Four Forgotten Gems from America's Greatest Rock Band, The Ramones
by paul jaissle
Much like everyone's favorite bug-eyed and red-tied comedian, the Ramones get no respect. Sure they have legions of fans, got their spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, and are usually credited with creating the aesthetic qualities of rock 'n' roll's bastard son: punk rock but, most of the mainstream praise and adulation only appeared after the deaths of front man Joey in 2001 and bassist Dee Dee in 2002. That is unfortunate because let's face it: the Ramones really were one of the greatest rock bands ever spawned, who's music touched a generation of disenfranchised youth the way only truly great artists can.
Besides the unfortunate deaths of Joey and Dee Dee, 2001 and 2002 marked the re-issue of the first 8 Ramones albums. Emerging months after Joey's death, the Rhino re-issues of the first four albums (Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin) are absolute essentials. Here, the group perfected their trademark style: loud, fast, and fun with equal mixes of tough street grit and saccharine melodies. The all-around greatness of these early albums can never be overstated, the praise generally heaped upon them is hardly hyperbole. However, the next batch of re-issues (End of the Century, Pleasant Dreams, Subterranean Jungle, Too Tough to Die) often get over-looked, much like the untimely passing of Dee Dee Ramone months before these discs hit the shelves in 2002. While the band's early '80s output may seem to be musical second-guessing and attempts to appease a label waiting for a hit, these next four albums actually contain some of the groups best songs and can easily hold their own alongside the first four.
1980's End of the Century is something of a musical anomaly: the Ramones' loud and fast dynamics coupled with the production prowess of Phil Spector. Long before he became a murder suspect, Phil Spector was the most renowned and eccentric producer in rock history. Seeing as Spector was best known for his work with '60s pop groups like the Ronettes and his 'Wall of Sound' production style, his working with the Ramones may seem like an odd choice. But in reality, the Ramones were obviously huge fans of Spector and his style, and while they may not have worn their love of bubble-gum on their sleeves, it was present in their songwriting (this is the same group that wrote 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,' after all). The truth is that the Ramones transformation into a more pop-centric rock group had already begun on their previous effort Road to Ruin, which includes the chiming, country-tinged tunes 'Don't Come Close' and 'Questioningly,' as well as a gloriously bittersweet cover of the Searchers' 'Needles and Pins.' Whatever pop tendencies the Ramones had flirted with before were now able to be fully explored with Spector manning the knobs.
America's greatest rock band working with music's most talented producer should produce sonic gold, right? Well, kind of. End of the Century is far from the best work for either party involved, but it still holds enough nuggets of melodic joy to make it required listening. Things kick off with the fully 'Spector-ized' 'Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?' Joey's longing love letter to radio's glory days is buffered with layer upon layer of swirling pianos, organs, and horn arrangements. The results work to surprising results: even with all of the added bells and whistles, the song still captures the full volume and exuberance of the Ramones earlier material. Spector's production works here, but seems to fall flat on other songs. Sounds like Spector wasn't quite sure on how to produce the louder and faster songs: he is obviously trying to make them sound more stripped-down and meaner, but he adds so many layers of guitars that the results sound muddy and cluttered. 'I'm Affected' suffers this fate: a catchy song that never gets off the ground and can't seem to decide if it wants to be tough or not. However, there are some amazing moments when the combination works beautifully. In fact, I would say that this album is worth buying for just the song 'Danny Says' alone. This slow, gorgeously produced ballad showcases the songwriting prowess that the Ramones (especially Joey) really captured. With its chiming guitar intro, swelling orchestration, and Joey's heartbreaking delivery, 'Danny Says' stands as one of the best songs either the Ramones or Spector ever had a hand in. It's a shame that there aren't more moments like that on this disc. 'Chinese Rock' is another hard rocker, but with better results: aside from some awkward guitar fills, Spector delivers the goods with this one (never has the depressingly hopeless life of a dope addict sounded better!). The same can be said for the surprisingly great 'Let's Go': a tale of mercenary looking for fun. The song sounds like it could have come off one of the Ramones first albums, but Spector adds just the right touches to make it interesting (I just want to point out the way the roto-toms echo on the song's middle section: it sounds like there's a dozen drum kits! Murderer or not, Phil Spector sure knows how to record drums).
