Time Capsule: Ramones, Brain Drain

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at the Ramones’ 1989 swan song—an album written and recorded as the punk titans’ reverence was fading away, one member wanted to pursue a rap career, and the band was fracturing straight down the middle.

Music Reviews Ramones
Time Capsule: Ramones, Brain Drain

On May 23rd, 1989, the Ramones were knocking on death’s door. Their lead songwriter had officially left the band; they were in various states of disarray, affected by detrimental mental health issues, debt problems and a general apathy towards chasing a wind of commercial success that felt like it would never come. Unbeknownst to this crumbling band, their final album as the Ramones we all knew and loved would give them the radio hit they were desperately waiting for—but they were already dead and buried before they could celebrate getting what they had patiently scratched and clawed at for decades.

The Ramones spent most of the 1980s trying to repackage the boyish, New York punk charm that drove their 1970s successes towards a radio-friendly audience. In a fight to the death, the Ramones of 1976 would have kicked the Ramones of 1989’s asses, but that’s not to say that there aren’t solid tunes among their late-period efforts. In a feeble attempt to break the glass ceiling on ushering punk closer to the pop mainstream, they spent the decade rotating through producers ranging from Phil Spector to the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. The group released a series of ragged, idiotically commercial records that did not bring them the popularity they coveted—and it alienated their cultish following. In the late ‘80s, things started to return to form when 1984’s Too Tough to Die saw them ditch their desires to become radio stars and retreat to their snarling edge—followed by 1986’s Animal Boy, with a production value led by former Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir that refined their rough edges while still maintaining a level of sharpened grit. But it wasn’t the Ramones embracing their punk rock roots; it was Beauvoir-crafted radio rock.

Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Richie became a well-oiled studio machine just in time to begin a relationship with producer, songwriter and ex-Shrapnel guitarist Daniel Rey. His addition to the band gave us a slight return to former glory: Halfway to Sanity. Though the intensity of their superior sound had returned, they took a hit once again when Richie decided to step away from the band—leaving them drummerless in this upswing of morale. Now five years removed from his firing due to alcoholism, Marky Ramone and his merciless drumming style was brought back into the fold one last time before things finally came crumbling down for a band on borrowed time.

In December of 1988, the band began recording Brain Drain, their last-ditch effort at a “comeback.” It was an uphill battle from the jump, as everyone was having problems: girlfriend problems, money problems, mental problems. You name it, they were suffering from it. After surviving the dictatorial rule of Phil Spector, attempted melodic commercialization and the absence of their most vicious drummer, the band’s nerves were beyond shot—and, with the multiple failures to break into the mainstream lingering, much of their patience was wearing dangerously thin. Dee Dee became the target of these frustrations, dodging conflicts between Joey and Johnny, who were dealing with a love triangle and general detachment from their passion for the band. A returning Marky had to work around Joey and Johnny’s refusal to perform together, on top of tensions surrounding the rapport between Dee Dee and the rest of the band. It was a disastrous recording process that foretold the imminent end of one of the greatest American punk bands—a group that had, miraculously, managed to outlive many CBGB counterparts. But at what cost?

With the band fracturing expeditiously, Brain Drain feels like the final “classic” Ramones album. With Dee Dee departing to pursue his rap career—I am, unfortunately, very serious—before recording any of his bass lines for the album and Johnny’s distaste of Bill Laswell’s commanding production, what remained of the original Ramones spirit was stamped out with this final swan song. But they brought glimpses of their original humorous punk style into the four studios it took to finish the record, cutting—albeit it minorly—through some of the strain. While the professionalization and half-hearted commercialization is glaringly noticeable on Brain Drain, the album is far from devoid of their ridiculous humor, hard-hitting musicality and classic trashy identity.

The album opens with the uncharacteristically optimistic “I Believe In Miracles” and, as the opening riff tears through you with a piercing energy, the belligerence of Rocket to Russia and even the raw passion of their self-titled debut peeks in. As Joey chants out the strikingly sanguine lyric, “I believe in a better world for you and me,” the poise of their status as rambunctious counterculture pioneers has matured into a fine-tuned outcry rebelling against systematic change. They wanted the whole shebang to change for the better, but opted to cut through the dissonance with hope rather than tear it down in an anarchy of rage. In a society where we are beaten over the head with the idea that the status quo is an immovable force, isn’t it more punk to believe we do have a chance to make a difference? The Ramones certainly thought so. Even in Dee Dee’s jaded mindset, he still was able to pull an earnest lyric from their past triumphs with lines like “Believe in miracles ’cause I’m one / I have been blessed with the power to survive / After all these years I’m still alive / I’m out here kicking with the band.”

