Wednesday, May 22, 2013
RAMONES-- LEAVE HOME
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.