Rediscovering: Ramones’ Mania

Ooh, I was dreading this one a bit. The length, the number of songs, my inexperience with the band–all made this a really daunting Rediscovering. Like I explained in the anniversary post, these involve two listens straight through with minimal interruptions. I try not to leave them sit for too long after their first listen (because Cammy’s as forgetful as anyone else…), but this one took some extra willpower to throw it back into my stereo. I oughta explain…

Ramones' Mania

Let’s talk Ramones Mania. The compilation! From 1988.

My previous experience, if any

Of course, the Ramones have long since crossed into pop culture heaven, pleasant enough to toss into commercials and kids movies but still evocative of a dangerous, edgy time in rock music, so we both know who they are and what their hits are. I never gave them too much of a thought to check out in particular, but this was one of my high school record store impulse buys (there were many…), so here we are.

The history lesson

Mania catalogues the first ten fucking Ramones albums (Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin, End of the Century, Pleasant Dreams, Subterranean Jungle, Too Tough to Die, Animal Boy, and Halfway to Sanity, stretching from 1976 to 1987) on what was a two disc vinyl set, but I hold in my hands on a single, 74-minute CD. Yeah. 74 minutes of the Ramones, 30 songs, presented in slightly out of chronological order.


And that’s the first thing we should address. Mania was released at the dawn of the CD era (complete with a rather amusing warning on the back that the pristine digital transfer can “reveal limitations” of the master tape), and they were looking to fill every last sector of this fucking disc. The first three Ramones records, where most of the strongest songs are from, are a half hour each. A half hour of the Ramones is plenty for how little is actually involved in a Ramones song. An hour and 15 minutes is overkill.

You’ll largely find the songs from those three records in the first fifteen songs. Starting off with the one-two punch of “hey I recognize that” and “hey this is actually killer” of “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Teenage Lobotomy” (yours truly’s favorite Ramones track), the first half of this thing lands fairly consistently, give or take a “Rock and Roll Radio”. Certainly a lot of the highlights for me–“Beat on the Brat”, “Pinhead”, “Cretin Hop”, “Commando”, “Rockaway Beach”–come from those three albums, and I bet they’d be even better if they weren’t chopped up on this disc.

Truth be told, even if a lot of these songs land in very, very similar territory, it’s not actually a bad formula. The band stays together surprisingly tight for playing such fast tempos, Joey’s voice is recognizably weird, and while there isn’t a ton of dexterity in the rhythm section, it’s bouncy and angular, switching chords with the drum fills like a solid piece–a sonic rollercoaster that leaves you banged up afterwards. Pretty fun in short bursts.

No, it’s when they try to modernize that I could very much leave this album. You’ll sit through a song like “Mama’s Boy” or “Somebody Put Something in My Drink”, where the band tries to sound menacing, grizzled, street-illegal, over the most 80’s kind of production possible, their tempos slowed and the lyrics clearer (embarrassingly so), think “wow, that was fucking terrible“, and then check the Wikipedia article. “Ah, that’s from Too Tough to Die, explains it.” It’s like the Ramones’ attempt to take on “Girls, Girls, Girls” or something, and it does not go over well. (And for the record, I like “Girls, Girls, Girls”.)

Really, the thing that makes that attempt at menace really amusing is that the 60’s bubblegum pop influence on a song like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” is such a prominent part of the sound of the first leg of this album. Can’t really sound like a badass when that’s one of your major influences, can you? You can even hear it later on in “Needles and Pins”, which slows things down to literal ballad speeds, and it’s actually refreshing in the big, muddy mess of early digital reverb that marks a lot of the later songs. I wouldn’t call it touching, but like I said–74 minutes straight. You take whatever breathers you can get.

Longer songs also do not do the Ramones any favors. “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” (which is apparently an attack on Ronald Reagan but damned if I could make any of it out) ends with this completely unnecessary coda of largely the same chords and vocalizations that you heard in the first minute of the song. Pretty much the only reason I remember “We Want the Airwaves” or the aforementioned “Something in My Drink” is because both lines are sung several dozen fucking times in each, and it wears quick, especially back to back!

By virtue of having so many songs, eventually in all the duds, you’re gonna have a “Howling at the Moon”, which in a just world, would’ve been what the Ramones developed into over time. It’s still fairly uptempo, and perhaps a bit more spooky and synthy than propelled by their guitars, but I liked it a lot. In any case though, if you stopped listening at “We’re a Happy Family”, about where side two would end, you wouldn’t be missing a ton.

So how best to take this album then? It’s a compilation, so it’s a sampler of practically an entire career taken in a bit over an hour. This could work if the differences between the records weren’t mostly shifts in productions and a gradual lack of playing to their strengths. I guess if someone was really trying to get a feel for a gigantic chunk of their career in one go, this would have its appeal, but that’s a lot to take in in one go, it’s by no means that complete, and you’ll probably find only about half of this is really worth returning to if you’re not a Ramones diehard.

What I’m saying as that I’d probably pretty happily snap up Leave Home or Rocket to Russia on (used, obviously–don’t buy modern reissues) vinyl if I were to find it in a record shop at some point, but I absolutely will have no need for Mania after I’m done with this Rediscovering. The CD booklet tries its hardest to trash “tenth-generation Led Zeppelin” and “tenth-generation Elton John”–but at least there’s some variety in there for the coattail riders to mine. What happens when you get to the tenth Ramones album?

Are you keeping it?

Hey! Ho! Say no!

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