The Ramones

Gabba gabba!

You know, sometimes I don't know why I even do this website. I mean, it's mainly just stuff I dash off the cuff and don't polish up too much. Sorry for all those spelling/grammar errors - half the time I'm just cranking the words out too fast to notice. I mean, these are just record reviews, it's not like serious writing or anything. If any of this saw print, then I'd take more care, but as is this is something I just do for fun and to keep my writing skills in practice. I read somewhere that the best thing for a writer to do is to not save himself for his big novel, but to write, write, write - no matter what it is. Write for newspapers, write advice columns, write trash, just write! It's like a musician having to keep in shape by playing every single day. This is the web - my page is more clutter. If millions of people read this, then I'd polish things up and maybe not say things that might offend people (check out a couple of my 10,000 Maniacs reviews - boy, are some folks going to get offended! I was being tongue-in-cheek, since I'm a natural-born ironist, but there are plenty of people who take everything you say completely seriously. I mean, really - I don't encourage people to do drugs or anything like that. I was joking!).

Well, I'm 25, another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do. Last year I was 24, I didn't make the big score (skip this next paragraph if you don't care about my rambling. I'll get to the Ramones in a bit). Looks like I'm going to graduate with my M.A. degree this spring. I don't really know what I'll do, and I've got anxiety about that. I hate teaching. I'm just not cut out for it; I get too much stagefright. I hate grad school, too. The whole approach to literature by academics is completely wrong. Back in the old days there were some good critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionell Trilling, but today's post-structuralism and ranting political tirades masquerading as aesthetic critiques - screw'em. If I had my druthers I'd get myself a time machine, land in the leading French universities in the '60s, and send Foucalt, Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, and their ilk to the gulloitine for their crimes against language. A good friend of mine, novelist/poet Jim Whitehead, gave me this advice when I was working as an undergrad in his class and looking at going to grad school: "Burks, do you really want to spend your life writing neo-Marxist critiques of Proust?" Don't get me wrong - I love the college environment, I like talking to and hanging around all these intelligent and interesting people. I just find it too stifling, that's all. The "real world" is probably no better - spending most of your waking life in some narrow corporate environment is just as stifling, probably more so. I read somewhere that studies show that depressed people are much more realistic than happier people - people lie to themselves about how great they are and how great their life is, and what happens when you get depressed is that you lose that defense mechanism. Seeing things as they really are is not a pretty sight. Maybe I'd better start deluding myself and cheer up.

Okay, so if you've had the patience to sit through my little whiny bit (sorry, just had the urge to vent), now I'll start talking about the Ramones. No band since the Beatles so completely changed the face of rock until these four lads from Queens shouted, "Hey, ho, let's go!" That is not hyperbole, that is plain fact. Yes, they pretty much invented punk rock as we know it today, but not only that: they were the first great minimalists, stripping everything down to its barest essentials - rhythm, melody, drive, vocals, guitar tone, what more do you need? That minimalist junk aesthetic has influenced everybody. A friend of mine was playing some modern electronic music the other night, some French band called Daft Punk. Well, my tolerance for that type of thing isn't very high, but he was raving about how Daft Punk strip everything to the bare essentials, just a beat you can groove on. I rightly pointed out that the Ramones did the exact same thing - and did it twenty years earlier, and better. No one had ever played this fast before, no one had sounded so supercharged with electric teenbeat excitement - Norman Mailer described it as being tied to a freight train at full speed or something like that, and though that's a more than likely inaccurate paraphrase, it's exactly right. The Ramones fetishized speed more than anybody before had, thereby inventing a completely new aesthetic built entirely on faster, faster, faster! Well, maybe not completely new, 'cause folks had done fast numbers before, but never that fast.

For a while they were the most perfect band in the world. But, you can't keep that up forever, especially after you turn 30. I've held off reviewing their output because I've only got their early stuff and lost interest around the '80s. Maybe they had some good stuff then, but all I've heard is Too Tough To Die and I didn't like it very much. Anyway, those early records are GREAT! Combine heavy metal sludge with whooshing pre-psych '60s pop, speed it up, and shake - you've got the ingredients for some of the most fun, fun, fun rock'n'roll under the Manhattan skyline! Both the pop and punk elements are equally important; sadly, most of the punk and hardcore bands that came in the Ramones' wake forgot all about the pop melodies that made the Ramones so nifty. Unless you're the Buzzcocks - gee, what a wonderful band. But saying whether the Buzzcocks or the Ramones are better is like saying whether you prefer vanilla or chocolate - same creamy flavor, but yet totally different! At least neither flavor is Rancid (see my clever pun?).

The Ramones (1976) *****

The crucial cut is "Chain Saw", 'cause that's exactly what Johnny Ramone's guitar sounds like - underscored by the sound of a real chainsaw. This album defies rational analysis or criticism. I mean, how can you argue with lyrics like "Beat on the brat/With a baseball bat?" "Now I wanna sniff some glue/Now I wanna have something to do"? Amazing stuff that sails straight past your cerebrum - don't think, just dance. It's only rock'n'roll, which is the most important message the Ramones imparted to the masses - it's supposed to be loud, fast, and trashy. And fun! You see, the Ramones only wanted to be the Beach Boys before Pet Sounds made them art wussies. How such a highly commercial band that should've by all rights taken over the world didn't is only explicable by the bad taste of the Saturday Night Fever public that existed in the '70s. At first listen all the songs sound the same, and I suppose on some level the Ramones have only written one song in their entire career, but that's not really true - all of the songs are different, it's just that the Ramones treat'em all exactly the same - louder, faster, and with that monolithic guitar buzz. I'm not even going to bother with the song-by-song analysis, 'cause every song on here is a classic except for two or three. This album changed the world, or at least rock'n'roll, so go out and find it.

