HUMMING A SICKENING TUNE shall encompass a track by track review of the complete recorded works of THE RAMONES, giving consideration to each song's composition, recording and place in the overall arc of the band's career.
Side 2 of ROCKET TO RUSSIA bursts forth with a track which draws inspiration from the sub genre of 50s exploitation films whose plots correlated adolescent rites of passage with horrific monstrosity-- such as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, TEENAGE ZOMBIE, and I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN. Having previously already covered shock treatments, this offering also sets out to explore & lampoon the only remaining institutional procedure with potentially more devastating effects to the mentally struggling patients being treated: the Lobotomy.
Kicking off with perhaps the most tribal & unusual of any of the RAMONES' classic drum intros, JOEY then follows, intoning a bizarre chant-- ludicrously blase, and dripping with studio effects. This triggers a dizzying trio of three chord blasts from DEEDEE & JOHNNY: the first is rooted in B, the second in A, the third in D. Though distinctively dissimilar, all three are 1-4-5 distortions, and the guitar and bass play in uncharacteristically non-divergent unison. It's another sharp, overachieving sequence, and only through the band's ever increasing dexterity does the illusion of effortlessness again appear to be cast.
The verses then commence on top of a surprisingly simple progression, which serves to accentuate the rushed complexity of the other sections once they return (note how the nearly identical verse of CRETIN HOP serves a similar, but less strikingly apparent function.) JOEY's execution of one of the bands most indisputably hilarious lyrics hits the perfect note of in-character humor, as he swings from slow-wittedly simplistic recitations of unmelodic phrasing to unexpectedly jubilant exhortations at the conclusion of each stanza. And although perhaps 'sophistication' wouldn't be quite the correct term to describe the flowering comedic touch on display here, knowing familiarity with stages of collegiate achievement, an above average grasp of anatomical terminology, and an awareness of ecologically dangerous chemical repercussions would all seem to undercut the group's affectations of unlearned idiocy. JOHN HOLMSTROM's grinningly demented rubber room caricature perfectly compliments the inspired lunacy of the proceedings.
One of ROCKET TO RUSSIA's superior mixes captures an electric, streamlined charge of sound-- certainly this song would have benefited little from LEAVE HOME's denser mix (perhaps only the overly dry percussion is a singular detriment). Add this to a group performance of exceptional exuberance, a composition full of impressively unique twists, and a lyric once again amusingly inverting and championing what previously might only have appeared nightmarishly depressing, and one relishes yet another unforgettable benchmark exemplifying the RAMONES' unmatchable allure.
RAMONES: HUMMING A SICKENING TUNE (and my related piece THE RAMONES' OTHER DEBUT ALBUM from BUNCOMBE SHINOLA) were recently featured in a article written by JOSH JONES about the the RAMONES' early demos for the online site OPEN CULTURE. The support and proper credit are SUPER appreciated!
HUMMING A SICKENING TUNE will be back soon with TEENAGE LOBOTOMY!
RAMONES: HUMMING A SICKENING TUNE has been on hiatus as I have moved again. While I tie up a few last details, here is a re-edit of CHOP HER UP AND I DON'T CARE from my other blog BUNCOMBE SHINOLA, which explores video mashups of classic RAMONES songs with famous films.
A few deleted clips have been replaced, some new finds added, and the full movie TOMORROW THE WORLD, which may have influenced DEEDEE's similarly named tune, is now included.
There can be little doubt that WE'RE A HAPPY FAMILY was intended to be a sequel of sorts to the previous album's PINHEAD: another bizarre lyrical tableau of shattered normalcy, another maddening melody of mercilessly zigzagging chord patterns, another outsider chantalong fadeout featuring demented sound effects. Even the placement in LEAVE HOME's playlist is mirrored-- although, as previously noted, that such apparently natural closers would wind down the first sides of their respective LPs, instead of appearing as satisfying second side finales, remains baffling.
