Wednesday, May 22, 2013
The RAMONES' first album was released at the end of April 1976. Despite intense (but admittedly polarized) press notoriety-- plus their first key dates playing the West Coast and overseas in England-- the record ascended no higher than #111 on Billboard's album chart. Quickly reassembling to begin work on a followup in October, the resultant LEAVE HOME hit the shops in January 1977. (The third, ROCKET TO RUSSIA would follow early next November, just 18 months and change since the appearance of the debut. Such was the frenetic pace at which bands would release albums in the 60s and 70s, although surely nobody will ever top CCR, who concocted their three greatest LPs--Bayou Country, Green River and Willie & the Poor Boys--over the course of the calendar year of 1969.) Unfortunately not released until well after the Xmas season, LEAVE HOME placed an even less impressive #148, although in England it almost made the top 40.
TOMMY seemed determined to have a bigger hand in steering the band's sound this go around, and although by this point CRAIG LEON no longer worked at SIRE, it remains unclear whether the group would have sought his production oversight a second time- no matter how much he had staked personally in the RAMONES' signing to the label. TOMMY brought aboard Toni Bongiovi (the soon to be famous JON BON JOVI's cousin), with whom he had previously done time at THE RECORD PLANT studios (they most notably worked on JIMI HENDRIX's Band of Gypsys together). He also enlisted the engineer who would, over the course of the ensuing decades, rise to become the band's most important and entrusted studio confidante: ED STASIUM.
Their efforts resulted in an overall sound improvement that is immediately apparent. JOHNNY's guitars are more layered, ringing and crunchy, and DEEDEE's bass has far greater presence and depth in tone. (Of course, each are now present in BOTH channels.) Clearly working from the aural power of the first batch of demos (see RAMONES: THE EARLY DEMOS), then adding a crisp studio sheen resulted in a flavor somehow more powerful AND more commercial simultaneously. What faults there are in mixing approach are merely a matter of balance. TOMMY's drums show a marked jump in qualitative texture, but on several songs this adjustment is negated by how low the drums are in the mix. As well, the pro treatment JOEY's vocals receive provides a jarring contrast to the tracks from the previous album. Reverb, echo, doubletracking, close miking and consistent backups- they are the sort of 'protection' that aid any singer in the studio, and JOEY is no exception. His problem goes in the other direction- often the vocals are mixed so high as to actually diminish the impact of the rest of the group's perfected din. Neither of these by themselves is a huge problem, but the tracks where both glitches are noticeably pronounced--such as YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL or OH OH I LOVE HER SO--seem emasculated and amateurish, especially when compared to the roar of the concert takes later captured on IT'S ALIVE. Overall, however, the fully charged sound is a satisfying expansion of the debut's clipped restrictiveness.
The RAMONES often stated that all of the material for their first two albums was written before they were recording for SIRE, and available proof bears them out. Virtually all of these songs were either demoed early or appear in setlists from early 1976. (PINHEAD, SUZY IS A HEADBANGER & CARBONA NOT GLUE seem like the most recent compositions.) Striving to record the two LPs in compositional sequence charted the group's growing assertiveness and increased ability. Clearly not above rehashing lyrical ideas (see the last two of the previous trio), they also offer updates on the horror movie motifs (YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE OPENED THAT DOOR) and combat intrigues (COMMANDO). GIMMIE GIMMIE SHOCK TREATMENT and the aforementioned PINHEAD surprisingly mark the first dabblings in the soon to be dominant topical realm of mental illness, HAVANA AFFAIR's 'make me loco' aside. Naturally another pre-British Invasion chestnut (CALIFORNIA SUN) is served up as well.
They also up the ballad ante considerably, but contrary to hopes this resulted in neither hits nor an improved album flow. Unwisely opting for the sluggish I REMEMBER YOU as the leadoff UK single was a serious misjudgement. (The studio version of the b-side CALIFORNIA SUN would have been a far smarter choice.) Due to a Charles Manson reference GLAD TO SEE YOU GO was met with resistance on the local NY airwaves, but it is unclear how suited a choice this song was for pre-release promotion regardless. Then things quickly got out of hand--in deferment to a 'threat of lawsuit' from the manufacturers of Carbona (or perhaps in avoidance of even that possibility) CARBONA NOT GLUE was replaced after the initial UK pressing with another(!) ballad, BABYSITTER, which had been earmarked as a future single flipside. In the midst of this SIRE moved from distribution via the major label ABC to its final home at WARNER BROS, a step which would have helped LEAVE HOME's chances beforehand but now only muddied up the murk further.
