For as long as there has been a Ramones, there have been critics calling it a three-chord, one-joke band. Maybe so, but it's a joke that works; 1994 marks the 20th anniversary of the quartet's inception as ber group of the New York underground. Over the years, the Ramones have been taken to task for painting with a limited palette, yet, if that's the case, the band is in good company. No one ever criticizes a Little Richard anthology for sounding samey, or demands that Bo Diddley play something in waltz time. And what about Chuck Berry and his Xerox school of songwriting? Disparage Chuck? Perish the thought! He's rightfully considered a rock n' roll pioneer, a true original.
And that's what the Ramones have always been, but perhaps we've been too obsessed with Elvis boxed sets to notice. After two decades, the Ramones still carry the torch of America's quintessential Fun Rock n' Roll Band, a mantle abandoned by the Beach Boys after they traded cars and girls for transcendental meditation. And unlike the Beach Boys, the Ramones still make albums you're not embarrassed to play.
Which brings us to Acid Eaters, the band's 18th release, due in stores on January 4. Eaters is a collection of Sixties favorites, hardly a groundbreaking concept. Albumsful of cover songs certainly seem to be in vogue these days--Guns N' Roses' "The Spaghetti Incident?", UB40's Labor of Love II, Sinatra's Duets, Barney the Dinosaur's Favorites. Yet the beauty of a Ramones cover album is not simply that you can imagine what it'll sound like by scanning the titles, but that you want to hear it anyway. Some might call that predictability. Others, like the Maytag repairman (and countless fans), would prefer to view it as dependability.
Johnny Ramone once told Guitar Player magazine he felt that guitarists who tried to change their playing styles--such as Keith Richards and Jimmy Page--did so to their detriment. "If Elvis had stayed the same," said Johnny, "he would've been fine." Johnny may have tapped into the secret of eternal youth in that statement; he and front man/vocalist Joey Ramone are now 42 years old--the age the King was when he keeled over in his orange pajamas--and they still don't look or sound any different than they did on their first album.
That album, Ramones, cost $6,400 to record in the same year--1976--that Queen spent $450,000 to make A Night at the Opera. The Ramones also managed to be economical with the lengths of their songs. The longest track on the release, "I Don't Wanna Go in the Basement," clocks in at two minutes and 35 seconds, less time than it takes for the first sign of a drummer to appear on Pink Floyd's offering "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." The entire Ramones album could fit on one side of a C-60 cassette and there would still be room to rerecord its shortest cut. Thus, the punk aesthetic of don't-bore-us-just-get-to-the-fucking-chorus was born.
Most people with punk-virgin ears who heard the first Ramones LP probably hurled it across the room and resumed listening to Boz Scaggs or Aerosmith. By doing so, they missed out on the most energetic music to come along since the early days of Presley himself.
It wasn't until the band toured Europe in 1976, however, that its impact on the music world could be seismically measured. Not only did the Ramones influence hundreds of early, English punk bands, but Dee Dee Ramone had the dubious honor of being Sid Vicious' idol. In keeping with the punk ethic, early fans of the group viewed any musical advances or stylistic variations from the eponymously titled debut with the same contempt with which they viewed polyester pants and hot-lead enemas. In 1977, after only two albums, the band was in the precarious position of trying to build on its cult status without losing its well-honed identity. Delicate attempts were made to broaden the group's monochromatic sound on Rocket to Russia, which featured more layered background vocals than its predecessors, Johnny's maiden guitar solo and the first distortion-free guitar sound on a Ramones recording. More innovations were to follow on the next album, Road to Ruin, including pedal steel, acoustic guitars and, yes, an actual ballad.
Now that the band was willing to break with tradition by writing songs more than four minutes long, and including only 12 (instead of the usual 14) tunes on an album, what was next? Their Ramonic Majesties Request?
In 1980, the equivalent of Jagger getting lip-reduction surgery happened when Johnny, Joey, Marky and Dee Dee allowed themselves to be photographed in brightly colored tee shirts--instead of their trademark leather jackets--for the cover of End of the Century. Hey! Ho! Say it ain't so. Johnny, who was outvoted by the others on that bit of treason, approached working with legendary producer/gun-toting control freak Phil Spector with trepidation.
Up til then, the band had been sympathetically produced by Tommy Erdelyi--a.k.a. Tommy Ramone, the band's original drummer. Spector created a wedge between Joey and the rest of the group by holding the long and lanky singer hostage in the producer's L.A. mansion until Joey sounded like a Ronette.
Johnny's worst fears were confirmed when Spector dipped Joey's voice in a schlocky orchestral setting for a remake of the classic "Baby I Love You." Standard bearer Johnny refused to play on the track, which ultimately became the group's first Top 10 hit in England. Though End of the Century became the band's biggest-selling album, the leather-clad lads from Queens would never let their image be tinkered with again.
A compromise of sorts was struck between Joey and the rest of the group. They'd let him do something poppy once in a while, and in exchange for the favor, he would let Dee Dee and Johnny retool the group's accelerator so the band could outrun any speed-metal act that challenged the Ramones to a chicken race.
Every album since bears the indelible stamp of that survival pact; Acid Eaters is no different. Not only is it a generous helping of the Ramones you know and love, but it's also a perfectly timed marketing tool, presenting the Blank Generation in a context that even the Big Chill Generation can appreciate.
Joey affects a suitably old and groggy voice on his dramatic reading of the Animals' "When I Was Young," but he also manages to come off like a kid who once hitched a ride to Rockaway Beach on Jan and Dean's "Surf City."
Joey's got one of the most distinguishable vocal stylings in all of rock; he can stretch a syllable like Oprah can a waistline. Even if the band had decided to perform the Who's "Substitute" at a more traditionally Ramoneslike breakneck speed, Joey would still be slurring "You think maha shooz aha mayd uhvv leathuuur" in slow motion.
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It's his achy, teen-who-just-woke-up delivery on "Can't Seem to Make You Mine" and on Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" (featuring the slick vocals of ex-pornstress Traci Lords) that makes the trip down memory lane even more fun. Either song would have made a better single than "Substitute," which features Pete Townshend himself on background vocals. Townshend employs that gruff voice he uses every so often when he wants you to think he's Roger Daltrey. Too bad.
Equally disappointing is C.J. Ramone singing on three cuts that would've been far superior had Joey wrapped his tonsils around them. C.J. makes "My Back Pages" and "The Shape of Things to Come" sound so ordinary that it could be any other circa-'79 punk band. Fuck democracy, fellas. It didn't do Creedence any good.
"I don't care about history" went the opening line in the song "Rock n' Roll High School," but if that were true, the Ramones wouldn't have included at least one classic Sixties cover on nearly every album. While much of the punk movement was trying to break ties with rock's past, the Ramones were busy cementing the relationship by peppering their songs with references to Shindig and Alan Freed.
The band does care about history and, more important, about preserving its rightful place in it. Two questions remain: Will the Ramones be the first punk-rock band to be inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, and, if so, will they be wearing tuxedos? That would be a beautiful and frightening vision, but one the band members no doubt deserve. After all, they look pretty young, but they're just backdated in 1994, this most momentous year of Ramonedom. Even so, the band is hardly out of time.