The vibrancy continues with “Zero Zero UFO,” which draws on some serious Misfits energy. The amusing sci-fi-influenced track blasts off like a supersonic missile, relentless and vicious in a blaze of humorous glory. Likewise, “Don’t Bust My Chops” channels the anger of the band’s shared behind-the-scenes vitriol through the lens of a faux antagonizing girlfriend. Dee Dee lets all his distaste for his “brothers” and their antics out through the lyrics, admonishing petty fighting and indifference. “I’m sick and tired of your childish games”—could he have been any more obvious? But what can I say? I’m a sucker for a good feud-fueled diss track. That thinly-veiled, pointed lyricism continues on “Punishment Fits The Crime,” an anthemic track with a rare lead vocal performance from Dee Dee himself—as he spits the opening lines “I hear the bells of freedom chiming / And inside my heart I feel I’m dying,” a damning eulogy for his own tenure with the band he helped make big.

For many—myself not included, as I am a staunch Brain Drain defender—“Pet Sematary” is this album’s only saving grace, and for a good reason. The song absolutely rips; it’s the gritty, melodic Ramones working at top form. Written for the film based on the Stephen King novel of the same title, “Pet Sematary” was the most commercially successful Ramones track at the time of its release (it hit #4 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart)—though songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop” found their place in the zeitgeist then and in the years since. Dee Dee wrote the highly affecting chorus and marveled at the complexities connecting grief and loss: “I don’t want to be buried in a pet cemetery/ I don’t want to live my life again.” It’s so simple yet incredibly encapsulating—a formula for much of what made the Ramones so prolific in the first place, so it’s no wonder why this song finally got them some long-overdue radio play. Its grave yet heartfelt message felt resonant in the echelons of rock ‘n roll’s power.

With Marky’s return to the band, he provided an extra dimension to the Ramones’ songwriting process for the first time. “All Screwed Up” and “Learn to Listen” have that minimalist charm of the Ramones’ early work. Far from profound but terminally catchy, “All Screwed Up” is unsurprisingly powered by Marky’s hard-hitting percussion. Co-written with Rey, Joey and the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff, the Ramones brought back the doo-wop “baby” song model but chewed it up and spit it out—filtering the mangled remnants through the band’s acidic snark. “Learn to Listen” is a relentless barrage of drum kicks and furious riffage, both elements often competing with Joey’s biting rasp plainly giving some remarkably sage advice, as he shouts: “You gotta learn to listen, listen to learn / You gotta learn to listen before you get burned.” Coming in at just under two minutes, Marky’s only other songwriting credit on Brain Drain is a blast of jet-fueled punk pleasure.

Their cover of Charles Barris’ “Palisades Park” encapsulates the childish glee that endeared many of us to the Ramones in the first place. With its accelerated vaudevillian riff and the levity in Joey’s vocals singing about finding love in an amusement park, there is a spot of merriment missing throughout the rest of the heavier tracks on the album—capturing some of the youthful innocence of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” with the studio polish of a more mature Ramones get-up. They bring back snippets of their once-chaotic energy on “Ignorance Is Bliss” and “Can’t Get You Outta My Mind,” the latter of which was recorded in the early ‘80s on the heels of their era of melodic, punk-powered romantic declarations.

The Ramones’ punishing swan song ends with a final bow in an outlandish, unsuspecting place: a Christmas tune. I’m obsessed with the idea that they threw a holiday song on this album for the hell of it—and this is coming from someone who isn’t a fan of Christmas music in general. “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” caps off a record riddled with narratives of frustration and disdain with a jolly affair of the same tone—a Very Special Ramones Christmas, packed with lively shredding and fruitless pleas of a peaceful Christmas Eve.

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” remains one of the most honest and rambunctious Christmas songs ever written, thanks to Joey’s pen. It’s dangerously catchy and brings us the singular instance of these rowdy delinquents mixing their deafening sound with the whimsy of literal jingle bells. It’s a triumph in camp and the most fitting way to close out the true legacy of the Ramones—a touching conclusion to a career built on deceptively genius dumbassery. Even with Brain Drain’s catastrophic recording process, the behind-the-scenes rivalries produced a vicious album full of biting commentary from Dee, venomous guitar-playing from Johnny, gruff cries and flourishing songwriting from Joey and merciless, comeback drumming from Marky for the last time altogether. And, as Joey sings out at the record’s end: “I love you and you love me, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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