The Great Albums
The Ramones: Ramonesmania
||February 10, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Like all new employees, when I first arrived at the Sun-Times, I was asked
a few words about who I was and what I'd be doing here, in order to
myself via the newsroom bulletin board. After a quick recap of where I'd
in the past, I noted that it was my heartfelt belief that, "Everything you
know about rock 'n' roll is contained in the 2:42 entirety of 'Sheena Is a
Rocker' by the Ramones." And I still stand by that assertion today.
Some followers of this column may think it's a bit of cop-out choosing a
collection as one of rock's all-time great albums. But by no means are all
hits" sets all that great. There is an art to compiling and sequencing one
as a fulfilling listening experience on its own terms, as well as being a
In the Ramones' case, the band was clearly a "singles act" (though not in
of scoring hit after hit through its three-decade career), with memorable
looming much larger than entire albums ("Road to Ruin" being the one
exception). Even beyond that, "Ramonesmania" does a great service to the
highlighting the brilliant simplicity of its formula and the many subtle
the group could bring to it, presenting 30 near-perfect tracks on one
disc. (That's an average of 2:30 per tune, if you do the math.)
Formed in Forest Hills, Queens in 1974, the Ramones initially made as much
impact for their image as their sound. With "punk clothing" now available at
shopping mall, thanks to the Hot Topic chain, it's easy to forget what a
statement it was in the era of long-hair, bell-bottoms, and glam-rock for
mooks to show up wearing torn blue jeans, faded T-shirts, and black leather
motorcycle jackets as a defiantly anti-fashionable fashion statement.
The four original members--singer Jeffrey Hyman, guitarist John Cummings,
Douglas ("Dee Dee") Colvin, and drummer Tommy Erdelyi--all adopted the
surname "Ramone," positing themselves as a sort of thuggish, inbred,
alternative to the Osmonds or the Jacksons. They proceeded to play
fast, loud, and simple, tearing through a dozen songs in sets that rarely
than 20 minutes. Thus was punk rock born, with countless bands to follow
their own take on this basic approach, right up to the Blink-182s and
The debate over just how calculated any of this was continues to this day.
liner notes to "Ramonesmania," rock critic Billy Altman, a veteran of the
New York rock scene centered at C.B.G.B. on the Bowery, cites Karl Marx's
assertion that, "Revolutions begin with ideas." This leaves the impression
of the four
Ramones sitting in a cafe drawing up a blueprint for the punk-rock revolt,
fact, that was much more Malcolm McLaren's style with England's Sex Pistols.
At times, Joey Ramone played up to this line of thinking, in between
about how the world ought to erect a statue to pay homage to his band's
innovations. "Everybody else at the time was a serious artist, and they
didn't get it,"
he once told me. "What we were doing was over their heads, even though they
thought it was vice-versa."
In contrast, Johnny was more likely to hold that the Ramones played the way
did because that was all they were capable of, or that anything else--say,
were slower or more complicated--was just plain boring. (Though for the
half of the band's career, Joey and Johnny were its competing auteurs--the
Jagger and Keith Richards of the band, if you will--Dee Dee's contributions
writing many of the best tunes are not to be overlooked, while in
interviews, he is
even more of a primitivist than Johnny--insert the sound of monosyllabic
In the end, whether the Ramones were idiot savants, minimalist geniuses, or
combination of both extremes is irrelevant, because all that really matters
joyful energy inherent in the music. On track after track on "Ramonesmania,"
barked-out "Go!" or a frantic "1-2-3-4" heralds the start of yet another
unforgettable tune. A flurry of lightning-quick down strokes follow on the
guitar, propelled by an unrelenting bass line and a concrete-solid backbeat
and four. The requisite massive singalong chorus might only come around
twice in a
song, but it's impossible to forget, and you find yourself shouting it out
jumping up and down once the tune has crashed to an end. Then another comes
along, and the process starts all over again.
Unlike the Sex Pistols, the Ramones were proud to underscore their deep and
abiding love for rock history. Sure, they wanted a bloody coup to displace
of the Doobie Brothers and the progressive-rock bands from the top of the
But in their place, they wanted to see bands that reconnected with the
'n' roll values of heroes like the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the early Beatles
Echoes of the past abound in the '50s-flavored melodies of "Howling at the
(Sha-La-La)," "Rockaway Beach," and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" (one of the
rare slow ones), as well as in the bubblegum themes and gleeful hooks of
Roll High School" and "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" (which boasts the best
bells in rock history), to say nothing of "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll
and "Chinese Rock," which famously features wall-of-sound productions by the
inimitable Phil Spector.
At this juncture, after genuinely calculated outrages from the likes of
Manson and Eminem, it's odd to think that some critics initially accused the
Ramones of actually being the brutish, bullying boneheads that they
portrayed in song ("Beat on the Brat," "Cretin Hop"), or, even worse, of
militaristic or fascistic sympathies (via "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Commando,"
contains the lyric, "First rule is: The laws of Germany," though the very
next line is,
"Next rule is: Eat Kosher salami!").
Never mind that Joey was Jewish, or that the band's credo, lifted from Todd
Browning's cult movie "Freaks," was always one of inclusion, not exclusion:
"Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us!" "Ramonesmania" puts
the lie to the silly criticism of the band's politics by positioning the
early songs side
by side with later tunes in which the group eschews Mad magazine-style
clearer statements that can't be misinterpreted. Especially notable in this
are the vitriolic but irresistible "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," a 1986 attack on
Reagan following his visit to a Nazi cemetery, and 1987's "I Wanna Live,"
rejects the comic-book nihilism of the '70s in favor of the clearest
of the band's core philosophy.
"I give what I got to give/It's important if I want to live/And I want to
live, I want to
live my life!" Joey sang in that homey but lovable baritone. Those were the
chose to end his obituary last year when he died long before his time at the
49, a victim of lymphoma. In the end, one of the best compliments a critic
any piece of art is that it makes the listener feel more alive by exposure
to it. The
Ramones in general and "Ramonesmania" in particular rarely fail in this
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