Saturday, March 20, 2021

All you ever want to be


When the Ramones started out in the mid-1970s, banging together songs without really knowing how to, they swiftly realized their starry-eyed if somewhat naive ambition: to be as big as the Bay City Rollers. In retrospect, the band's songs were just too bizarre and weird, no matter how catchy, to be feted on Billboard's Top 40. A certain swath of cool, curious teenagers might've dug bopping with Sheena at Rockaway Beach, but the radio industry wasn't gonna make it easy for them to find, let alone to hear, much of it. Johnny Ramone would complain that Sire would only release as singles the songs that didn't sound like the Ramones; their late-70s manager Danny Fields laments to this day his inability to get his favorite band on the radio. It's an old story. 

I've been listening to a lot of the Ramones lately and what I'm digging this go around is the emotional wallop of so much of their material. (I've written recently about revisiting Dee Dee Ramone's great songs.) Because of the Ramones' cartoonish image—which they courted, in which they indulged, and from which they never wavered—and the sameness of their later records, many ignored or couldn't (or wouldn't) hear the poignancy in their songs, much of which, of course, was founded in Joey's delivery and in Joey's own rich songs. He remains an underrated rock and roll singer, in my book, one of the best. His vocals were sometimes mannered, or sounded tossed-off in his band's lesser, derivative songs, of which there are many, and filtering them through his innate love of innocent-era Brill Building and Bubblegum distracted listeners for the very real stuff he was warbling about. Yet when he sang with sincerity and vulnerability, opening himself up to surprises, he really delivered. Listen to the moving "She Belongs To Me" from Animal Boy, written by Dee Dee with Jean Beauvoir yet utterly owned by Joey, who moves through the heart-rending changes as if he'd been singing the song his whole life; it's his greatest Ramones ballad performance. The macho posturing in the lyrics is turned inside-out, somehow made sympathetic by Joey's wounded persona, not to mention by the gorgeous changes. 

Or a small moment like the four-bar bridge leading to the chorus in "Swallow My Pride" (written with Dee Dee) from Leave Home: "Oh, gonna have a real cool time / And everything's gonna be real fine," he sings, but if you've been listening you know there's a good chance that he's willing himself the courage to go out. Joey's always at his most stirring when he sings near the top of his range, and the melody and changes make it vivid to my ears, anyway.

"What's Your Game" is something different. Joey wrote the melancholy song and turns the lens outward on a girl, Mary Jane, who's odd and wants to fit in; he's probably singing about himself, or anyway writing with a hard-earned empathy for this girl, real or conjured, whose "insanity" he grimly recognizes and who likely shares his own geeky past, crippling shyness, and low self-esteem. He knows her game. Like all of Leave Home, the song's shiny relative to the lo-fi nuggets on the band's debut, and producers Tony Bongiovi and Tommy Ramone add Spector-ish reverb, a bit of jangle on Johnny's guitar, and sweet backing harmonies on the chorus to the Who-esque tune, which Joey sings with purpose and sincerity. There aren't many sleepers in the Ramones' early catalogue, but "What's Your Game" deserves to be played more. Joey's sympathetic tribute to his beloved AM radio commercial vibe and his marginalized, troubled fans is one of the band's most affecting and touching songs.

In 1984, an interviewer told Joey that he ought to write more ballads. "They've always sounded so honest," he remarked to the singer. "They're not syrupy ballads, but they always leave a heart-wrenching impression." Joey's response: "I don't personally like sappy, wimpy bullshit from other artists.I like things from the gut. I write and it just comes out. I don't say, 'I'll try to write about this.' I mean... [smiles] you just know when it's right."

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