51 distillation of Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance,” the quartet has fed all manner of originals into its trash compactor to prove they could all come out sounding the same. That’s one problem with Acid Eaters, an entertaining but thin album of apt ’60s oldies. The Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of the Mind” (sung by C.J.), Jan and Dean’s “Surf City,” Love’s “7 And 7 Is” and the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” are effective Ramones source material and come out cool, but the Who’s “Substitute” (notwithstanding Pete Townshend’s inaudible backing vocals) and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” have entirely wrong attributes for them; the clumsy renditions are plain and inadequate. Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” nicely survives the roughousing, but C.J.’s punk emission of Dylan’s “My Back Pages” ends in a draw, as does Joey’s gentle rendition of the Stones’ “Out of Time.”
Titled to be the band’s parting bow, ¡Adios Amigos! begins with a fitting cover — Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” charged with enough brisk punk energy to bring its wistful wish within cosmic reach — and dives headlong into the band’s familiar mosh pit with a marvelously unambitious rhythm-guitar sound. Produced by Daniel Rey, the album is lean, hard and basic; as disconcerting as it is to hear C.J. spell Joey as lead vocalist on a third of the songs, the record holds together, and his artlessness actually serves to extend a hand towards the Green Day generation. Joey’s sixteen-word “Life’s a Gas,” C.J.’s nine-word “Got Alot to Say” (“I can’t remember now” and a personal pronoun complete the concordance) and the clichéd concern of Dee Dee/Rey’s “Cretin Family” are downright nostalgic; Joey’s “She Talks to Rainbows” is one of his most accomplished and appealing songs ever. Bolstering the effort, the band borrows “The Crusher” from Dee Dee’s 1989 solo album and reclaims its cover of the Heartbreakers’ “I Love You” from a Johnny Thunders tribute record. Recorded before a final decision about the band’s termination had been made, the Ramones sound glad to be doing what they do; ¡Adios Amigos! is ironically as lively and encouraging a record as they’ve made since the mid-’80s. Next stop: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rock’n’Roll High School is the various-artists soundtrack to the band’s brilliant B-movie; it contains two new songs and an 11-minute semi-live medley. It’s Alive, a London concert recording with Tommy drumming, reprises most of the first three albums; long available only as a double-album import, it was packaged as a single CD for its belated US issue. Greatest Hits Live captures a nifty New York show from February 1996; if not quite what the title promises, the sixteen tunes (augmented by a pair of leftover studio numbers) offer a nostalgic stroll through the band’s back pages, zipping from “Beat on the Brat” to “Pet Sematary” and juxtaposing oldies like “I Wanna Be Sedated” with the group’s then-recent swipe at the “Spider-man” theme.
Despite several dubious selections, Ramones Mania is a basic career primer: 30 cuts (something from each preceding album except the live one, plus a handful of rarities) in non-chronological order, with detailed annotation and voluminous liner notes by Billy Altman. The two volumes of All the Stuff (And More) are single-disc repackages of Ramones/Leave Home and Rocket to Russia/Road to Ruin with a fair allotment of bonus tracks, including demos, B-sides and live numbers. Besides a T-shirt and poster, the luxurious limited edition (2,500) boxed set entitled End of the Decade contains half a dozen UK 12-inch singles (with some B-side rarities), dating from 1984 — ’87. A strange era to cover in such an expensive package.
Dee Dee tried to go solo twice. Redubbing himself Dee Dee King, the goofy bassist made an inexcusably stupid rap-rock 12-inch (“Funky Man”) in 1987, and then released an entire album just months prior to Brain Drain. And he still went ahead and left the group. Standing in the Spotlight finds him talking over music, but it’s hardly a rap record; Dee Dee’s nerdy sense of rhythm, inane good-time lyrics and la-de-da delivery make it a laughable disaster. The slickness of the Daniel Rey-produced/played tracks — a variety show of rock, oldies and pop idioms (with minor assists from Debbie Harry and others) — only underscores the star’s awfulness. Most embarrassing are two surprising stabs at autobiography: the schmaltzy “Baby Doll” and the (hypothetically) bilingual “German Kid,” which contains the eminently mortal “It’s pretty cool to be half German.”
Gabba Gabba Hey (a tribute album not to be confused with remakes of their first three albums released by, respectively, Screeching Weasel, the Vindictives and the Queers) is an exercise in futility. The brudders’ sound is so clearly etched and, to a certain degree, easily copied that the strategic decision — flat-out imitation versus creative revision — is doomed to either fall short or sound wrong. Tracks by the West Coast punk bands featured on Gabba Gabba Hey are either redundant (L7, White Flag, Electric Ferrets, Badtown Boys) or awful (Agnews, Bad Religion, Pigmy Love Circus, Bulimia Banquet, Buglamp featuring Keith Morris), leaving only the hardcore acceleration of Flower Leperds, Creamers and Rigor Mortis, and the incomparable Mojo Nixon (“Rockaway Beach”) to simultaneously uphold and alter the originals. Also on hand: Motorcycle Boy, Flesheaters, Jeff Dahl, D.I. and Chemical People. Todos Somos Ramones is two luxurious CDs of covers (by everyone from Syl Sylvain to Alternative TV and the Fuzztones, as well as plenty of lesser-known artistes), Ramones side projects (Joey with the Independents, Dee Dee with Youth Gone Mad, C.J and Bien Desocupados) and related ephemera (a track by Stop, Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh’s band; the Heartbreakers’ “Chinese Rocks”). Kind of wonderful in its over the top way.