by Perry Meisel
Fans of the Ramones' original p--k minimalism will probably grumble about the band's new LP, End of the Century, although they should blame Phil Spector and not the Ramones for the bigger, creamier sound. Spector has been at loose ends since his glory days back in the early '60s, occasionally salvaging a major and in hindsight landmark project like Let It Be or botching Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies' Man. With the Ramones selling poorly even after continuous touring and three original LPs, as well as the Rock and Roll High School film and soundtrack. Sire - or somebody - seems to think the mythical Spector/Ramones pairing will salvage the Ramones, or at least put them on the radio.
The staged collaboration, however, has drawbacks as well as rewards. It would be easy (and correct) to mythologize End of the Century by saying that sons meet father, minimum and maximum coincide, two eras are bridged. It would also be correct (and easy) to say that on this album the Ramones finally shlock out. But neither judgment alone is a just estimate of this puzzling yet impressive disc in which the terrorist Ramones make peace with an institution.
On one hand, the Spectorization is logical, moving, almost too good to be true. Spector interprets the Ramones as a profoundly traditional band by nestling the guitar machine quartet at the center of his legendary "wall of sound." Suddenly, the shattering rock and roll turbine doesn't stand alone in its humorous/heroic way but occupies the hub of a sound it's always implied but never really spelled out - horns, strings, lead guitar lines and a depth of field different from the flat production style the band chose on The Ramones, Ramones Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia.
The cover of Phil's old Ronettes hit, "Baby I Love You," is the most dramatic departure from the usual Ramone austerity. Yet it's also the song in which Spector and the Ramones meet at a point most natural to them both. Sure, the big blasts of staccato strings blunt the edge of Joey's super-mannered singing by out-mannering it, but they also situate his voice in the early '60s context from which his hiccupy style emerges. This may be to call Joey's bluff, though he's still a decent enough crooner to face the r & b "authenticity" represented by strings and horns. The result is a classic Ramones paradox of artful sincerity, mannered honesty, committed nihilism.
The teasing double entendre in the title hook of "I'm Affected" explores the band's signature paradox and, in the process, the paradox of rock and roll itself. What is moving, what is loaded with "affect" or emotion, is also that which is "affected" or put on. For the Ramones, rock and roll is full of affectations that can still move us (the Ramones' phony family bit is another instance of the blood-fiction paradox). And Joey's yodel-plunge vibrato exchanges/identifies affect and affectation, matter and manner.
The new and characteristic ballad original "Danny Says" also counterposes the original rock and roll that inspires the tune and the inevitable mannerism of the latecomers who sing it. Spector's production - especially the gorgeous, nostalgic glockenspiel intro - inadvertently brings the tensions to a head. "Danny Says" threatens to become the traditional ballad the Ramones never quite wanted to play. Previously, they preferred not to emote directly.
Spector leaves the band's nervy tempos as pressured as ever on the rockers, though the "Lady Madonna" horn lines on "Rock and Roll Radio," for example, blue down the shredded-can edges. But while this civilizing process sounds good here, it risks resolving the Ramones tension between honesty and hyperbole.
What is impressive about Spector's production is also what turns out to be the trouble with it. Spector's overt traditionalizing of the Ramones shows how fine a line divides nostalgia-rock from innovative rock and roll that has fully digested its sources. In its lyrics, "Rock and Roll Radio" is too fond a glance backward ("Do you remember Hullaballoo/Upbeat, Shindig, and Ed Sullivan, too?"), low on the irony with which the Ramones usually fracture such a dumb/wholesome pose. Besides, the phony eschatology doesn't jive with the Ramones in practice ("Rock's just part of the past/'Cause lately it all sounds the same . . . /It's the end, the end of the '70s/ . . . the end of the century"). Shame on them for making like they wish they could go back when we already know how much they dig being inheritors.
Yet the music of "Rock and Roll Radio" is the regular Ramones with a vengeance, once you bracket the studio ornamentation and just listen to the central tracks. The fat here, as elsewhere, isn't the Ramones' anyway - it's Spector's. In fact, only a few of the tunes besides the ballads use the full Spector apparatus ("Rock and Roll Radio" and "I'm Affected"). Most of the others are VI-chord belly-shots, bone-and-hammer Ramones - more riff-mad than ever on "This Ain't Havana" and "Jackie and Judy" - with a rinse of gloss and guitar leads dubbed in by what sounds like an unnamed accomplice. Those detailed, precise guitar licks are literal--minded where the Ramones themselves are allusive.
Hence the weird scenario of a band moving forward along its customary lines while the veneer of production and lyrics seems to pull it backward, make it regressive and nostalgic. But the Ramones are famous for subtraction, not for the kind of multiplication that Spector imposes on End of the Century. The effect is to compromise - however slightly, and with real though ironic rewards - the Ramones' hard-won economy. Few rock bands have packed so much history into so few gestures played at such breakneck speed with so much residual funk and twang; been so affecting at so high a level of affectation.
Let's face it: Spector's is an older technology confronting a more evolved one. The Ramones, after all, don't just inherit Spector directly; they also inherit him via his (silent) presence in big-metal rock. Truth is, those droning thwacking Zep/Who guitars are already a transistorization, a microminiaturization, a "chip" of Spector's (largely) acoustic, "naturally" produced walls of sound.
The Ramones have already transistorized the transistors and so stand at two removes from Spector himself, who forces them to unpack, to undress; to decompress their influences and stand with the old relations for a family picture, to accept the kinship they ordinarily - and miraculously - escape. To go too far in this direction would mean nostalgia, repeating the past rather than reinventing it. Spector pushes the Ramones to the brink of nostalgia, but the center holds. The Ramones will likely stay the Ramones whether they sell (out) or not.
Originally published in The Village Voice, February 18, 1980.