The Ramones entered New York’s Mediasound Studios in May 1978 with their mission clearly laid out: to achieve radio airplay and mainstream success without sacrificing their punk values. It wasn’t such a far-fetched idea; a love of ’60s pop had been ingrained in the band since their debut. For their fourth album, Road to Ruin, the band would continue on the path blazed on 1977’s Rocket to Russia with stronger playing, stronger production, stronger songwriting, bigger hooks, and more varied tempos. Now, Road to Ruin has become the latest entry in Rhino’s ongoing series of hardcover book-style, LP-sized deluxe box sets, boasting 3 CDs and 1 LP (R2 570998).
Some major changes were made for Road. Most significantly, Tommy Ramone had stepped away from his drum kit to concentrate on a production/songwriting capacity. Marky Ramone, a.k.a. Marc Bell, replaced Tommy and brought a harder, more primal style. Tommy, working under his real surname of Erdelyi, joined engineer Ed Stasium as co-producer of the LP. Overdubs were extensively used; once the band laid down its basic rhythm tracks, additional instrumentation was added for a fuller sound. For the first time, a Ramones album had 12 songs instead of 14, and (shudder the thought) two of them clocked in at over three minutes’ length. Were the times, indeed, a-changin’?
The “classic” Ramones sound was in evidence from the get-go on the fast and furious “I Just Want to Have Something to Do” and the even faster and more furious “I Wanted Everything,” but the musicianship was stronger, with more clearly defined and intricate guitar from Johnny. He took it to the next level on the catchy power-pop of “Don’t Come Close,” with a pronounced sheen. Joey, whose confident vocals were typically commanding, was as happily snarling as ever on “I Don’t Want You” but approached sweetness on an affectionate cover of Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche’s oldie “Needles and Pins,” famously introduced by Jackie DeShannon and covered by The Searchers. The relaxed tempo on the latter might have surprised ardent Ramones fans, but they would have been in for even more of a shock on the twangy, country-tinged ballad “Questioningly” on which the band even embraces sincerity and tenderness. Stasium and Tommy Ramone layered multiple guitars and bass on the melancholy cut. “She’s the One” had the speed and power of punk but with a more-or-less straightforward lyric that came right out of the Brill Building playbook: “When I see her on the street/You know she makes my life complete/And you know I told you so/She’s the one…”
The band memorably added to its collection of “I Wanna…” songs, following up such previous entries as “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy,” and “I Wanna Be Well” with “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Though the song wasn’t initially released as a single, it became one of the Ramones’ most well-known and anthemic tracks. It, too, showcased the group’s musical progression, with overdubbed guitars, happy handclaps, and forceful drums. Even more outlandish was “Go Mental,” with a reprise of the over-the-top themes of alienation and violence from prior albums: “I’ve killed my family/They thought I was an oddity/Life is so beautiful/I am a vegetable/Mental! Mental!” These themes were more benignly addressed via the punky adolescent attitude of “I’m Against It,” with tongue planted firmly in cheek (sample: “I don’t like sex and drugs/I don’t like water bugs/I don’t care about poverty/All I care about is me”) and “Bad Brain” (“I used to be an A student/I never used to complain/I used to be a truant/But I’m still the same…”).
Yet for all its strengths, Road to Ruin failed to crack the top half of the Billboard 200. The time is right to revisit it; the album is presented twice on the new box set’s first CD – once in a remastered version of its original mix, and once in Ed Stasium’s new 40th Anniversary Road Revisited Mix. With this remix, Stasium has stripped most of the post-production elements from the original album, resulting in a vastly different, tougher sound closer in style to the Ramones onstage. There are other variations throughout the remix, too; “I Wanted Everything” is roughly thirty seconds shorter than the released version and comes to a cold ending. The most layered tracks, such as “Questioningly,” play like entirely new performances. The Road Revisited Mix is a bit more in-your-face and aggressive, or in Stasium’s words from his liner notes essay, “more Ramones.” All of the elements are more up-front, still with AM radio punch but with less sonic gloss. If it doesn’t replace the original mix, it’s a valid, alternate interpretation that highlights the band’s raw power. It’s also included within the set on a 180-gram vinyl LP.
Accompanying the remix is a packed disc of 24 extras, including rough mixes of every album track, single versions, alternates, and more. It’s a breezy and enjoyable potpourri of bonus material chronicling the road to Ruin including crisp, completed, and newly-mixed versions of the energetic outtakes “S.L.U.G.” and “I Walk Out,” both of which will be familiar to diehards from previously released demos. Both would have fit seamlessly on the original album. (“S.L.U.G.” is also included in an unvarnished rough mix.) Producers Stasium and Bill Inglot have also unearthed alternate takes of “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Questioningly,” and most fascinatingly, acoustic versions of “Don’t Come Close,” “Needles and Pins,” and “Questioningly.” These guitar-and-voice tracks make for startlingly different listening, with heightened intimacy and feeling, and place the spotlight squarely on Joey’s vocals. The single versions of “Don’t Come Close” and “Needles and Pins” are here, too, as well as the extended “Ramones-on-45 Mega-Mix” of “I Wanna Be Sedated” incorporating other Ramones recordings in mega-mix fashion.
The third CD premieres a 1979 concert recording from the band’s homebase of New York, captured at the late, lamented Palladium and first broadcast on WNEW-FM. The fast-paced 32-song set features nine of the songs on Road to Ruin, plus favorites from Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia while looking ahead to 1980’s Phil Spector-produced End of the Century with raw and fiery treatments of This Ain’t Havana,” “All the Way,” and “Chinese Rock.” The Ramones’ rapport with their audience is always clear in live recording, and this is no exception.
The limited and numbered edition of 7,500 copies worldwide is packaged in the same, attractive 12×12″ hardcover book-style, LP-sized format as for the 40th anniversary reissues of the band’s first three albums. Author Roy Trakin, artist John Holmstrom (who provided the original, comic book-style cover art), and Stasium have all contributed candid and compelling essays to the booklet. The uniformly fine mastering is by Greg Calbi and Steve Fallone for the studio material, and Dan Hersch for the live concert.
Rhino’s series of Ramones reissues proves to be a winner in every respect. Bring on End of the Century!