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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ramones reviews

I  have no idea how many reviews I wrote when I was freelancing for Goldmine from 1986-2006.  But trust me:  I wrote a lot of them.  I still have the clippings in a very, very tall stack, but I didn't save digital copies.  So I was kinda surprised to come across this one on the ol' hard drive, reviewing Rhino's CD reissues of the first four Ramones albums:
Rhino (R2 74306)
Leave Home
Rhino (R2 74307)
Rocket To Russia
Rhino (R2 74309)
Road To Ruin
Rhino (R2 74308)

One of the most important and invigorating bodies of work in '70s rock 'n' roll music finally gets its just due with these deluxe 'n' expanded reissues of the first four albums by New York's phenomenal pop-punk combo, The Ramones.  Previously reissued by Sire in the early '90s as a pair of two-on-one discs under the collective title All the Stuff (And More), the Rhino discs return the original, individual titles (with the original, distinctive artwork) to retail shelves, bolstered by a generous helping of bonus tracks, and with improved sound quality that provides the sheer sonic force a proper Blitzkrieg Bop requires.  Hey ho, let's go!

The Ramones' legacy was largely (some say entirely) built upon the foundation of these first four albums.  The 1976 debut remains a stunning, piledriving pop experience, presaged to some degree by The Stooges, The New York Dolls, and The Dictators, but utterly new and unexpected in its street-savvy amalgamation of hard rock and AM radio-bred bubblegum.  Listening to it the first time felt as if you'd just been mugged by The Banana Splits.  Punk rock begins with the release of Ramones, regardless of whatever other primordial events were simultaneously occurring to shape punk's development; ultimately, it all starts here.

And it's still a terrific record, an exuberant exercise in loud-fast rock 'n' roll music, The Beach Boys on speed.  The Ramones' '60s pop roots are immediately evident in the album's lone cover, of the Chris Montez hit "Let's Dance," but the group's innate pop sensibilities are, perhaps incongruously, equally evident in the grooves of such twisted originals as "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" and "Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World."  Weird lyrics about Texas chainsaw massacrees and beating on the brat with a baseball bat could never hide the fact The Ramones were always proudly, defiantly, a pop band.  Dee Dee Ramone has claimed that The Bay City Rollers wanted to cover "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend;" while the claim itself is suspect, it's not all that preposterous a match to consider.  And "Blitzkrieg Bop," perhaps The Ramones' signature tune, was itself inspired by The Bay City Rollers, its "Hey Ho, Let's Go!" chant derived from The Rollers' own "S!  A!  T-U-R!  D-A-Y!  Night!"

Bonus tracks on Ramones include the Marty Thau-produced demos of "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and "Judy Is A Punk" (previously released as an archival single by Norton Records), previously-unissued demos of "I Don't Care," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," and "You Should Never Have Opened That Door," demos of "I Can't Be" and "I Don't Wanna Be Learned/I Don't Wanna Be Tamed" (previously available on All The Stuff (And More), Vol. One) and the single version of "Blitzkrieg Bop."  Bonus tracks and all, the CD offers 22 tracks, totaling just over 45 minutes.  Does that seem short?  It's a freaking bargain, friends, and one of the most exciting debut albums in rock 'n' roll history.

1977's Leave Home refines The Ramones' approach without diluting it.  It includes the group's first out-and-out bubblegum pop song ("Oh Oh I Love Her So"), another definitive cover of a '60s AM radio staple (of The Rivieras' "California Sun"), at least one classic, forgotten shoulda-been-a-hit-single ("Swallow My Pride"), and a bunch of punky misfit tales of woe and/or glee, including "Glad To See You Go," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," and "Pinhead," the latter providing The Ramones with their concert-closing "Gabba Gabba Hey!" catchphrase. 

The reissue returns the wonderful Carbona Not Glue" to its rightful place on Leave Home.  The song was included on the earliest pressings of the album, but soon removed in response to threats of legal action from the manufacturers of Carbona Spot Remover--good to have it back where it belongs!  Rhino has also included the sublime "Babysitter," one of The Ramones' best-ever power pop tunes, originally issued on the U.K. version of Leave Home, and subsequently used as the non-LP B-side of the U.S. "Do You Wanna Dance" single in '78.

