By the time the Ramones got around to crafting their fourth album, they must have been feeling a little nervous. Several of their contemporaries on the punk/new wave scene— including Blondie, Elvis Costello, and Talking Heads—had begun to break through commercially. They had not. Their first two albums had flopped; and while their third, Rocket to Russia, had done a bit better, it had stalled at No. 49 on the charts—not what you’d call a hit.
Another band might have taken the opportunity to reassess and perhaps to redefine themselves. But the Ramones hunkered down. True, they got a new drummer around this time and added a few minor country touches. They also recorded a couple of songs that (barely) exceeded the three-minute mark and occasionally strummed more than three chords, both things they’d previously avoided. But at their core, they remained the same band you already adored or detested—or, more likely, didn’t even know. Their stripped-down rock and roll formula remained unchanged, and they sounded as contrarian—and sardonic—as ever. While they clearly wanted to be on a road to riches, they called the new album Road to Ruin, which was pretty much on target: the record peaked on the charts at 103—a worse showing than that of the LP’s predecessor.
Today, all four of the group’s original members are dead; the only major player on Road to Ruin who’s still with us is “new” drummer Marc Steven Bell (aka Marky Ramone). But the music lives on, and it’s a good deal better than many listeners realized in 1978. No, this isn’t the Ramones’ best record: overall, it’s a bit less hook-laden and fresh than the first three. But there are gems here, such as the infectious “I Wanna Be Sedated” and a cover of “Needles and Pins” that manages to echo the Searchers’ hit version while also sounding a lot like the Ramones originals that surround it here.
The lyrics, meanwhile, are loaded with examples of the group’s wry humor. Who else would open an album with a couplet like “Hanging out on Second Avenue / Eating chicken vindaloo”? And then there’s “Go Mental,” where they sing, “Out of the hospital / Out against my will / Life is so beautiful / I’ve gone mental I don’t like politics, I don’t like communists / I don’t like games and fun / I don’t like anyone.” OK, so it’s not Bob Dylan, but the group’s crankiness has a certain charm.
This box—the fourth in a series of 40th anniversary expanded reissues from the Ramones—delivers the goods. One CD offers a remaster of the original album as well as a substantially different, equally likable new mix while a second CD serves up an assortment of extras, including rough mixes, single versions, and surprisingly lovable acoustic renditions of “Needles and Pins” and two other tracks. There’s also an LP of the original album for vinyl junkies and a booklet that includes liner notes and all the lyrics.
Perhaps the biggest carrot for anyone who already owns the 1978 release is the box’s third and final CD: a New Year’s Eve 1979 concert from New York’s Palladium that includes songs from Rocket to Russia as well as such earlier high points as “Rockaway Beach,” “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” The group also pay tribute to some of their influences in this concert, performing the aforementioned “Needles and Pins,” plus the Rivieras’ “California Sun,” Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance,” and Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance.” Altogether, the concert includes 32 songs packed into a mere 64 minutes—these guys were not exactly known for dragging out their performances.
As I’ve noted in my reviews of the Ramones’ earlier albums, all of this music sounded revolutionary in the late 1970s, when the airwaves were populated by songs like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes,” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” It was a wakeup call to cut back on the self-indulgent guitar solos and other assorted pretensions, and get back to basics—the beat, the hooks, and the rebellion that fueled early rock and roll. A lot of people ultimately did wake up, but if you’re still feeling a little groggy 40 years later, Road to Ruin should be enough to get you out of bed.
Johnny & Jaalene, Johnny & Jaalene. Though only 19 and 16 years old, respectively, guitarist/vocalist Johnny Ramos and vocalist Jaaleen DeLeon come across as seasoned professionals on this terrific eponymous debut. Covers of rock and roll, pop, Chicano, and rockabilly oldies predominate on the 12-track set, which opens with a saucy reading of the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You,” a rendition of “Gee Whiz” that measures up to Carla Thomas’s original, and a hot recording of Eddie Cochran’s “Teenage Cutie.” Other highlights include “Let It Be Me,” where Ramos and DeLeon conjure up the Everly Brothers’ harmonies; sax-spiced versions of “Good Looking,” the Etta James number, and “Angel Baby,” the 1960 Rosie & the Originals hit; and a performance of “One Summer Night” that successfully transforms the Danleers’ 1958 ballad into an accordion-accented rocker. The fine backup features Johnny’s father, blues guitarist Kid Ramos.
Dave Keller, Every Soul’s a Star. Singer and guitarist Dave Keller wrote 10 of the 11 songs on this soulful latest release, which was produced by the Grammy-winning Jim Gaines (Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc.). (The non-original is “Baby, I Love You,” the Aretha Franklin hit, not the Ronettes number mentioned in the review above.) Keller performs some excellent guitar solos here, and his band—which includes veteran Motown guitarist Johnny McGhee as well as a trumpeter, a tenor and baritone sax player, and an organist—is first rate. The main attraction throughout, however, is Keller’s vocal work, which variously recalls Boz Scaggs, Otis Redding, and Buddy Miles. Keller’s lyrics are all about love and loss, and his singing underscores the emotion behind every word.
Permanent Green Light, Hallucinations. After the demise of his 1980s paisley underground band, the Three O’Clock, Michael Quercio formed the L.A.-based Permanent Green Light (not to be confused with Green on Red, a paisley-underground band who were based in the same city during the eighties). Permanent Green Light, who released two LPs, never sold a lot of records, but they should have. This compilation album—which contains the best of their released material and a couple of demos—is jam-packed with sparkling rock that’s as addictive as it is melodic. Though the group was American and recorded in the nineties, their work reminds me a bit of Ireland’s Undertones; some of it also seems to owe a debt to the music on Nuggets II, the Rhino anthology of mid and late sixties British rock. Start with “Ballad of Paul K.,” which boasts harmonies as good as anything by the Raspberries; the intricately constructed, hard-rocking “Lovely to Love Me,” and the gorgeous “Portmanteau.” Granted, the rather high-voiced Quercio—who, incidentally, is credited with coining the term “paisley underground”—is an idiosyncratic singer; like, say, Pavlov’s Dog’s Michael Surkamp, he’s a vocalist you’ll probably either love or hate. Count me in the former group.