At some point hereabouts JOEY wrote SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER. Recognizing its strengths the band quickly recorded it, and SIRE agreeably rushed it out as another 45. But instead of saving the likable new nugget for inclusion on the following album, it was added as a replacement for BABYSITTER on the new 'Specially Repackaged' WARNER version of LEAVE HOME. This not only eventually hurt ROCKET TO RUSSIA later, it also made the label seem flailingly desperate to resuscitate sales of LEAVE HOME, which the only moderately popular SHEENA failed to significantly do. The total fiasco was finally cemented as, second guessing their second guessing, another last ditch single was culled from the record, SWALLOW MY PRIDE (in the US, the failed leadoff single)- commercially viable, but in retrospect not a song the band was likely to keep in their repertoire nor consider a comfortable 'Top 40' representation of their sound. By then, momentum could not be recaptured no matter how hard the horse was flogged.
In all, the chosen sleeve art reflected the increased confidence but unsure focus of LEAVE HOME's music and marketplace handling. The striking, but stagy and overly arty parking garage shot got the locale right but fails to truly evoke the band's true essence. (The relaxed pic adorning the inner lyric sheet feels closer to right.) Their almost perceptible unease was later made evident in how the band laboured to make ROCKET TO RUSSIA's cover photo recall the unpretentious vibe of the debut's. Without question one detail was a hit out of the park- ARTURO VEGA's Presidential band emblem, featured in all its glory here for the first time. The logo captured that the band's travels and accrued experiences far away from their East Coast base had transformed them into something greater in scope-- not just citywide, or statewide, but now NATIONwide and soon to be WORLDwide--and although LEAVE HOME's major strides still revealed chink in the armor weaknesses and misstep flaws, it was an exciting and necessary developmental check point.
And the next station the train would be stopping at was nothing short of the RAMONES' finest hour. Or 31 minutes and 46 seconds.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
In a band alchemy full of jarring contrasts, one of the most interesting (and underdiscussed) is the friction between JOHNNY's jingoistic, Star Spangled Banner waving patriotism and the nagging obsessions of principal songwriter DEEDEE, sprung from his German upbringing. Born to an American soldier married to a German, and mostly raised around military bases in Berlin until the age of 15, he never seemed to shake the childhood images of the WWII rubble from his unconscious--and the doomed, fascistic shadings of his youth never completely disappeared from his lyrics for too long.
For here now, we offer a brief guide to the principal appearances of this flavor in the RAMONES' music. Delving more deeply into subtle references would surely have resulted in a longer list--witness the knowing (and surprisingly literate) wordplay of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT's locale change from WWI to NYC-- but for now the focus will concentrate on the clear cut. Such military precision ist gut, ja?
1.) BLITZKRIEG BOP--Straight out of the gate on the debut album, DEEDEE transforms TOMMY's paean to rock concerts into something more sinister with the lyrical substitution of just a handful of WWII references and POW (or worse) camp images. The band's baffling mystique is cemented in their bizarre ability to make an exhortation such as 'shoot them in the back now' somehow sound celebratory.
2.) TODAY YOUR LOVE, TOMORROW THE WORLD--Eins, zwei, drei, vier! This remains the RAMONES track most heavily steeped in German content- from the title, derived out of a misattributed Hitler slogan (altered to reflect either amorous or career minded aims) to the humorous storm trooper bumbling of the verses (which were censored a notch down from the unforgivable "I'm a Nazi baby, yes i am.") The image of the kid being pushed around town seems inseparable from DEEDEE's psychology, and one longs to have further revelatory detail expounded upon.
3.) COMMANDO--Of course rule #1 is 'The Laws of Germany.' However, unless one wants to speculate the source of 'kosher salamis,' any further German connection is minimal at best.
4.) I WANNA LIVE--That this attempt at anthemic life affirmation is purveyed through the paramilitary actions of an imprisoned gypsy prince is a tad bewildering, but there can be no question that when it comes time to take up arms you'd do well to opt for 'fine, German steel.'
5.) JUDY IS A PUNK--One might attempt to discern a meaningful political motivation or connection between the twin locales of Jackie and Judy's adventures-- aiding the Symbionese Liberation Army in San Francisco, and skating for an ice pageant in Berlin-- until JOEY helpfully reminds us that, life endangerment aside, he doesn't know why they do what they do.
