"All punk is is attitude. That's what makes it. The attitude" - Joey Ramone
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.
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 antithesis of all that "prog rock" indulgence. Short, sharp and machine gun loud. As I said earlier, they were odd characters too - four weirdos masquerading as "brothers" with the "surname" Ramone - grotesquely tall and spindly Joey, looking like some strange wading bird (but the most sensitive and intellectual of the group); borderline psychopath druggy Dee Dee; disturbingly right-wing, reactionary Johnny and drummer Tommy who you always felt was the slightly detached, more "normal" one. All wearing leather jackets and torn jeans, they were a fashion sub-culture personified. They had geeky obsessions with comic books and their imagery, Nazism, Communism, mental health and, surprisingly, sunshine and summer surf fun (odd because they all looked pretty unhealthy). They also had long hair, something supposedly anathema to punks. Yes, a decidedly odd group.
PS, was that a harmonica at the end of the wonderful Chris Montez cover, Let's Dance? Always wondered. I'm sure none of The Ramones could play harmonica.
Finally, there are many, many Ramones stories around but this remains my favourite, told by Chris Frantz of Talking Heads:-
"... touring was fun. I remember our tour manager, on the way from Bristol to Penzance, asking "would you like to see Stonehenge?". We said yes, but Johnny said "I'm not getting off the bus, it's just a bunch of of old fuckin' rocks!". Dee Dee said "no Johnny, I wanna see Stonehenge". Talking Heads wanted to see it too. But Johnny stayed on the bus...".
** The non-album tracks that were floating around at this time were a prototype version of I Don't Care, which later appeared on Rocket To Russia, which has a strangely whiny vocal from Joey; I Can't Be, a buzzy but also bassy number similar to most of the others (what a surprise!); the minute-long thrash of I Don't Wanna Be Learned/I Don't Wanna Be Tamed with its simple bass line and an early version of What's Your Name, that later appeared on Leave Home as What's Your Game.
Leave Home (1977)
Rocket To Russia (1977)
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, singalong punk pop of Sheena Is A Punk Rocker. All great 1-2-3-4 stuff.
** The non-album material from the time included an early version of It's A Long Way Back To Germany with Dee Dee on vocals that give it a grittier feel and an alternative version of We're A Happy Family which features just the voices used on the original's fade out. It is an amusing minute. There is also an early version of the pop punk of Slug that appeared in the Road To Ruin sessions.
Road To Ruin (1978)
Original drummer Tommy Ramone had been replaced by ex-Richard Hell & The Voidoids drummer Marc Bell (who became Marky Ramone), while Tommy went on to production duties. Personally, I preferred Tommy's more melodic drumming to Marky's powerhouse thump. Production-wise, though, Tommy added something because this was the group's most polished sound thus far. This was partly due to the considerable overdubbing of guitar sounds and keyboards together with re-mixing that left behind the raw, edgy sound of the debut album in particular. The days of pure punk were over, it seemed, as The Ramones tried to make it bigger, commercially. Only twelve tracks on here too 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, however, in Go Mental and Bad Brain, which sees the band revisit their mental health obsession. I Don't Want You, I'm Against It and She's The One are a bit Ramones-by-numbers, to be honest. Nothing really memorable about them, however. I have to say the same, really, about I Just Want To Have Something To Do and I Wanted Everything. The closer, It's A Long Way Back To Germany has an appeal, though.
Finally, did all this new production style and more mature songwriting result in the hoped-for increased sales? No. It was the band's worst-selling album to date. So much for breaking into the mainstream, despite performing Don't Come Close on Top Of The Pops. I must say that was a very odd thing to witness, for someone who had experienced the pandemonium of a Ramones live gig.
** The non-album material from the sessions for this album includes the fast-paced (after a slow beginning) heavy thump of I Walk Out and the more appealing, poppier thrash of S.L.U.G. . There is also the catchy and bopping good time of Yea Yea, which would have been a welcome addition to the album, actually.
Although this single was a surprise success, the sessions with Spector were fraught with tension, apparently, with a popular (possibly apocryphal) story circulated at the time of Spector brandishing a gun at the band, forcing them to play the first chord of Rock 'n' Roll High School endlessly until they got it right. That said, he certainly brought out the best in the band on some of the tracks.
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 Way; Richard Hell & The Voidoids' Chinese Rock; the more punky This 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.
