Sunday, October 26, 2008

Attack of the Ramones Clones

It's always been easy to ape the Ramones. That handful of chords, those two or three tempos, those simple tunes, that leather n' denim uniform and the so dumb-its-smart attitude. But it's deceptive, trust me I've tried (more on that later) and so have a 378,00o other bands. None of those bands ever wrote a string of classics that can overcome the boundaries between good and bad taste. The Ramones songbook will outlive the few remaining members - with the entire frontline being dead and all their drummers alive the Ramones ended up as the anti-Spinal Tap.

The band is cited as an influence by groups like Sonic Youth and U2 who sound, charitably, nothing like the Ramones. Then, there are the thousands of pop-punk bands who use the Ramones as their entire blueprint. Many of these bands (the Richies anyone?) are only of interest to Ramones Fanatics ("no comment, your honour"). However, starting in the late eighties a raft of American bands from the mid-west and Southern California built impressive discographies on the foundation that the Ramones bashed together. Many of these bands recorded entire Ramones albums in tribute and while, inevitably, none surpass the masters, you could at least say that each of those cover albums are more intriguing and more rewarding than Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot re-make of Psycho. Not a flattering comparison, I grant you but I only mean to praise with such faint damning.

Chicago's Screeching Weasel (by Ben's own admission) stole more from the Ramones as they progressed through their first few incarnations. When one of those incarnations was at a low point in 1993 the band recorded the entire Ramones debut album in its entirety. While, unfortunately, they don't mess with the arrangements much they do jack up the tempos and add a mid-western snarl. If you like either band, it's worth the listen especially since the re-issue adds a great late-period Screeching Weasel single which proves that Ben's catchy originals have a prickly intelligence that the Ramones never pursued. Available from littletype

Obsessiveness loves company, so in 1994 fellow Chicagoans the Vindictives recorded The Ramones second album, Leave Home. Re-arranging the track order ("You Should Never Have Opened That Door" moves from near the end to being the second song) is the first indication that will be the least conservative of the series. The nerdy-whiny of Joey Vindictive gives a new desperation to the songs and little twists (odd samples, new guitar lines, strange backing vocals and twisted endings) make this the freshest of the series. Available from Interpunk

The Queers entire catalog is a tribute to the Ramones, so surprisingly their 1994 tribute to the strongest Ramones album, Rocket to Russia, is nice but uneventful. Available from Interpunk

Thus far I've refrained from expounding on the twisted lyrical vision of the Mr. T Experience's Dr. Frank (a.k.a. Y.A. author Frank Portman) since almost all of the good Doctor's work remains in print via Lookout Records. While it may be the slightest of this Berkley band's mighty works, MTX's 1998 Road to Ruin takes an inherently limited opportunity and makes a fist of it, especially when they dig into the bleaker tracks such as "I Wanted Everything" and their acoustic take on "I've Gone Mental". Currently unavailable...

Download Road to Ruin

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