Sunday, 5 August 2018

The Ramones


  

Around June 1977, a friend of mine was getting into punk and brought round a tinny tape recorder to play me firstly, The Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen, which was banned from radio, and secondly the first Ramones album. I was blown away by both - fascinated by these buzzsaw guitar-driven short sharp bursts of energy. I had never heard the like. It was a seismic moment. I loved The Ramones from then on, first seeing their frantic, bombastic live show at Friars Aylesbury on December 30th 1977, the night before they recorded the It's Alive album at The Rainbow in London.


There then followed a run of great albums that didn't deviate much from the formula of crashingly loud, breakneck punk with sixties bubblegum pop influences, delivered by a band who had a lovable goofiness about them.

In 1980, I was about to see them live at Canterbury Odeon, where I was studying, I thought I would go and have a curry beforehand as I had heard that was what The Ramones did. My friend and I were gobsmacked to walk into the restaurant and see Dee Dee, Johnny and several members of the road crew quietly eating their curry and chatting in the far corner. We didn't bother them, just nodded, so they knew we were fans, and ate our own meal. An hour later we were touching Johnny's guitar as he played. Great memories.

The albums covered here are:-

Ramones (1976)
Leave Home (1977)
Rocket To Russia (1977)
It's Alive (1977)
Road To Ruin (1978)
End Of The Century (1980)
Pleasant Dreams (1981)
Subterranean Jungle (1983)
and Too Tough To Die (1984)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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RAMONES (1976)

1. Blitzkreig Bop
2. Beat On The Brat
3. Judy Is A Punk
4. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend
5. Chain Saw
6. Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
7. I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement
8. Loudmouth
9. Havana Affair
10. Listen To My Heart
11. 53rd & 3rd
12. Let's Dance
13. I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You
14. Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World       
Let’s be honest, The Ramones were an extremely odd bunch, like the four geekiest/sociopathic kids at school gathered up in one group. But what a revolutionary sound they producedFor such a beautifully simplistic band, their influence has been immense, musically and culturally. Ramones T-shirts are still de rigeur, all these years later.

On to their now iconic debut album from 1976. This remastering of the iconic 1976 debut album from The Ramones is a so-so affair. There is not much you can do to “remaster” the all out thrash of that buzzsaw guitar, rumbling bass and pounding drums, not forgetting Joey Ramone’s strange bleat of a vocal. The 2016 remaster is therefore as ok as it can be. I am not a mono fan, so, unfortunately the mono mix does nothing for me. Neither can I see the need for it. I can understand the Beatles, Dylan, Beach Boys mono vs stereo thing, because much of that music was originally recorded in mono. In 1976, not even punks expected recordings to be in mono.

     

Great punk cuts abound though - Blitzkrieg BopBeat On The BratJudy Is A PunkLoudmouth.   . US punk Heaven. Bizarre lyrics, 
buzzsaw riffs, thumping drums, frantic songs that rarely exceed three minutes (if not two). Music had never really seen or heard anything like it. It really was a ground-breaking album in its totally goofy simplicity. It was the very antidote to all that "prog rock" indulgence. Just listen to that intro to Blitzkrieg Bop as the drums, bass and guitar come in. Pure punk heaven. 

The lyrics are full of paranoid nihilism too - I Don't Want To Go Down To The BasementNow I Want To Sniff Some Glue and Chain Saw. All very "noir", menacing and urban. However, the group always had a bit of a romantic weakness, as the geeky I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend showed. 

The jewel in the crown in this collection, however, is the two live sets from The Roxy. Surprisingly good sound quality for the time and the superior of the It’s Alive live release, sound-wise.

PS, was that a harmonica at the end of the Chris Montez cover, Let's Dance ? Always wondered. I'm sure none of The Ramones could play harmonica.

