Monday, July 29, 2013
Tribal drums. Multiple bridges. 1-4-1 accented riffs. Muted 'clicking' guitar sections. A few sentences of sparse lyric punctuated by multiple 'wanna' repetitions. At this point, a record and a half in, the formula's attributes for the RAMONES' songwriting must have started to feel durably dependable. That makes the manner in which this kitchen sinkful of stock moves & motifs just misses the mark all the more puzzling.
Things begin promisingly, with a unique (and unrepeated) intro: muscular and heavy, with a powerful floor tom sound. This immediately jumps into the vocal section, and it is here where the recurring oversoft snare/overloud vocals problem rears its head once again, deflating the momentum considerably from the potent opening. (A debut-album-style swing up to a higher octave from DEEDEE doesn't improve matters either.) The two verse repetitions are followed by two different (but similar) chord progressions. The second, ending in a higher pitch, builds anticipation to an awesome, pflanged, tribal stomp. The absence of lyrics in these sections seems odd, however overall JOEY's non-appearance helps to cancel out the balance problems of the mix (as does the more forceful playing on these bridges). A tightly wound guitar section with BEAT ON THE BRAT-derived accents on the four brings us back to the verses for another go around each section.
It is the deft dexterity with which the band moves around these numerous changes which finally proves to be the track's greatest strength. But something about the tune feels thrown together, and in the end the simple reiteration for the second half seems unadventurous compared to the dizzying arrangement of NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE, this piece's obvious antecedent.
As for the words, the attempt to forge another simplistic 'wanna' meditation also seems poorly thought out, lacking charm and even, truthfully, several expected internal rhymes. (It doesn't help that the sole appearance of vocals is on top of the song's least interesting melody, a dreary A-F-G which pales alongside the composition's other, more explosive passages.) Although the verses somewhat adequately manifest the contradictory poignancy of teenaged yearnings-- contrasting the drive to avoid judgement, yet longing for autonomy (even if is serves no purpose other than to battle ennui on one's own individual terms)-- they lack the haiku precision and good punchline which usually punctuate the RAMONES' lyrical efforts in this form.
So chalk up a couple of good riffs, some energetic playing, and a typically impassioned performance from a disappointingly underutilized JOEY. The assembly line of perfect punk masterpieces had to pause at some point, and this (still fun) offering truthfully revealed only minor chinks in the armor. The struggles with the persistence of quality material were still many years away, and for now the boys' desire to be 'good' was being met, and then some, with impressive regularity.
RAMONES NOW I WANNA BE A GOOD BOY
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Tommy and Johnny with Fred 'Sonic' Smith from the MC5 and Ron & Scotty Asheton of the Stooges
For the uninitiated: 'influences' are what artists call the older materials that they steal the most from. There is no shame in this, virtually every musician has stood upon the shoulders of those who have come before, breaking the ground and laying the foundation which they build upon. Certainly in the literary and film world such 'borrowing' is common. Even in the realm of the finer arts, such as painting and classical music, tangible development can be charted as one explores the 'influences' each artist favors mapped out over overlapping generations.
Rock 'n' roll, with its basic adherence to somewhat defined forms, is as generally vulnerable to recycling as blues, country and jazz. Often musicians 'pay tribute' to their predecessors by producing intentionally familiar 'homages.' (Ironically, sometimes a more flagrantly unchanged reference can be held in higher esteem than a nicked detail which is knowingly disguised.) As revivalists of what was viewed as a passe form in their time, the RAMONES frequently adopted the varyingly acceptable methods of such appropriation. At times, they worked in specific genre cliches as a matter of respect to preformed parameters. (It's not so much that the intro of YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL rips off, say, Runaround Sue by DION, it's that the RAMONES are operating in the similar style and adopting the typified motifs.) Other times, they include a precise quote (musical or lyrical) as a nod to an occasionally obscure, admired prototype. (Witness JOEY's tip of the hat to the SEX PISTOLS' Pretty Vacant in the intro to his solo hit WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.) And finally, like every other musician (don't let any tell you different!), sometimes they just plain copy stuff that they like.