6.) BONZO GOES TO BITBURG--The public relations disaster of President Reagan marking the anniversary of V-E Day with a planned visit accompanying West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to a cemetery near Bitburg-- only to find that, contrary to what they thought, no Americans were buried there but several of the Waffen SS were--led to an uncharacteristically political protest piece by DEEDEE, thoughtfully calculated, but timely and powerful. Despite widespread outcry, Reagan refused to reconsider the ceremony, not wanting for either Kohl nor himself to lose political 'face.' He then exacerbated the situation by supposing that drafted Nazi soldiers "were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." Stubbornly carrying through with the plans laid bare that the U.S. leader had no qualms about maintaining a strong persona politically even at the expense of appearing weak morally, and DEEDEE overstated the American exasperation only slightly here when he implored the ex-actor "Don't become one of Hitler's children." (What a difference a decade makes!) Despite the single's notoriety, an infuriated JOHNNY insisted that the song eventually be renamed something less insulting to his favorite president.
7.) EVERY TIME I EAT VEGETABLES IT MAKES ME THINK OF YOU--JOEY takes an unexpected turn at the well, weaving one of his most delirious lyrics around a portrait of the psychosis-inducing experiences encountered by a female friend. Hard to say exactly what happened, but it definitely involved Hiroshima, lettuce, dumpsters and farina--and it has all brought her to a Thorazine induced stupor in the dreary backdrop of East Berlin.
8.) IT'S A LONG WAY BACK TO GERMANY--Proving that even in their vaguest, slightest lyrics the inclination towards the inclusion of this durable turf was impossible to resist for any significant stretch of time.
9.) ENDLESS VACATION (demo)--This bonus track demo of one of DEEDEE's vocal appearances on TOO TOUGH TO DIE is notable for his out of nowhere end of song adlib--omitted in the later version-- maniacally intoning 'Deutschland! Deutschland!' until the final chord. Any connection to the track's actual lyric is imperceptible, and one is left with the impression that his obsession is so pronounced that he could begin babbling about Germany without provocation at any point.
10.) BORN TO DIE IN BERLIN--The 'little German boy' is magnetically, inexorably drawn to his final resting place. Hypnotically, over a lifetime, like an elephant lumbering towards the secret burial ground, the spot to ultimately lay one's head seems unavoidably predetermined. DEEDEE's last major contribution to the band is devastatingly world weary (he even sings a bleak verse auf Deutsch--go here for a translation: RAMONES BORN TO DIE IN BERLIN), and one is surprised only to find that his prophecy was incompletely realized, succumbing in the tacky confines of the City of Angels instead of settling into the soil of the Vaterland which so fueled his visions.
Of course, even after DEEDEE's departure from the band these predilections could not be quelled, and we'll conclude this topic with a couple of solo era testimonies. The first is notable for a unlikely concern regarding soccer match safety, the second offering-- from the inexplicable DEEDEE KING era-- is notable for a rap in the native tongue(!).
DEEDEE RAMONE WHY IS EVERYBODY ALWAYS AGAINST GERMANY?
DEEDEE KING GERMAN KID
This way to the RAMONES MUSEUM BERLIN website!
Saturday, May 11, 2013
The WARNER ARCHIVES Expanded CD version of the RAMONES album concludes with this tantalizing oddity. Correctly recognizing the commercial and aesthetic appeal of the relatively new leadoff track, BLITZKRIEG BOP was wisely chosen as the record's first single.(I WANNA BE YOUR BOYFRIEND would be the second, starting off the questionable habit of releasing hopeful 45s of the band's softest material--one they did not fully shake until the RICHIE era. They even served up I REMEMBER YOU as LEAVE HOME's initial 7 inch offering, a highly dubious tactic which bore no fruit.) Surely JUDY IS A PUNK was in the running, given its appearance on the band's second, more 'commercial' group of demos. One hopes that LISTEN TO MY HEART was at least briefly considered, and since SIRE's first proposed contract with the band was a single deal for the demoed YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL, perhaps the similarly 60's flavored LET'S DANCE was an also ran? Regardless, the group did not dent Billboard's Hot 100 until SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER the following year.