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LEAVE HOME (1977)

1. Glad To See You Go
2. Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment
3. I Remember You
4. Oh Oh I Love Her So
5. Carbona Not Glue
6. Suzy Is A Headbanger
7. Pinhead
8. Now I Wanna Be A Good Boy
9. Swallow My Pride
10. What's Your Game
11. California Sun
12. Commando
13. You're Gonna Kill That Girl
14. You Should Never Have Opened That Door
15. Babysitter           

Do the words "Ramones" and "Remastering" have any real relationship? The studio work of The Ramones is probably the least in need of remastering of any band. That said, there is a full, bassy warmth to this latest remastering that has not been there before and serves as a counter to the full-on guitar of most of the tracks.
                                             
Released in early 1977, this was the album where the formula from the iconic, breakthrough debut album was improved upon a bit, in terms of studio and production levels. It doesn't lose any of the first album's rough and ready power though. Just a bit more polished and some of the songs a bit more tuneful. Why there's even a couple of semi-ballads in there in I Remember You and What's Your Game. Surf pop is there in California Sun, Oh Oh I Love Her So and Swallow My Pride. There is the goofy Suzy Is A HeadbangerPinhead and the full on 1-2-3-4 thrash of Now I Wanna Be A Good BoyGlad To See You Go and Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment. I remember first hearing the line "I Met Her At The Burger King" in Oh Oh I Love Her So. I didn't know what a "Burger King" was!

The other versions of the album you get here - the 40th Anniversary mix and the Sundragon rough mixes are both appealing in their own way. I am not quite sure how they differ from each other, particularly the "40th Anniversary mix". I really cannot detect much difference, if I am truly honest! In relation to the original album, I find the Sundragon Tracking Mixes just a bit "rougher", more bassy, more "drummy" - more defined somehow. Maybe a tiny bit more melodic. Again, not sure what the differences really are, but they are there. The alternative versions are worth listening to. Very similar to those on Rocket To Russia.

  

The extras - instrumental versions, demos versions, alternate lyric versions are of only initial interest to me and no more, I'm afraid. The live stuff is as you would expect - rough and ready, but that what a Ramones gig was like. Not an "audiophile" in sight. Thank God.

All in all, though, if you a fan, you will still want to get it. If you just want the original album, download the individual tracks.

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ROCKET TO RUSSIA (1977)

1. Cretin Hop
2. Rockaway Beach
3. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
4. Locket Love
5. I Don't Care
6. Sheena Is A Punk Rocker
7. We're A Happy Family
8. Teenage Lobotomy
9. Do You Wanna Dance
10. I Wanna Be Well
11. I Can't Give You Anything
12. Ramona
13. Surfin' Bird
14. Why Is It Always This Way?

The studio work of The Ramones is probably the least in need of remastering of any band. That said, there is a full, bassy warmth to this latest remastering that has not been there before and serves as a counter to the full-on guitar of most of the tracks.

Released in late 1977, this was the album where breakneck punk fully met surf pop and goofball lyrics complete the "chewin' out a rhythm on my bubblegum" pleasure. Surf pop. Power pop. Call it what you will, it is there in the wonderful Rockaway Beach, the cover of Surfin' Bird,  in RamonaLocket Love and the cover of Do You Wanna Dance. The obsessions with health, particularly mental health abound in Cretin HopI Wanna Be Well and Teenage Lobotomy. Then there is the goofy humour of We're A Happy Family and the quirky Why Is It Always This Way?. Punky nihilism is there too in I Don't Care, while I Can't Give You Anything is a cynical "anti-love" song.

Then there is one of the first "punk ballads" in the lovely Here Today Gone Tomorrow and, of course, there is the "hit" - the iconic Sheena Is A Punk Rocker. All great 1-2-3-4 stuff. The other versions of the album you get here - the "tracking mixes" and the "rough mixes" are both appealing in their own way. I am not quite sure how they differ from each other. In relation to the original album, I find the Tracking Mixes just a bit "rougher", more bassy, more defined somehow. Again, not sure what the differences really are, but they are there. The alternative versions are worth listening to.

  

The extras - instrumental versions, demos versions, alternate lyric versions are of only initial interest to me and no more, I'm afraid.

All in all, though, if you a fan, you will still want to get it. If you just want the original album, download the individual tracks.

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IT'S ALIVE (1977)

1. Rockaway Beach
2. Teenage Lobotomy
3. Blitzkreig Bop
4. I Wanna Be Well
5. Glad To See You Go
6. Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment
7. You're Gonna Kill That Girl
8. I Don't Care
9. Sheena is A Punk Rocker
10. Havana Affair
11. Commando
12. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
13. Surfin' Bird
14. Cretin Hop
15. Listen To My Heart
16. California Sun
17. I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You
18. Pinhead
19. Do You Wanna Dance?
20. Chainsaw
21. Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World
22. Now I Wanna Be A Good Boy
23. Judy Is A Punk
24. Suzy Is A Headbanger
25. Let's Dance
26. Oh Oh I Love Her So
27. Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
28. We're A Happy Family    

Recorded on December 31st 1977 at London's Rainbow, this was the the first live album to be issued by a punk band and it remains one of the greatest live albums of all time, capturing an iconic band at the peak of their new-found powers. Incidentally, I saw them the night before this gig, at FriarsAylesbury. I was blown away by the sheer power and non-stop attack of it all. I had not heard the like.