Which brings us to this list. Usually the RAMONES preferred to keep their retooling discreet. Although ALICE COOPER's I'm 18 prompted a whole slew of the band's material from I DON'T CARE to I JUST WANT TO HAVE SOMETHING TO DO, few might recognize the source material. Same with NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE's riff similar to BLACK SABBATH'S Paranoid. (It is quite fascinating how many of the RAMONES' most important antecedents appear here.) In other instances, they wore their influences on their sleeve, sometimes shamelessly so, and that is our focus here. Between JOHNNY's obvious admiration for Fred "Sonic" Smith's look, and the recurrent imagery present in both the POISON HEART video AND the same director's previous success (R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion), it was difficult to confine the list to strictly musical xeroxes. Still, here we have it: the list that a less charitable person might have titled the Top Ten Biggest RAMONES Ripoffs. (Not to be confused with the Top Ten Biggest Ripoffs OF the RAMONES. Perhaps that will be a future list.)
1. JUDY IS A PUNK
Famously, the RAMONES grabbed the vocal gimmick used on the HERMAN'S HERMITS smash hit I'm Henry the VIII, I Am, noting whether the same or dissimilar verse would be sung next. JOEY's frequent citing of the mild mannered Peter Noone as one of his favortite vocalists was a consistently confusing tidbit to the punk-fearing journalists of the day.
2. BORN TO DIE IN BERLIN
Perhaps the group most adored by the RAMONES, the STOOGES get riffchecked as ADIOS AMIGOS draws to a close in DEEDEE's harrowing farewell BORN TO DIE IN BERLIN, whose main lick borrows substantially from IGGY POP's petulantly teenage classic No Fun.
3. SUZY IS A HEADBANGER
JOHNNY claimed that CARBONA NOT GLUE was conceived after some gorging on the classic rockabilly of EDDIE COCHRAN, but it is this track, composed roughly near the same time, which bears an uncanny resemblance to his party anthem C'MON EVERYBODY. The SEX PISTOLS likely noticed this quickly (COCHRAN holding a greater 'icon' status in England), and later opted to cover a hard rock version of the track, as if to underline the similarity.
4. DO YOU REMEMBER ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO?
The RAMONES' bizarre obsession with teenybopper sensations BAY CITY ROLLERS (or at least their briefly BEATLES level popularity) led them to copy the chantalong concept of their biggest hit SATURDAY NIGHT for the Hey Ho Let's Go section of their first single, BLITZKRIEG BOP. However, a few years later the band went one step further with the leadoff single of END OF THE CENTURY, which plainly mimicked the actual chant itself. (To be fair, both tracks owe more than a small debt to the pep rally intro of the classic 60's instrumental Let's Go (Pony) by the ROUTERS.)
5. THE KKK TOOK MY BABY AWAY
The amusing PLEASANT DREAMS classic features a melody which is mostly a dumbed down take on the similarly un-pc CHEAP TRICK standard He's a Whore.
6. REAL COOL TIME
This track lifts a key line from Fun Fun Fun by the BEACH BOYS, which may have actualized a tributary allusion to one of the RAMONES' most frequently noted unexpected ancestors, but it also unfortunately made clear how considerably less 'real cool' this track is compared to the earlier untoppable ode to infectious summer celebration.
7. CABBIES ON CRACK
The NEW YORK DOLLS, who swayed the scene which borne everyone from THE RAMONES to KISS, gets the homage in this MONDO BIZARRO stomper, which bears more than passing resemblance to their 2nd lp fave Puss 'n' Boots. You won't hear any guitar leads like THAT on a Dolls record, however.
8. IT'S NOT MY PLACE (IN THE 9 TO 5 WORLD)
Perhaps none too wisely, this extremely uncharacteristic PLEASANT DREAMS hodgepodge pulls a startling move in the middle section, damn near playing the melody of the song that the track is referencing, the VOGUES' Five O'Clock World. The RAMONES merely play it slower (!), which should give you some idea of how little this song gets right.
9. LIFE GOES ON
Wisely relegated to a late 1987 b-side, this rarity quotes transparently from another band favorite, SLADE, whose hit CUM ON THE FEEL THE NOIZE features an identical verse to chorus bridge. Unfortunately, there is no mentioning SLADE in the eighties without conjuring the embarrassing spectre of Quiet Riot, whose megasmash cover of this track was undoubtedly familiar to the RAMONES at the time this was recorded.