You want bonus tracks?  Hey, howzabout a whole Ramones concert?  Specifically, the reissue of Leave Home bolsters its original 14 tracks (15 with "Babysitter") with a complete, previously-unreleased Ramones live show from 1976, at the Roxy in Hollywood.  Although there has certainly been no shortage of live Ramones material on the market, this 16-song set dates from when the group was at the peak of its live rock 'n' roll prowess, and it rivals the incredible It's Alive! album as an invigorating document of a time when The Ramones were simply the most thrilling live band on the planet.

(Side-question:  wonder if we'll ever get a DVD release of The Ramones' live appearances on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and Musikladen, two simply nonpareil rock-on-TV experiences just dyin' to be preserved for da fans?)

Also released in 1977, Rocket To Russia is the apotheosis of Ramonedom, and one of the greatest rock 'n' roll records ever made by anybody at any time.  Here, The Ramones' pop-punk aspirations come to their fullest possible fruition, creating an irresistible, full-tilt thrill ride.  From the opening chords of "Cretin Hop" through the fatalist bubblegum of "Why Is It Always This Way," Rocket To Russia never offers anything that is less than sublime rockin' pop perfection.  The singles--"Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," "Rockaway Beach," and a friggin' incredible cover of the Bobby Freeman/Beach Boys(/Bette Midler) hit "Do You Wanna Dance"--distill all of The Ramones' AM radio influences into compact jolts of everything you've ever loved about pure, visceral rock 'n' roll, meant to be played far too loud in a car that's going way too fast
With the hit singles as linchpins (and they were hit singles, by divine right, their relative lack of sales success and radio airplay notwithstanding), the album delivers track after track of confident, accomplished music.  The frequently-downbeat lyrics are delivered with keen wit, deadpan humor and, most importantly, the palpable sense that the music itself is of sufficient power to render all objections irrelevant, to make all opposing forces obsolete.  "My future's bleak," Joey Ramone sings.  "Ain't it neat?"

Bonus tracks here include a genuine treat:  a previously-unreleased version of The Searchers' "Needles & Pins," a song which the group re-cut for their next album, Road To Ruin.  This earlier version, cut with original drummer Tommy Ramone, is a revelation, a folk-punk delight that is far more sprightly and compelling than the comparatively leaden version on Road To Ruin.  Other bonus tracks include "Slug" (a demo previously released on All The Stuff (And More), Volume Two) and single versions of "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," "I Don't Care," and "It's A Long Way Back To Germany."  The latter was originally a U.K. B-side, and makes its U.S. debut here.

Inevitably, 1978's Road To Ruin is something of a let-down.  Not that it's a bad album--it is, in fact, quite a good album--but it's certainly not as confident or as consistent a triumph as Rocket To Russia.  The between-albums departure of Tommy Ramone is a factor; while his replacement, Marky Ramone (nee Marc Bell, formerly of Dust and Richard Hell & The VoidOids), is a better drummer and would soon become an integral part of The Ramones, Tommy's lighter, minimalist touch contrasts sharply with the overall heaviness of Marky's percussive assault.  That by itself gives Road To A Ruin a sound that is dramatically different from the bubblepunk of the first three albums.

Still, Road To Ruin is not lacking its great moments, commencing from the get-go with the swaggering "I Just Want To Have Something To Do" and including "I Wanna Be Sedated," the way-fab interpolation of an exhausted Ohio Express re-writing Alice Cooper's "Elected" as a brain-fried tour itinerary.  Even the much-maligned "country" tunes, "Don't Come Close and "Questioningly," succeed as pure pop tunes, the latter a downbeat ballad and the former as bubblegummy as anything in the Joey Levine canon (and neither, incidentally, even remotely a true country song).  Much of the rest of the album succumbs to a banal sameness, an unfortunate case of sacrificing pop-punk smarts for mere force, empty heaviness.  A lot of subsequent Ramones albums would suffer the same fate. 

Bonus tracks on Road To Ruin are mostly familiar:  the Ed Stasium mixes of "Rock 'n Roll High School" and "I Want You Around" (from the Hey Ho, Let's Go!), the live medley from Rock 'n' Roll High School, and the "Yea, Yea" demo from All The Stuff (And More), Volume Two.  A demo of a song called "Come Back, She Cried [aka I Walk Out]" is previously unreleased.

2016 POSTSCRIPT:  I like Road To Ruin a lot more now than I did then.