Leafing through New York magazine, I came across an excerpt from Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone, likely the book of the season for old punks not yet dead. Featured alongside the excerpt was a sidebar where Johnny rated the Ramones albums as he heard fit, with a few comments as well. You'll have to buy the book to read Johnny's thoughts, but I have included his grades here, along with my own feelings about each album, which are less biased, since I never had a falling out with Joey Ramone.
I never had a falling in with him either, so my professional distance is assured.
It should also be noted that Joey Ramone passed away 11 years ago this past April 15. May all the Ramones who have passed rest in peace and may those still alive live peacefully.
Listening through, especially to those in the lower depths, I'm struck by how listenable and likable most of it is. Truthfully, I'm more inclined to listen to those much-maligned albums than the classics at the top of the list. Only because the early records are worn out on my brain like so many old Rolling Stones albums. Let that be a lesson kids! Don't wear your records out. Ration your listening pleasure! Or else!
Lest my grades make you think I'm an easy grader, trust me, if this had been the Eric Clapton catalog things would've gone very differently.
15) Halfway to Sanity:
Johnny Ramone: B- Loser at Yahoo!: B+
"I Wanna Live" is one of those album openers that throws off the rest of the album. It's so good and natural that nothing else seems to matter. But in the end it does and the hardcore numbers sound like they're playing by somebody else's rules. Still, don't let the #15 designation fool you. Even in last place, it's tied with the next five for goodness. There are no bad Ramones albums, just some that turn you completely upside down and some that leave you able to walk.
14) Acid Eaters:
JR: B- Y!: B+
The song choices for this album of covers are a beautiful thing, featuring the Animals' "When I Was Young," which may very well be my favorite record of all-time, if there is such a thing. The Seeds, CCR, The Troggs, who can argue? But something tells me it would've been even better had they recorded it in 1977 than in 1993.
13) Mondo Bizarro:
JR: C Y!: B+
What to make of an album without Dee Dee Ramone? He gave them a few tunes to tide them over, including "Poison Heart," which gave Dee Dee's life-match, Vera Ramone King, the basis for her quite-fun autobiography. But this is advanced level Ramones, essential only to those who have fully studied and understood their other works.
12) Brain Drain:
JR: C Y!: B+
Sure, sure, "Pet Sematary" and "I Believe In Miracles" are solid pieces of work and "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" is a nice platitude from a band that hardly spoke to one another. But the album credits sound the alarm bells. Too many production and engineer credits for it to flow. Taken individually? Plenty of songs for the mix CD.
11) Animal Boy:
JR: B- Y!: B+
"Somebody Put Something In My Drink" begins with Joey sounding particularly agitated but still with enough pop to keep the love real. The harder stuff proves they were always a pop band at heart. No real fan buys their stuff for the hardcore approximations ("Eat That Rat," really?), but for "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg," which really bugged Johnny's Reagan-loving heart.
10) Adios Amigos!:
JR: B+ Y!: B+
The cover of Tom Waits' "I Don't Want To Grow Up" pretty much tells you where the band was as they approached their end. Johnny considers this the best guitar sound he ever got on an album. The album is closer to pop than I'd think Johnny would prefer. But it's a decent send-off and considering what other bands sound like by their 14th studio album nice going.
9) End of the Century:
JR: B Y!: A-
The idea of teaming up one wall of sound with another looked like a good idea in theory, but once you think it through, you have to wonder what Phil was supposed to do. He added strings to "Baby, I Love You" and that sounded forced, but "Danny Says" couldn't have come out better. In the end, had the band had an entire album's worth of material, there wouldn't be those dead spots near the end. (True: early ads for the album named it "All The Way," which was a better idea than "High Risk Insurance" but not by much.) The 2/3rds of the album that matters is worth it!
8) Too Tough To Die
JR: A- Y!: A
Something tells me I'm overrating this one, but I'm giving Johnny the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it's because I was never sold on Dee Dee's hardcore numbers. "Wart Hog" is fun, but nothing compared to the opening trilogy or the shameless pop numbers, "Howling At the Moon (Sha-La-La)" and "Daytime Dilemma (Dangers of Love)." It's the first Ramones album to feature songs I have no idea how they go after hearing them thousands of time. I didn't even know something called "Humankind" was on this record. Seriously?
7) Pleasant Dreams:
JR: B- Y!: A
Johnny says the album is too pop, so you know it's on the right track. The entire first side keeps its promise and side two has "7-11," which could've been a mini-series. Might have fared better if it hadn't come after the Phil Spector letdown. Revisit this one.
6) Subterranean Jungle:
JR: B Y!: A
By 1983, hardcore punk was speeding up the tempos and the Ramones were still hoping to crack the mainstream. "Psycho Therapy" should've been more than a cult classic, but then that's the ongoing riff about all their can't-miss tunes. There are peaks and valleys here and to each their own. I see no advantage to covering "Little Bit 'O Soul" or "Time Has Come Today," unless you're trying to make the point that Joey and Dee Dee's songs are in every way superior. Crank "In the Park" and "My-My Kind of a Girl" for starters and see if you don't fall in love.
5) It's Alive
No Johnny Ramone rating. Y!: A+
It's cheating, I know. But at the same time, everyone should experience the one live album in their catalog that does justice to their work. Featuring songs from their first three albums played without a break, It's Alive shows us what the band were like in the live setting in their prime. It's been observed and therefore alleged that the bass, guitar and vocals were re-recorded in the studio! Who cares? The track selection is flawless. And these days, all the expanded editions of their albums feature enough "real" live material to satisfy the purists.
4) Road To Ruin
JR: A Y!: A+
It kicks off with "I Just Want To Have Something To Do" and immediately one hears the modern rock drumming of Marky Ramone and a class of production (by former drummer Tommy) that's a clear jump into their idea of the mainstream. "I Wanna Be Sedated" has gone on to become a 'cultural touchstone' while other songs by less distinguished artists that were actual hit singles around 1978-1979 have now been long forgotten. The band wanted to take over the world, but their fans were quite happy to have them for themselves.
JR: A Y!: A+
Said to cost $6,400, Ramones is a lesson in austerity. It's so brilliantly basic that it sounds unfinished in context with other records of its era and perfectly complete to modern ears. After years of guitar solos clogging up albums and live concerts of other rock 'n' roll performers, the Ramones gave the ADD generation something they could focus on. The Sex Pistols would need to quit after their debut album, but the Ramones were just getting started.
2) Leave Home
JR: A Y!: A+
Punks like to say they like it loud and raw, but a little bit of sweetener goes a long way. There's a smoothness here that the debut lacks, though "smoothness" might not be the right word. The songs are slightly more involved, a bit less skeletal, and Joey's singing with more confidence. It's called splitting hairs.
1) Rocket To Russia
JR: A+ Y!: A++
Each of the top 5 albums here make for a perfect listen. However, this one is somehow more perfecter. Maybe it's the sound of the LP. It can't be the group's "maturation," since what punk band wants to mature? Maybe it was the album cover. Seeing ads for the album made me want it and apparently did the same for kids around the world who then formed their own bands.