The set comprises twenty-eight songs yet the whole gig lasts only fifty-three minutes, such is the breakneck nature of the all-out assault on the senses. The songs are separated only by endless "1-2-3-4"'s and a couple of verbal intros from Joey - "after eating our chicken vindaloo... I Wanna Be Well... and "this is for all you lonely hearts out there..." for Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.



The first three songs make for a absolutely classic opening salvo - Rockaway Beach, Teenage Lobotomy and the wonderful Blitzkrieg Bop. The energy is incredible. You had to be there, I guess, to really get it, but hopefully it comes across for anyone who was unlucky enough never to have caught them live. My one tiny gripe is that the album has never been remastered*, so its sound is a bit dull and even with turning up is not quite as crisp as it might be. But that is not really too relevant  - it's The Ramones. Just turn it up - 1-2-3-4!!

* As of 2019 a remaster is available, but only as a part of a four CD, four gig live box set (which incidentally includes the gig at Aylesbury that I saw) and costs £70. It is available via streaming services, however, and the sound is much improved. 

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ROAD TO RUIN (1978)

1. I Just Want To Have Something To Do
2. I Wanted Everything
3. Don't Come Close
4. I Don't Want You
5. Needles And Pins
6. I'm Against It
7. I Wanna Be Sedated
8. Go Mental
9. Questioningly
10. She's The One
11. Bad Brain
12. It's A Long Way Back To Germany 
       
Released in 1978, "Road To Ruin" followed three iconic "1-2-3-4" Ramones albums of punk rock heaven. By now, they felt the need to show they weren't not just three-chord wonders. The "new wave" had begun, and acts like Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The Jam and The Clash were diversifying and showing considerable songwriting skills. Maybe The Ramones felt they had to compete in similar fashion, or maybe they just fancied trying something different. Either way, this album saw the first real Ramones ballad in Questioningly and Don't Come Close was a single which had a new wave style melody to it - certainly not a two minute fist pumper/pogoer. The cover of The Searchers' Needles And Pins ploughed a similar furrow. Even the catchy I Wanna Be Sedated seemed a little more singalong and a little less three chord guitar thrash, despite its repetitive structure.

Only twelve tracks on here as opposed to the fourteen on the previous three. Those songs must be getting longer! The Ramones were going all Led Zeppelin.

  

There are still some copper-bottomed punkers in Go Mental and Bad Brain, which sees the band revisit their mental health obsession. I Don't Want YouI'm Against It and She's The One are a bit Ramones-by-numbers, to be honest. Nothing really memorable about them, however.

Despite that, I still have a nostalgic affection for this album. I remember buying it on the day of release back in 1978 and being a bit underwhelmed, though, in comparison to Rocket To Russia. The yellow vinyl was mightily impressive though, so much so that I still always remember it as The Ramones' "yellow album" and the cover art certainly adds to that effect. Still, The Ramones are The Ramones - there is always something to enjoy.

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2018 40th ANNIVERSARY REMASTERED EDITION

This 40th Anniversary remaster is not as easily available as the previous three in the series, although a digital download is on amazon, as well as a vinyl/CD set.

As with the others, the question of whether anything by The Ramones needs remastering is a valid one. However, listening to this, the remaster of the original sounds pretty impressive. Listen to those cutting, slashing guitars right at the end of I Just Want To Have Something To Do  (the first sign of The Ramones playing anything more than the riff chords). The bass on I Wanted Everything comes over full, muscular and resonant. Don't Come Close just explodes right out your speakers with a big bassy boom. Needles And Pins also has some excellent bass too. It is on the “ballads” that the bassy remastering is most apparent, and Questioningly provides another example.



