Sunday, August 25, 2013
One of LEAVE HOME's bigger disappointments, YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL had been an early demo (see THE RAMONES' OTHER DEBUT ALBUM ) strong enough to trigger an offer from SIRE records for a single deal-- an offer the RAMONES refused, hoping to hold out for a contract for a complete album. This tactic more or less ended up proving effective, but when time came to finally record the tune for the second long player, the weakly mixed results proved underwhelming enough to have the track nixed as a possible 45.
A strikingly knowing exercise in the doowop genre's dominant changes, the obvious commercial potential of this throwback rocker makes, in retrospect, the piqued interest of their eventual record company unsurprising. Even in demo form, with JOHNNY not quite yet on top of the varying dynamic of the verse/chorus segue, the infectious appeal of the oldie style composition was clearly apparent. The final failure of the LEAVE HOME attempt to fulfill the detectable promise of the original recording remains one of the lp's deepest puzzles.
Commencing with a conceptually sound but somewhat rushed DION & the BELMONTS-style introductory section, the band surges into a chorus and bridge modified to their pulverizing approach, but adhering stringently to the idiom's standard melodies. Once the song proper begins, however, the deficiencies of the production's balance become clear. Perhaps by design (especially if the song was still under consideration as a single), the overall mix seems less brash and heavy than the remainder of the album. The churn of the guitars and bass feels less ferocious, the background singing is insufficiently rousing, and the recurrent problems of the drums being too low in volume and the lead vocals being too high reach an apex of intensity here. Though the performances are primarily more than adequate (and the charms of the number undeniable), the entire effort ends up feeling rather emasculated. (Shortly, an impassioned, dazzling concert performance of the song on IT'S ALIVE would finally allow YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL to ascend to its conceived heights.)
Certainly JOEY, who wields the required teen tragedy-style pathos (and seems unfazed by the near-satirical, sick cliche extreme of the lyric) carries through with admirable fervor. But although hardly disastrous, any minimal consideration of this composition's competing versions reveals the sting of wasted opportunity that hangs over this misfire of what shall become one of their most under-regarded early classics. In the end, the best that can be said is how well YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL displays the RAMONES' concrete grasp of Rock 'n' Roll's fundamental foundations, and how effortlessly (even unconsciously?) they could be manifested if required-- despite deceptive efforts to affect an 'unschooled' aesthetic.
YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL
Monday, August 19, 2013
This deceptively contradictory rocker pitted two already prevalent thematic terrains into an anthem so absurd as to border on dadaist. JOHNNY's patriotic militarisms clash head on with the Germanic obsessions of DEEDEE's youth, resulting in a concoction which finally defies conventional consideration. (The undercurrent of Naziism suggested by, for instance, the line pertaining to culinary orthodoxy, seems at odds with the then still-current reference to the Vietnam conflict, despite the trooper's stated willingness to travel as far as both countries' capitals.) The unimaginative machismo of the verses is turned inside out by a bizarre chorus cataloguing a numbered list of personal 'rules,' one of the band's most memorable lyrical conceptual gimmicks. Nonsensically, adherence to the law of 'der Vaterland' is equated with the importance of a kosher diet, the appeal of capitalist separatism, and (undercutting the warmongering combativeness of the song most definitively) an infantile, reverential respect for 'mommy.' Fortunately, the vocals are so hilariously powerful, and the melody's blistering arrangement so irresistibly performed that the ludicrous turns taken end up seeming completely moot. In fact, the relentless force of the song feels totally fitting to the paramiltary singlemindedness of the dubious narrative's improbable mercenary protagonist.
Musically, the stunningly primitive creation is simplistic (yet, versatile) even by the RAMONES' early standards. (Years later, as the band became grew determined to nostalgically recapture their primal strengths, they would often to revert to raw, two part verse/chorus bashers such as this.) Indeed, the heavy verse riff, which alternates between two keys, would soon be retooled for GO MENTAL on ROAD TO RUIN. As well, the four chord chorus melody would be unapologetically recycled in the next decade on ANIMAL BOY as the primary core of APEMAN HOP.