In the hopes of strengthening BLITZKRIEG BOP's chances on the charts, a sleight doctoring of the track's mix was applied. But what a difference it makes! The ludicrous stereo separation has been discarded, and the guitars and bass finally charge out of both speakers. DEEDEE's playing has also been nudged up a bit more prominently, and the increased throb is plainly evident when the two takes are compared side by side. The vocals have been 'sweetened' with a minimal amount of echo and reverb, which not only offers JOEY more 'protection' than he generally receives on the first LP, but also lends the singalong chants a stronger, 'tribal' feel.
Such minor adjustments, but to hear the RAMONES' top forty aspirations tangibly actualized in production approach on this material is a revealing thrill, especially since there is scant evidence of any similar action on the remainder of the debut. (In fact, once one has acclimated to its raw, unadorned sound, it can be momentarily disorienting to ingest this charged 'pop' version.) While the mid-90s IGGY POP remix of RAW POWER was a project driven by questionable motivations and achieving highly debatable results, the idea of handing over the inaugural release to TOMMY and/or ED STASIUM for a similar overall rethink truly might not be without merit. At the very least one must wonder what consequences might have unfolded had the entire cache of songs been given this amount of extra due consideration in the first place. If nothing else, it sure is nice to hear JOHNNY & DEEDEE blasting from both channels, a rare treat for those listeners whose receivers are of insufficient vintage to feature a 'MONO/STEREO' switch.
RAMONES BLITZKRIEG BOP (single version)
Photo by Roberta Bayley
Friday, May 10, 2013
Perhaps someday a CD will appear which compiles all of the RAMONES' early demos in one place, maybe even beefed up with audio from the early videotaped footage of their embryonic appearances at CBGB and Arturo Vega's loft (the only other existent pre-debut LP impressions of the band's music.) Until such day arrives, that over half of these demos are available as bonus tracks for the expanded edition of the first LP is cause for considerable acclaim.
That said, the inclusion of this track at this point in the running order is a bit puzzling. This was certainly one of the least impressive of the early studio attempts, and its appearance in lieu of the stunning stabs captured of I DON'T WANNA WALK AROUND WITH YOU or TODAY YOUR LOVE, TOMORROW THE WORLD is questionable, if not borderline tragic. (See RAMONES: THE EARLY DEMOS.) Regardless of quality, like the demo of I DON'T CARE, it would have much more sense to have included this as extra material on the CD of the album it actually appeared on.
Amusingly prefaced by a failed take at the quirkily timed intro, this horror themed creation features mostly minor variances from the later release. JOHNNY handles the dynamic drop before the chorus a bit more purposefully, DEEDEE favors his higher strings a bit more determinedly, and the catchy background vocal hook has not yet been actualized. This version does feature one significant difference: the assertive riff following the chorus is a different chord change than what shall be finally used on LEAVE HOME. Surprisingly, this represents the most conspicuous compositional alteration any of the demos suffered on their journey to official studio rendition.
Predictably pitched a step lower than the key eventually utilized, YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE OPENED THAT DOOR not only compares favorably with the debut's clamour, the solid instrument balance also doesn't sound too shabby next to the mix of the second album's closer-- which is a bit vocal heavy and a bit drum light (as we shall soon see, not uncommon problems on the followup.) Still, with plenty of digital space left on the disc the absence of the excess of predominantly superior demos remains a gnawing programming misstep, and the rabid faithful can only lament what could have been until some wise (or simply logical) industry sort intercedes and takes steps to rectify.
RAMONES YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE OPENED THAT DOOR (demo)
Photo by Roberta Bayley
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Like I CAN'T BE, this track was recorded at the initial demo session of the RAMONES (see RAMONES: THE EARLY DEMOS), but remained unreleased until its appearance on the ALL THE STUFF (AND MORE) VOL I CD in 1990. Abandoned in favor of other material for inclusion on their first records, its belated unearthing years later proved to be a startling revelation- for this uncut diamond amounted to no less than a six word, two part, four chord, 66 second group manifesto.
Theoretically charting the band's musical and songwriting development, indicators seem to point to this being an extremely early composition. The possibility of a third part is never broached, and maybe to even refer to the second change as a 'part' is too generous? Perhaps, more accurately, a one part song with two changes. As well, the words never expand beyond the title, much less settle into a standard verse/chorus construction. Still, somehow akin to ELVIS PRESLEY's My Happiness, one is struck by the arrival of the young artist(s) to their first session in an already almost perfectly realized state- a fully conceptualized, utterly unique hybrid of unlikely, disparate influences.
