Fate was not kind to the Ramones. The Queens foursome played a pivotal role in the development of punk rock (and really most popular music of the past 40 years), but they never had anything resembling a hit single, playing clubs all the way to their final shows. They finally started to become cool in the early 2000s – right around the time Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny all passed away within a few years of each other. Tommy’s death in July means that there’s not a single original member of the group left. Their legacy does continue to grow, and there’s word that a new documentary, book and even a Martin Scorsese movie is in the works.
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10. Pleasant Dreams
The Ramones were pretty dispirited when they began work on Pleasant Dreams in early 1981. Johnny wanted the group to continue to churn out raw punk songs, while Joey hoped to see them embrace pop. The fact that Johnny began dating one of Joey’s ex-girlfriends didn’t help matters, nor did Marky’s growing alcohol problem. The first single, “We Want the Airwaves,” was a clear statement of purpose, but it fell on deaf ears. Radio continued to ignore them, even as they delivered brilliant work like “The KKK Took My Baby Away.”
9. Animal Boy
By 1986, it was clear that the Ramones were probably never going to have a hit. They’d produced nine albums in ten years, but they were stuck grinding it out on the club circuit like a bunch of newcomers. Still, they pressed on. Animal Boy‘s highlights come come when they eviscerate Ronald Reagan for visiting West Germany’s Bitburg cemetery on “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” and honor the late Sid Vicious on “Love Kills.” The former song infuriated lifelong Republican Johnny Ramone, creating yet another rift between him and Joey.
8. Subterranean Jungle
After failing to attract any attention with their poppier work in the early 1980s, the Ramones went back to their punk roots with 1983’s Subterranean Jungle. The highlight of the disc is the frenetic “Psycho Therapy,” which was written by Dee Dee and Johnny. “I wanted to do a hardcore song to show the hardcore people that we can play as fast or faster than anybody,” Johnny told Rolling Stone. “Nobody plays faster than us.” This was a challenge to bands like Black Flag and Circle Jerks, but the rest of the album is packed with covers like “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers and “Little Bit O’ Soul” by the Music Explosion.
7. Brain Drain
After a string of rather forgettable albums, the Ramones briefly returned to form with 1989’s Brain Drain. Lead single “Pet Cemetery” was a minor hit, reaching Number Four on the modern rock chart, but opener “I Believe in Miracles” became regarded as one of the band’s most powerful songs, being covered by Pearl Jam and many others. This could have helped the group stage an actual comeback, but not long after the album came out Dee Dee quit to pursue an ill-fated rap career. This sent the group into the 1990s on very shaky ground.
6. End Of The Century
A 1960s pop music fanatic, Joey Ramone couldn’t turn down an opportunity to record an album with Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios, the location where the legendary producer had created songs like “Be My Baby” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” Unfortunately, Spector was a paranoid, gun-toting lunatic by 1979, making the band record the same tiny bits for hours on end and waving a firearm when Johnny grew belligerent. It was a period of madness for everyone involved, but it somehow produced a pretty stellar album. “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio,” “Chinese Rock” and “Rock N’ Rock Hill School” all rank up with anything in the Ramones catalog.
5. Leave Home
Undeterred by the fact that their debut album failed to rise higher than Number 111 on the Billboard 200, the Ramones returned to the studio to cut another disc in the exact same style. This time they had a slightly bigger budget and a bit more time, though, so Leave Home ended up sounding significantly better than the first disc. Nearly every song here absolute classic, including “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Pinhead” and the “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl.” Unfortunately, this one did even worse than the first and peaked at Number 148.
4. It’s Alive
The Ramones were at the absolute peak of their abilities when they played a New Years Eve show at London’s Rainbow Theater in 1977. Tape was rolling as they tore through 28 songs at lightning speed, and the result is It’s Alive, the definitive document of a Ramones concert. For the most part, they stuck to this exact same show, sprinkling in a few new songs, until their grand farewell in 1996, but they never again sounded so vital, especially after Tommy quit the following year. There are a lot of Ramones live albums, but this is the only one you really need.
3. Road To Ruin
Road to Ruin was the fourth Ramones album during a two-year period, and on this one they decided to tweak their formula in a doomed attempt to score a hit. There are actual guitar solos, ballads and even a little acoustic guitar. The gambit didn’t really pay off – the album didn’t even crack the Top 100 – but if there were any justice in the world, “I Wanna Be Sedated” would have been one of the biggest songs of 1978. Instead, Andy Gibb scored two massive smashes with “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing.”
2. The Ramones
For a sense of just how revolutionary the first Ramones album was, let’s take a look at the top songs in the country the month of its release: “Disco Lady” by Johnnie Taylor was Number One, and it was followed by “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale and “Boogie Fever” by the Sylvers. Into this pop music void entered four guys from Queens with leather jackets, bad attitudes and two minute songs about sniffing glue, male prostitution and random acts of violence. The album was recorded in a matter of days at a studio at Radio City Music Hall for a mere $7,000. “The engineers couldn’t understand what we were doing,” Tommy Ramone told Rolling Stone’s David Browne shortly before the drummer died. “I’m sure he thought he was just recording one song, over and over.” The disc generated amazing buzz and great reviews, but it had little commercial success. The label believed in the band, however, and they let them continue to make records. In the end, that’s all that really mattered.
1. Rocket To Russia
By the time the Ramones began work on Rocket to Russia in the summer of 1977, the band had become a well-oiled machine: They’d been touring non-stop for three years, and they were churning out amazing new songs at a furious pace. The wild antics of the Sex Pistols had forced the American media to pick up on the punk movement, and there were hopes that this would finally be the album that would break the Ramones big. The lead single “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” actually entered the Hot 100, peaking at Number 81. That’s a modest success for most bands, but for the Ramones it was a major achievement. Sire gave the group their biggest budget yet, and there’s no reason why songs like “Rockaway Beach” and “We’re a Happy Family” couldn’t have become radio hits. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen, and the disc crapped out at Number 49. This was a major blow to the band, and not long afterward Tommy Ramone, tired of the touring and the endless backstage fights, quit. Thankfully, he lived long enough to see his final album with the Ramones come to be recognized as among the of the 1970s.