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Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Ramones - A New Appreciation (Revisited) Part Two 1981-1985

In 1981 The Ramones were back in the studio and the end result was 'Pleasant Dreams'. All was not pretty in the camp though as communication between Dee Dee, Joey and Johnny was not on a good level. Marky and Joey were drinking too much for Johnny's tastes, Dee Dee was doing to many drugs that upset the whole band, and Johnny had started to date an ex-girlfriend of Joey's whom he eventually married - this led to a severe lack of communication  between singer and guitarist that continued until they finally hung up their instruments in 1996!

All songs were credited to the individual writers rather than the band as they had always been done! Joey and Dee Dee were the main writers for the album with Joey penning 7 and Dee Dee a further 5 tracks.

Deborah Harry (Blondie), Russell Mael (Sparks), Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson (B-52's) are on the album doing backing vocals!

It was an odd choice having Graham Gouldman (10cc) produce the record (the band had wanted Steve Lillywhite to produce it) and whilst it is not their best work I'm glad that Gouldman didn't leave too many of his fingerprints on the album otherwise I have no idea what they would have ended up with!

Joey Ramone: "The record company told us the album would bomb if we didn't use Graham Gouldman, so we worked with Graham - and the album bombed anyway."

Johnny was quite dismissive of the direction he perceived Joey was wanting to take the band. His response to Joey's album opener 'We Want the Airwaves' says it all: "At that point, I don't give a s*** whether we get play or we don't; I don't care. I knew going in that this was not going to be the type of album I wanted. It really could have used another two of three punk songs .. All I want to do is keep our fans happy and not sell out. I'm fighting that within the band. They are trying to go lighter, looking for ways to be more commercial. I'm against the band doing that." Johnny needn't have worried himself as the album failed to chart in the UK and only reached #58 in America.

For me only three songs actually stand out on the album, 'We Want the Airwaves', 'She's a Sensation' and the classic 'The KKK Took My Baby Away' that Joey had written about Johnny (though that was neither confirmed or denied!).

The band that had sung about being a 'Happy Family' back on 'Rocket to Russia' in 1977 was anything but happy in 1983 when they came to together to record their seventh studio album. 

Relations between the members were very fractured (alcohol and drugs being the reason)  and during time in studio  at least one relationship got back on track and that was between Johnny and Dee Dee. They jointly wrote 'Psychotherapy' and it was the song that saved 'Subterranean Jungle' from being another failed attempt at greatness. Joey only wrote three songs for the album ('What D'Ya Do?', 'My-My Kind of a Girl', and 'Everytime I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You'). Dee Dee wrote five (and the co-write with Johnny).

The fact that the album contains three cover versions shows that they were struggling with the writing process. Johnny had taken more control of the band insisting that the band "be focused and stop worrying about getting played [on the radio] and just make a good record." Producer Richie Cordell was not well liked either by the band. Marky had said,  "I hated the production, I hated the producer."

Not that his opinion counted for much because by the end of recording Marky was gone. Fired due to his excessive drinking and by time the band hit the road they had a new man on the stool, Richie Ramone (Reinhardt). Marky appears on the cover but as you can see he is almost hidden behind the window and not alongside his fellow band members. Johnny asked George DuBose to do so because "they were kicking him out of the band, but he didn't know it yet". Marky recalled that he "liked that shot", but he knew "something was up."

Billy Rogers from Walter Lure's band finished off the recording of 'Time Has Come Today'.

Actually it was this album that was a turning point for the band. With it's release they left behind their dreams of Billboard Chart success and as Gil Kaufman says in his liner essay for the expanded edition, they "focused on just being themselves." Good thing as well because the album tanked reaching only #83.

The album is not brilliant by The Ramones standard and in my mind only 'Psychotherapy', 'Highest Trails Above', 'Outsider', 'My-My Kind of a Girl' and 'Somebody Like Me' really stand out. 'Time Bomb' which featured in many live shows was Dee Dee's first outing as the main vocalist on an album.