Spector hits the nail on the head again with the wonderful clap-along 'I Can't Make it on Time' which features some beautiful chimes, background vocals, and a truly heartbreaking performance from Joey. I'd put this song right up there with 'Danny Says' as the perfect marriage of melody and production, as long as you ignore the dumb-sounding guitar solo. Unfortunately, that's about it for highlights on this album. The rest of it comprised of miss-fires. Most of the songs sound half-written, like 'The Return of Jackie and Judy' and 'This Ain't Havana,' or are example of Spector dropping the ball. Such is the case with the crummy re-recording of 'Rock 'n' Roll High School,' which pales in comparison with the soundtrack version (what is with Phil Spector and awkward, poorly played guitar solos?). The album's strangest moment is by far the cover of the Spector penned 'Baby I Love You.' It's a great song, but it sounds nothing like the Ramones. Complete with a full symphony orchestra, all of the band is drowned out leaving what sounds like a solo outing from Joey (which is interesting because Spector was originally considering doing a Joey Ramone solo album instead).
End of the Century became the highest charting Ramones album ever (it reached number 44) which is interesting because it really such an uneven affair. There are some real gems on it, but most of the album comes off like filler. The re-issue features a number of bonus tracks which include demos for 'Danny Says' (which is much faster than the album version), 'I'm Affected,' and 'Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?' all of which seem to prove that, for most of thses songs, it wasn't Spector's production that ruined the songs, it was the fact that the songs themselves weren't all that great to begin with. Regardless, this album is an interesting piece of rock history that deserves more attention.
If End of the Century saw the Ramones indulging their love of '60s girl group melodies, 1981's Pleasant Dreams is the band's tribute to the British Invasion. Produced by Graham Gouldman, who penned a number of hits during the British Invasion of the '60s and was a member of 10CC, the record goes even further down the road named 'Pop.' I should start here by stating that this is my favorite Ramones album. I know, the first four are the classics, but Pleasant Dreams is just so un-apologetically catchy, so well produced, and so different: it's great. Much more rewarding and well crafted than its predecessor, this album is serves as a great reminder of just how much these four guys from New York loved music, especially music from the '60s.
The album starts, thematically, just like End of the Century. 'We Want the Airwaves' is another Joey-penned missive about the sorry state of rock radio. Unlike 'Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?' however, he is no longer waxing sentimental about the subject. Instead, Joey offers up some frankly venomous lines like 'Mr. Programmer, I got my hammer/ Gonna smash my, smash my radio,' over a surprisingly ominous sounding tune. It wouldn't be to much of a stretch, after hearing 'We Want the Airwaves' and seeing the cover (a shadowy figure stalking a dimly lighten street), to think this a much darker affair than End of the Century. That is, until 'All's Quiet on the Eastern Front' starts: filled with layers of guitars as well as some truly lively percussion, this tune sets the tone for much of this album.
While most Ramones fans may scoff at the slick production and more ambitious songwriting, they would all agree that Pleasant Dreams does contain at least one classic: the truly great 'The KKK Took My Baby Away.' It sounds like it could have come of their first album, but with just the right production, it becomes a glorious pop tune. That's proof that, in spite of their tough image, the Ramones wrote pop songs, and this album shows they were damn good at it too.
It seems obvious that working with Graham Gouldman influenced the Ramones' writing, especially Joey's. 'Don't Go,' 'She's a Sensation,' and '7-11' are all examples of the '60s bubblegum pop that Joey usually tried to emulate in his songs. '7-11' especially deserves mention since it is such an obvious take on the classic 'disaster songs' of the late '50s-early '60s. Like 'Leader of the Pack,' it's a tale of a young man who meets the girl of his dreams ('I saw her standing by the Space Invaders, so I said can I see you later') only to lose her in a car crash. Sure, it's kind of cheesy with the strings and keyboards in the background, but Joey sounds so sincere; he delivers his most heartbreaking performance to date. However, songs like 'It's Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World),' and 'This Business is Killing Me' are much more musically progressive than anything the band had done before. The results are mixed, but at least the band is trying something new instead of running into the rut that so many punk bands found themselves in. 'It's Not My Place' sounds decidedly un-Ramones with it's syncopated drum beat and bouncy bass line, but luckily it is a well written song (despite all of the name-dropping lyrics) and has a middle part that sounds suspiciously like the Who's tune 'Whiskey Man".
