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The Ramones

The Ramones       Ramones (Sire, 1976)
      Leave Home (Sire, 1977)
      Rocket to Russia (Sire, 1977)
     Road to Ruin (Sire, 1978)
     It's Alive (Sire, 1979)
    End of the Century (Sire, 1980)
   Pleasant Dreams (Sire, 1981)
   Subterranean Jungle (Sire, 1983)
   Too Tough to Die (Sire, 1984)
     Ramones Mania (Sire, 1988)
    Loco Live (Sire, 1992)
    Acid Eaters (Radioactive, 1994)
   Greatest Hits Live (Radioactive, 1996)
     Hey Ho Let's Go! (Rhino, 1999)
    Loud Fast Ramones: Their Toughest Hits (Rhino, 2002)
     NYC 1978 (King Biscuit Flower Hour, 2003)
     Weird Tales of the Ramones (Rhino, 2005)

The Ramones invented punk rock—its sound, its style, its speed—and kept at it for 20 years of steadily diminishing returns. Singer Joey Ramone was their candy-pop heart, with his adenoidal fake British accent and love for Sixties radio hits; tormented bassist Dee Dee (the one who started every song by yelling "onetwothreefour!") provided the darkness beneath the surface; Johnny created a new style of playing guitar by discarding everything but distorted bar chords. A thrilling live band that played well over 2,000 concerts, they never got the Top Forty hit they knew they deserved, but the "brothers" from Forest Hills, Queens, emerged from the gutter and reached for the stars.

Ramones is one of the happiest albums ever made: fourteen songs recorded for $6200, all about the joys of cartoon stupidity ("Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue"), cartoon violence ("Beat on the Brat"), cartoon male prostitution ("53rd & 3rd"), and gigantic cartoon riffs. "Second verse, same as the first," Joey chirps like he's just discovered the secret of pop; the whole thing sounds a lot simpler than it is. (The reissue adds some demos made before they figured out that they'd be better off keeping the recording as simple as humanly possible.) If it'd been their only record, their place in rock history would have been assured.

Leave Home is pretty much the same album, just with different songs: Instead of "Judy Is a Punk," we get "Suzy Is a Headbanger" and so on. They're mostly great songs, though. "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" and "Pinhead" became Ramones standards, and "I Remember You" and "Swallow My Pride" are actually wistful. The 2001 reissue adds a 16-song live set from a '76 show that single-handedly kicked off the L.A. punk scene—they're not quite the unstoppable live machine they later became, but you can hear the crowd being won over.

By Rocket to Russia, the Ramones had decided it was time for the big time: They wanted a hit single. Their not-yet-embittered attempts are a delight, and their fabulous summertime anthem "Rockaway Beach" and the love song to their audience, "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," have had a considerably longer shelf life than most of the songs that did make the Top 10 in 1977. The album is tough, catchy, and frequently hilarious. "Teenage Lobotomy" ("Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em/That I got no cerebellum") would seem self-mocking, but so was virtually everything else they did.

On New Year's Eve, 1977, the Ramones played in London, each song separated only by Dee Dee's onetwothreefour, and the result was released as It's Alive, the best of their live albums. One week later, they did almost exactly the same set, in the same order, in New York City; it eventually appeared as NYC 1978 though not quite as well recorded as Alive. The hits keep coming—27 of them in less than 54 minutes.

Tommy Ramone left in 1977 and was replaced on drums by his previously unknown brother Marky Ramone, who toughens up the band's sound a bit on Road to Ruin (still coproduced by Tommy, under his real name, T. Erdelyi). It's got two stone Ramones classics, "I Wanna Be Sedated" (another failed attempt at a hit) and a heart-tugging cover of the Searchers' "Needles & Pins." (The 2001 reissue adds their contributions to the Rock 'n' Roll High School soundtrack, including the daffy theme song.) Road to Ruin still recognizably follows the template of their first three albums, though. You can't say as much for the bizarre misfire End of the Century, for which they hooked up with legendary producer Phil Spector, who scarcely understood them. Only "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" benefits from the hyperproduced wall-of-sound treatment, though Dee Dee's heroin memoir "Chinese Rock," and Joey's wistful tour diary "Danny Says" assert themselves from beneath the murk.

By Pleasant Dreams, the Ramones were barely on speaking terms, so Joey steered them toward their fluffiest pop album, a vision, perhaps, of what Spector might have done for them 20 years earlier. The Ronettes-on-a-bad-trip anthem "The KKK Took My Baby Away" became a live standard; Dee Dee's songs, though, are almost embarrassing. Subterranean Jungle, another attempt at radio-friendly production, almost recasts the group as an oldies act, with three covers, including the Chambers Brothers'"Time Has Come Today," and self-recycling originals like "Psycho Therapy." Marky got the boot before Too Tough to Die and was replaced by Richie Ramone; Joey only wrote or cowrote three songs because of health problems. The result is a nasty, grisly punk-metal album, with Dee Dee as its dominant songwriting voice (he even sings a couple cuts, tunelessly). Tough, yes, but also no fun.

Animal Boy, released in 1986, includes the Ramones' last great original song—"My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)," Joey's protest of Ronald Reagan's visit to the graves of Nazi storm troopers—but little else of note. Halfway to Sanity, from 1987, and 1989's Brain Drain (for which Marky took over the drum seat again) are eminently forgettable. Dee Dee left the Ramones in 1989, ostensibly to pursue a hip-hop career, though he continued to write songs for the band until the end. (If you ever see a copy of Standing in the Spotlight, which he recorded as Dee Dee King, run the other way.) The subsequent not-bad double-live contract fulfiller, Loco Live, debuted his (much younger) replacement, C.J. Ramone. 1992's Mondo Bizarro is a flaccid disaster.

The much-maligned Acid Eaters, a collection of Sixties covers, is better than its rep; for one thing, it solved the Ramones' songwriting problem. Pete Townshend helps out with backing vocals on the Who's "Substitute," but the band does better with a thundering race through Love's "7 and 7 Is" and a poignant Ramonesification of the Rolling Stones' "Out of Time." Still, they were clearly spinning their wheels, and the subsequent (now out-of-print) studio farewell, Adios Amigos, finds them creatively exhausted, aside from Joey's Ronnie Spector tribute, "She Talks to Rainbows" (which Ronnie later recorded), and a cover of Tom Waits' "I Don't Want to Grow Up."

Not exactly what the title promises, Greatest Hits Live is a live set from early 1996. Joey has given up on getting the lyrics across and is just sort of hiccuping bits of them (C.J. even fills in for him a few times), and the band plays so fast that the songs melt into a single long polka. The sole highlight is a cover of Motörhead's "R.A.M.O.N.E.S.," which is a little sad. We're Outta Here! is yet another unnecessary (and deleted) goodbye, this time a document of their final show.

Of the many Ramones best-of collections, Ramones Mania is the most entertaining; it's sequenced for listenability rather than chronology, and came out too early to include anything from the dire final albums. The two-disc Hey Ho Let's Go! has all the hits but flows awkwardly, especially the second disc. Weird Tales of the Ramones is an 85-cut overview that comes with a DVD and oversize comic book.

Joey died from lymphoma in April 2001, and his solo album, Don't Worry About Me, was released almost a year later. In March 2002, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; three months later, Dee Dee died from a heroin overdose. In September 2004, Johnny succumbed to prostate cancer.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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