Were I one of those people who dislikes this album, I would start the review with the witty observation that its title was kind of prophetic. That the Ramones shifting their sound towards a more pop territory did indeed begin the ruination of their career. That by adding ballads, acoustic guitars, solos and overdubs they lost the trademark punk sound of the previous 3 albums we all know and love. But I am not, and quite the contrary, I am going to make a case for Road to Ruin in fact being the band’s quintessential album.
What, more quintessential than the self-titled debut and Rocket to Russia you’re gonna ask? Well, don’t get me wrong. I love those two albums dearly as well as Leave Home. They’re historical milestones in the development of punk rock that no fan of the genre should be able to live without; and at the same time they have stood the test of time. The songs are not difficult to play by any means, but there’s just a certain level of energy, excitement and fun that I don’t feel has ever been replicated. This is a band that still sounds fresh despite being such an enormous influence on all those that followed.
But since that style was already perfected by 1978, the Ramones had to move on or risk becoming caricatures of themselves (which they would eventually, but only years later). They didn’t choose to make a complete 180 degrees turn, but rather, an in-between path between the two extremes. Road to Ruin is no doubt a punk album first and foremost. The up-beat tracks rock with just much conviction as anything before, whether we talk about the already-classic I Wanna Be Sedated, the ironic I’m Against It or Bad Brain, which gave the name to one of the first hardcore punk bands. The speed and the unmistakable chainsaw guitar sound easily put I Wanted Everything and Go Mental in the same category.
But at the same time there are also songs that explore different territories just as successfully. Their cover of Needles & Pins may sound saccharine at first, but the band has always had a certain dose of underlying sadness going back to things like Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy. Here they just make it explicit. Then they go on writing their own ballad with Questioningly which I’m not ashamed to admit has gotten me emotional plenty of times. The nostalgia of It’s a Long Way Back always gets to me as well, though I still haven’t figured out why – perhaps it’s the way Joey repeats those same lines over and over as if he’s on a never-ending car drive to his loved one. Finally, the power-pop of She’s the One and the guitar-jangle of Don’t Come Close show that at their heart Ramones never lost their love for the 60s pop they grew up with. Addictive choruses and tasteful arrangements make them just as essential.
I have no doubt that Road to Ruin was the right artistic decision for the band at the time – it’s an album that expands their basic sound without losing any of its identity. And after all these years it might just make for a more compelling listen. Sure, it didn’t have the impact of the debut, but more than makes it up for it in terms of diversity and consistency. It’s rocking at times, gorgeous at others, always memorable, never phony. Just how I like my Ramones to be.
Categories: Album Reviews