The alternative mixes are, rather like the ones on the previous three 40th Anniversary re-releases, even more bassy and warm-sounding. The slight tinniness that the original album always had is not present and the album sounds more like it maybe should have done. Sort of purer. I really enjoyed listening to these. Many people may not notice a difference, but I am sure most Ramones-oholics will. Don’t Come Close has none of those high-pitched additional guitar twangs. It is played in pure, typical, chugging Ramones style and is very appealing for it. Tracks like I'm Against It , I Don't Want You and the excellent I Wanna Be Sedated all sound great. The latter is beautifully punchy and bassy. Go Mental just sounds raw, edgy and somehow better than the original. In a way the whole “alternative” album does. The same was certainly true of the Leave Home and Rocket To Russia alternative mixes. Something pure and essential about them. I am not sure how the Rough Mixes and 2018 mixes differ, however. Both sound fresh and vibrant. The Rough Mixes contain a frantic, breakneck I Wanna Be Sedated which is the very essence of The Ramones. The same goes for Don’t Come Close.

The live tracks from 31 December 1979 are raw and lively as you would imagine. The sound quality is ok, not outstanding, but perfectly acceptable.

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END OF THE CENTURY (1980)

1. Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio
2. I'm Affected
3. Danny Says
4. Chinese Rock
5. The Return Of Danny And Judy
6. Let's Go
7. Baby, I Love You
8. I Can't Make It On Time
9. This Ain't Havana
10. Rock 'n' Roll High School
11. All The Way
12. High Risk Insurance

In 1980, The Ramones brought in the production genius that was the legendary Phil Spector for this, their fifth studio album. They had diversified just a little on their previous album, Road To Ruin and this outing saw them broadening their horizons even more while still remaining true to their punk roots.

With Spector's help, they laid down a killer cover of The RonettesBaby I Love You, although nothing could hope to compete with the original. Why, it even included orchestration. Strings? On a Ramones record? Wow! 

  

Rock 'n' Roll Radio was a big production "wall of sound" tribute to old rock n rollers and DJs. Most of the other material was more punky - the catchy Rock 'n' Roll High School (used in the film of the same name; my own personal favourite in All The WayRichard Hell & The VoidoidsChinese RockThis Ain't Havana and High Risk Insurance. All these are punk in nature, but still have a tunefulness to them, as indeed does the almost laid back feel (at times) of I'm Affected

Another favourite is the "slowie", Danny Says about their road manager. Lovely melody and delivery by Joey.

This is just a little different from what we had come to expect from The Ramones, within reason. They even used a few extra bits of percussion and I'm sure there is a acoustic guitar in there somewhere.

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PLEASANT DREAMS (1981)

1. We Want The Airwaves
2. All Quiet On The Western Front
3. The KKK Took My Baby Away
4. Don't Go
5. You Sound Like You're Sick
6. It's Not My Place (In The 9 To 5 World)
7. She's A Sensation
8. 7-11
9. You Didn't Mean Anything To Me
10. Come On Now
11. This Business Is Killing Me
12. Sitting In My Room
13. Touring
14. I Can't Get You Out Of My Mind            

A “crossroads” album for The Ramones. Hiring ex-10 cc guitarist Graham Gouldman to produce the album, hoping for more commercial success, it resulted in conflict between band members Joey and Johnny, the latter who wanted the band to concentrate on the raw punk of their first three albums, whereas the singer preferred the more poppier sound to be found here.
    

Tracks like She’s A Sensation7-11 and the mystifying The KKK Took My Baby Away are actually melodic, exciting power pop type songs as indeed is It’s Not My Place (In The 9 to 5 World). Even musically punkier tracks like You Didn’t Mean Anything To Me and We Want The Airwaves have a lighter, tuneful delivery. The harder songs are closer to Black Sabbath-style hard rock than punk, to be honest. The poppy handclaps are omnipresent, however.

This album is really nothing like the first three albums at all (certainly not the first two). Although you can still tell it is The Ramones, even Joey’s voice seemed to carry a different timbre now, trying to be more like his beloved 60s pop.

Music media reaction, on the whole, was negative, feeling the band had “sold out” “gone pop” and the like. This is slightly unfair, one feels. What were The Ramones supposed to do? Produce annual replicas of their first album for the foreseeable future? Had they done so, they would attracted negative feedback for doing just that.

Personally, I have always quite enjoyed this album, although I fully accept that the previous five are the five essential Ramones albums. Here is where their output becomes non-essential.

