You Can’t Go Surfing When It’s 20° Below

Once, I totaled a Ford Explorer while listening to “Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio?” by The Ramones.

Wait, let’s back it the fuck up a bit, I’m trying to write about how I like to listen to End Of The Century, The 1980 Ramones album (their fifth) produced by Phil Spector. It is corny. It isn’t their best. But in addition to the bad hitz, it has some rad hitz on it. Now that the last Ramone has left us (RIP Tommy), I felt like revisiting it.

Spector and The Ramones are a weird match. The producer, a legend in hizzown right, invented the whole “Wall of Sound” thing in the ’60s, worked with The Beatles on Let It Be, and produced a bunch of girl groups like The Ronettes and The Crystals. He’s also batshit crazy.

I mean, the pairing made sense on some level. The band idolized Spector and the signature sound of his records, all those golden radio hitz like “To Know Him Is To Love Him” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Baby, I Love You” and all those songs with “love” in the title, which they grew up listening to. Put on “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” from The Ramones’ self-titled, and you can hear their admiration of him. Spector hadn’t done anything good in years, and The Ramones had already done four albums of the hard-and-fast they were known for, so both parties looking in a new direction made sense. As future vee-jay Kurt Loder wrote in Rolling Stone‘s 1980 review of End of the Century:

What was Spector to make of the Ramones in the studio? He had already bequeathed them his celebrated sound some fifteen years earlier, via all those booming, jangling smash singles he created for the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, et al. Johnny Ramone could duplicate that sound just by jacking his guitar up to ten and letting it rip — no problem. What the Ramones needed now was something new. So did Spector.

In terms of personality and image and such, band and producer were a strange combination. But that’s what makes the album quirky and awesome, like a peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwich. The ingredients don’t sound like they go together, but the end result is tasty. Some people don’t think the album is tasty, though. Robert Christgau said it was “Sad.” Some people think the production is awful. Some people think the whole album is kind of a wreck…

…which reminds me. Totaled SUV. Yeah. Black ice, careless driving, careening downhill out of control and such. Ford Explorers, man. Those things are like tanks, which is why I’m still here. That beast of a road machine was all smoking and mangled when I got out, but the radio was still blasting Joey Ramone yelling about how rock and roll ain’t shit now that Hullaballoo and The Ed Sullivan Show aren’t on the TV no more, and somehow I remember that better than the accident itself, which is probably a good thing. That shit was traumatic. But so, apparently, were the recording sessions for this album. Just check the video interview above, wherein Johnny and Marky go off on what a nutcase Spector was.

There are famous stories about Spector pulling a gun on the band, and making Johnny play the opening chord of “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” hundreds of times, but who knows about the truth when it comes to shit like that (Marky says the gun thing never happened, but it ain’t as if Spector never pulled a gun on anybody). Whatever the band went through to make that album, I’m glad they went through it. “Danny Says,” with it’s sage wisdom about how you can’t surf in below-zero temperatures, is my favorite song they’ve ever done, and even though Spector having them do his “Baby, I Love You” is a bit like the professor assigning you his own work to read for class, I treasure the corniness of it all. The fact that this doesn’t sound like a Ramones album (Where are the count-ins? The songs about sniffing glue? Why are there so many songs over two minutes long? Why does everything sound so…glossy?) makes it even more of an artifact. 

Also, “Chinese Rock” is on here. That’s a song about drugs! Dee Dee Ramone cowrote it with Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls. Thunders did a version of the song first with his band The Heartbreakers on the album L.A.M.F. His version contains the line “Somebody called me on the phone, said, hey, is Dee Dee home?” while The Ramones’ version asks if Johnny (Thunders) is home. Cool little swap they did there.

-JP

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