TOMMY achieves a dense, dark mix which perfectly matches the band's merciless pulse. An impatient DEEDEE starts thumping his bass even before the introductory count is completed, a pulverizing performance by JOHNNY sounds more like an army of guitars instead of just one, and TOMMY's switch to a half time cymbal count for the verses (quickly becoming a common tactic as the RAMONES' music grew steadily faster overall) is confidently seamless. But despite the personal resonance probable throughout the lyrics for DEEDEE (whose father, after all, was a career military man that stationed his family in battered Berlin, and was certainly not above dominating his family with cruelly martial doctrines), the major triumph finally belongs to JOEY, who remarkably wraps his pipes around a guerilla goon persona, charging through the chorus' imperious proclamations, and flinching not an inch at the jibes towards the jewish which permeate the track. (At least there can be little doubt that his mother Charlotte Lesher received the 'nicest' treatment, as she initially allowed the embryonic group to have their first practices in the back storeroom of her art gallery.) Whatever the debatable political correctness of the thematically wobbly compositional end result, the transformation of the gangly lead singer into a fearsome soldier of fortune (even for humour's sake) is emblematic of the culture of reinvention so firmly at the heart of the burgeoning punk movement's individualism-- as it had existed, truthfully, throughout the story of Rock 'n' Roll.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
The RAMONES often insisted that they almost immediately resorted to a shouted 1-2-3-4 start to their songs due to an inability to master the 'silent count.' Soon, however, the novelty of the oft repeated intro struck their fancy, and they began to relish the relentless recurrence of the gimmick. Quickly, the retooled weakness morphed into one of their most beloved, identifiable eccentricities.
In a long career where this device would be wielded endlessly (but perhaps less often on their albums than one might think--see Postscript), there would be presented inevitable opportunity to pick a few favorites. And indeed inevitability is the keyword, for as surely as a RAMONES classic became as likely to follow 1-2-3-4 as the number five, the band themselves represented what in retrospect seems an unavoidable step in the progression of Rock 'n' Roll's history. So without further ado, a tribute to the numerological quartet that is the mathematical key to the heart of the RAMONES' sound.
In chronological order. Naturally.
1. I DON'T WANNA BE LEARNED/I DON'T WANNA BE TAMED
Straight out of the gate the RAMONES unapologetically and unaffectedly kick off one of their earliest efforts with their soon to be trademark. Even at this embryonic stage, DEEDEE sounds unashamed and ultra-confident. Also noted for the (non-) record: I CAN'T BE, a similarly obscure pre-debut demo, which catalogues an amusing 1-2-3 (cohabitation, procreation and housecleaning.) This denotes a deadly triumvirate of domesticity which should be avoided at all costs.
I DON'T WANNA BE LEARNED/ I DON'T WANNA BE TAMED
I CAN'T BE
2. NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE
The early appearance of a 1-2-3-4 triggering the title chant is trumped shortly thereafter by a unique count all the way up to 8, building extra expectation before the heavy middle section riff commences.
NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE
3. TODAY YOUR LOVE, TOMORROW THE WORLD
A normal 1-2-3-4 opens the debut's classic closer, but in fitting with the Germanic theme DEEDEE sparks the unforgettable coda with a countoff 'auf Deutsch.'
TODAY YOUR LOVE, TOMORROW THE WORLD
DEEDEE amusingly begins playing his bass even before he completes the opening kickoff, but of course this track's most notable 1-2-3-4 remains the 'rules' militarily mandated by the group. Strict adherence to Der Vaterland, Capitalism, culinary Orthodoxy and maternal reverence all get equal time.
5. SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER
One of the less noted details which helps make this track such an exhilarating thrill is that we enter only upon the last 4 of DEEDEE's opening count, causing a tangible, nervous anticipation for what is to follow.
SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER
6. CRETIN HOP
This track brandishes a childhood nursery rhyme towards its nefariously celebratory devices, utilizing the (literally) odd count of 4-5-6-7 to better accomodate the subnormals' likelihood of rapturous ascendance.
7. ALL THE WAY
Amidst the bloated production techniques piled upon the END OF THE CENTURY LP by PHIL SPECTOR, the band reassuringly (albeit after a heavy introductory section) blasts into the meat of this track with the standard countoff. Perhaps the album's least galling display of studio muckery, this is the sole appearance of 1-2-3-4 on this release.
ALL THE WAY
8. DANGER ZONE
This TOO TOUGH TO DIE cornerstone features a hilarious, 'studio verite' exchange between DEEDEE and JOHNNY even before they can get to the countoff.
9. I LOST MY MIND
This rather calculated throwback to the classic early approach from HALFWAY TO SANITY begins with certainly DEEDEE's most confused sounding instigation. Did he begin the 1-2-3-4 backwards?
I LOST MY MIND
10. I DON'T WANNA GROW UP
For their farewell abum, the RAMONES opt to start things off in style, coming full circle with a perfectly mimicked 1-2-3-4 from CJ opening the proceedings.
I DON'T WANNA GROW UP
A good friend of mine in high school once put forth the theory that the quality of any RAMONES album was in exact accordance and proportion to the number of times 1-2-3-4 was uttered. This worked fine for me- my favorite album was (and is) IT'S ALIVE, where the count in some form or another appears 28 times. The theory seemed to fall apart considerably, however, with the decidedly inferior LOCO LIVE, which featured virtually the same tally. (Years later, as their final concert drew nearer, a troubling, insidious detail began to take hold: a gradually growing pause between 4 and the songs' commencement, until there existed almost space enough to utter 5. A sobering indicator of time's passage.)