The Ramones Leave Home (1977) ****1/2

Ever so slightly slicker (good thing, since the debut was a bit too raw), but I said slightly. They're writing more pop ("I Remember You"), but not so much that in a blindfold taste test you could discern between this and the debut. Patented power drill guitar, corny slappin' bass, thwack-thudda drums, and Joey's so-bad-it's-good faux Brit accent. My favorite tells the tale of a young couple who fall in love at Burger King and ride rollercoasters. My second fave takes its subject matter and "We accept you, we accept you" chorus from the '30s cult film Freaks. Third fave concerns Germany, Mommy, commies, and salami. My fourth fave is a remake of "California Sun" that blows the Singing Raisins (or whatever they call them) away. Since Carbona threatened legal action, "Carbona Not Glue" had to be replaced with a version of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" that's barely discernable from the more polished Rocket to Russia version. Creative Growth: "You're Gonna Kill That Girl" is multi-sectioned - well, almost; the song alternates between a balladic bleat and raveup, kind of clumsy, but growth is growth, ain't it?

Rocket To Russia (1977) ****

For some reason lots of folks rate this as the Ramones' pinaccle, but I don't see it. Now I'm not saying this still isn't brilliant stuff, it just lacks the volume of the first two salvos. They're writing even more pop and commercial, with mixed results: ditties like "Ramona" and "Locket Love" have never done anything for me. Still, there is more variety here than on previous discs, which I suppose is why others rate this better than the first two. But the plain fact is that the Ramones are always going to be best at what they do best. Luckily the majority of the album is still great: "Cretin Hop" slips in an Abbey Road allusion; "Rockaway Beach" almost makes you want to swim in the hospital refuse infected Jersey shoreline; "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is a touching ballad (!). And those are just the first three songs, folks! I've never taken the Ramones' anger and alienation very seriously (too happy, happy, happy all the time), but despite all that "I Don't Care" is a hoot (even if it's no "Modern World" or "What's My Name?"). "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" almost scraped the Top 40 - it should've gone to #1! What was #1 in 1977, anyway? Probably some crap like "Disco Duck" (which, I must confess, I actually owned once. I was 4 years old, so sue me). And ooh, what's this: "We're a Happy Family" and "Teenage Lobotomy" are back to back! I'm verklempt! "Gonna get my Ph.D./I'm a teenage lobotomy!" - hah! Beat that!

Road To Ruin (1978) ****1/2

Okay, so they're a bit slower. But that's good, 'cause nothing they've done previously has possessed the wallop of "I Just Wanna Have Something To Do". It's the opening cut, it hits you like a loose log falling off a logging truck, and it announces to the listener that this album's going to be a tad bit different from the previous Ramones albums. Which is good, because no one could really expect the Ramones to keep making the same album over and over - it would get pretty boring after a while, too. And that's the Ramones' quandry: like I stated earlier, they aren't very good at pursuing other avenues of expression. Oh sure, they can churn out a nice ballad after the style of "Needles and Pins" or "Questioningly" every now and then, but what else? Go prog? Psychedelic? Bluesy? Don't think so. So what are they to do? Well, apparently they never found a really good answer to that question, but at least on this album they stretched their limits in a quite enjoyable way. Raveups like "I Wanted Everything" sound a tad bit forced compared to "Blitzkrieg Bop" but there's so much more. The masterpiece, of course, is "I Wanna Be Sedated" - especially the ringing, one-note guitar solo. And "Go Mental" has another guitar solo, but with a couple more notes! "She's the One" is their best pure-pop song - gosh, it just brings tears to me eyes. The Bad Brains took their name from a song on this album, by the by, and it closes with another great slow one (with another guitar solo, to boot), "It's A Long Way Back".

End of the Century (1980) ***

This is one depressing record. I mean, it's not bad or anything, it's just so tired and flat compared to their previous work. This should have been a match made in Yankees Stadium, as legendary "Do-Do-Run-Run" Phil Spector takes the consoles as producer, but all considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia. "I'm Affected" is the best song, even though Joey oversings, but most of the rest doesn't sound very inspired - not even "Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Radio" which has horns. "This Ain't Havana" and "High Risk Insurance" are flat-out terrible songs - the Ramones had never written any terrible songs before! "Danny Says" is a nice ballad about their manager, and overall it's an okay record - I just except more from the Ramones than "okay". I expect excitement - tasteful but kinda boring might make sense for some other acts, but for the Ramones through-the-motions professionalism is deadly.

All the Stuff & More, Vol. 1 (1990) *****

The first two Ramones albums. If you don't own a copy, either go out and get your hands on it, or just shoot yourself. 'Nuff said.

All the Stuff & More, Vol. 2 (1990) ****1/2

The third and fourth Ramones albums, Rocket to Brehznev and Highway to Hell, respectively. If no one in your town owns a copy, your burg deserves to be nuked. 'Nuff said.

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