With “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?,” the Ramones pirated the past

With “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?,” the Ramones pirated the past

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay. 

“I DON’T CARE ABOUT HISTORY!!!” So reads the message scrawled on the chalkboard behind Joey Ramone in the video for “Rock ’N’ Roll High School.” In addition to being the theme song to 1979 cult film of the same name, the bouncy anthem appears on the Ramones’ 1980 album, End Of The Century. But the album opens with an equally catchy song that proves the opposite: Joey did care about history. In fact, he was obsessed with it—to the point where it marked a turning point in the band’s own history.

“Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?” is Joey’s love letter to the past. Specifically the early ’60s—an era of musical innocence that the Ramones, in a perverse kind of way, were committed to keeping alive. Sure, Joey sang about glue-sniffing, brat-beating, and the fact that axes are remarkably effective in the removal of human heads. But since releasing Ramones in 1976, the band had also paid tribute to rock’s gosh-wow golden age by covering The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance,” and The Rivieras’ “California Sun,” among other ’60s pop staples. Those covers were not ironic. Joey meant every sweet, silly word. He cherished the cheery hits of his youth, and no amount of chain-festooned leather could disguise that love.

Which is why “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio” stuck out like a sore thumb. Unlike the Ramones’ red-meat-and-bubblegum punk, the song’s hooks weren’t buried under a jarring blur of distortion. It had piano. And trumpet. And saxophone. And, God forbid, synthesizer. The synth was still seen by the rock ’n’ roll faithful as some kind of virus, the instrument of disco producers and new-wavers.

The lyrics to “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio” were even more subversive. When the Ramones formed, there was no punk rulebook. By 1980, however, punk had become an ideology, and one of its tenets was a repudiation of rock ’n’ roll royalty. Yet here was Joey—crown prince of punk in all but name—crooning about his love for… John Lennon. The song also name checks more punk-appropriate artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and T. Rex, but Joey’s worship of The Beatles was as unabashed as it was unforgivable to the nascent punk hardcore.

End Of The Century is not universally beloved by Ramones fans. It received a lukewarm reception when it was released, and it continues to rank somewhere in neighborhood of “meh.” Before he died in 2004, guitarist Johnny Ramone gave End Of The Century a B—in the exact middle of his grading curve. A hostile minority hated the record. Its slickness, its commerciality, its flashes of orchestral ambition. As Frank Meyer notes in his 2012 book When The Wall Of Sound Met The New York Underground: The Ramones, Phil Spector, And End Of The Century, “Punk purists wanted to puke blood over the mere notion of a cello on a Ramones album.”

Most of the orchestral elements of End Of The Century can be found on “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio,” and all of them come from Phil Spector. As the wall-of-sound mastermind behind some of the greatest girl groups of the ’60s—as well as the man who pieced together The Beatles’ swansong, Let It Be—Spector was an icon. He was also a has-been. Hungry for his first hit record in a decade, he wound up attached to the Ramones, a band that just so happened to have a Spector devotee among its ranks. Joey had been a fan of Spector’s work since childhood. What ensued wasn’t exactly magic. Instead it was a dysfunctional feedback loop of nostalgia, desperation, hero worship, and despair.

“Phil really wanted to do the Ramones record,” says producer Ed Stasium, one of the architects of the group’s sound, in the Ramones documentary End Of The Century. “He was convinced this was going to be the biggest record of the Ramones’ career and of his career.” It turned out to be neither. While Joey and Spector hit it off spectacularly—“Phil loved Joe,” says Stasium. “I think Phil saw in Joey all the influence of his early stuff.”— the producer’s rapport with the rest of the band simply wasn’t there.

The Ramones pogoed close to the precipice during the making of End Of The Century. They were goaded toward it by Spector—at gunpoint, as legend has it. In a perhaps apocryphal story denied by drummer Marky Ramone but confirmed by bassist Dee Dee, Spector waved a pistol at the band during End Of The Century’s recording sessions. Forbidden to leave by threat of deadly force, they became a captive audience to an eerie private concert. “Then [Spector] sat down at his black concert piano,” Dee Dee recounts in his 2000 memoir, Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, “and made us listen to him play and sing “Baby, I Love You” until well after 4:30 in the morning.”

“Baby, I Love You” is the Spector-produced (and co-written) girl-group classic originally sung by The Ronettes in 1963. The Ramones also cover it—on End Of The Century. After all, Joey and crew seemed to have had justifiable motive to do so. Not that they needed any prompting, ballistic or otherwise. As “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio” so wistfully inquires, “Do you remember lying in bed / With your covers pulled up over your head / Radio playing so no one can see?” The Ronettes are precisely the type of group that Joey would have been listening to in this scenario. That he wound up singing “Baby, I Love You” at Spector’s behest must have been nothing less than exhilarating.

That exhilaration didn’t carry over to the rest of the Ramones. As Johnny sneers in End Of The Century, “So [Spector] did some good records in the 1960s. Big deal. What has he done lately?” As it turns out, not much. Spector’s dreamy, atmospheric sound was out of step with the crisp, cynical sound of 1980. The album was considered a flop, in spite of being the best chart-placing of any Ramones album to date. End Of The Century was supposed to be the band’s breakthrough album. But pop-punk’s true mainstream breakthrough—Dookie, an album by professed Ramones disciples Green Day—was still 14 years away. One year after Dookie, the Ramones released ¡Adios Amigos!, the group’s final album. Within a decade, Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee would be dead. And End Of The Century would be viewed at least a little more kindly, thanks in part to “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio,” which no longer seemed quite as cheesy as it might have once been.

Seven months after “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio” was released as a single, John Lennon died. In a sense, so did the spirit of the Ramones. Joey had recorded an album with Spector, a producer of The Beatles, and it had flopped. Or at least it had failed to be the game-changer he’d hoped it would be. “At that point, I knew, I finally accepted, that we wouldn’t sell any records,” says Johnny in End Of The Century. “Accept it. This is your spot in life.” The Ramones went on to record many albums. None of them were great, but each of them sported at least a handful of excellent songs. One thing the band never did, though, was revisit the Spector shimmer of “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio.”

The 2002 reissue of End Of The Century contains a bonus track, a bare-bones demo version of “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio.” Regardless of the protests that purists once voiced, it sounds empty and hollow—incomplete, even—without that lush Spector touch.

“I went in there with a very clear attitude. […] I was there to make a commercial album,” Spector remembers in the BBC documentary, The Agony And Ecstasy Of Phil Spector, an account of his mythic career as well as his first trial in 2007 for the murder of his girlfriend, Lana Clarkson. “It was like finding garbage. […] I wondered how I was going to put this together. But I just knew I could. And I knew that there was an album here. And I worked with strangers in a hostile environment, hostile press, hostile people.”

Spector wasn’t talking about End Of The Century. He was talking about Let It Be. But his remarks could have been about the Ramones. “We need change, we need it fast / Before rock’s just part of the past / ’Cause lately it all sounds the same to me,” Joey sings in “Rock ’N’ Roll Radio.” Paradoxically, his band was precariously poised between the past he pined for and the future he set in motion. “It’s the end, the end of the ’70s / It’s the end, the end of the century,” goes the song’s refrain. In truth, the end of the century was still two decades away. Much would change in that time. One thing that didn’t change, though, is how “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?” became a chapter of rock history written by neither a winner nor a loser, but someone in between.

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