Ramones – Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio? (1980, Sire)
Why It’s Perfect: Recalling the recording of the Ramones’ legendary Sheena is a Punk Rocker single in Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever, popular ‘70s record producer Tony Bongiovi was adamant that the faint timpani he insisted be included in the chorus was some sort of watershed for the band. Now, it’s easy enough to dismiss the word of Jon Bon fucking Jovi’s cousin, even if you’re among the infinitesimal fraction of listeners whose first takeaway from Sheena was “Hey, nice timpani,” but maybe he had a point. We’re used to reckoning the Ramones’ musical evolution in geologic time, but by the end of the seventies/century, band leader Joey Ramone had become much more interested in the recording studio, even hooking up with mad Wall of Sound genius Phil Spector for 1980’s divisive End of the Century.
(Okay, I don’t want to distract from the flow here, but you have no idea how hard it was to choose an image of Phil Spector from the Google search results. THEY’RE ALL AMAZING. I have to show you more.)
(Okay, back to the writing thing.)
What had made the Ramones novel and vital at the time was the way it reached back to the energetic ‘50s pre-British Invasion rock and roll sound that was largely being ignored in the sluggish early seventies (see Zeppelin, Led), and then played it with an amphetamine edge that only the most raucous Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry performances hinted at. But beneath their denim and leather outfits, they were still pop-besotted sweethearts. What are so many Ramones staples like I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend and Swallow My Pride at heart if not boys making crude homage to the polished doo-wop and girl group records that ruled their childhoods?
At first blush, Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio may sound like a total departure for the band, but on a songwriting level, nothing’s changed. Check out this live version of Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio to hear what it sounds like without Phil Spector’s production; it’s a pretty standard driving, droning Ramones rocker, very good but not quite among their greats. It also feels about a minute too long in this incarnation, reflecting the wisdom of the band’s customary brevity, and that’s even taking into account the considerably faster tempo they play at live. Now turn the dial to the studio cut of Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?. It’s like listening to the Ramones’ dreaming of what the Ramones sound like.
From the scene-setting soundbites to Joey’s snarly “let’s go!,” the track sounds like it’s crackling out of an AM radio deck. Joey’s lyric is rich with the intense closeness you feel with the music you first love as a kid, the sense of rightness and belonging that feels like it’s yours and yours only:
Do you remember lying in bed,
With your covers pulled up over your head?
Radio playin’ so no one can see
It’s an image that really resonates with me as a listener, thinking back to how much of my teenage nights were spent lying in the dark with Queen’s Greatest Hits or Metallica or, uh, WWF – The Music Volume 3, playing them till the songs barely made sense anymore. I haven’t listened to any of the above in years, but even the ghost of a feeling remains strong.
(Okay, I still listen to this err’day)
Joey’s strange, sheepish croon had always aimed for the melodic bounce of The Ronettes and The Crystals because that’s the music written in the dopamine that fuels his brain. On Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?, like a fan being invited onto the stage of American Bandstand, he gets four minutes to be that real pop singer without Johnny’s hammering guitar, and his enthusiasm and nerve gets him where his “actual talent” never could.
One of the more notable aspects of Phil Spector’s early girl group work was that the layers and layers of instrumentation tended to make the sound of each individual instrument indistinct; on Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio for example, rather than hearing a guitar sound and a horn sound and an organ sound, you’re almost hearing an indistinguishable (and therefore singular) guitarhornorgan smudge. Far from being a demerit, this Frankensound is what lends the song its irresistible texture. It’s sock hop bounce, malt shop nostalgic and hockey barn big. Combine with Marky Ramone’s (or, unnamed session musician’s) peppy, immaculately-mic’d* drums and you get a real earworm that demands you make some overture toward moving, shaking and/or bopping along.
According to disgruntled bassist and co-writer Dee Dee, the Ramones received the full Phil Spector experience not just musically but throughout the recording process, including being held at gunpoint and forced to listen to the producer perform eventual semi-hit single Baby, I Love You until the wee hours of the morning. Still, maybe it was the seed of Sheena’s faint timpani growing (into a timpani tree, I guess) that made Joey sure the reward of elaborate recording would be worth the toil. After all, how many men get a chance to sit on top of the Wall of Sound, and sing about what they see from up there?
Defining Moment: It’s the end, the end of the seventies / It’s the end, the end of the century!
Other Great Songs by The Ramones: The funny thing about this entry is that there’s a very convincing argument that Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio? not only isn’t the best Ramones song, but that it isn’t even particularly close. Obviously, I love it, but the vast majority of heads would argue for stripped down aggro-pop tracks like Blitzkrieg Bop, Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment and I Wanna Be Sedated. Mark me down as a fan of those, but don’t forget slightly lesser-known gems like Don’t Come Close, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow and Danny Says. Really a band with a vast array of songs to safety pin through your heart.
* If you want to read some of Spector’s reminiscences about miking up the drums at Gold Star studios, and fooling record executives into sitting on a toilet seat crawling with crabs (!?), check out this page.