10. LIFE'S A GAS/ SHE TALKS TO RAINBOWS/I WON'T LET IT HAPPEN
Here's a trio of tracks that, while on paper, may not qualify as outright thievery, are all marked by JOEY's late career predilection for copping phrases and titles from rather over-obvious sources. Of course no T. REX fan (which JOEY clearly was) would have looked past a RAMONES song with the same title as the Electric Warrior classic LIFE'S A GAS without pause. SHE TALKS TO RAINBOWS appeared not that long after the BLACK CROWES scored a massive hit with SHE TALKS TO ANGELS, and their common phrases went unnoticed by practically nobody. And finally there is I WON'T LET IT HAPPEN, which is uncomfortably familiar to any SLADE aficianado via their similarly named track. Again, these three all represent less plagiarism than an exceptionally lazy level of derivation. (OK, maybe the SLADE is a worse ripoff than I remembered.)
Of course, we can't resist revealing the source of ROAD TO RUIN's I'M AGAINST IT ethos!
Photo by Robert Matheu
Monday, July 15, 2013
No less than the cinematic sacrament to the outsider underdog aesthetic since its disastrous 1932 release, Tod Browning's FREAKS found itself invoked by unlikely (but, in retrospect, unsurprising) champions after the RAMONES caught a screening during an unexpected day off on tour. The brazen display of malformed sideshow denizens, the pre-code undercurrents of sick humor, the breathtaking climax of merciless retaliation--all held obvious appeal for the group. They hooked upon the microcephalic Schlitzie. (The group was already familiar with the ZIPPY THE PINHEAD comic by Bill Griffith, but the stream of consciousness philosophizing of that figure seemed to influence them little.) Though disabled to the point of unintelligibility, Schlitzie still proves willing to crawl through the mud with a butcher knife to help deliver storm-drenched vengeance. (In a film full of demented visuals and twisted plot devices, this remains the movie's most morbidly unsettling image.) They also zeroed in on the film's centerpiece, the delirious Wedding Feast sequence. This nightmarish interlude is prefaced with a silent era-style intertitle card, as if to brace the viewer for what is to follow. At a post-matrimonial reception the freaks welcome a scheming 'normal' to their ranks, intoning a bizarre chant which slowly builds to a frenzy until they are harshly rejected, triggering the film toward its finale. Almost immediately the band decided to co-opt the 'gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us' incantation for a new song.
Opting to flesh out and expand the pile driving middle section of HAVANA AFFAIR, the group hammered out a new, heavy, maddening concoction. With TOMMY predominantly leaning towards half instead of quarter notes, the odd impression created is that of a track slower than their regular fare but far quicker than their later mid tempo material. Interestingly, the track's key shifts DOWN a step each time a verse is sung, playing a similar (but not identical) chord sequence. This creates a tangible uplifting surge each time the root melody is returned to. (The surprisingly smart touch of stretching out E for an extra measure at the end of each verse before this happens heightens the effect considerably.) The driving pattern which kicks off the middle section (actually, a foreshadowing of the final coda) crashes into one of their most effective uses of tribal drum chants. Next, a quick reiteration of the verse theme (with the lingering E feeling even MORE powerful), they then delve into one more round of verse/chorus on their way to the rousing climax: a relentless loop of the middle eight's opening progression with the FREAKS-derived catchphrase 'GABBA GABBA HEY' chanted on top, a phantasmagoria of bizarre background voices drooling all the way to the end of the fade.
Clearly sensing that they were developing one of their key pieces, the band expended considerable effort to ensure a compelling mix for the track. Hypnotizing vocal chorus fade-ins pepper both 'tribal' sections, and there is huge resonance to the concurrent floor tom strikes. As well, throughout the rest of the song--either by studio effect, or overdubbing woodblocks, or by simply hitting slightly out of unison doubleshots-- the snare displays a fat, clopping sound. The guitars and bass are unprecedentedly dense, the monstrous precision of DEEDEE and JOHNNY's playing authoritatively amplifying the menace.
