This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
“I know (Joey) wouldn’t want us to be sad. But we are. We are very, very sad.”
— Ramones artistic director and friend Arturo Vega.
Not since the suicide of Kurt Cobain has the death of a punk rock icon generated as much grief as the untimely passing of Joey Ramone on April 15, 2001.
And little wonder. After all, The Ramones weren’t just any punk rock icons; they were THE punk rock icons. The Noo Yawkers who invented it all. They forged the sound — two-minute blasts of three-chord rock with enough addictive melody and innate songcraft to belie their primitive playing and fun-to-be-dumb lyrics. They created the look — the leather jackets, torn jeans, thrift-store sneakers and soup-bowl haircuts. They fronted the attitude — we’re brothers, we’re a gang, we’re a band and if you don’t like it, screw you. Botom line: When it comes to punk, Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy did it first, did it best, made it fun and made it last for nearly a quarter of a century before lymphatic cancer took Joey away.
So yeah, we’re sad. But the sadder truth is, death is the music biz’s greatest career move. Don’t doubt for a second that after Joey’s death, the band sold more albums than they had in years. Ironic, perhaps, but understandable, as former fans wonder if those old songs still sound as good and curious newcomers wonder what all the fuss was about.
For the answers to both questions, look in the grooves of Rhino’s recent reissues of the first four Ramones albums. Yes, these came out after Joey’s death. But they were in the works before. So they aren’t some slipshod, quickie cash-in; they’re lovingly restored artifacts of a slice of American musical history. They’ve been remastered and expanded with rarities and extras; they’ve got cool pix, full lyrics and detailed liner notes; they even come with cardboard sleeves that make them keepsakes for fans. And who isn’t a Ramones fan?
Of the four CDs, picking an obvious winner is tough. Their barnstorming, self-titled first album from 1976 is the sentimental favourite, what with its raw energy, its joyful exuberance, and its long list of classics (Blitzkrieg Bop, Beat on the Brat, I Wanna be Your Boyfriend, Let’s Dance, Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, to name a few). These songs are so perfectly simple that anybody else could play them, and so simply perfect nobody else could write them. Here they’re joined by early demos that are simultaneously rougher and sweeter than their later takes. The band would never be this innocent again.
But they would be poppier. Leave Home, their sophomore album, was issued just 10 months later but represents a vast leap in prowess. The playing is smoother, the songs tighter, the melodies more fully formed, the horizons expanded. Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, Suzy is a Headbanger, California Sun and Pinhead (which introduced “Gabba gabba hey!” to the punk lexicon) are all here. The real lure, though, is the bonus material — a live recording of the band’s first L.A. show in all its noisy glory. Oddly, despite their youthful energy and inexperience, they actually play slower than they did during their turbocharged later shows. Which, of course, only adds to the charm.
Not that their next two discs are stiffs. Rocket to Russia, with singalongs like Cretin Hop, Rockaway Beach, Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Teenage Lobotomy, Surfin’ Bird and Do You Wanna Dance?, was the closest The Ramones ever came to a scoring a hit — and it wasn’t even in the ballpark. After Sheena stalled at 81, the biz figured out punk was never gonna be big. Which doesn’t mean this album isn’t timeless. Although this version is a little skimpy on extras, with just a handful of unexceptional demos, singles and a U.K. B-side.
Last — and somewhat least — there’s 1978’s Road to Ruin. It was their fourth album in roughly two years, and not surprisingly, the cracks are starting to show. Sure, it has I Just Want to Have Something to Do, I’m Against It, She’s the One, Bad Brain and the immortal I Wanna Be Sedated. But the country-flavoured Don’t Come Close and the jangly pop of Sonny Bono’s Needles & Pins are head-scratchers. Again, the bonus tracks — demos from the Rock ’n’ Roll High School soundtrack, including a five-song live set — are the drawing card.
So, which to buy? Good question. If you only want to own one Ramones album … well, you can’t. You have to get the first two, minimum. If you can only afford one now, start with Leave Home, just for the live show. Of course, if you wanna have all the good stuff, you need the whole set. Sure, it’s a few bucks. But Joey’s worth every penny. And trust me — even though his death has made us all very, very sad, these definitive discs are all but guaranteed to make you very, very happy.