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‘Mondo Bizarro’: How Ramones Returned Refreshed For The 90s
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‘Mondo Bizarro’: How Ramones Returned Refreshed For The 90s

Recording their ‘Mondo Bizarro’ album with a new line-up, Ramones revitalised their sound at the start of a new decade.

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Things looked bleak for Ramones as the 90s dawned. The band’s legacy as punk pioneers had long since been secured, but, as the 80s drew to a close, their future was considerably less certain. Their 11th album, 1989’s Brain Drain, was poorly received, and its release brought the band’s long-time deal with Sire Records to a close. At this stage of the game, only the most optimistic of Ramones fans could have predicted their heroes would return in triumph with their next studio set, 1992’s Mondo Bizarro.

Listen to ‘Mondo Bizarro’ here.

“It felt like I was going to meet Elvis”

As the old cliché goes, it had to get worse before it got better for the iconic New York City punks, for Brain Drain’s release also coincided with the departure of the group’s bassist, co-founder and primary songsmith, Dee Dee Ramone. Outwardly, the news was a shock, but insiders weren’t surprised, as Dee Dee had been increasingly frustrated by an array of issues, ranging from his band’s lack of commercial success to the group’s simmering internal tensions and his own struggles with sobriety.

Nonetheless, Dee Dee’s departure left a huge hole which was plugged for the group’s subsequent tour by new recruit, Christopher Joseph Ward (aka CJ Ramone): an ex-US Marine hailing from Ramones’ home turf of Queens, and a stalwart fan of the band. Despite his passion for the group, no one was more surprised than CJ himself when he was asked to stick around.

“I was the first person to audition. It felt like I was going to meet Elvis,” the musician said in Everett True’s Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story Of The Ramones. “I hadn’t played bass in a while, and never used a pick before. But they said I was OK and I should come back next week… It’s a weird feeling to be in a band you idolised throughout your youth… It was a surreal situation, especially because I only went down there to meet them. I never imagined I would pass the audition.”

“They were tight, the best I’d heard them play”

Yet, while CJ was forced to suspend his disbelief, his arrival gave Ramones a shot of youthful vigour and set them on the road to recovery. The new line-up clicked, and CJ’s onstage presence bolstered the band’s live performances – to such a degree that it led to Ramones reconvening with an influential figure from their past.

“I’d moved to LA in 1989 and it was there I first saw them with CJ and was impressed by their renewed energy,” producer Ed Stasium recalled. “They were tight, really good, the best I’d heard them play. So I told [their manager] Gary Kurfirst I wanted to produce the next record. At the time, I was flavour of the month because of my work with Smithereens and Living Colour, so they listened to me.”

Stasium, who had previously co-helmed Ramones classics Road To Ruin and Too Tough To Die with Tommy Ramone (aka Thomas Erdelyi), was keen to make what he called “a Ramones record for the 90s”, and his opportunity soon arose. Not only did Gary Kurfirst agree to his request, but, after signing a new deal with Radioactive Records, Ramones were soon able to start on sessions for what would become Mondo Bizarro.

“Everybody has had a time where they needed the strength to endure”

The album sessions, at two bijou New York City studios, The Magic Shop and Baby Monster, began in January 1992. By Ramones’ usual standards, the relative gap since Brain Drain had allowed them to accrue plenty of new material, though some of it was supplied by Dee Dee, who may have quit the band but was still writing songs for the group in a Brian Wilson-esque satellite role. Three that made the cut for Mondo Bizarro – Main Man, Strength To Endure and the excellent, defiant Poison Heart – clearly reflected Dee Dee’s state of mind at the time.

“I think everybody has had a time, maybe in a relationship, maybe because of someone’s death, or maybe because of some personal self-doubt, where they need the strength to endure,” Marky Ramone later reflected. “It’s that strength that tastes so bitter. Dee Dee would’ve needed this strength when he decided to leave the band.”

Elsewhere, tracks such as the churning Tomorrow She Goes Away and Joey’s frenzied Cabbies On Crack also crackled with Ramones’ new-found vitality. However, they sounded especially tanked up on the controversial Censorshit, on which they took aim at North America’s Parents Music Resource Center.

“Certain freedoms are taken away and then you have revolt”

Usually referred to by the acronym PRMC, this hard-line pressure group led by Tipper Gore (the wife of then Tennessee senator and future US Vice President Al Gore) had succeeded in their quest to have “Parental Advisory” warning labels stuck on records ever since the mid-80s, when Tipper Gore had heard her daughter listening to Prince’s Purple Rain album. Written in in response, Censorshit featured a barbed lyric referencing other artists who had fallen foul of the PMRC (“Ask Ozzy, Zappa or me, we’ll show you what it’s like to be free”). Though Ramones songs were rarely political, the group were determined to have their say about this particular issue.

“Teenagers want to listen to music, it’s part of growing up and experiencing things,” the band wrote in a statement printed in Musician magazine in 1992. “You can’t take that away from them. Kids like rock’n’roll, baseball, Burger King and going to concerts. They don’t want repression to start happening here, because this is how it starts. Certain freedoms are taken away and then you have revolt.”

But Mondo Bizarro (Italian for “weird world”) wasn’t all about sound and fury. Indeed, as with all great Ramones records, there was still room for the sort of light-hearted moments that characterised the best Ramones songs, such as the chiming, British Invasion-style pop of I Won’t Let It Happen and Touring’s cheeky, if highly effective, rewrite of Rock’n’Roll High School.

“‘Mondo Bizarro’ was the record they needed to make just then”

Overall, though, Mondo Bizarro was the sound of Ramones revitalised and recalibrated. That Ed Stasium had largely succeeded in his quest to make “a Ramones record for the 90s” was borne out by the reviews greeting the record upon its release, on 1 September 1992, with Rolling Stone emphatically declaring that “Ramones sound fiercer than they have for many years on Mondo Bizarro”.

“I was always trying to get [the band] to understand all they needed to do was be themselves and eventually the world would catch up,” CJ Ramone reflected in an interview with Everett True. “In that sense, maybe Mondo Bizarro was a little slick for me, as I prefer my rock more lo-fi garage. But I’m certainly not knocking Ed’s abilities, because he was a great producer to work with and he did what they wanted at the time – he made them more mainstream. Mondo Bizarro was a good record and the one they needed to make just then.”

Check out our best Ramones songs of all time.

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