But what of the studio albums? A surprising amount displayed not even a single 1-2-3-4: PLEASANT DREAMS, BRAIN DRAIN, MONDO BIZARRO, ACID EATERS, plus the undeniably strong ROAD TO RUIN and SUBTERRANEAN JUNGLE. The theory felt firmer with the records where it occurred only once: END OF THE CENTURY, ANIMAL BOY and ADIOS AMIGOS. It gets wobbly with the inconsistent HALFWAY TO SANITY, which piles up a much higher count of four. From here though, the rule bears out quite effectively: pretty much five total for each of their first three classic LPs (allowing for oddities such as COMMANDO and CRETIN HOP). And with an undebatable sum of six 1-2-3-4s, the grand nod goes to TOO TOUGH TO DIE, their superlative midperiod comeback.
Maybe Dax was on to something.
Photo by DANNY FIELDS. Information on the upcoming documentary about him DANNY SAYS this way:
Collage by JOHN HOLMSTROM. Buy his new book the BEST OF PUNK MAGAZINE this way:
Best of Punk Magazine-John-Holmstrom
Thursday, August 8, 2013
The RAMONES had a problem. Although they had performed the oldie CALIFORNIA SUN in their sets from the very beginning, the friendly neighborhood competition (and aesthetic cousins) THE DICTATORS had stolen their thunder by including a version on their 1975 debut album Go Girl Crazy. Not willing to let go of a good thing, they stubbornly trudged ahead with their own reading for LEAVE HOME. This revealed that even if the band might stoop to recording material already notably covered elsewhere (even by their friends), they would at least take care to allow a passage of time long enough so that any possible clash could be nullified- or at least sidestepped. (Their later re-assimilation of CHINESE ROCK would be postponed somewhat more artfully.) If the RAMONES version of CALIFORNIA SUN came a bit too soon after their rivals, they could still arguably lay claim to having arrived at the song first. More importantly, the band undercut a substantial portion of potential controversy by simply producing the superior interpretation.
Originally recorded by R'n'B singer Joe Jones in 1961-- but made famous shortly thereafter in a surf version by the Rivieras-- CALIFORNIA SUN is a song seemingly tailor made to follow-up the RAMONES' debut album cut of LET'S DANCE. Sub-BEACH BOYS, pre-British Invasion cheese, the tune appeared prime for appropriation by the band-- only the anchor guitar figure proved a possible obstacle. Though uncomplicated, the lick can be deceptively difficult to nail (especially if one guitar alone must shoulder the rhythm burden seamlessly as well). Surprisingly, JOHNNY remained willing to buckle down, and for years the sly riff continued to represent his most challenging tidbit in their live performances.
Basically disregarding the DICTATORS' cover, the RAMONES ignore their lyrical adlibs and simply focus on the Rivieras' verses (which, ironically, are altered somewhat from Joe Jones' original) and bare instrumentation. The RAMONES add a unique touch to their arrangement by foregoing the introductory unsung verse (present on all other versions), instead allowing DEEDEE to count off straight into a chorus. This shortens the time elapsed before the vocals begin, and also makes the tribal drum/riff-accompanied verse more intriguing when it finally does arrive.
One of LEAVE HOME's most powerful mixes supports a perfect performance. The drums' toms exhibit fat echo and presence, and the guitars have delicious tone (especially the overdubbed primary riff). JOEY's performance is dead on, and their decision to not mimic the DICTATORS call and response background vocals was a wise one. (They naturally also eschew their numerous lead guitar overdubs, one of the other augmentations which ultimately make the Go Girl Crazy version sound rather bloated in comparison to the RAMONES' minimalist take.)
That the band's aesthetic could retool such an ancient, rinkydink 45 into such a striking, fierce blast of modern rock laid bare something which was not always apparent at the time: The RAMONES represented less of a reactionary recoil to rock and roll progressiveness and more of a natural (even unconscious) inheritance and perpetration of its its true ideals.
RAMONES CALIFORNIA SUN
Monday, August 5, 2013
An extremely early effort from JOEY which had already been demoed in practically identical form (see RAMONES: THE EARLY DEMOS), this sludgy ballad was held off of the debut for later inclusion here. But besides the predictable root key adjustment- a step up from the first attempt- little tangible effort has gone towards its improvement. The undeveloped melody gets some window dressing via some sonically attractive guitar strum overdubs, and the lush background vocals do display some amount of care (the response to the second syllable of 'insane' is undeniably memorable), but the minimal consideration afforded this benchwarmer finally results in perhaps the dreariest track created by the RAMONES' original lineup.