Even affording their predecessors due consideration only underlines the unprecedented nature of the RAMONES' resultant sound. Early rock 'n' roll may have exhorted Beethoven to roll over in his grave, but even the roughest hewn rockabilly would hesitate to make do with so few rebellious phrases. British Invasion's catchy melodies figure, but the arrangement would likely be adorned by at least an intro and middle eight. American garage rock is suggested, but their brash clamor would rarely be rendered to such a restrictively flourishless din. (Perhaps the TROGGS or SONICS came closest, but the former would balk at being so non-amorous, and the latter would resist being so understated.) The STOOGES' bluntest offerings, such as 1969 or No Fun, still adhere to a certain undercurrent of 1-4-5 rock cliche basically ignored here. The shambolic sway of the NEW YORK DOLLS hardly ever reached such levels of driving focus. (If anything, this presages the leaner, stripped down swagger of JOHNNY THUNDERS' subsequent HEARTBREAKERS.) And even the most relentlessly paced hard rock of the era, say BLACK SABBATH'S Paranoid, STILL just wasn't this FAST--and the RAMONES were only going to accelerate from here on.
Not too infer flawlessness- the drumming waivers occasionally, and DEEDEE is a tad hesitant (which ironically somehow makes his sweeps up to the song's highest bass notes more loopily exciting.) JOHNNY, however, is dead on merciless, and JOEY is suffering no amateur qualms towards his quirky pronunciation of 'tamed.' Overall, the extraordinary impression one walks away with is a band confident in their strengths and settled into their scene, not a combo scrambling to disguise their shortcomings on their first foray to put some material on to tape.
Perhaps finally discarded for being too primitive and underdeveloped (imagine that!), I DON'T WANNA BE LEARNED/I DON'T WANNA BE TAMED set a standard for willfully raw simplicity maybe unmatched until much later by the nearly self parodic I LOST MY MIND and the lyricless DURANGO 95. True, over the course of a long career the pursuit of mainstream acceptance precipitated many different, wider experiments in technique and compromises in overall original approach. But in this embryonic track, they unwittingly codified their very self purpose, and uncannily concocted a nearly foolproof barometer which throughout the peaks and valleys of their history would reflect the maintenance of their aesthetic success in accordance to the level of strict adherence to its ethos.
RAMONES I DON'T WANNA BE LEARNED/I DON'T WANNA BE TAMED
Photo by Roberta Bayley
Friday, May 3, 2013
This thrilling track is one of the early demos which threaten being more satisfying than the final official take (see RAMONES: THE EARLY DEMOS ). All of the traits common with this batch of initial recordings are present. The guitar sound is crunchy and dense. The drums and bass display more bottom end, and are more prominently punched in the mix. The vocals are somehow more relaxed yet more pronounced in their brattiness. A slightly tempered tempo amplifies the bubblegummy swing of the brutal punk.
Much of this, of course, could be explained by the other ubiquitous trait not yet mentioned: This demo is in G, a step down from the eventual key of A. Without actual proof, the assumption of varispeeding's application to slow tracks down should not be made outright. However, indicative clues are present for the observant, especially for guitar players. In A--the true, final pitch-- the dominant progression of A-G-F-E is a sequence of obvious attractiveness to novice pickers, whether played on barre chords, or even strummed openly. That the RAMONES might experiment transposing these changes down to G-F-Eflat-D is extremely unlikely. The heavy drone is stunted by playing this pattern in the band's trademark movable-chord style, and it is considerably more unwieldy when played in the open positions (not that it's even remotely likely that JOHNNY would have approached it that way.)
JOHNNY also figures in the song's other noteworthy distinction. When the track reaches the guitar break (the closest thing to an actual 70's style hard rock riff on any of the first album's material) he gives it a normal go for the first two measures, and then unexpectedly swings up an octave to assertively wank the lick in a higher register. Not exactly virtuosity, perhaps, but certainly the most glaringly tangible moment of learned six-string ability present on any of their early recordings, up to and including the RAMONES LP. This move certainly magnified the similarity of this segment to the probable source material it is derived from-- BLACK SABBATH's Paranoid. Regardless, once the determined primitivism of the debut was codified, this exciting detail was unfortunately, but unsurprisingly discarded in favor a more relentlessly repetitive identical four bars.
RAMONES NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE (demo)
Photo by Roberta Bayley