Overall, this whole affair is the most ambitious album from the group to date. Much like Road to Ruin, it shows the band flexing their pop muscle without losing their love of tough city life. Imagine, if you will an alternate universe where the Beach Boys had emerged from 1970's New York instead of sunny California: that's basically the best way to describe this near perfect musical gem. It may not be considered a classic since most people try to compare it to those first four albums, which is like comparing apples and oranges: this is a bubblegum pop album, not a collection of gritty street rock like their earlier albums. Anyone who's knowledge of the Ramones stops at 1980 (or even fans of retro-'60s pop like Dressy Bessy or the Apple In Stereo) should do themselves a favor and indulge their ears with some of the catchiest melodies and best production ever committed to tape.
Bonus track on this essential re-issue include the original recording of 'Touring' and 'I Can't Get You Out of My Mind,' which would be re-recorded for the albums Mondo Bizarro and Brain Drain respectively, and really aren't too different from those versions. We also have demos which showcase the band's advanced songwriting ('Kicks to Try,' 'Sleeping Troubles,' and 'Stares in This Town'), as well as 'Chop Suey' which just may be the worst song the Ramones ever recorded. All said, of the re-issues reviewed here, this is certainly the best and the one I would recommend to Ramones fans and non-fans alike.
It seems that over the course of those last two albums, the Ramones suffered a sort of identity crisis: were they a pop band that rocked, or a rock band that popped? Well, they certainly didn't answer that question with 1983's Subterranean Jungle which, again, is an under-rated offering that is flawed but fun none the less. Believe it or not, aside from the crummy title and even worse artwork (look really close and you'll see that Dee Dee's and Joey's t-shirts are airbrushed on. I guess that's why Marky, who is off in the corner due to being kicked out right before this album came out, isn't wearing a shirt), this was probably the last truly solid Ramones album.
The group still sounds like they are searching for commercial success, which may explain why they chose producers Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin since the duo had recently scored big with Joan Jett's 'I Love Rock 'n' Roll.' The production here isn't perfect, but it is sonically closer to the band's earlier work than Pleasant Dreams: the guitars are thick and gritty, which is good, but the drums have a slick, almost electronic sound which seems sort of dated.
The album starts with a faithful cover of the Music Explosion's 'Little Bit O' Soul,' which sounds odd at first, but after a few listens, it makes sense. The other covers on this disc are 'I Need Your Love,' by local group the Boyfriends and the Chamber Brother's 'Time Has Come Today': the former is a throwaway, but sounds like it could have been a Ramones original, and 'Time Has Come Today' is a little too faithful to the original (Joey sounds like he is unsure how to sing it and alternates between a Mick Jagger impression and a kind of goofy sing-song melody), but it is far from the worst song they did and -like most of this album- it grows on you.
The real highlights here are Dee Dee's songs. While Joey seems to be re-treading the same melodies as the earlier album ('What'd You Do?' is simply a re-write of 'I Just Wanna Have Something To Do,' and 'My-My Kind of Girl' is 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend'), Dee Dee offers up some truly original compositions. 'Outsider' is one of the best songs in the Ramones catalogue as is the classic 'Psycho Therapy,' both of which make this disc required listening. Both songs combine the staple Ramones themes of alienation and mental illness with melodies as catchy as a baseball mitt and great production (dig how 'Psychotherapy' starts with that weird two-chord fade in, and then the album ends with the same effect as a fade-out for 'Everytime I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You'). Special mention must be given to Dee Dee's one-two punch of 'Highest Trails Above' and 'Somebody Like Me,' which are two of the best songs on here. 'Highest Trail Above' is musically progressive without loosing any of the Ramones punch that defined their earliest albums and also has the strangest acid-trip lyrics we've heard from the group before or since ('Through dragon mist, above alpine peaks/ To the cloudy lace, to the highest trails above'). The song leads right into my personal favorite here, 'Somebody Like Me': which again manages to recapture the glory of the band's past without sounding like a re-write of an older tune. Besides writing the album's best songs, Dee Dee also makes his lead vocal debut with 'Time Bomb.' He does a fine job on this tune that may be a little repetitive, but is a fine song anyway. The album closes out with Joey's 'Everytime I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think Of You,' which isn't nearly as clever as you would hope from the title.
Aside from that last tune and 'Time Has Come Today,' this is a surprisingly solid album. Sure, the production is kind of uneven, but any disc with 'Outsider,' 'Psycho Therapy,' 'Somebody Like Me,' and 'Highest Trails Above' can hardly be considered a failure. Much like Pleasant Dreams, Subterranean Jungle is a criminally overlooked part of the band's catalogue: it straddles the line between hard rock and pop in the way only the Ramones could. The re-issue includes demos for songs that didn't make the cut for obvious reasons (i.e. they're not that good) as well the band's cover of 1910 Fruitgum Co.'s 'Indian Giver,' which would have been a much better choice for the album than 'Time Has Come Today.'