The three part composition flaunts the band's twisted ambitions, striving to concoct outlandish barre chord constructions, all performed with unrelenting locomotion and exactitude. Opening with a not untypical three chord thrust, the introduction moves quickly to a second instrumental section-- a tongue twister alternating between Fsharp and E with matching A-B and G-A connections. Now, on a guitar Fsharp and G are only one fret apart, but since JOHNNY has rooted the next song segments in his higher register, this means he swings almost an entire octave, absolutely unnecessarily, every time they charge through this change. Were it not so exhilarating, it would border on the nonsensical, this odd determination of the RAMONES to wrench the wildest melodies possible from within the confines of their limited (but always sharpening) abilities. Make no mistake, after all of the criticisms of description, all the bemoaning of three chords, of unshakable primitivism, of artless amateurishness, we arrive here at guitar work so confounding that their movements are bound to be unmatchable for any guitarist initially attempting them- other than those who have accustomed themselves to working inside the RAMONES' sound realm.
Without pause the verse suddenly commences. Coming off of the previous section's last G-A, the transition to the dizzying E-G-E-A-E-G-D sequence could be tricky, but the band conquer it into a seamless, seeming effortlessness. As on the previous section, DEEDEE wields his trademark secret weapon, swooping up to higher octaves each time JOHNNY swings down, creating a subliminal, uneasy lack of center, where only the performance's precision maintains an exact point of focus.
Then finally, the lyric begins, a tragicomic cataloguing of failing familial dysfunction. As usual, the humor is sufficiently farfetched enough that the band could reasonably deflect the probability that many of the grim details might actually have personal resonance. Of course, while associations with the leaders of the free world and the catholic church were patently unlikely, the desperate hunger of a chilly Queens, or the distance of an untrustworthy father, or the loneliness of self-medicating while dealing on the side, all ring uneasily true in RAMONES circles. (JOHN HOLSTROM's memorable accompanying illustration ironically portrays a grinning, hyper-mundane clan.) At least a couple of in-jokes optimistically refer to their supposedly soon to be improving fortunes and notoriety, as once again the band mystifyingly transforms the disastrous into the celebratory.
Blasting full on at the quickest tempo found amongst their trio of classic initial releases (only GIMME GIMME SHOCK TREATMENT barrels by in a higher gear), WE'RE A HAPPY FAMILY finds the the RAMONES at an early apex of studio confidence. JOHNNY, DEEDEE and TOMMY perform at a practiced peak of impassioned perfection, while JOEY wrests great humor-- and briefly, even surprising pathos-- from recitation of the litany of troubles which have befallen his kinfolk. One of the most potent and effective mixes on ROCKET TO RUSSIA captures the lightning of the track's crisp drive. As repetitions of the chorus catchphrase swell into the coda, the track takes one more nod to the previous PINHEAD, and psychedelic studio production touches swirl into another logjam of babbling, group dialogue non sequitirs, and cinema verite sound effects of household clamor ('Where's my underwear??'). Interestingly, the CD reveals a longer fadeout than the original LP, and the aural clutter which outlasts even the band's concluding chord are now audible.
Noted by TOMMY as a convincing example of the RAMONES' collaborative songwriting strengths, WE'RE A HAPPY FAMILY outshines its calculating conception, and stands as one of the band's definitive compositions and recordings. Swinging for the fences and connecting in virtually every way, the song exemplifies the beguiling combination of ludicrous hilarity and musical ferocity which defines the group's essence. With PINHEAD delegated to the closer of the live set proper, WE'RE A HAPPY FAMILY almost immediately found a permanent home as the climax of the last encore, joyfully sending the audience of disaffected outsiders home with a final affirmation of communal acceptance. As well, it also served to deliver the band a self aware declaration of reasserted solidarity. The necessity of both gestures would become more and more meaningful in the hard years which lie ahead.