There does appear to have been a definite effort to tone down the all out industrial punk attack that so characterised the debut album. Joey's influence, I am sure and Spector's. Eventually, over the next two albums, this approach would cause ructions within the group, until the more brash Dee Dee got his way again on the more caustic punk of Too Tough To Die. Another favourite that I have overlooked thus far (why I'm not sure, as I love it) is the "slowie", Danny Says, about their road manager, featuring a 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.
** The only non-album track from this album's sessions would appear to be Please Don't Leave, with its sixties pop hints, catchy chorus and rat-a-tat drum sound in places.
Pleasant Dreams (1981)
Don't Go is very sixties pop-influenced and sounds very much like a Joey track. You Sound Like You're Sick is more of a punky number, with echoes of The Buzzcocks on its "oh-oh-oh" chorus back up vocal and more of those infectious handclap drumbeats. The same punky thrash can be found on You Didn't Mean Anything To Me, yet the vocal still has a lighter, more melodic feel to it.
** There were several non-album cuts from the sessions for this album - the infectious Blondie-like sixties-style pop of Chop Suey, complete with Chinese-sounding backing vocals, the typically riffy Ramones pop of Sleeping, the frantic racket of Kicks To Try, the Dee Dee-style I'm Not An Answer, the similar Stares In This Town and the chunky I Can't Get You Out Of My Mind. These latter three would all have fitted nicely in to the ambience of Too Tough To Die.
Subterranean Jungle (1983)
Somebody Like Me has echoes of All The Way from End Of The Century. Psycho 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.
** Amongst the considerable amount of non-album material was the catchy drum-driven pop of the glammy, Suzi Quatro-ish Indian Giver and the melodic but powerful "Joey pop" of New Girl In Town, which is a really good track. Also impressive was the early Jam-influenced No One To Blame, complete with Weller-style guitar bit in the middle. Roots Of Hatred is a chugging, mature song - proper rock full of broody atmosphere. Bumming Along is a lively punker while Unhappy Girl is an amusing summery pop song from Joey.
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.
From 1984 onwards, there is not much track-by-track reviewing or analysis that can be applied to the subsequent Ramones albums, really (apart from the excellent and interesting Acid Eaters collection of covers). There is not too much that can be said, is there? More and more of the same, and less good. Needless to say, though, I give them all a play every now and again. The albums in question are -
Animal Boy (1986)
This was very much a Dee Dee album, even more so than Too Tough To Die, although it is not without a few surprisingly good tracks. Indeed, I prefer it to that album, I have to say.
Another Dee Dee-dominated album but also one that is a little underrated, slipping unnoticed under virtually everyone’s radar. It features a bit more musical variety than on many other Ramones albums (comparatively). Not too much, however, it still chugs along in typical later-era Ramones fashion.
Brain Drain (1989)
This was heralded as The Ramones’ “comeback album” and had music writers pulling out their “return to form” cliches by the score. They had a bit of a point, though, as it was a big, brash heavy rocker of an album that seemed to have the group more as one again, coming bursting back out of your speakers.
Mondo Bizarro (1992)
Kicked off by a true later-era Ramones classic in Censorshit, this album has a re-invigorated Joey back at his best. It has a vibrancy to it that we had all missed. It rocks, in melodic Joey style from beginning to end. I always was a Joey man, as you know.
This interesting later-era album of cover versions from The Ramones, released in 1993, showed the group's liking for, and subsequent influence by, US garage - psychedelic rock from the mid-sixties. Four of the tracks are covers of songs that appeared on the legendary Nuggets compilation of that genre.
The group also liked a bit of British r 'n' b and they cover songs from The Who (Substitute), The Rolling Stones (Out Of Time), The Animals (When I Was Young) and The Troggs (I Can't Control Myself). Their punky thrash instincts sound great on Love's 7 And 7 Is and Jefferson Airplane's Somebody To Love is suitably rousing. Dylan - The Byrds' My Back Pages is a breakneck punky joy. Indeed, they had always liked a cover anyway, several appearing on their previous albums and here they approach their task with enthusiasm and considerable musical dexterity (something not normally associated with them). It is a very enjoyable journey through the sixties with all the tracks given The Ramones treatment. In every case it works as none of the renditions can be accused of not working. I personally enjoyed every one of them.
I have always admired The Ramones' respect for musical heritage, particularly Joey, and this comes across loud and clear from minute one. There is not much more analysis that can be given, so I won't attempt to do so.
** A great non-album track is the goofily frantic cover of the Spiderman theme.
Although Dee Dee Ramone had left the group six years earlier, six of his songs appeared on this, their last album. Nineteen years after they first appeared, I can’t help but feel that there is a bit of an underlying sadness to this album. That’s how I feel when I listen to it, anyway.