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The Boston Phoenix
The Ramones' afterlife
by Brett Milano
Like most innovators, the Ramones wound up inspiring as much self-conscious nonsense as they did irreverent greatness. (Definitive proof: the last encore at their final show was sung by Eddie Vedder.) But damned if the music on Hey Ho Let's Go: The Ramones Anthology (Rhino) -- at least the first two-thirds of it -- doesn't sound as liberating as it did whenever you first heard it. This was a band whose greatest lyric had exactly 10 different words (go on, count 'em: "I don't wanna walk around with you/I don't wanna walk around with you/I don't wanna walk around with you/So why you wanna walk around with me?"), a band for whom comic-book sensationalism, hunger for fun, and pop-culture obsessiveness added up to a credible world view. Bono used to boast that U2's music was about "three chords and the truth," but the Ramones did better with two chords and really inspired bullshit.
That said, Hey Ho Let's Go falls short as a career retrospective -- unless the compilers were going out of their way to prove the conventional wisdom that every post-Road to Ruin album was a letdown. Anthologizing the first four albums is a no-brainer, since there weren't any bad songs on them. But the second disc suggests that the band changed more drastically in their later days than was actually the case: it draws virtually every ballad and every big production number from the '80s and '90s albums while ignoring much of the meat-and-potatoes Ramones fare. For starters, "Censorshit" -- the better of the two political songs in their catalogue -- should have been here. And Hey Ho Let's Go does Joey Ramone a disservice by closing with an outtake version of "R.A.M.O.N.E.S" -- the fannish anthem written by Lemmy of Motörhead -- that's sung by latter-day bassist C.J. Ramone. This makes a fitting last word on the band, but it rightly belongs to Joey (who sang it on the otherwise-forgettable Greatest Hits Live album) and not to a kid who joined in 1990.
Joey is currently the spokesman, and he gets the job of nipping reunion rumors in the bud -- the band's tradition of infighting evidently dies hard. "We weren't great friends, to tell you the truth," he explains from his Greenwich Village home. "Things were never that wonderful between us, so I don't miss talking to them or anything like that. The last show we did felt kind of anticlimactic when it was over with; everybody just went off on their own way. I've spoken to Dee Dee and C.J. on occasion, and that's about it. But I stay in touch with Ramones-related things; I spend a lot of time on line, and there must be about a hundred Ramones Web sites and chat groups. I always run into people who say we're part of their life, so it's not like it's over. The Ramones are still a part of me."
Drummer Marky Ramone (now signed to Zoe/Rounder, of all places) is the only member who's made solo albums since the band's demise; Joey says he'll do so eventually but hasn't started on one yet. Marky's second album with the Intruders, The Answer to Your Problems, sounds more like a Queers tribute than anything else: willfully dumb and sporadically fun, it suggests that Marky wanted to play in a Ramones-inspired band and wasn't up to begging the Donnas for a gig. The Intruders play like a speed-metal band who just stole their parents' Beatles records (including "Nowhere Man," which they cover passably). No big deal, but the endearments that Ben Trokan and Joan Jett sing at each other in the token Spector homage "Don't Blame Me" ("Don't blame me for the fun that you missed/Don't blame me cause it hurts when you piss") will provoke a few grins.
Joey's latest project is more satisfying. Last year he got together with long-time friend Ronnie Spector to produce her first tracks in a decade. When Spector played Johnny D's last year, she was partly recast as a punk-rock balladeer: Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" and the Ramones' "Bye Bye Baby" actually suit her deepening voice better than the Ronettes oldies that filled most of the set. Her Joey-produced EP, She Talks to Rainbows (named for a second Ramones cover), was released in England this spring; Kill Rock Stars will release it here next month. "I wanted to give her songs she could relate to," Joey says. "She thought `She Talks to Rainbows' was about her, since Phil Spector kept her shut away without a life when they were married."
The EP completes a circle, since Phil Spector produced 1980's End of the
Century, the first post-punk Ramones album and the last record the
legendary producer has made. The Phil Spector sessions remain a turning point
in Ramones history -- though in retrospect, it's clear he polished the band far
less than did some of their later producers, notably Dave Stewart of
Eurythmics. But legend has it that Spector was obsessive in the studio, making
them play the opening chord of "Rock 'n' Roll High School" for eight hours
straight. "That's true, it was insane," Joey confirms. "He locked us in his
house for hours, and he pulled a gun on Dee Dee. But it was a positive learning
experience. And that chord does sound really good."