I only play music now because of the Ramones. When I grew up the dominant form of rock was hair metal. I was too young to know about all of the exciting things going on in the American indie scene, of which I would later discover. There were a couple East Coast punk bands that I knew about through friends’ older brothers. I had records by bands like Minor Threat and The Misfits. I always read a lot of rock magazines as my childish dreams of being a WWF wrestler(!) gave way to at least the semi more realistic world of rock music. But as cheesy as a lot of the hair metal seems now, there was no doubt that the guitar players involved could play on a technical level. When I got my first guitar, learning to play it was a daunting task. I never thought I’d be able to play at a professional level.
I first learned about the Ramones in a rock magazine and I got their collection All the Hits and More Vol 1. I remember going on vacation with my family and taking the cassette with me. I listened to it day and night. I also discovered rather quickly that I could play simple power chord versions of Ramones songs. (Playing down stroke bar chords like Johnny Ramone for an entire set is still not something I am sure I could do. There are probably virtuosos that couldn’t do it. It’s not a technical challenge, but a physical one. I also watched a video where Blondie’s great drummer, Clem Burke, said he couldn’t hack it in the Ramones as he couldn’t play drums that fast for that long. Again, it’s not a musical challenge, but a physical one. It’s more akin to being a marathon runner.) I also learned that I too could could write songs now, as many Ramones songs only featured three or four chords. (Though writing songs as clever and as consistently catchy as the Ramones is not something many people can do. They have probably written as many catchy pop songs as anyone, often disguised in the guise of punk.)
I appreciate the Ramones now as much as I ever had. Their music is timeless and subversively clever. Bonzo Goes to Bitburg is a funny and scathing satire of Reagan, that feels all too timely with his supposed heirs now running for President. Their songs were often D-U-M-B, but never dumb. They would write songs about cretins, the insane, and all manner of outsiders, with lyrics that appeared simple, yet were actually breaking new ground at the time they were written. You have to be smart or extremely lucky to do something new, and the Ramones were calculated in their musical attack and stage presence. There was no luck involved here. There was often a sly wit involved that still interests me now. They are the Johnny Cash of rock music, only increasing in stature with every passing year. They have influenced countless musicians while also creating a distinctly new type of music.
Anyway, at one point I owned almost every Ramones album. There were only a few I never collected. One of those was Pleasant Dreams. Aside from their first few groundbreaking records it might be their most consistent and their best. It might even be their best collection of pop melodies overall. The Ramones went big with their Phil Spector produced End of the Century. Their first four records were critical and cult hits. End of the Century was their chance to get mainstream radio success. They certainly had the songs and image to do so. However, that record failed to break into the mainstream. Johnny Ramone said that at that point he knew they would never be a mainstream band.
Their record company had different ideas. They paired them with 10cc member Graham Gouldman in hopes of finally producing a hit record. The Ramones weren’t happy with the choice, especially once the record was complete, feeling that it lacked the proper punk attack that a Ramones record should have. The record also received mix reviews for the first time in the Ramones career.
However, after finally discovering the record, I think critics and its creators missed the mark on their assessment. There are more important Ramones records, there are better Ramones records, but this one is as enjoyably consistent as any of them, if you like the 60’s pop side of the Ramones writing. Every song features great pop hooks. Although there are some extra instruments added, along with some vocal harmonies, most of these are background detail, with the Ramones sound to the front of the mix. Johnny’s guitar isn’t quite as biting as it is in other places, but it is still the prominent sound of the record. There are very few people that could write a collection of melodies that were this instantly accessible. And despite the new additions to the Ramones sound, it is done in a way that never detracts from the power of the band, as would sometimes later be the case.
Aside from the first four always agreed upon classic Ramones records, this is the one to get. In fact I think this holds its own with Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin, though I know there are some that will disagree. (Ramones and Leave Home will always remain in a class above the rest of their discography, and the discography of most others. Personally I think Leave Home is their best and it is definitely my favorite. Just for Commando alone!) By Road to Ruin especially, an album I love, they were already incorporating new sounds into their production. They also did even more of this on End of the Century. This album isn’t really a departure from what they had already had done. Sometimes critics get on a bandwagon and just go with it.
Most even casual Ramones fans know The KKK Took My Baby Away. Although their might not be anything as lyrically great as that track, anyone that likes that should like most, if not all, of the record. Up above I put This Business is Killing Me, a song that I had never heard until recently, but that I’m sure most musicians could relate to at one time or another.