For being the world’s best-known punk band, the Ramones’ discography has always been subject to a terrible misunderstanding: that only the first four albums are good. The story goes: when the Ramones first hit the scene and were critical favorites, everyone expected them to become huge and to save rock and roll. A few records later, this was evidently not going to happen… and then the all-killer-no-filler quality of their LPs began to taper off… and then hardcore took over from punk… and then they were classic rock dinosaurs.
That trajectory is true as far as it goes, but it leaves about SEVEN of their albums—very different, very uneven, very much worth having—unaccounted for: from Pleasant Dreams to Brain Drain. (Even I don’t touch the 90s stuff, although the Tom Waits cover on Adios Amigos is brilliant).
The follow-up to Road to Ruin and their first alleged non-classic is this Phil Spector-produced album, about which a lot of things have been assumed, and which is usually written off as poorly-conceived or a sell-out. What gives? Is it possible that after all this time people still don’t “get” the Ramones? This has to be our contention. Like everything the Ramones did, End of the Century is super cool and at the same time so peculiarly motivated that it is nearly inscrutable from the viewpoint of “cool”.
Current conventional wisdom is “The Ramones thought they were writing songs that sounded like the Beach Boys and the Ronettes, and never understood why they were a punk band, because they were convinced they had succeeded at the first thing.” This is clever, but silly. On one hand, the Ramones obviously knew what they were doing: have you SEEN the Ramones? On the other hand, the Ramones were totally capable of writing pop classics, as evidenced here and elsewhere. So neither the “accidental genius” nor the “brilliant failure” parts of this wisdom hold true. And when you hear their version of the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You,” made with the master himself, it is clear that the Ramones’ successes (of which this cover is not one) depend on something entirely other than some fatuous nowadays conception of “lo-fi pop” which would try to turn them into a Jesus and Mary Chain avant la lettre.
The huge triumphs here are among their most famous songs, “Do You Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio” and “Rock ‘n Roll High School.” I prefer the latter, but the former shows the Spector production at its best. It has often been said that the production doesn’t “work” on this album—Johnny Ramone says that Spector was great on the slow songs, i.e. “Danny Says,” but didn’t know what to do with the faster, punky songs. This sounds plausible, sure—and indeed “Danny Says” is a masterpiece of Spector’s art. But isn’t the problem with the faster, punk songs here that they are mostly disposable, and would have remained filler on any other Ramones record? “High Risk Insurance,” “This Ain’t Havana,” and “All the Way” aren’t so much mismanaged by Spector as they are just… bad Ramones songs. (“Rock ‘n Roll High School,” however, is expertly recorded, and is certainly a rager. But see below.)
The truth is that, by this point in their career and certainly after, the Ramones were no longer an “album” band: they created monster singles, some of their best songs, and truly some of the best music of the 1980s, but with an increasingly high ratio of duds or absolute filler. This album, End of the Century, marks the beginning of that phase… and the controversy over its production has always masked this transition. Simply put, the bad songs have nothing to do with Spector, and he mostly washes his hands of them.
And it really is a transition, not just a decline. “I’m Affected” may be the most underrated Ramones song, but it would stick out horribly on the debut album. It is basically arena rock, like all their great later songs: “I Wanna Live,” “Howling at the Moon,” “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” “We Want the Airwaves,” “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” “Pet Semetary,” et al. These songs were made for greatest hits collections, whereas (famously) the first Ramones album *already sounded like a greatest hits collection.* But the Ramones’ greatest successes are arguably these later (should-have-been) mega hits.
“Rock ‘n Roll High School”— Even on the 1000th listen, it’s hard to say what is going on in this song. Mainly the words “Rock rock rock rock rock ‘n roll high school,” than which it is harder to imagine nine stupider words in the English language. Obviously they are citing the Beach Boys’ “Surfin Safari,” “Fun Fun Fun,” and “Little GTO,” but it is even more transcendently inane than those (already) lightweight summer anthems. The entire effect is one of pastiche rather than “musicianship” or even melody. I mean… what is the guitar riff to this song?? It’s never heard in isolation and is obviously not the point of the song. I first heard this song on a new wave CD compilation, and after I had played all the other novelty songs into the ground, this was the one I kept coming back to, because it CAN’T be played into the ground. On one hand, there’s nothing “there” to play into the ground, substance-wise; on the other hand, the song is so effortlessly UN-cynical that you can’t stop trying to peek behind it.