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SUBTERRANEAN JUNGLE (1983)

1. Little Bit O' Soul
2. I Need Your Love
3. Outsider
4. What'd Ya Do
5. Highest Trails Above
6. Somebody Like Me
7. Psycho Therapy
8. Time Has Come Today
9. My-My Kind Of Girl
10. In The Park
11. Time Bomb
12. Every Time I Eat Vegetable It Makes Me Think Of You     

This is a most underrated Ramones album, recorded at the height of a fractious atmosphere within the group. It is very much a Joey Ramone album, concentrating on the sixties pop style he loved so much. The songs are deliciously hook-laden and the guitar far more melodic than typically punk. They would evert to punk basics for the next album, Too Tough To Die but this one should not be overlooked. It is a joyous, energetic singalong romp.

    

Little Bit O' Soul is a catchy, cowbell rhythm-driven poppy opener, with Joey on fine vocal form. I Need Your Love is typical Joey Ramone. As with all this album, the production is a bit tinny, but it does not detract too much from the ebullience of the song. Outsider is far more Dee Dee Ramone - full of chunky punk riffs and lyrics about social detachment. What'd Ya Do is also archetypal 1976-78 grinding, punky Ramones. The frantic Highest Trails Above, like the previous two tracks, gives the lie to the notion that this is not a punk album. Of course it is, it's still The Ramones.

Somebody Like Me has echoes of All The Way from End Of The CenturyPsycho Therapy was copper-bottomed Dee Dee and would become a live set staple for the remainder of the band's career. It has hints of Go Mental from Road To Ruin to it. Time Has Come Today is a solid, muscular and appealing rock number that last over four minutes! The Ramones Over four minutes? Surely not! This is one of the heaviest numbers they had done. It is a cover of a 1967 track by The Chambers Brothers. They were a "psychedelic soul" band, and this was a very "rock" number for a soul band. The Ramones played it pretty straight to the original.

My-My Kind Of A Girl, as you may expect, is a harmonious, summery Joey romancer. In The Park is an upbeat poppy new-wave track. Time Bomb is more retro, punky Ramones. The quirkily-titled Every Time I Eat Vegetable It Makes Me Think Of You is Joey's fun sign-off to this enjoyable, lively, vibrant album. It was already culturally out of time in 1983, however, and was probably only bought by die-hards. Even myself, who was there at the beginning, didn't buy this at the time. It would be many years before I retrospectively got hold of it.

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TOO TOUGH TO DIE (1984)

1. Mama's Boy
2. I'm Not Afraid Of Life
3. Too Tough To Die
4. Durango 95
5. Wart Hog
6. Danger Zone
7. Chasing The Night
8. Howling At The Moon (Sha-La La)
9. Daytime Dilemmas (Dangers Of Love)
10. Planet Earth 1988
11. Humankind
12. Endless Vacation
13. No Go   

By 1984, punk had long since expired, new wave too, even new romanticism's make-up was running. What was around was actually not too much at all. What was needed was an antidote in the now increasingly irrelevant Ramones giving us more of the same. After a brief flirtation with slow ballads every now and again, they returned to their no-nonsense punk roots on this muscular, uncompromising album. Indeed, they certainly were too tough to die. Great cover too.

  

                                                     
The Richard Hell-ish Mama's Boy is a reasonable opener, while I'm Not Afraid Of Life has vague echoes of The Doors in Joey Ramone's vocal  and also Department S's Is Vic ThereToo Tough To Die is a brooding, menacing rocker. Durango 45 is a brief instrumental based around a classic punk riff, circa 1977. It leads straight into the raucous punk romp of Wart HogDee Dee Ramone is, maybe not advisedly, on vocals.

Danger Zone is a typical slice of Ramones thumping punk. The poppy, catchy Chasing The Night even has some keyboards swirling around and an infectious chorus. The best track on the album for me. Not far behind is the singalong grind of Howling At The Moon (She-La-La). Amazingly, on such a retrospective Ramones album, these two tracks are both over four minutes long! So too is the next one, the riffy Daytime Dilemmas (Dangers Of Love), which is another cracker. It has great backing vocals/guitar interplay at the end.

Planet Earth 1988 is future shock rocker, full of stonking guitar and drums. It is another one I love. A typical Ramones intro pounds us into Humankind, as if it is 1977 again. Just turn it up. Endless Vacation, however, is a bit of a turkey, with sort of madcap vocals and breakneck riff that characterised what punk would turn into in the nineties. Dee Dee is on vocals once more - give us Joey back again, please. Thankfully, he returns for the bopping, energetic No Go.

There is a convincing argument that says that this was The Ramones' last great album, and also their first since the late seventies. I wouldn't disagree with either of those statements.

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