JOEY also puts his stamp all over the performance. If he isn't singularly responsible for the balance of the lyrics' phrases-- the spelled out 'dumb' accusations, or the couplet bemoaning the unlikelihood of institutional romantic involvement between our pinheaded protagonist and the female hospital staff-- he certainly instills their pathos with convincing familiarity. Studio fattening underlines the appeal of JOEY's singing tone, although, as with the rest of the album, he is still perhaps a smidge too high up in the mix. Other than that, the only possible vocal fault remaining is a error repeated from the previous album. As with BLITZKRIEG BOP's 'heys' and 'hos,' the closing mantra's 'heys' here do not get beefed up anywhere near as much as they could have been (and certainly would be henceforth, in ecstatic live performance after another). No matter, JOEY's surprisingly downtrodden interjections would be rectified by future audiences, and one barely notices their shortcomings in the midst of PINHEAD's final engineering flourish: the aforementioned babbling exclamations which huddle about the song's final minute. Attempting to replicate bedlam ambiance, the group layers on several distorted characterizations- some sped up, some slowed down-- all jabbering amusing non sequitirs: 'Pleased to meet you!', 'so much easier to pick my nose!', and even a future song title- 'I wanna be well!' This all wraps up the proceedings to a suitably hallucinatory, demented conclusion. It also marks the first major dabbling in conceptual sound effects (CHAINSAW's buzzsaw aside), which will continue to be wielded with regularity on their recordings up into the RICHIE era.
Of course in the upcoming years it would be the fans actualizing the crowded mania of the song's conclusion. By taking on the embracing persona of the FREAKS chant, altered only slightly in the unforgettable opening declamations, the band had forged an unexpectedly powerful bond to their outsider, underdog following. We accept you. One of us. Cemented as a concert favorite after the addition of an irresistible gimmick--a stagehand in pinhead garb appearing onstage flying a 'GABBA GABBA HEY' sign for the anthem's final moments-- their new cornerstone classic had codified a joyous collective acceptance of the unpopular, a welcome community for the unaccepted. And as the years wore on and the band fumbled to find their place in the music industry, the sentiment could then be returned to the RAMONES from their fans in an appreciative symbiosis so powerful that its affection would outlast even the life of the band itself.
Sunday, July 7, 2013
When JOHNNY stated that CARBONA NOT GLUE had been heavily influenced by EDDIE COCHRAN, it was difficult not to imagine that perhaps he was referring to this song instead. The main riff is clearly derived from C'mon Everybody, one of the 50's rocker's most recognizable hits. (Interestingly, the post-Johnny Rotten SEX PISTOLS would later convincingly cover the track, as well as another COCHRAN classic Something Else, with Sid Vicious on vocals.) The one string, one fret riff which precedes the verses also recalls another of EDDIE's trademarks, feautured prominently not only on this early rock 'n' roll party anthem, but also on his biggest hit, Summertime Blues.
Here the RAMONES return to what was shaping up as their second major running gag, the descriptive designation of a string of specifically identified female fans (the first being their intentionally ludicrous overuse of the word 'WANNA.') The later repackaging of LEAVE HOME featuring SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER added to the impression that this gimmick was building up some steam, but in actuality the practice was about to be abandoned, with just a revisit from Jackie and Judy on END OF THE CENTURY and a much later appearance from a similarly monikered HEIDI looming for the future.
Concocted in the days before Heavy Metal's mainstream ascendance, the reference to 'headbanging' here refers not to the typical male's stadium concert activity, but to said SUZY's habit of actually knocking her head against cement walls (if JOEY's recollection is to be believed.) The only other offered detail refers to 'geeks,' presumably of the circus sideshow variety and not the generic high school disparagement. We are, after all, a mere song away from the FREAKS-derived PINHEAD.
Speaking of PINHEAD, the running order proximity of that beloved standard somewhat undermines that SUZY closes with a similarly superb repetitive chant, perhaps their most underrated application of this tactic. Kicked off by another tribal drum intro, this coda forgoes the usual fadeout in favor of an explosively exciting, relentlessly built up climax to a brutally abrupt ending. One of LEAVE HOME's best mixed tracks, TOMMY's engineering input here is commendable. Deeply echoed floor toms, densely charged guitars, perfectly utilized woodblocks and effective background vocals all amplify a powerful-- and somewhat inadequately regarded--classic. But it is a testimony to the caliber of quality material featured on the RAMONES' early releases that a track such as this could be unfairly rated just a little less great, and a little less often, than it deservedly should.
RAMONES SUZY IS A HEADBANGER