Richie's first album as a fully fledged member of The Ramones would be 1984's 'Too Tough to Die', an album that some say is their last truly great album. It was and is a vital return to form. As if in celebration at reaching their 10 year mark they brought Tommy back to produce alongside Ed Stasium. The only exception to their production was Dave Stewart at the controls for 'Howling at the Moon'.

"As we got ready to make Too Tough To Die, we were focused in the same direction, and it made a difference. We knew we needed to get back to the kind of harder material we'd become known for. The pop stuff hadn't really worked, and we knew we were much better off doing what we did best." - Johnny Ramone

They showed on The Old Grey Whistle Test that they were still a force to be reckoned with. A fantastic three song set including 'Warthog', 'Chasing the Night' and 'Mama's Boy'. Having been absent from the UK for 5 years they played four nights in London to great acclaim. They were playing some of their best live performances of their lives during this period I reckon.

I have a bootleg of the final night of the Lyceum shows (27th Feb 1985) and it is a remarkable 32 track set:

Durango 95 / Teenage Lobotomy / Psycho Therapy / Blitzkrieg Bop / Do You Remember Rock 'N' Roll Radio? / Danger Zone / Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment / Rock 'N' Roll High School / I Wanna Be Sedated / Beat On The Brat / The KKK Took My Baby Away / Go Mental / I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You / Suzy Is A Headbanger / Let's Dance / Too Tough To Die / Smash You / Chinese Rock / Wart Hog / Rockaway Beach / Surfin' Bird / Cretin Hop / California Sun / Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World / Pinhead / Mama's Boy / Highest Trails Above / Sheena Is A Punk Rocker / Chasing The Night / Judy Is A Punk / We're A Happy Family / Howling At The Moon / Commando

32 songs in 64 minutes! Richie once said "There are three speeds with The Ramones: fast, pretty fast and very fast!" (Sounds interview 1985). 

'Too Tough To Die' did better in the UK than in the States reaching #63 but the band were not overly focused on the charts anymore. It was all about the music. Dee Dee had written and co-written 9 of the 13 songs (including the excellent 'I'm Not Afraid of Life'). 

Joey didn't contribute much writing to the album as he had been unwell prior to the recording but he did add some lyrics to 'Daytime Dilemma (The Dangers of Love)' - my favourite off the album and also the closing track 'No Go'. Johnny had continued to write with Dee Dee and came up with 'Mama's Boy', 'Warthog', 'Danger Zone' and 'Endless Vacation'. Even Ritchie got a credit for 'Humankind'. Actually, looking at the album again after all this time it's one of their strongest for many years lyrically and musically. 

The songs I really like are the title track 'Too Tough to Die', 'Warthog' which some think is quite cartoonish and was almost left off the album but Johnny's persistence got it reinstated, 'Chasing the Night', 'Daytime Dilemma' and 'Planet Earth 1988' in which Dee Dee wrote some very prophetic words: "The solution to peace isn't clear/The terrorist threat is a modern fear/There are no jobs for the young/They turn to crime turn to drugs/Battleships crowd the sea/16 year-olds in the army/Our jails are filled to the max/Discrimination against the blacks". 

In fact it's actually hard to say for certain what the standout tracks are because the album is a cracker from start to finish.

Joey said years later that "A lot of people had started to give up on us. But 'Too Tough to Die' reinstated us and put us back on top." That was a tough place to be when you consider that bands like Black Flag and Husker Du were in their element in those days. 

The Ramones were no longer considered to be the Punk kings and the music press was not overly kind to the band on release of this album but 25 years on I still consider it to be one of their finest albums. They had struggled for a good few years now but it seemed like they were back on track with this one. Most bands would have hung up their guitars if they had two albums that went down like a lead balloon, but The Ramones were fighters to the end and the title of the album was really a reflection of what that purpose of heart they possessed was about.
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