I was in the middle of writing this blog post when news broke that Tommy Ramone passed away. His death coincides quite freakishly with a sudden surge of enthusiasm for the Ramones’ music– I wrote about it last week— that I have no real explanation for. This made me very sad. I really liked Tommy. He always struck me as the most mature of the Ramones. He lacked most of the neuroses and anxiety that seemed to afflict the rest of the band, so in a way it made a whole lot of sense to have him manning the drums. He may have only occupied that spot for a few years, but he played on their three biggest albums: Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia; albums that essentially kickstarted a musical revolution both stateside and abroad.
Those first three albums are absolute masterpieces. Though most folks will talk about that first record (and it is a fine record), my personal favorite is Leave Home, an album which more accurately reflects their live sound, without the pronounced channel separation of their debut. I wrote a bit about Tommy last week, and posted what I consider to be their greatest live document: a video of their legendary (and riot-inducing) 1977 performance in London’s The Rainbow. But I also wanted to discuss some of the unheralded Ramones classics that Tommy wasn’t a part of. Of course, everyone knows “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away”, but I thought I’d take a look at some of those later songs that nobody really talks about. So for your listening enjoyment, here’s recorded proof that the band just wouldn’t let up: five Ramones gems you probably haven’t paid much attention to.
“Questioningly” from Road to Ruin (1978)
Easily the poppiest, most melodic, most unabashedly sugary out of all the songs from the first four albums (save for maybe their wonderful cover of Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzche’s “Needles and Pins”, but that’s a cover so it doesn’t count). This beautiful little number was overshadowed by other Road to Ruin cuts like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Don’t Come Close”, but to my ears it’s much more affecting. Penned by bassist Dee Dee (mind you, the same person who’d written earlier songs like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), this song displayed a sense of romantic vulnerability that, while somewhat present in earlier songs, was buried under buzzsaw guitar riffs and ridiculously high tempos, as well as the band’s trademark sense of humor. There are no yuk-yuks here. This is a strikingly earnest song about regret, heartbreak and lost love, which is underlined by everything from Joey’s vocal performance to the song’s country-western ballad production flourishes. Johnny Ramone, the band’s guitarist and steadfast disciplinarian, reportedly hated the song.
Road to Ruin was meant to be the band’s big breakthrough in the US; they spent more time on it than on any of their previous albums, making sure the arrangements were lush and radio-ready. It only really became considered a classic in hindsight, after a remixed version of “I Wanna Be Sedated” for a Greatest Hits collection gave them some modest chart success in the mid-80s. When it came out in 1978, it received very little radio attention and lukewarm reviews. Mainstream radio’s indifference was a crushing blow to the band’s morale, and led directly to one of their most controversial albums…
“I Can’t Make it on Time” from End of the Century (1979)
In light of Road to Ruin’s disappointing chart performance, the band decided to work with their first celebrity producer, the legendary Phil Spector, on their follow-up album End of the Century. Look, this should have worked. Phil Spector, pop producer extraordinaire, a master at crafting songs that jump out and pull you in, inventor of the Wall of Sound. And the Ramones, a band whose vocal melodies were always deeply rooted in the radio pop of Spector’s era, and whose straight-ahead overdriven buzzsaw guitar attack was their own rudimentary approximation to Spector’s orchestrated Wall of Sound approach. This should have resulted in a pop album for the ages. This should have been the record that finally earned the Ramones some commercial success. This should have… sounded better.
Unfortunately, the end result to the long and arduous recording sessions, fraught with tension and reportedly even threats of violence, was an album that neither matched the raw power of the Ramones nor approached the transcendental pop stylings of Spector’s best work. In fact, it clearly displayed that Spector had no idea how to produce hard rock music: the arrangements were a mess, the drum sound sloppy, and Johnny’s guitar paper-thin and anemic. The two songs were Spector’s approach actually worked were perhaps the album’s most famous tracks: lead single “Do You Remember Rockn’roll Radio” and the plaintive ballad “Danny Says”. The rest of the album sounds bad, even though the songs are good. Take “This Ain’t Havana”, for example, a rollicking two-minute blast with a ridiculously infectious melody that would’ve sounded amazing in Leave Home or Rocket to Russia. Or this song, my favorite song in the album, “I Can’t Make it on Time”, with its irrepressible shout-along chorus. Look past the tepid sound and you’ll find a stone-cold Ramones classic, and a great pop tune. This is true for the other songs as well. There’s a great album here, ill-served by the bizarre production choices of a veritable madman.
The saddest part? It didn’t even chart.
