The Great Albums

The Ramones: Ramonesmania

February 10, 2002


Like all new employees, when I first arrived at the Sun-Times, I was asked to write
a few words about who I was and what I'd be doing here, in order to introduce
myself via the newsroom bulletin board. After a quick recap of where I'd worked
in the past, I noted that it was my heartfelt belief that, "Everything you need to
know about rock 'n' roll is contained in the 2:42 entirety of 'Sheena Is a Punk
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 best-of
collection as one of rock's all-time great albums. But by no means are all "greatest
hits" sets all that great. There is an art to compiling and sequencing one that works
as a fulfilling listening experience on its own terms, as well as being a solid archival

In the Ramones' case, the band was clearly a "singles act" (though not in the sense
of scoring hit after hit through its three-decade career), with memorable songs
looming much larger than entire albums ("Road to Ruin" being the one possible
exception). Even beyond that, "Ramonesmania" does a great service to the band by
highlighting the brilliant simplicity of its formula and the many subtle variations that
the group could bring to it, presenting 30 near-perfect tracks on one 76-minute
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 of an
impact for their image as their sound. With "punk clothing" now available at every
shopping mall, thanks to the Hot Topic chain, it's easy to forget what a radical
statement it was in the era of long-hair, bell-bottoms, and glam-rock for four
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, bassist
Douglas ("Dee Dee") Colvin, and drummer Tommy Erdelyi--all adopted the
surname "Ramone," positing themselves as a sort of thuggish, inbred, streetwise
alternative to the Osmonds or the Jacksons. They proceeded to play unbelievably
fast, loud, and simple, tearing through a dozen songs in sets that rarely lasted longer
than 20 minutes. Thus was punk rock born, with countless bands to follow offering
their own take on this basic approach, right up to the Blink-182s and Sum-41s of
the present.

The debate over just how calculated any of this was continues to this day. In the
liner notes to "Ramonesmania," rock critic Billy Altman, a veteran of the mid-'70s
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, when in
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 kvetching
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 they
did because that was all they were capable of, or that anything else--say, songs that
were slower or more complicated--was just plain boring. (Though for the second
half of the band's career, Joey and Johnny were its competing auteurs--the Mick
Jagger and Keith Richards of the band, if you will--Dee Dee's contributions in
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 grunting

In the end, whether the Ramones were idiot savants, minimalist geniuses, or some
combination of both extremes is irrelevant, because all that really matters is the
joyful energy inherent in the music. On track after track on "Ramonesmania," a
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 rhythm
guitar, propelled by an unrelenting bass line and a concrete-solid backbeat on two
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 while
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 the likes
of the Doobie Brothers and the progressive-rock bands from the top of the charts.
But in their place, they wanted to see bands that reconnected with the tuneful rock
'n' roll values of heroes like the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the early Beatles and
Chuck Berry.

Echoes of the past abound in the '50s-flavored melodies of "Howling at the Moon
(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 "Rock 'n'
Roll High School" and "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" (which boasts the best sleigh
bells in rock history), to say nothing of "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio"
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 Marilyn
Manson and Eminem, it's odd to think that some critics initially accused the
Ramones of actually being the brutish, bullying boneheads that they sometimes
portrayed in song ("Beat on the Brat," "Cretin Hop"), or, even worse, of harboring
militaristic or fascistic sympathies (via "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Commando," which
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 satire for
clearer statements that can't be misinterpreted. Especially notable in this department
are the vitriolic but irresistible "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," a 1986 attack on Ronald
Reagan following his visit to a Nazi cemetery, and 1987's "I Wanna Live," which
rejects the comic-book nihilism of the '70s in favor of the clearest expression ever
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 words I
chose to end his obituary last year when he died long before his time at the age of
49, a victim of lymphoma. In the end, one of the best compliments a critic can give
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 task.