So i wanted to take a day to let this sink in before reposting. Yesterday, C.J. RAMONE
posted some extremely kind words about the RAMONES blog i've been
working on-- just about the highest kind of praise i could possibly
receive really. But even aside from my mention, the blog triggered a
rant from him so stirring that if i hadn't already been working on
HUMMING ON A SICKENING TUNE i probably would have started after i read
it. His words prove his heart beyond all doubt, and i am humbly
From his page: "I HAVE TO SHARE THIS WITH YOU
BROTHERS AND SISTERS. I HAVE ALWAYS FELT THAT THE RAMONES WERE AND ARE A
HUGELY MISUNDERSTOOD BAND. LISTENING TO, STUDYING, AND PLAYING THEIR
MUSIC HAS ALLOWED ME TO LOOK PAST THE HUMOR AND CARTOON IMAGE THAT ARE
OBVIOUS, TO SEE REAL GENIUS IN WHAT THEY DID. THE LACK OF UNDERSTANDING
IN THE INDUSTRY BROKE JOEY'S HEART, MADE JOHNNY BITTER AND DROVE DEE DEE
CRAZY THAT HE WAS NOT RECOGNIZED FOR BEING ONE OF THE GREATEST
ROCK-N-ROLL SONG WRITERS OF ALL TIME, WHICH HE WAS. SO GIVE THESE
REVIEWS OF SOME OF THE RAMONES CLASSICS A READ. TOM'S VIEWS ARE NOT JUST
ENLIGHTENING AND WELL WRITTEN, BUT THEY POINT TO THE GENIUS THAT MADE
THE RAMONES MORE THAN JUST FOUR GUYS IN LEATHER JACKETS AND RIPPED JEANS
PLAYING LOUD FAST MUSIC."
The manner in which this project is sequenced brings us to an awkward situation with SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER, one of the RAMONES' greatest and best loved songs. Previous consideration of the CARBONA NOT GLUE quagmire has already mapped out this song's appearance (see CARBONA NOT GLUE), and the wrongheaded programming of the SHEENA 45 mix as an extra on the deluxe edition of the ROCKET TO RUSSIA cd instead of LEAVE HOME (where it clearly would have made more sense) requires that we now evaluate this LP variant, released months later, several entries before we arrive at the original--arguably, the definitive rendition. To maintain some semblance of order, this discussion shall concern itself with SHEENA compositionally, and the upcoming blog for the initial SHEENA single version will concentrate on the performance and production, including a comparison of the two differing mixes.
To briefly recap: JOEY composed SHEENA shortly after the release of LEAVE HOME, and it was, at SIRE's behest, quickly recorded and rushed out as a single. (Ultimately this caused market confusion as the song, and its b-side BABYSITTER, were jumbled around newer pressings of the LP, replacing the supposedly poisonous CARBONA NOT GLUE.) Despite being hurriedly written in an inspirational rush, the song is striking in the perfections of its constructions-- perhaps the only detectable flaw being the torrent of syllables occurring in the second line of verse, as opposed to the perfectly spaced pacing of the first. It's interesting to note that omitting 'au go-go' would have made the phrasing more of a workable match, and maintained the rhyme, but this would have sacrificed the 60's flavor of the scenario being invoked.
One of the RAMONES' most triumphant accomplishments in the doo-wop derived surf music idiom, the melodic progression of SHEENA was presaged by OH OH I LOVE HER SO, and the further developments evident within the subsequent ROCKAWAY BEACH would later culminate into ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL-- debatably, the apex of this experimentation. Unlike ROCKAWAY BEACH, which starts with a few bars in the 4 of the root key, or ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, which kicks off in its 5, SHEENA commences in its actual pitch: C. Swinging invigoratingly up to G instead of the expected 4 (F) after a few lines, the verse then turns to a repetition of A and the anticipated F before returning to C. After a buildup in 5 ('oh yeah'), the chorus blasts off into a sturdy variation of the standard BLITZKRIEG BOP 1-4-5. This framework of four chords is the very essence of doo-wop, although unsurprisingly, JOHNNY eschews adherence to the minor variation of A which strict genre parameters would dictate. Unlike YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL, a more exacting homage to the doo-wop style, SHEENA draws its strength from unique chord selections made inside the limited options.
Another uncommon maneuver awaits as the song enters its middle eight. Hopping up to the 4 (F), it immediately becomes apparent that earlier the verse avoided this change in order to keep the melody of this section distinctive. After moving through typical 1-4-5 devices, a sudden swoop down to A sharp throws a nervy curveball before the return to the verses. Once again, the band's comfort in dexterously moving around their boxlike barre chord patterns had brought them to a subtly unorthodox melodic choice-- one which would be highly unlikely to a guitarist prone to performances within only the standard open chords, but would have made perfect sense in the adventurously rulebreaking playfulness of the early BEATLES. Of course the RAMONES hurtle along at their characteristic velocity through these changes as if little of note is happening, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the cunning underneath the onslaught.