“I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind” from Brain Drain (1989)
By 1989 the dream was dead. The Ramones had floundered for most of the 80s in an effort to gain commercial relevance within a pop culture landscape that had no space for their ilk. They had attempted big-name producers, recorded absurdly catchy songs, collaborated with some of the biggest artists of the decade yet continued to operate well below the radar. Aside from the aforementioned remix of “I Wanna Be Sedated”, their 80s singles were crushing radio bombs, and their albums were uneven; you had the choppy pop exuberance of Pleasant Dreams, the stripped-down proto-hardcore of Too Tough to Die, the bizarre mish-mash of punk rock and synthpop stylings of Animal Boy. Still, as much as their 80s discography felt like increasingly erratic attempts at radio success, each record yielded a few gems that approached the intensity and fun of their 70s output.
For my money, the best album from this turbulent period was its very last one: 1989’s Brain Drain. I purchased this at the height of my Ramones fandom, maybe about 14 years ago. This track was an instant favorite. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind” is a dark and feverish song about romantic obsession, with a suitably dramatic performance by Joey. It has about 9 words in it, because that’s all it needs to have. It captures the overall mood of the album, a dark and murky record filled with angry and desolate songs. From the impassioned opener “I Believe in Miracles”, to the sparse and deceivingly poppy “All Screwed Up”, through roaring numbers like “Learn to Listen” and “Zero Zero UFO”. It’s honestly one of my favorite Ramones albums, and one that rarely gets talked about.
(This was also Dee Dee’s last album with the band before he left to pursue his hilarious rap career.)
“Tomorrow She Goes Away” from Mondo Bizarro (1992)
Dee Dee’s replacement was CJ Ramone, an enthusiastic young Marine who’d grown up a diehard fan of the band, and parfticularly of the man he was replacing. CJ felt, and sounded, like a breath of fresh air for a band that had grown creatively stagnant. CJ’s presence brought a much-needed levity to the group, which had become embittered and resentful towards each other. His studio debut with the band, 1992’s Mondo Bizarro, featured a band that sounded vibrant and hungry for the first time in many years. It contained some of the band’s catchiest songs in a decade: tracks like “Censorshit”, an open letter to Tipper Gore with a devilishly hooky chorus of “aw Tipper come on, ain’t you been getting it on?, Other highlights include the demented rave-up “The Job That Ate My Brain”, the soulful lament of “Poison Heart”, and the tender country ballad “I Won’t Let it Happen”. The songs were sharp, bright, well-crafted and with a healthy dose of macabre humor; this was a welcome change after the stark murkiness of their last couple of albums.
“Tomorrow She Goes Away” is probably my favorite track from the entire album, capturing the youthful enthusiasm of this era. There was a lot of that going on; the song “It’s Gonna Be OK”, a love letter to Ramones fans, featured the lines “got good feelings about this year; all is very well, CJ is here”. For the first time in years, the band was back to their early-career optimism, making public declarations about how this felt like they were at the precipice of something big, Well, they were. They just didn’t know it wouldn’t really include them.
“Born to Die in Berlin” from Adios Amigos (1995)
1994 was a big year for punk rock music in the United States. Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, Rancid, NOFX– all bands that had been massively influenced by the Ramones– all attained a level of commercial success that had so far eluded the band that inspired them all. And even earlier, before that, the early 90s also saw an explosion of bands that were name-checking the Ramones in interviews: Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana. It felt like the time was finally right for them; the pop culture landscape had caught up, people were finally listening to their brand of distorted, melodic, fast-tempo music. But… it wasn’t their music. Ramones guitars were all over the radio, yes, but it wasn’t the Ramones playing them. It was everybody else. It was bands that had been inspired by the Ramones approach. Meanwhile, their own albums Mondo Bizarro and Acid Eaters (a really great cover album featuring punked-up 60s songs) had failed to capture the public’s interest. People were just not paying attention. Success just wasn’t for them.
Adios Amigos was their farewell album. As the name implies, the band had decided to call it quits after decades of struggling commercially while being heralded by every rock musician and music critic as the greatest band in the world. They’d just had enough. And their last album reflected that; the songs were full of anger and bitterness, from “It’s Not For Me To Know” to “Take The Pain Away” and “She Talks To Rainbows”, it was a sound of a band that had had enough of giving their heart and soul to a public that just didn’t seem to care. It also kept some of the traditional Ramones pep and snarkiness, of course, but even those tracks seemed fatalistic: “I’ve Got a Lot to Say”, “Life’s a Gas” and their cover of the brilliant Tom Waits song “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” (which sounded like it was written to be a Ramones song in the first place).
The Ramones finally received the recognition they deserved, yes, but many years overdue. Ramones t-shirts are a common sight these days, and it seems every indie band in the world has played a cover or two of their songs. The public seems to have a pretty good idea of who they were, thanks to books, films, television and the Internet. They finally permeated into pop culture. In their lifetime as a band, however, they were the start of something big, but went largely unheralded and ignored. The last song of Adios Amigos, and as thus the final track in the Ramones studio discography, is one of my all-time favorite Ramones songs, the furious “Born to Die in Berlin”. Roaring guitars over a plaintive, soulful chorus: “sometimes I feel I just can’t win”. The bloody, screaming death of a mighty beast.