A selection of Ramones songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists.
Blitzkrieg Bop Why do this? Why ten tracks that result in less than a half-hour of music? For The Ramones the concentration of the songs down to the essentials is the point. This first track on the debut album does indeed lay down the blitzkrieg, or lightning war, describing a bunch of vibrating kids dancing to the backbeat like it was a WWII movie. There’s just no denying that the energy that bursts forth from that first record is the energy of pure American garage rock ‘n’ roll. Don’t think so? Well, it was all-American enough for Coppertone, Peleton, AT&T, and Taco Bell. In addition, the track has been featured in video games, movies, and television shows. Before you protest the use of Ramones songs for commercials or the selling of rights, keep in mind that Johnny Ramone, a conservative who believed the group never got its due financially, would be happy and that Joey’s mom, widow, and other family members have benefitted from the funds generated by these licenses.
Judy is a Punk Next song, barely any lyrics, but it’s a slice of life movie, the kind of Jim Jarmusch by way of Scorsese might have concocted. Two characters–Jackie (a punk) and Judy (a runt) (Q: why is the song entitled ‘Judy is a Punk’ when it turns out that she’s actually a runt? The secondary meaning of ‘runt’ is an undersized or weak person.) The overriding theme of The Ramones is that of the outsider, someone who doesn’t have a sense of belonging about where they are. Strangers in a strange land. Brothers from another planet. The Ramones schtick about being brothers, all sharing the surname Ramone says that their loyalty is to each other and the band, and then also to their fans. Anyway, Jackie & Judy, the story goes that they went to Berlin and joined the Ice Capades. But there are other stories–that they ran away to San Francisco and joined the SLA. And they popped up again on End of the Century bumming around New York and going to a Ramones show in “The Return of Jackie and Judy.”
Rockaway Beach Rocket to Russia gets my vote for the best album released in 1977. Also, the best Ramones album to be released in ’77, although the other, Leave Home, remains one of my favorite Ramones records. But I heard Rocket to Russia first, when a close friend joined the Warner Record Club (or some record club) and got it in the mail and we listened to it at his house. I loved it, but I found a copy of Leave Home in a cutout bin (there’s no accounting for taste) and picked it up, so it was an album I listened to a lot. But in retrospect, there’s nothing there that isn’t improved upon on Rocket to Russia. Dee Dee Ramone wrote this track about one of his favorite hangouts growing up, and engineer Ed Stasium remembers that it was the first song recorded by the band for Rocket to Russia.
I Just Wanna Have Something To Do Road to Ruin, released in 1978 was a little beefier on the guitar sound, and on this track, it almost sounds a bit metal. This was the first album with Tommy Ramone completely behind the mixing board as a producer, along with Ed Stasium, who had engineered previous Ramones records. Marc Bell, dubbed Marky Ramone, took over the drum chair. The album expands the sound of the previous three, adding guitar solos, acoustic guitar, and even ballads. The following year the group’s movie Rock ‘n’ Roll High School would premiere, and the scene in which the band drives into town in a convertible accompanied by this song with Joey singing and gnawing on a bone while standing on the car’s front seat cemented this track as one that wouldn’t be forgotten. Oh, and they get points for mentioning chicken vindaloo.
I Wanna Be Sedated This definining track was reportedly written by Joey as commentary on being on the road. “It’s a road song” said Joey. It’s about being hyped up on the road and not being able to do anything except hang around the hotel room, play a show, and sleep. It’s about having a lot of pent up energy and having nowhere to put it. Also, wanting to be sedated means wanting to be numbed out, not having to feel the exhaustion and boredom of touring. Tommy Ramone had retired as the band’s drummer, opting instead to work behind the scenes, in part because he hated the constant traveling and having to play shows under adverse conditions.
Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio? “It’s the end, the end of the seventies/It’s the end, the end of the century” sang Joey on the title track of this album, and I remember that it felt like a real statement at the time. The seventies were long, so that by the time we hit 1980, it seemed as though a century had gone by. The excesses of the ’70s would fade away, the song implies, making it highly ironic when one considers the unimagined excesses of the 1980s. But this track is an amazing advance for the Ramones. It trades on their nostalgia for 1960s pop music, complete with a saxophone and organ–for the first time extra musicians were used in the recording. For some fans–including Johnny Ramone–the album went too far in an attempt to attract a more mainstream audience, but you really can’t criticize the band for doing what was basically in their DNA.
Danny Says Another road song, another song about Danny Fields flogging the band to work all the time. They ‘Gotta go to Idaho/But we can’t go surfing when it’s 20 below’ then they’re ‘hanging out in L.A. and there’s nowhere to go/it ain’t Christmas if there ain’t no snow.’ They take this three chord song from its opening as a gentle ballad to a fiery wall of guitar distortion that rides the song out. There’s no resolution, but it’s one of their most beautiful lyrics.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School This was the theme song from the movie, redone for End of the Century with a school bell opening and the sound of an exploding campus at the end. For Joey, growing up watching movies like High School Confidential, writing this must have been a blast, and Johnny gets in some rockabilly licks as well. The film’s original soundtrack features P.J. Soles singing the song, which she uses to lead a girls’ gym class in calisthenics, demonstrating that Joey knows what he’s doing with the microphone, and also that you don’t have to be a great singer to make this one work. The YouTube version of In Ten Tracks has a clip of the band playing the song as guests on the Sha Na Na TV program in 1979.
Highest Trails Above Two albums later The Ramones released Subterranean Jungle (1982), an attempt to bring their sound back to the basics that their core audience had always supported. By now it seemed clear that The Ramones were never going to achieve mainstream commercial success, but they did have a loyal and supportive audience that loved what they brought to the table. They had difficulties during the recording of the album: drug problems (Dee Dee), alcohol problems (Joey), female problems (Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend and married her), but the album turned out to be the most enjoyable Ramones joint since the first three albums. Also, despite his issues, Dee Dee wrote a number of songs for the record, including this one, that bristled with energy many thought the band had left behind.
I Don’t Wanna Grow Up And so it went. Somehow The Ramones soldiered on, year after year, recording a new album every one or two years and touring endlessly. Suddenly it all came to an end in 1994 (actually they disbanded after a period of touring, with their final live show in 1996) when the band released their fourteenth and final album Adios Amigos! Dee Dee had left the band in 1989, after the release of Brain Drain, and was replaced by C.J. Ramone, who fit well with the band in live performances, and he contributed a few songs on this record. For their final album, the group recorded several of Dee Dee’s songs and a couple of covers including this song, written and originally recorded by Tom Waits. Over the years a funny thing happened–The Ramones began to be considered a great band, in part because of their longevity and unwavering devotion to continuing the band. Joey died of lymphoma in 2001, Dee Dee from a drug overdose in 2002, Johnny of prostate cancer in 2004, Tommy of cancer in 2014. The Ramones were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.