The failure of the Ramones to hit the charts, as well as negative reactions to their last two records (which were, in fact, great!), lead to the group striving to make music on their own terms and ignore mainstream success. This lead to the recording of the much lauded 1984 album Too Tough To Die. Critics and fans may praise this album as a 'return to form' for the band and being the actual follow-up to 1979's Road To Ruin as if the three albums in between never happened. Personally, I don't hear it that way. This is by far the most uneven of these four re-issues: it shifts from moody, slow songs with strong political commentary to fast paced punk. The problem here is that those first four Ramones had neither of those things: the band was never political and were never a hardcore punk band. In fact, the best songs on here are pop songs (with keyboards and everything).
See, regardless of what people think, the Ramones really did change their sound and style. Those shifts are related to the drummers they had during those periods: Tommy had a straight ahead punk style, Marky was more surf-pop oriented, and here Richie Ramone is a generic hard rock drummer. This album suffers as being a transition point between the albums with Marky and the ones with Richie which follow.
Things kick off with the mid-tempo guitar cruncher 'Mama's Boy,' which starts off interesting, but never really gets off the ground (and why is Joey singing like that? He sounds like a frog). 'I'm Not Afraid of Life' a slow, dark song about the poor state of the world today, as is 'Planet Earth 1988,' both of which sound nothing like the Ramones of the past and don't really do much for me. The first highlight here is 'Durango 95' which is a great, catchy instrumental (that's right) which, at 55 seconds, is a near perfect example of Johnny Ramone's inimitable guitar style. The tempo stays up with the Dee Dee fronted 'Wart Hog': a song that is the band's answer to the hardcore punk bands that were threatening to steal the band's thunder. While the song is great, there was no reason for the band to feel threatened by Black Flag and the like. Dee Dee sows his punk oats again with 'Endless Vacation,' which I can't stand.
The album hits the mark with the great 'Danger Zone,' the even better 'Chasing the Night,' and the Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) produced 'Howling at the Moon.' I would say that 'Chasing the Night' is the best tune here because of its soaring melody which Joey handles beautifully, a bubbly synth part which actually fits, and an unobtrusive, well played guitar solo: what more do you want in a pop song? 'Howling at the Moon' is even more like a 1980's pop hit due to Stewart's keyboard heavy production. Fortunately, it is one of the stronger songs Dee Dee wrote for this disc, and again, is a near perfect piece of sonic joy.
Unfortunately, the album takes a dive after that. 'Daytime Dilemma' is decent, but 'Planet Earth 1988' stinks. Newest Ramone Richie even writes a tune here, 'Humankind' which, like most of Too Tough To Die, starts off promising but turns crummy. But, hold on until the end and you'll be treated to the glorious rock-a-billy romp of 'No Go' where Joey once again proves himself to be rock's most under-rated frontman.
Is Too Tough To Die the return to form it's praised as? Not to these ears. Sonically, the production (handled by T. Erdelyi who is actually the original drummer Tommy Ramone) is meaner than the last few discs and sounds great. But, the song selection here is way to uneven to be considered a classic. The re-issued version has 12 bonus tracks: most of which are unnecessary demos for songs on the album. But, there is also the British B-sides 'Street Fighting Man' (a competent Rolling Stones cover) and 'Smash You' (which, I believe, was written by Richie, and is a surprisingly great punky-pop song) as well as 'Out of Here' which has a great, dark guitar intro but falls to pieces soon after that. Fans of '80s hard rock and pop-punk will find something to enjoy here, but will probably also find plenty of songs to skip as well. I'd like to recommend this album, but I just think they have done much better.
These four early '80s discs represent dynamic shifts for the Ramones. They may not be as perfect as the band's earlier efforts, but what is? Spanning 1960's bubblegum pop and 1980's hard rock, these albums are all worth hearing, but the real must-own here is Pleasant Dreams, although, we are talking about the Ramones, and you really should own them all anyway.
If nothing else, End of the Century, Pleasant Dreams, Subterranean Jungle, and Too Tough To Die prove that the Ramones had an awful lot offer, and even at their weakest moments are much better than a vast majority of the music out there that clutters our airwaves and record stores. Were they the best band in the world? There's no doubt in my mind that they were, and these four albums only help secure that fact.