Bowery boys

A new Ramones anthology catches America's beloved punks sniffing glue and chewing rock 'n' roll bubble gum.

Topics: Music,

Nobody doesn’t like the Ramones. They’re as immortal as America’s other band, the Beach Boys. Whatever punk became — ruined canvases of Mohawked body art, hormone-fueled assholes battering each other senseless in mosh pits, uptight activists barking tuneless ideology to conformist converts, Nazis, anarchists, prim straight-edgers and proto-metal dorks sinking into the post-Sabbath sludge — the Ramones remained its true nucleus.

In its original mid-’70s incarnation and expression, the quartet distilled the vapors of a free-floating rebel pop culture into a fundamental music. They intuitively found the common denominator of James Dean and Jan & Dean, the Standells and “The Munsters,” Iggy and the Stooges and the Three Stooges, Marvel comics and model airplane glue. The roar that emerged from their high-speed blender was pure punk perfection.

Everything you need to know about the Ramones is in the brilliant essay by David Fricke included with Rhino’s new two-CD compilation, “Hey Ho Let’s Go!: The Ramones Anthology.” But there’s a bit more than you need to hear on the 58-song selection, which doesn’t dig deep for rarities, rejects the band’s entertaining 1994 covers album, “Acid Eaters,” and leaves the live stuff to numerous other releases. “Hey Ho Let’s Go!” pedals softly over, but does not outright deny, the potholes in a 20-year career that began with a perfectly launched rocket in 1976 and hit all sorts of bumps before ending with “Adios Amigos!” in 1995.

Creatively, the Ramones were more inspired auto mechanics than careful artisans, hammering, grinding and drilling down the sleek vehicles of pop to suit their utilitarian purpose. Stripping away excess is no less a challenge than building up intricacy, and the Ramones — after locating rock ‘n’ roll’s essence — clung to their discovery like Captain Ahab to the white whale. What other band had the nerve or the cloth ears to roll back the unquestioned tradition of rock’s most hackneyed chord progression? When they covered the Rivieras’ 1964 surf classic “California Sun” on their second album in 1977, guitarist Johnny Ramone simply shrugged away the fussy amenities of an E-minor chord and down-strummed an extra natural lift into the surf anthem.

Johnny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee ricocheted off the Bowery at the top of their form and filled four classic albums with the scavenged remains of every brilliant thing that had ever excited them. Brief singalong blurts of rudimentary nonsense like “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Rockaway Beach” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” were as direct as a sock in the jaw yet never lost their sense of satire, having it both ways for an audience clever enough not to stumble into the chasm between intent and effect. Unlike the contrived saccharine chart junk that had fed the Ramones’ generation as wide-eyed tykes, this Forest Hills, N.Y., factory stamped out bubble gum for the ungullible. The music screamed teenage release with an indignant rejection of mediocrity in each unpretentious affirmation. Irreducible, immutable, unmistakable (but highly imitable), the Ramones’ early records remain a singular archetype.

But then they spent two decades trying to, in David Bowie’s words, hang on to themselves. Perched atop the mountain of their cartoon classics and unrewarded in the charts, stasis was only good for a time. And there was no way up. Changes in the lineup — first drummer/producer Tommy, much later bassist/song-counter Dee Dee — carried the quartet further from its conceptual origins. Fatigue and frustration at commercial failure took their toll. As rock styles changed, the Ramones attempted to adapt, making tentative and self-defeating moves toward metal, depunked pop and their own origins. As they zigged and zagged to tread water in the early ’90s, punk-pop broke without them, making star pupils of Green Day, the Offspring and other bands they had inadvertently schooled.

A procession of high-priced missionaries (including, bizarrely, Phil Spector) bearing a variety of self-help solutions came, produced and split, each leaving the Ramones a little further isolated from their basic faith. There are enough solid songs on Disc 2 (“I Believe in Miracles,” “Something to Believe In,” “Howling at the Moon [Sha-La-La],” “Psycho Therapy” and “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down [Bonzo Goes to Bitburg]“) to prove that the Ramones prototype could withstand both outside tampering and internal growth, but it’s increasingly hard to hear the band’s joy and spirit amid the rising traces of self-pity, bitterness, discord and confusion.

A thorough lack of conviction immersed the band by the mid-’80s, yielding duds like “I’m Not Afraid of Life” and the title track of “Too Tough to Die,” a defensive 1984 album that isn’t worth its six-song sampling here. (By contrast, “Psycho Therapy” is the only evidence of the underrated “Subterranean Jungle.”)

But who can blame them for sounding fed up at their fate? The Ramones innocently marshaled everything great about primal rock ‘n’ roll and ingeniously crafted a way for it to endure. As a result, their music has aged extremely well, far less encumbered by the cobwebs of nostalgia and embarrassing reminders of forgotten fads than many of their inspirational antitheses — what Fricke calls the “’60s superstar aristocracy running on cocaine-and-caviar autopilot.” But like the pioneers of R&B, the Ramones got the respect but not the cash. Their commercial success never met the expectations of such vast and effective pop vision. With this set neatly boxed for posterity, the ex-Ramones can enjoy their bittersweet triumph in peace, without the obligation of carrying the bands tattered flag on the endless concert trail.

The Ramones took their best shot and landed a body blow on the sound of music. But then the world hit back. Bloodied, defunct but — and this box is the evidence — ultimately unbowed, the Ramones have only one more fight to the death: come 2001, they’re eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ira Robbins is the editor of "The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock" and a 40-year veteran of rock journalism. He lives in New York with his wife, cat and records.

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