Monday, March 4, 2019

Just One Song - Ramones

Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio?
End of the Century (1980)

Time has finally caught up with the Ramones. They need no introduction today, a marked contrast to the early days when punk, the movement they help create, was still on the fringes. Not that their relative fame means much, since the original members of the band have hung up their leather jackets and shuffled off this mortal coil.

For those who do need an introduction to the Ramones, here's a Reader's Digestish type version. Four guys from the boroughs adopt a uniform of ripped jeans and leather jackets, borrow Paul McCartney's favorite pseudonym and play buzzsaw punk, with a significant debt to pop and bubblegum tunes of yesteryear.

The most obvious Ramones song to showcase, if you only pick one, is Blitzkrieg Bop, the very first song on their very first album. I'd call it one of the top ten rock and roll songs ever. But nowadays, thanks to TV commercials and whatnot, it too needs no introduction, nor does the much ballyhooed album that it was drawn from. We'll move on.

The next of the essential Ramones studio albums (the first five - the live one was good but redundant) is Leave Home. It's their second effort and the first Ramones album I was exposed to and it's arguably the heaviest (Commando, anyone?). The Ramones were never really a pedal to the metal, balls to the wall punk band and it shows on Rocket to Russia, their third studio album and my favorite. Most of the original songs are heavy on the bubblegum and punk-edged power pop), as are two well-chosen covers, The Trashmen's, Surfin' Bird, and Bobby Freeman's, Do Ya Wanna Dance. The follow-up, Road to Ruin, covered much of the same territory and featured I Wanna Be Sedated, arguably the band's best known song. Which took the band up to the dawn of the Eighties and their fifth studio album, End of the Century.

The first Ramones album was done on a shoestring, financed by collecting deposits on bottles and selling off plasma and whatnot. End of the Century found the band working with something that might be called a budget, not to mention a "name" producer. Unfortunately, the name was Phil Spector, known then for his considerable contributions to pop history, his legendary Wall of Sound recording technique and an "offbeat" personality.

While this melding of legendary pop impresario with bubblepunk up and comers should have been a marriage made in heaven, it seems that it was not. If you ever saw the Ramones live or listened to their live album, it was apparent that they were not a band that dilly dallyed with their art. It was the same modus operandi in the studio. Which brought them into conflict with Spector, whose methods of producing were meticulous, to say the least. But a finished and fully formed album was the end result of all this. I might be out of step with popular opinion, but I rank it right up there with the best of them.

End of the Century arrived about twenty years before the actual end of the twentieth century, but it was near the end of the line for the Ramones, who turned out a bunch more middling albums over the years before finally throwing in the towel. Some argue that that the end of the line for the Ramones came before End of the Century and some feel that Rocket to Russia was their last good album. Even some Ramones weren't over the moon about End of the Century. But comparing it to their earlier albums was almost like an apples to oranges comparison.

A look at the track listing reveals a number of songs that were at least in the capable to good range, as well as few standouts. These include old-school Ramones numbers like Chinese Rock and The Return of Jackie and Judy, a sequel to Judy is a Punk, from the first album, and bubblepunk songs like Let's Go and Rock 'n' Roll High School.

The notion of the Ramones doing a ballad seems a little ridiculous, even now. But let's recall that the band explored this territory right from the start, with I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, and continued to do so with every album that followed. End of the Century's ballad - Danny Says - chronicled the trials and tribulations ("we can't go surfing 'cause its 20 below") of a touring band's rigorous schedule and gets my vote for best of the Ramones ballads. But the Ramones/Spector collaboration (collision?) reached a peak on the album's opener. Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio is credited to the group - minus Marky - but Spector's Wall of Sound production gimmick is in fine form.

As befits a Phil Spector production, the sound is dense and the instrumentation is greatly expanded beyond the Ramones standard of guitar, bass and drums. Saxophone drives the song, a notion that would have made me retch in pre-End of the Century days but it works. This is a relentlessly, ear-wormingly catchy song of the first order. Trying to agree on which of the Ramones' songs is the catchiest is probably an exercise in futility and might even cause a fistfight or two. Their numbers are legion but no matter how you look at it, Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio? is near the top of the list.

Here’s a version by the Rockway Bitches (!), an all-girl Ramones tribute band.