Although JOHN HOLMSTROM's lyric sheet illustration harkens back to the IRISH MCCALLA TV show SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE from the 50s, JOEY's lyric concerns itself with the rite of passage necessitated by the abandonment of the next era's trappings, be they 60's surfboards, or somewhat more ambiguously dated 'discotheques,' for the excitement of the modern 'punk' age. (The 50's are briefly alluded to, in the form of obsolete terminology for drug use, which would end up hurting the 45's fortunes-- more on this in the future SHEENA post.) Of course, the RAMONES themselves were fond of anachronistic nostalgia, and there is something vaguely celebratory about the life our protagonist is leaving behind. This elicits an exhuberant empathy from the listener-- even those with no concrete shared experience with either SHEENA's past or future adventures. It is telling that it would be more than a decade before the group would attempt another completely new name-specific personalization, perhaps conceding
that this bullseye was untoppable. For the band had concocted, with this character, the ultimate avatar of their existential and aesthetic struggles. In the near-mythical archetype of SHEENA, the RAMONES and their fans found the very embodiment of joyous reinvention that successive generations of misfits would cherish, and seek to emulate.
If I DON'T CARE wasn't the very first stab at songwriting by JOEY, it was among the twentyish hopeful's very earliest attempts. According to the oft-repeated legend, his younger brother MICKEY LEIGH stripped an acoustic guitar down to just the low E and A strings, making the strumming of rudimentary melodies with approximated barre chords simpler for his novice sibling. Shortly afterward, he then taught his older brother the basics of his favorite song: ALICE COOPER's I'm Eighteen. The following day he was surprised to find that JOEY had written a new tune by shamelessly distorting the changes he'd learned, and adding a few phrases of childish-- but stunning-- lyrics. In time, the blunt composition would find a comfortable home inside the primitive outsider rock of the RAMONES.
Transposing the source melody from the original's E-C-D to the more power chord friendly A-F-G (and unsurprisingly ignoring any minor shadings), JOEY had unthinkingly stumbled onto a foundation he would utilize continually in decades to follow. Eventually the framework would dominate his songcraft, and become one of the stock melodic tactics the band wielded with regularity, along with 1-4-5, and its related 'doowop' changes. Later applications would include some of their most famous material-- I JUST WANT TO HAVE SOMETHING TO DO, PET SEMATARY, WE WANT THE AIRWAVES, I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES, to name only a few. This is not to suggest that all of these songs end up sounding the same. After all, the appearance of I DON'T CARE shortly after HERE TODAY GONE TOMORROW-- another extremely early piece by JOEY built around a similar grouping of chords-- in the running order of ROCKET TO RUSSIA hardly makes any resemblance conspicuous. If anything, it makes their dissimilarity more pronounced, despite their common lineage. Such was the dexterity with which the band tinkered with fretboard patterns.
Quickly embraced after the band's formation, I DON'T CARE was amongst the tracks first attempted at the RAMONES' initial 1976 demo session (see I DON'T CARE demo). Although steps were taken to beef up the sound for ROCKET TO RUSSIA's official version, including an extra overdub of guitar crunch, in the end it falls into the cache of numbers which might have benefited from LEAVE HOME's heavier production. An almost comedically weak response vocal from DEEDEE detracts considerably, and the effectively affected tone of JOEY's earlier blase performance is not matched. The demo is also pitched a step down lower in G, adding to its sludgier superiority.
The unprecedented, understated nihilism of the four sentence lyric ironically brings the band to the verge of self parody, despite the song's prototypical stature. JOEY's unschooled approach landed him onto a title phrase of deeply obvious personal resonance, however, his ceaseless usage of those three words in comparable later material (such as I DON'T WANT YOU and WHAT'D YOU DO) would finally beg the question: Didn't the defensive repetition indicate that he actually cared quite a bit? Still, that here, on perhaps his very earliest attempt, JOEY managed to help codify not only the RAMONES' trademark raw musical approach, but also the bleak humor of their outcast world view, remains impressive. In their disdain for even 'these words,' the RAMONES staked a claim where few bands, even as a joke, would dare to go.