Sunday, January 12, 2020

First impression: Ramones - Too tough to die CD (Remastered)

From the ages of about 15 until 23 I was full of useless information about rock bands. Whether it was band members, record labels (a thing of the past, really), music videos, producers, albums, obscure one-off EPs, I just retained the information.

As I approach middle age I've noticed I've forgotten a lot, but every once in a while I revisit music trivia as an interest. Back in 2016, I became obsessed with learning about The Ramones, based on clips of their documentary "End of the Century."

With the Ramones I was curious about their ability to tour for 20 years and essentially put their entire lives into what some would call a frivolous music pursuit. I had to figure out just how this was practical for the members. Turns out the whole project was funded by a man named Seymour Stein, and without him, they would've likely packed it in after a year or two, forced to earn a living like the rest of us. Yet, they were lucky enough to be "chosen" and alive during an age when the potential for easy piracy wasn't in the pockets of every consumer. Add in their propensity to play live non-stop and a popular T-shirt logo and you can put some of the financial-security pieces together.

As with most bands, there is usually a distinction between live and recorded sound. The Ramones as a live act are impressive. Their ability to rattle off song-after-song is akin to completion of a rigorous physical-fitness challenge. The sound of their studio recordings, however, is less than impressive. The early stuff is amateurish and filled with mistakes that wouldn't have made it anywhere near wax towards the tail-end of the signed-artists era, and the album with their only hit song, "I Wanna Be Sedated" comes across as sterile and lifeless. In terms of fun-fact trivia it's interesting to note "Sedated" became a hit four or five years after it was originally recorded and released. This supports my unrelated thesis on the music video as the best promotional tool for any music act.

It seems to me like The Ramones reached a pinnacle just before they were to record "End of the Century" and because of the fuddy-duddy production on that album, it was truly a "botch-job." The songwriting on "End of the Century" is quite good, but the production ruins any chance of recorded-sound success. Again, it's a textbook botch-job. "I Remember Rock'n'roll Radio" and "Rock'n'roll High School" are amazing songs, just watch or listen to a live performance of them. The studio versions are overproduced and contain wonky and inappropriate guitar and drum sounds. It's a disaster.

I've checked out Johnny's take on it all, and his ranked list of Ramones albums from his book, "Commando" is a helpful guide. I've also read Marky Ramone's autobiography "Punk Rock Blitzkreig" and absorbed his take on everything. Still, I've only been compelled to check out the CD quality of two of their albums: Subterranean Jungle and Too Tough to Die.

Subterranean Jungle is interesting to me because it is the last album with Marky before his past alcoholism caught up with him. It's sort of like a "breaking point" album, and I like the artwork on the front cover. The music found within is pretty good and one particular track really speaks to me, "In The Park" which seems like an obscure Ramones song. The drum sound on the album is less than ideal, but quirky in it's own way.

Too Tough To Die is doubly interesting because Tommy Ramone is listed as a producer along with Ed Stasium (who manned the boards for "I Wanna Be Sedated"), and with Marky out of the picture, we hear the first drum-playing of Richie Ramone. To top it all off, the album features Dee Dee as a performer and writer. Firing on all cylinders, Too Tough to Die is like a second, more powerful pinnacle of the band. The album itself is triumphant beyond its namesake.

After playing through Too Tough to Die a handful of times, I can say it's the best Ramones album I've heard so far, hands down. It makes a lot of their other recorded stuff sound half-baked in comparison. Dee Dee, who is an inventor of punk rock, performs blistering vocals on the album. The songwriting and production are great. There are no dull moments. The music is "full of life." The songwriting is great, and the production is great. It's that simple.

I was also struck by the recorded sound, which features a pleasant and warm compression within the mixes that I haven't heard pulled off nearly as well in other forms of music, but perfectly suits the distorted guitars of the Ramones. The compression itself is used artfully and enhances the listening experience. It sort of acts like a sedative to the loud and choatic arrangements, and provides a uniformity that perfectly straddles the line between chilled out and energetic. To top it all off, Joey goes all out on vocals and doesn't hold back. If you're going to buy a Ramones studio album, this is the one to spend money on. - Mike.

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