The lyric pertains to a girl's struggles with mental illness, one of their least compelling explorations of this subject. The allusions to 'sweet' Mary Jane already sounded out of date at the time of LEAVE HOME's release, and the subsequent Punk movement's backlash against hippies only amplified this anachronism. (Indeed, although at least two members continued to toke up, the future would hold few, if any, references to marijuana in the group's lyrics-- despite regular mentions of other harder drugs and pharmaceuticals.) Similarly, the protagonist's desire to conform her appearance to those who surround her seemed at odds with the burst of individualism that the New Wave's culture explosion would soon embrace. Also, JOEY's repetitions of 'yeah' at the second chorus' emotional apex ring slightly overwrought and old fashioned, though otherwise he strives to be sincere and convincing with verses which, though underwhelming, in all probability represent a thinly veiled self portrait.
The cannabis code words and reverb drenched vocals do mark this track notably as the RAMONES' first dabbling in psychedelia. Not wielded again until the MARKY era, the middle section of IT'S NOT MY PLACE (IN THE 9 TO 5 WORLD) from PLEASANT DREAMS prefaced the first full fledged plunge into the tripped out realm with TIME HAS COME TODAY on SUBTERRANEAN JUNGLE. This would finally culminate on ACID EATERS, a concept record of predominantly LSD era cover versions, and for their final album they would go down to the rabbit hole well one more time with SHE TALKS TO RAINBOWS, a measurably more effective (and weathered) reiteration of WHAT'S YOUR GAME's musical and lyrical ideas.
RAMONES WHAT'S YOUR GAME
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Although superficially displaying the trappings of typical romantic lyrical longing (especially encased in LEAVE HOME's obligatory stab at pure pop), upon closer inspection SWALLOW MY PRIDE is a revelatory self portrait review of the band's (mis)fortunes at the sophomore LP point. There is hardly a single line of lyric which doesn't seem to directly reflect situational resonance for at least one band member. JOEY's unconquerable optimism, TOMMY's displeasure at being taken for granted, JOHNNY's desire for militaristic control, DEEDEE's downbeat impatience-- all manage to get touched upon in the very few lines of lyric, and each mentioned personalty trait was a very short time away from finding full flower.
'Two years' in-- the specific passage of time has relevance-- the RAMONES' career seemed already stalled in a purgatory perched between obscurity and substantial success. The spiritual sons of the STOOGES and NEW YORK DOLLS should have known better than to expect too much too soon, but clearly the tantalizingly tangible next level, within reasonable proximity but insurmountably ungraspable, was beginning to solidify frustrations.
Commercial enough to be released as a 45 after the bizarre, out of nowhere appearance (and subsequent addition) of SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER, but undistinguished enough to remain a likely component of the group's live set, SWALLOW MY PRIDE is an appealing exercise around the 1-4-5 in the key of B. (The bridge predictably drops down to Gsharp/Aflat, but a stricter adherence to genre rules probably would have dictated that this should have been a minor chord.) Opening aggressively-- perhaps too aggressively for a potential single?-- then switching to a now-familiar muted 'clicking' guitar verse, the track is potently melodic; especially the soaring choruses. However, problematic minor details detract from the overall knockout. Some lines of verse have a few too many words, forcing odd phrasing from JOEY, and although the background vocals are impressive for the choruses, they are distractedly and less effectively tagged on in other places. The middle section repetition of 'oh yeah's isn't a bad idea, but the heavy echo and reverb only accentuate the thematic inappropriateness of JOEY's bratty delivery. (This section has been almost completely overhauled from the original version appearing on early bootlegs, where British Invasion-style 'come on's are repeated over a standard punk lick.)
Proof of tunesmithing aptitude assumed to be outside their ability, but likely to be underrated next to their early undeniable classics, SWALLOW MY PRIDE remains an effort apt for confused appraisal in the RAMONES' ouvre. It certainly does not match up to either LISTEN TO MY HEART, the debut's grade A pop confection, or the forthcoming LOCKET LOVE, an improvement of similar musical ideas destined to appear on ROCKET TO RUSSIA. Still, it was years before TOMMY would decide against facing another 'winter' with the band, before JOEY's persistent invocations of 'real cool times' would be touched with desperation's tinge, before DEEDEE would be overtaken by the muddle of grimmer looking days, and before JOHNNY's amorous actions would threaten to undermine the 'ship's stability, necessitating a uniform tight-lipped-ness. The song endures as a reassuring snapshot of group solidarity in the face of problems that, for the moment, loomed primarily only as foreshadowing.
RAMONES SWALLOW MY PRIDE